the body politic

Our Fury Over Abortion Was Dismissed for Decades As Hysterical

Photo: MICHAEL WILLIAMSON/The Washington Post/Getty Images

I have been thinking, like so many people this week, about rage. Who I’m mad at, what that anger’s good for, how what makes me maddest is the way the madness has long gone unrespected, even by those who have relied on it for their gains.

For as long as I have been a cogent adult, and actually before that, I have watched people devote their lives, their furious energies, to fighting against the steady, merciless, punitive erosion of reproductive rights. And I have watched as politicians — not just on the right, but members of my own party — and the writers and pundits who cover them, treat reproductive rights and justice advocates as if they were fantasists enacting dystopian fiction.

This week, the most aggressive abortion bans since Roe v. Wade swept through states, explicitly designed to challenge and ultimately reverse Roe at the Supreme Court level. With them has come the dawning of a broad realization — a clear, bright, detailed vision of what’s at stake, and what’s ahead. (If not, yet, full comprehension of the harm that has already been done).

As it comes into view, I am of course livid at the Republican Party that has been working toward this for decades. These right-wing ghouls — who fulminate idiotically about how women could still be allowed to get abortions before they know they are pregnant (Alabama’s Clyde Chambliss) or try to legislate the medically impossible removal of ectopic pregnancy and reimplantation into the uterus (Ohio’s John Becker) — are the stuff of unimaginably gothic horror. Ever since Roe was decided in 1973, conservatives have been laboring to roll back abortion access, with absolutely zero knowlege of or interest in how reproduction works. And all the while, those who have been trying to sound the alarm have been shooed off as silly hysterics.

Which is why I am almost as mad at many on the left, theoretically on the side of reproductive rights and justice, who have refused, somehow, to see this coming or act aggressively to forestall it. I have no small amount of rage stored for those in the Democratic Party who have relied on the engaged fury of voters committed to reproductive autonomy to elect them, at the same time that they have treated the efforts of activists trying to stave off this future as inconvenient irritants.

This includes, of course, the Democrats (notably Joe Biden) who long supported the Hyde Amendment, the legislative rider that has barred the use of federal insurance programs from paying for abortion, making reproductive health care inaccessible to poor women since 1976. During health-care reform, Barack Obama referred to Hyde as a “tradition” and questions of abortion access as “a distraction.” I’ve spent my life listening to Democrats call abortion a niche issue — and worse, one that is somehow repellent to voters, even though support for Roe is in fact among the most broadly popular positions of the Democratic Party; seven in ten Americans want abortion to remain legal, even in conservative states.

You can try to tell these Democrats this — lots of people have been trying to tell them for a while now — but it won’t matter; they will only explain to you (a furious person) that they (calm, wise, knowledgeable about politics) understand that we need a big tent and can’t have a litmus test and please be reasonable: we shouldn’t shut anyone out because of a difference on one issue. (That one issue that we shouldn’t shut people out because of is always abortion). Every single time Democrats come up with a new strategy to win purple and red areas, it is the same strategy: hey, let’s jettison abortion! (If you object to this, you will be told you are standing in the way of the greater progressive project).

I grew up in Pennsylvania, governed by anti-abortion Democrat Bob Casey Sr.; his son Bob Jr. is Pennsylvania’s senior senator now, and though he’s getting better on abortion, Jr. voted, in 2015 and 2018, for 20-week abortion bans. Maybe my rage stems from being raised with this particularly grim perspective on Democratic politics: dynasties of white men united in their dedication to restricting women’s bodily autonomy, but they’re Democrats so who else are you going to vote for? Which reminds me of Dan Lipinski, the virulently anti-abortion Democratic congressman — whose anti-abortion dad held his seat before him. The current DCCC leader, Cheri Bustos, is holding a big-dollar fundraiser for Lipinski’s reelection campaign, even though it’s 2019 and abortion is being banned and providers threatened with more jail time than rapists and there is someone else to vote for: Lipinski is being challenged in a primary by pro-choice progressive Democrat Marie Newman. And still, Bustos, a powerful woman and Democratic leader, is helping anti-choice Lipinski keep his seat for an eighth term. So I’ve been thinking about that part of my anger too.

Also about how, for years, I’ve listened to Democratic politicians distance themselves from abortion by calling it tragic and insisting it should be rare, instead of simply acknowledging it to be a crucial, legal cornerstone of comprehensive health care for women, people with uteruses, and their families. I have seethed as generations of Democrats have argued that if we could just get past abortion and focus instead on economic issues, we’d be better off. They never seem to get that abortion is an economic issue, and that what they think of as economic issues — from wages and health care to housing and education policy — are at the very heart of the reproductive justice movement, which understands access to abortion to be one (pivotal!) part of a far broader set of circumstances that determine if, when, under what circumstances, and with what resources human beings might have and raise children.

And no, of course it’s not just Democrats I’m mad at. It’s the pundits who approach abortion law as armchair coaches. I can’t do better in my fury on this front than the legal writer Scott Lemieux, who in 2007 wrote a blistering rundown of all the legal and political wags, including Ben Wittes and Jeffrey Rosen and Richard Cohen and William Saletan, then making arguments, some too cute by half, about how Roe was ultimately bad for abortion rights and for Democrats. Some like to cite an oft-distorted opinion put forth by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has said that she wished the basis on which Roe was decided had included a more robust defense of women’s equality. Retroactive strategic chin-stroking about Roe is mostly moot, given the decades of intervening cases and that the fight against abortion is not about process but about the conviction that women should not control their own reproduction. It is also true that Ginsburg has been doing the work of aggressively defending reproductive rights for decades, while these pundits have treated them as a parlor game. As Lemieux put it then, it was unsurprising, “given the extent to which affluent men safely ensconced in liberal urban centers dominate the liberal pundit class,” that the arguments put forth, “greatly understate or ignore the stark class and geographic inequites in abortion access that would inevitably manifest themselves in a post-Roe world.”

Or, for that matter, that had already manifested themselves in a Roe world.

Because long before these new bans — which will meet years of legal challenge before they are enacted — abortion had grown ever less accessible to segments of America, though not the segments that the affluent men (and women) who write about and practice politics tend to emerge from. But yes, thanks to Hyde and the TRAP laws and the closed clinics and the long travel distances and paucity of providers and the economically untenable waiting periods, legions of women have already suffered, died, had children against their will, while columnists and political consultants have bantered about the necessity of Roe, and litmus tests and big tents. In vast portions of this country, Roe might as well not exist already.

And still those who are mad about, have been driven mad by, these injustices have been told that their fury is baseless, fictional, made of chewing gum and recycled copies of Our Bodies Ourselves. Last summer, the day before Anthony Kennedy announced his resignation from the Supreme Court, CNN host Brian Stelter tweeted, in response to a liberal activist, “We are not ‘a few steps from The Handmaids’ Tale.’ I don’t think this kind of fear-mongering helps anybody.” When protesters shouted at Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings a few weeks later, knowing full well what was about to happen and what it portended for Roe, Senator Ben Sasse condescended and lied to them, claiming that there have been “screaming protesters saying ‘women are going to die’ at every hearing for decades” and suggesting that this response was a form of “hysteria.”

It was the kind of dishonesty — issued from on high, from one of those Republicans who has inexplicably earned a reputation for being “reasonable” and “smart,” and who has enormous power over our future — that makes you want to pull the hair from your head and go screaming through the streets except someone would just tell you you were being hysterical.

And so here we are, the thing is happening and no one can pretend otherwise; it is not a game or a drill and those for whom the consequences — long real for millions whose warnings and peril have gone unheeded — are only now coming into focus want to know: what can be done?

First, never again let anyone tell you that the fury or determination to fight on this account is invalid, inappropriate, or inconvenient to a broader message. Consider that this is also what women and marginalized people are told all the time about their anger in general: that they should not express it, not let it out, because to give voice to their rage will distract from their aims, undermine them; that it will ultimately be bad for them. This messaging is strategic. It is designed to get angry people to keep their mouths shut. Because if they are successfully stifled, they will remain at the margins, isolated, alone in their fury. It is only if they start letting it out and acting on it and working in tandem with others who share their outrage that they might begin to form networks, coalitions, the building blocks of movements; it is when the anger is let loose that the organizing happens in earnest.

Second, seek the organizing that is already underway. In the days since this new round of state abortion bans have begun to pass and make headlines, secret Facebook groups have begun to form, in which freshly furious women have begun to talk of forming networks that would help patients evade barriers to access. Yet these organizations already exist, are founded and run by women of color, have long been transporting those in need of reproductive care to the facilities where they can get it; they are woefully underfunded. The trick is not to start something new, but to join forces with those who have long been angry about reproductive injustice.

“Abortion funds have been sounding the alarm for decades,” said Yamani Hernandez, who runs the National Network or Abortion Funds, which includes 76 local funds in 41 states, each of them helping women who face barriers getting the abortion care they need, offering money, transportation, housing, and help with logistics. Only 29 of the funds have paid staff; the rest are volunteer-run and led with average budget sizes of $75,000, according to Hernandez, who said that in 2017, 150,000 people called abortion funds for help — a number up from 100,000 in 2015, thanks to the barrage of restrictions that have made it so much harder for so many more people. With just $4 million to work with, the funds were able to help 29,000 of them last year: giving abortion funds money and time will directly help people who need it. Distinguishing the work of abortion funds from the policy fights in state houses and at the capitols, Hernandez said, “whatever happens in Washington, and changes in the future, women need to get care today.”

And whatever comes next, she said, it’s the people who have been doing this work for years who are likely to be best prepared to deal with the harm inflicted, which is a good place for the newly enraged to start. “If and when Roe is abolished,” said Hernandez, “the people who are going to be getting people to the care they need are those who have largely been navigating this already and are already well suited for the logistical challenges.”

The fights on the ground might be the most current and urgent in human terms, but there is also energy to be put into policy fights. In 2015, California Congresswoman Barbara Lee authored the EACH Woman Act, the first serious congressional challenge to the Hyde Amendment, which came after years of agitation and activism, especially by All Above All, a grassroots organization led by women of color and determined to make abortion accessible to everyone. Those who are looking for policy fights to lean into can call and write your representatives and candidates and demand that they support the EACH Woman Act.

Rage works. It takes time and numbers and a willingness to express it, but it is among the most reliable catalysts of social and political change. That’s the story of how grassroots activism can compel Barbara Lee to compel her caucus to take on Hyde. Her willingness to tackle it, and the righteous outrage of those who are driven to end the harm it does to poor women and women of color, in turn helped to compel Hillary Clinton—who’d stated her opposition to Hyde during her 08 presidential effort—to make that opposition central to her 2016 primary campaign; opposition to Hyde is now — for the first time since it was passed in 1976 — a part of the Democratic Party’s platform.

In these past two years, fury at a Trump administration and at the Republican Party has driven electoral activism. And at the end of 2018, the Guttmacher Institute reported that 2018 was the first year since at least 2000 in which the number of state policies enacted to expand or protect abortion rights and access, and contraceptive access, outnumbered the number of state restrictions. Why? Because growing realization of what was at stake — and resulting anger and activism, pressure applied to state legislatures — led representatives to act.

Of course: vote.

Vote, as they say, as if your life depended on it, because it does, but more importantly: other people’s lives depend on it. And between voting, consider where to aim your anger in ways that will influence election outcomes: educate yourself about local races and policy proposals, as well as the history of the reproductive rights and reproductive-justice movements. Get engaged not just on a presidential level — please God, not just at a presidential level — but with the fights for state legislative power, in congressional and senate elections, all of which shape abortion policy and the judiciary, and the voting rights on which every other kind of freedom hinges. Knock doors, register voters, give to and volunteer with the organizations that are working to fight voter suppression and redistricting and expand the electorate; as well as to those recruiting and training progressive candidates, especially women and women of color, especially young and first-time candidates, to run for elected office.

You can also protest, go to rallies. Join a local political group where your rage will likely be shared with others.

Above all, do not let defeat or despair take you, and do not let anyone tell you that your anger is misplaced or silly or in vain, or that it is anything other than urgent and motivating. It may be terrifying — it is terrifying. But this — the fury and the fight it must fuel — is going to last the rest of our lives and we must get comfortable using our rage as central to the work ahead.

Our Fury Over Abortion Was Dismissed for Decades