how i get it done

How a Fierce Legal Advocate for Abortion Rights Gets It Done

Nancy Northup. Photo: Lauren Tamaki

Nancy Northup is the president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal-advocacy organization working to protect and expand reproductive rights around the world. Since she took the helm in 2003, the Center has argued two cases on abortion rights before the Supreme Court. In 2016, it won Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, where the Court ruled that a Texas law requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges to a local hospital was unconstitutional. This March, the Center will appear before the Supreme Court to argue against a nearly identical Louisiana law. Under Northup’s leadership, the Center has increased its annual operating budget from $6 million to nearly $40 million and expanded litigation outside of the U.S., including the first abortion case heard by the U.N. Human Rights Committee. A few weeks ago, Northup testified before Congress in support of the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would safeguard health-care providers’ right to perform abortions and their patients’ right to receive them. Northup lives in Manhattan with her husband. Here, how she gets it done.

On a typical morning: 
I am not a morning person. If I had my druthers, I would stay up until one in the morning and just get up later, but there are things I want to do before I go into the office. I try to work out five days a week. If I’m doing cardio, I’m watching the news, and if I’m doing weights, I love to listen to The Daily. My husband and I touch base while we’re getting ready. I live for my morning coffee. Put that milk in the microwave, foam it up, and I just feel like, Wow, my whole day is going to be fantastic. It’s a ten-minute walk to the office, and I often listen to songs from my favorite musicals, like Hamilton or Oklahoma!

On her unpredictable schedule: 
There is no typical day at the office. We have 31 active cases in 17 states, so I’m always trying to manage my in-box and feeling like it’s not going very well. I’m often on the road, but if I’m in New York, it’s usually a mix of touching base with board members about what we’re trying to move forward, talking to coalition partners, and trying to get some time to do editing or writing. I’m making sure that we can mobilize others who care deeply about these issues and that the public understands the stakes of our cases. I’ll read briefs from our lawyers or oversee litigation strategy.

On public speaking:
As a child, I was referred to as “painfully shy.” Public speaking was not natural or easy for me, yet I chose a career path that involves a tremendous amount of it. I still step in the federal courthouse in Manhattan and get a little nauseous from all those years of being incredibly nervous before doing a jury close or an oral argument. One thing that has helped me is trying to shift from worrying about what people think about me and my speech to being focused on what I want to say. I also use a trick I learned about 15 years ago. If you go into something you might be dreading with the attitude “There’s nowhere else I’d rather be,” it helps.

On going to the Supreme Court:
I’m not doing the argument myself, but it’s still very intense being there. It’s sort of a tea-leaf process of trying to figure out how the justices are going to rule based on the questions they’re asking. The case is about a Louisiana law that requires doctors have admitting privileges at a local hospital to provide abortions; almost all the clinics [in the state] would shut down if this went into effect. We won on this issue four years ago in the Supreme Court, and that victory is on the line. So I’ll be in that courtroom listening very, very carefully to the questions that get asked.

On staying grounded in the work: 
Last summer, I went to Shreveport, Louisiana, to visit with our client who’s at the center of the Supreme Court case and meet the clinic staff, doctors, and patients. Last year, we filed cases at the U.N. Human Rights Committee in Geneva on behalf of women who were 13 and 14 at the time they were sexually assaulted, became pregnant, and were denied abortion care in their countries. Being able to spend time with them reinforced how important our work is. What I’ve learned over the years is that when you’re in a leadership role, you have to try to get your hands around the issues at a top level, but also make time for the intimate connection with the work. It keeps you grounded and focused.

On her faith:
I’m a lifelong Unitarian Universalist. My faith helps me have perspective; it’s my touchstone. When politics are so divisive and it seems that there are no standards for behavior, it’s really helpful for me to go back to my religious faith and know who I want to be in the world no matter what is going on.

On travel: 
If I had a solution to jet lag, that would be awesome. I travel with an eye mask and try to sleep on long flights rather than getting distracted by work or television. My workout gear and my eye mask are my two constant companions on the road.

On taking time to explore your interests: 
I always urge young adults, if they can, to spend their early years after college exploring their passions. I worked at a law firm as a legal assistant, in electoral politics, and on women’s-rights advocacy. I traveled for several months in sub-Saharan Africa. I studied acting. When I went to law school, I was very clear that I wanted to use my legal career in the public interest.

On spending time with her adult children: 
My husband and I are fortunate to have three of our four children in New York, plus some nieces and nephews. We try to have them over for Sunday-night supper, travel permitting. Different members of the family are at different places about whether they like to be in a group text. I also track my millennial family members on Instagram.

On remembering to laugh: 
My husband and I are both passionate about our work, justice, and social change. We know that we need to give each other lots of room to pursue those things, but we also try to include one another as much as we can and stay connected. One of the most important ways we stay sane is to make sure that we’re laughing. Even on the days that are really, really tough, we try to find some way to crack each other up.

How a Fierce Legal Advocate for Abortion Rights Gets It Done