Activism in the Post-Roe Era
The abortion rights movement is at a turning point, and low turnout at Saturday's #BansOffOurBodies are a sign of trouble.
Hello all—this week’s edition is shorter than usual because I’m battling a stomach bug. Hope to be back in fuller form next week.
Saturday, May 14th, supporters of abortion rights marched and rallied in at least 425 locations around the country, with the biggest turnouts including Austin (10,000), Boston (6,000), Chicago (15,000), Cincinnati (4,000), Denver (2,000), Harrisburg (2,000), Knoxville (2,000), Los Angeles (3,000), Madison (1,500), Nashville (2,000), New York City (25,000), Orlando (2,000), Phoenix (2,000), Portland OR (2,000), Richmond (2,000), Sacramento (2,000), Salt Lake City (4,500), San Antonio (3,000), San Diego (2,000), Seattle (4,000), Tucson (2,000) and Washington DC (20,000), according to data collected by the Crowd Counting Consortium. In all, perhaps 150,000 people showed up.
While these rallies were organized in less than two weeks (compared to the two month’s lead time before the original 2017 Women’s Marches, which drew as many as five million nationwide), these are not big numbers. The lead organizations that called for Saturday’s “Bans Off Our Bodies” rallies—Planned Parenthood, NARAL, Women’s March, Ultraviolet, MoveOn and the ACLU—plus many allies like Indivisible, the SEIU and Team Joe, worked hard to mobilize their base, sending out plenty of emails in advance of the weekend. If I had to guess, I’d say these groups cumulatively must have upwards of 10 million names on their lists. A lot of people decided they had something better to do last Saturday.
MoveOn claimed “more than a million protestors hit the streets,” but I’m sorry, I just don’t see the evidence for anywhere close to that many. You can blame lousy weather in some cities and the fact that everything was last-minute, people already had plans for the weekend, etc., but I’m not in the business of whistling past graveyards. Right now, the abortion rights movement is suffering from a leadership gap (Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List and NARAL all have brand new executive directors, while Cecile Richards, who helped started Supermajority back in 2017, left it last year and is now working for Beto O’Rourke’s gubernatorial campaign); many groups are dealing with internal turmoil (at the Guttmacher Institute, one of the biggest reproductive health research organizations, staff are reportedly calling out a “toxic” work culture that has put the group into a “death spiral” Prism Reports’ Tina Vasquez reported in December); and the general exhaustion that many activists feel after four years of fighting Trump and mostly being pushed to do boring, repetitive tasks on behalf of distributed digital organizing campaigns, plus two years of Covid, hasn’t worn off. Yet.
At the #BansOff rally I went to in Princeton, New Jersey, there was a solid crowd of about 1,000, who stood patiently in a steady rain to demonstrate their anger at the leaked Supreme Court opinion. There were people of all ages, including many young people, and not a small number of older folks no doubt thinking, as one woman’s sign put it, “I can’t believe I have to keep doing this.” But though a majority of Americans support the right to abortion in some or most cases, the painful reality is that majority hasn’t been as organized as the minority that wants to repeal Roe.
Sunday, at the monthly (Zoom) meeting of my local Indivisible group, Allison Fine, the former chair of NARAL’s national board (and a dear friend and fellow Westchester resident) gave a short talk about “Activism in the Post-Roe World.” She made three key points. First, that while the impending loss of Roe is the result of a concerted, forty-year effort to turn back the clock which won’t be reversed overnight, women in the 26 states that are on the verge of imposing abortion bans can be helped with Plan C: medication abortion (mifepristone plus misoprostol), which was approved by the FDA 22 years ago. (Go to PlanCPills.org for more information on how you can access at-home abortion pills and help people in other states do so.) She went on to describe how, while abortion pills can be bought over the counter in Mexico and can be easily accessed in much of Europe, until recently the FDA required that patients in need only be given the drugs directly in a medical setting. Internists and nurse-practitioners are still not allowed to prescribe unless they go through a special certification process.
That led to her second point: The right to an abortion in America is all about who has built political power and where. “The guns and anti-abortion [folks] turn their votes out,” she noted, while “we have not traditionally voted on reproductive rights.” While last December the FDA did change its rules to allow patients to be prescribed abortion pills via telemedicine, it did not take the opportunity to expand who can prescribe them, and they can only be gotten from two mail-order pharmacies, not local providers. “There was no national campaign to loosen those restrictions,” Allison noted, citing it as an example of the lack of political power of the abortion rights community.
Her last point was obvious: the future belongs to organizers. Obviously, a lot of work has already been done behind-the-scenes to prepare for the reversal of Roe, in terms of developing the infrastructure needed to anyone with an unwanted pregnancy access the care or medication they need. In addition to PlanCPills, check out Upstream.org which is working to strengthen health providers nationwide with the training and technical assistance needed to provide the full range of contraceptive care. What remains is the political work.
As someone who has, along with my better half, been marching for abortion rights since the late 1970s, I was disappointed by this past Saturday’s relatively modest turnout. On April 25, 2004, we were one of an estimated 1.3 million people who swarmed the National Mall in Washington DC for the March for Women’s Lives. One thing struck me that spring day: amidst the giant crowd I saw no one with clipboards collecting names. Nor did any of the speakers urge attendees to go to a website to sign up and get plugged into activism. To be sure, these were the early days of digital activism. But it felt like an opportunity wasted.
Saturday was different. Around Hinds Plaza in downtown Princeton, I saw several big posters with a giant QR code on them, which anyone could point their camera at and be taken to a Planned Parenthood organizing website. Several speakers urged attendees to sign up if they weren’t already on the #BansOffOurBodies list. And around the country, it’s clear that many smaller demonstrations were pulled together by local organizers either tapping or building their own networks, using digital tools to rapidly assemble. The building blocks for political power are now in many hands, and both national and local organizers should be able to see easily who is already motivated to move. What happens next can still change the course of 2022 and beyond.
“A candidate for public office extends a $500,000 loan to his campaign organization, hoping to recoup the amount from benefactors’ post-election contributions. Once elected, he devotes himself assiduously to recovering the money; his personal bank account, after all, now has a gaping half-million-dollar hole. The politician solicits donations from wealthy individuals and corporate lobbyists, making clear that the money they give will go straight from the campaign to him, as repayment for his loan. He is deeply grateful to those who help, as they know he will be—more grateful than for ordinary campaign contributions (which do not in- crease his personal wealth). And as they paid him, so he will pay them. In the coming months and years, they receive government benefits—maybe favorable legislation, maybe prized appointments, maybe lucrative contracts. The politician is happy; the donors are happy. The only loser is the public. It inevitably suffers from government corruption.”
That’s the first paragraph of Supreme Court Justice Elana Kagan’s eloquent dissent from a new ruling of the Roberts Court that just eviscerated one of the last obstacles keeping wealthy donors from directly enriching elected officials. The one thing she might have added is that with the increased appearance (or reality) of government corruption comes more public distrust.
Related: So it turns out J.D. Vance and a SuperPAC primarily funded by tech VC Peter Thiel aren’t the only ones blatantly ignoring campaign finance rules meant to prevent coordination between campaigns and supposedly independent SuperPACs. As Shane Goldmacher reports for The New York Times, an array of Democratic candidates from all points on the political spectrum are quietly, but openly, posting instructions on their websites that are thinly veiled directions to their friends at various SuperPACs, sometimes even using red-bordered boxes to make that info easier to spot. All that’s missing to prove the direct quid-pro-quo is a conversation between the candidate and the SuperPAC’s rich donors, but why talk directly when you can just use your website?
Odds and Ends
—Miami Mayor Francis Suarez is probably the country’s most vociferous cryptocurrency cheerleaders among elected officials, so it should be interesting to see how he explains the near-complete collapse of MiamiCoin, which he’s been plugging since last summer, as Scott Nover and Camille Squires report for Quartz.
—“Tony did not budge. He is just as convinced that Trump won the 2020 election, he said, as he is that Jesus rose from the dead 2,000 years ago.” That’s from Tim Alberta’s deeply reported must-read piece in the Atlantic on the radicalization of the evangelical church in America, “How Politics Poisoned the Church.”