“Abortion is OK!”: How southern activists are providing a template for a post-‘Roe v. Wade’ future
This spring, Amplify Georgia had a problem. The first company that the non-profit had contacted to fly its banner over the Atlanta Jazz Festival refused service. They were left scrambling, but that didn’t stop the organization from finding another willing pilot — and so, on two separate occasions, for four hours at a time circling above the festival on May 26 and 27, their banner flew. It read: “Abortion is OK!”
“Many people have never seen an even slightly affirming message about abortion,” Jaira Burke, the campaign manager for Amplify — a group dedicated to normalizing and publicizing abortion in the South — said. “So we believe it’s our job to fight the stigmatization that people receive for making a decision about their body and life that is personal and should not be politicized.”
Progressives fear that if President Donald Trump’s nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed as a Supreme Court justice we will see a post-Roe v. Wade America. But in Georgia, it’s practically already a reality. Women seeking abortions in the state contend with a 24-hour waiting period between their intake appointment and the procedure, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Minors must have parental permission, and all women must receive mandatory counseling about their decision. Even those with health insurance cannot get an abortion covered if they bought their policies through the state exchange or are public employees, unless their life is in danger. Abortions after 20 weeks are banned in Georgia, except in cases where the woman may die or there are extreme fetal abnormalities. In 2014, the Guttmacher Institute found that 58% of Georgian women live in counties without clinics equipped to provide abortions.
The Georgia House approved in 2016 spending up to $2 million to fund Crisis Pregnancy Centers, which often provide medically misleading information, such as falsely claiming links between abortion and breast cancer, as a way to convince women to give birth.
If Georgia has functioned as something like an incubator for far-right, anti-choice policies, the state has also fostered the growth of a bold community of reproductive justice activists. Their unapologetic tactics, such as flying pro-abortion banners above festivals, canvassing neighborhoods to talk about the importance of reproductive choice and volunteering to drive women to appointments, also serve as a template for progressives moving forward as challenges to Roe v. Wade move through the courts.
“I don’t know if folks remember the civil rights movements and all these movements that started in the South,” Oriaku Njoku said. With three others, in 2014 she co-founded Access Reproductive Care-Southeast, a non-profit that provides transportation, lodging, counseling, child care and funds for abortions to Southern women.
“We’ve been living in this post-Roe v. Wade reality for a long time. Just because Roe made it legal, it didn’t make it accessible and our folks have been living with this for a long time,” she said.
Njoku was moved to start the abortion fund after working at a clinic in Atlanta and seeing women struggle to pay for the $500 procedure. She and her colleagues — all black women who are first- or second-generation immigrants, and some of whom identify as queer — went on a road trip across the South to visit clinics and let them know that they were available as a resource. The fear of violence is so great among abortion providers that some clinics initially declined to meet with Care-Southeast, Njoku said. Now, the organization counts approximately 60 volunteers throughout Atlanta, where it is based, and the rest of the South. Many of the volunteers, who do everything from staffing a hotline walking women through their options to coordinating travel arrangements, are open about their own abortions and receive calls mainly through referrals.
“Folks say, ‘I can get to Atlanta but I can’t pay for a hotel room,’ or if they’re a young person, ‘I can’t tell my mom or dad that I’m getting an abortion,’” Njoku said. “Some folks have never left their town or their state, just leaving your state and navigating the bus system can be overwhelming.”
Women from states with even more stringent restrictions than Georgia, such as Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee, sometimes choose to travel to Atlanta for the relatively shorter waiting period that allows them to take less time off work, Njoku said. Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee all have a 48-hour waiting period before a woman may get an abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute. This mandatory waiting period, however, can often become a two-week wait, Njoku said, if the doctor’s doesn’t have room for new appointments or if they are working at other clinics and won’t be back in the area for a while. Arkansas has a 24-hour waiting period and also outlaws abortions for the purpose of sex selection, according to Guttmacher. All of the states require women to undergo a counseling session designed to change her mind about going through with the procedure.
Another taboo to take on, Burke and Njoku said, has been to say “abortion” out loud. In a strategy borrowed from her organizing days in the Fight for 15 minimum wage movement, Burke organized Amplify volunteers to canvass neighborhoods and knock on doors to specifically discuss abortion.
“We are trying to start conversations, and that in itself is radical in the South, where people don’t talk about this,” she said.
A crucial part in connecting with the community has been to emphasize that abortion is only one part of a larger movement for reproductive justice, which includes access to health care and connecting with other activist groups, like Black Lives Matter.
“Our number one issue will never be abortion, because we do deal with these lives that are at intersections,” Burke, who is black, said of the work that Amplify is doing in the community. “We have to deal with over-policing, the mass incarceration of our people, economic exploitation — so as a result of that, we deal with the full spectrum of reproductive justice. Having abortion care is just as important to your overall health as having access to pap smears and having access to sanitary napkins.”
A February Yale Global Health Justice Partnership study found that Georgia ranked 48th in the country in maternal mortality with 40.8 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2016. But the study also found a racial gap, with black women dying at higher rates than white women — 62.1% to 27.1%. Researchers attributed the racial gap to a combination of factors including access to care — Georgia did not take the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act — poor medical care where it was received and doctors dismissing black patients’ concerns.
Within that context, supporting black women who choose to become mothers also makes up part of her activism, Njoku said.
“We never wanted our organization to just be one thing, we literally help all sorts of people access reproductive care,” she said. “We were introduced to this idea of, ‘fund abortion, build power.’ We knew at that moment, we can’t just fund abortion without building power, especially in communities of color in the South.”
Making alliances to fight legislatively
Activists in Georgia said that rallying with trans people who need access to reproductive care, along with immigrant groups fighting to keep families together, as well as with economic justice groups, has enabled them to survive in a hostile environment by sharing resources and organizing together.
“The limited capacity of our opponents in some ways have allowed us to kill any legislation that has been introduced,” Kwajelyn Jackson, who serves as the director of the Feminist Women’s Health Center, said. The center has provided abortion services in Atlanta since 1976 and also has an active policy arm at the Georgia statehouse.
“The folks who are ardently opposed to contraceptives and abortion are also the folks who have introduced terrible anti-immigration legislation and anti-LGBTQ legislation. Their capacity to put up a fight against us is strained, because they are focused on so many enemies,” Jackson said.
Following the Supreme Court’s 2016 Whole Woman v. Hellerstedt decision, which found the burden of restrictions on abortion providers cannot outweigh the purported benefits, Jackson’s group and others pushed for the state to codify the standard into state law. When lawmakers refused to take it up, the Feminist Women’s Health Center, in coordination with other reproductive justice groups, held its own town hall with expert witnesses as a way to show the community its practical implications.
In a mimic of the right’s decades-long tactics against abortion clinics, Jackson and her colleagues are currently working to introduce policies to regulate Crisis Pregnancy Centers.
“For CPCs, we believe if they are going to be funded by the state, then they should, at a minimum, comply with some state standards for facilities purporting to provide health care,” Jackson said. “Like give medically accurate information and be held to HIPAA.”
HIPAA is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which, among other things, sets national standards for health providers.
Taking a proactive stance, rather than just being on the defensive, has provided new energy. And the elections of Georgia House Reps. Park Cannon, the first queer-specific legislator elected in Georgia, and Renitta Shannon, the first bisexual legislator elected in the state — both of whom ran on platforms of expanding abortion care — have provided political champions on a legislative level. This can help deliver the priorities of the activists straight to the floor, Shannon said. Even in Georgia, she said, running a pro-choice platform is a winning issue.
“My voters knew who they were getting when they elected me, because I ran very bold,” Shannon said. “I’ve been unapologetic about my personal abortion story and I make it clear all the time that I had an abortion, I don’t regret it, I will not regret it and I will not back down on women having this reproductive choice.”
By and large, Americans are with Shannon. A Qunnipiac University poll from July 2018 found that 63% of Americans agreed with the Roe v. Wade decision, versus just 31% who opposed it.
“It’s not as scary as everybody thinks because the reality is the majority of people support womens’ rights to choose, even if they’re not shouthing about it,” she said.
The combination of on-the-ground activism, coalition building and candidate support that abortion rights proponents have made a foundation of their activism in Georgia will have a high-profile test soon. Democrat Stacey Abrams — who, like Shannon, is running on expanding access to abortion — is making a bid for the Georgia governor’s mansion. Her opponent Brian Kemp is staunchly anti-abortion, and was endorsed by President Donald Trump.
If Abrams wins, she will be the first black woman to ever win a governor’s race in the United States. The black women who have been doing the work alongside her in a state that has often been hostile to their rights see this moment of possible crisis as one of opportunity.
“For me, the one thing I learned about the whole election cycle was that these folks on the right are so bold, they will do absolutely the most, they will try anything,” Njoku said. “Why are we sitting here being afraid? Why are we letting things just happen when there are no repercussions for doing the absolute most. I definitely feel emboldened, this is the time friends, what are your boundaries? All that radical stuff — now is the time.”
Tuesday, July 21, 2018: This story has been updated.