The Ms. Q&A: On the Heels of June Medical Services v. Russo, A Conversation with Young Abortion Activists

On Wednesday, March 5, the Supreme Court heard the oral arguments for June Medical Services v. Russo.

This pivotal, but not unfamiliar, case deals with a Louisiana law that would require abortion providers to obtain admitting privileges to a hospital within a 30 mile radius.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is: In 2016, the Supreme Court found a nearly identical Texas law to be unconstitutional on the grounds of creating an “undue burden” on the pregnant person in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.

And yet, in spite of court precedent, thousands of protesters found themselves just below the Supreme Court steps early Thursday morning to continue fighting in the seemingly endless war waged against women—this time, with the Supreme Court possessing a conservative majority, thanks to the Trump era appointments of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

In front of the Supreme Court, young activists demonstrated on the day of oral arguments for June Medical Services v. Russo. (Victoria Pickering / Creative Commons)

The day before the hearing, Ms. sat down at the Advocates for Youth Headquarters in D.C. with young activists from Louisiana who traveled to Washington to represent their home state. We discussed an array of topics, including activist burnout, mental health and the struggle of being taken seriously by older folks on either side of the fight.

Here’s what they had to say.

Ms.: What led you here to DC? Was this a conscious choice or rather a situation that your paths as activists led you to?

Gabriella Rodriguez, 22: My path led me here. I wasn’t planning on being here. I think a lot of people forget we are advocating for ourselves. Yes, we’re here for other people but it’s also our rights at stake so we don’t have a choice to come in and out. So for me, I feel like I was led here because of decisions that were made without my knowledge. And now it’s my turn to have a seat at the table and be like, “Hey, you need to listen to me.”

Ms.: How do you navigate the dilemma of potentially not being taken seriously in these spaces as young people?

Lakia Williams, 21: One way I garner that is going into meetings with a plan and a specific outline.

For example, I just had a meeting, and I had all of these specific citations and outlines of my background and personal goals. And they really respected that. So for me, that hasn’t been much of an issue.

But what has happened is that they see that you’re interested and that you’re going to put in the work and so then they want to put everything on you. They fail to acknowledge that you also have jobs, you’re also a student who has to go to class—and all these other things.

So there’s one side of it where they see that you care so much, so they want to give you all these opportunities—but it’s also not always providing that support and realizing that we have these other things going on. Sometimes it’s necessary to take a step back from this activism and take care of myself and my grades.

Also, it’s kind of hard to say no to opportunities because people where I’m from don’t even have options to come to college, so I always feel like I’m saying yes. Because who am I to say no? I’m realizing that sometimes I just have to say no. 

Ms.: Mental health within the social justice world is something I often think about. Can any of you speak on your personal journeys with regard to mental health in these spaces?

Rodriguez: I go to therapy about four times a week. *chuckles*

Ashley Sheffield, 20: Throughout my journey in this sphere, I got to a point where I realized that every issue is of importance. I struggled with constantly feeling like I wasn’t doing enough.

At the same time, I was learning about intersectionality and struggling to understand how I was going to tackle all of these issues. So that seeped in to create a lot of uncertainty within my work and making me question if I was doing enough or even doing things correctly. You never want to come off as ill-intentioned or misinformed. 

Williams: Another interesting thing to consider about working with adults is that they are always saying we need to center the youth’s voices and give them a seat at the table. Sometimes, I feel like it is effective, but other times, I feel like they just put me at the table so that they could show my face or put me on social media. They let me speak, but do they really take it in? They might say “Oh that’s a nice point,” but do they institutionalize it? So that’s one of the concerns I have even outside of working with adults.

In movements in general, many people are quick to say, “There are not enough black women or black voices.” They shout this, but as they’re shouting it, many of them are not even listening to the black voices in front of them. There’s definitely performative aspect to activism that needs to be addressed. 

Ms.: Do you think that by the time our generation is in similar positions of power, or of the same age, things will genuinely be different? Will we implement the very things we’re talking about right now in conscious ways?

Sheffield: I think our generation is really good at not creating hierarchies and respecting that we’re going to work together on issues—which is different from other models we’ve seen and grown up with.

Clara Riley, 21: Something that’s interesting for me is that I got involved in this work mainly through creativity in communications. Because I feel like our generation has a special attitude for that, it’s been a really compelling way to get more people our age involved in things that they might not have known about before. A few years ago, you couldn’t just post on Instagram and get a bunch of people who are 16 to read something and know something about the rights that they have or might lose in cases like June Medical Services v. Russo. So I think that has the potential to evolve quite positively in the future. 

Ms.: Can we talk about tomorrow? How are we all feeling about the hearing?

Riley: I’m really excited. I feel like it’s going to be very powerful to be apart of something with such a large group of people that feels strongly about something I also feel so strongly about. So it’s definitely been a culmination of hard work—whether it’s making posters or doing outreach to the public and knowing that people will be there to support each other around such a huge thing is very rewarding for me. Even though we don’t know what will happen tomorrow and probably won’t for quite some time, just knowing that there are people that care and support everyone is really important to me.

Sheffield: I feel grateful that finally people are looking at Louisiana. Louisiana is in the trenches of every reproductive attack. I’ve always felt like no one was paying attention to where so many of these nationwide attacks on reproductive rights are originating from. It’s nice to see the work that we’ve been doing finally on a national stage.

Ms.: Can you explain to our readers how you interpret the importance of this case tomorrow?

Sheffield: I think a misconception is that it is all about Roe. What many people don’t realize is that it’s these rules and laws that have an even greater impact day-to-day on people’s access to abortion.

We have seen these increasingly detrimental attacks on access but it’s difficult to completely convey how complex that is to the general public. So this case being in the media will propel the conversation into a focus and make people realize, “Oh, it’s not just legality, it’s about access to abortion.”

For me in Louisiana, I would love to see unfiltered access, where people of any background have access to abortion. Hopefully this case will strike a chord with people to make them realize that these admitting privilege laws are in fact abuse and not at all about prioritizing people’s safety, but rather, simply about attacking abortion access.

Ms.: Given how the Supreme Court currently looks, how do you think that has changed the conversation around this, or how you’re feeling about it?

Kalyan A. Tanner, 20: I think Advocates [for Youth] is really trying to put youth on the forefront because we are the future.

For me specifically, it’s kind of scary seeing how the Supreme Court has changed. It’s no longer 2016. We see who’s on the Supreme Court. So for me it puts fear in my heart, and I know it puts fear into many others’ as well.

That fear ends up turning into a passion and I’m hoping that people see our passion and our hard work, and know that we’re not going to stop. You’re gonna have to listen to us because we are the people. No matter the team they assemble, they’re gonna have to hear us out. Because they represent us at the end of the day.

Ms.: How have you been gearing up for tomorrow? Whether mentally or logistically?

Rodriguez: We’ve set up the sister rally in Louisiana and will be live streaming the DC one to Louisiana tomorrow. I’ve made a graphic novel and have been posting nonstop about the rallies.

Tanner: For me, I’ve been educating myself more and more. I’m reading up on certain cases and people’s stories and how they were denied their basic rights. I’ve been educating the students on my campus to make this not a taboo topic.

I had self-doubt about this because I’m speaking tomorrow and started to question whether or not I was the best person for this because I’ve never had an abortion. But what I’ve realized is that you have to take advantage of the opportunities and spaces that you’re in to uplift the voices of others. So I stopped doubting myself and I started saying this is what it means to be an ally.

Riley: Working in this field is very overwhelming. It can feel like you’re swimming to the top of an ocean that never ends. So it can be important to set small goals for yourself so that when you accomplish those you can feel like you’re actually making a difference.

Tanner: I’m kind of nervous that at the rally, some may love my speech, but there may be a lot of naysayers that just attack me. I don’t know if I’m ready for that. I’ve only ever been so supported in my efforts from my family and friends and school. I’ve had people try to challenge me, but not to the point where they’ve been nasty with me.

Ms.: What might any of you be able to offer to Kaylan about navigating the negativity that exists in these spaces?

Rodriguez: I would surround yourself with positivity. Those comments will get to you. You don’t think that they will, but they kind of do. So surround yourself with people that are going to support you, that have always supported you, to remind yourself that you have that solid foundation. So that you know you have your people and ultimately the people that you are fighting for behind you. 

Sheffield: I try and take a step back and remember that it’s not just this legislation, but a larger movement. This is a movement for human rights. It’s never going to end so you can have a feeling of ease of remembering that even when you’re gone, people will still be working on this.

It’s hard, but I always like to think about the generations who have come before us, who have persevered in even harsher climates. I think, “If those amazing activists were able to persist, then I can too.”

Riley: Also remembering how hard you worked to get to this place in your life and how strong you are for being here. I remind myself that I deserve to be here and deserve to have my opinions heard. My opinions are valid and even if someone disagrees, that doesn’t discredit who I am or what I believe in.

Thank you to Gabriella Rodriguez, Kaylan A. Tanner, Lakia Williams, Ashley Sheffield and Clara Riley for taking the time to speak with us, and for all of their continued efforts.

Some of the organizations these women work with include Lift Louisiana, Women with a Vision, American Society for Emergency Contraceptives, The Feminist Majority Foundation, ReJac, New Orleans Abortion Fund and of course, Advocates for Youth.

You can watch all the speeches from the steps of the Supreme Court, including Kaylan’s here:


Ciarra Davison is a former Ms. Editorial Intern who graduated from UCLA, where she studied English and wrote for the Politics section of FEM Newsmagazine. After a year and a half of traveling and working throughout Europe, Central and South America, she now lives in Washington, D.C., where she reports on the ground for Ms. She works to bring underrepresented stories to light, and in her spare time, enjoys hiking towards waterfalls and dancing while cooking.