What we have learned from early abortion organizers—about practical support, fundraising, visibility, coalition-building and democracy—can be put to immediate and local use right now.
All eyes are on the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which could dismantle Roe v. Wade for half the country. But we would do well to learn strategies from those who organized for abortion access before the Roe decision.
While Roe shifted the landscape of abortion care for many, it might surprise contemporary advocates to find how little it changed the lives of so many others. Why? Because without practical, affordable access, legal rights mean little. We should learn from early organizers how to maximize access to abortion care now and for the future, regardless of the upcoming SCOTUS decision.
We are longtime volunteers for abortion clinics in South Bend, Indiana. Here, as in most places in the U.S., some residents support abortion care—as do a majority of people in the U.S.—and some vehemently oppose it. We are also academics conducting an oral history project with community members who organized successfully for abortion access in the years before the Roe v. Wade decision and just afterward. Some activists we interviewed were physicians in those times, but many were survivors of illegal abortions, or simply advocates who worked hard to ensure women had the right to determine the direction of their lives when faced with an unwanted pregnancy. What we have learned from these early organizers—about practical support, fundraising, visibility, coalition-building and democracy—can be put to immediate and local use right now.
Thanks to HBO’s documentary, The Janes, the Chicago-area Jane Collective is getting well-deserved attention for their organizing pre-Roe. But in other areas of the country, including Northern Indiana, abortion supporters also offered quiet networks that transported women across state lines to obtain abortion care. One driver for abortion patients noted that then, as now, it was crucial for those networks to be accessible to economically marginalized women, who are more likely to live far from abortion care and less likely to have affordable transportation.
In Indiana, as soon as the SCOTUS decision drops, the governor plans to call a special legislative session to restrict abortion in our state, so online networks like Abortion Finder, among others, will be essential to helping people find care elsewhere. Practical support from volunteer drivers and those who can help finance travel will remain crucial, going forward.
The Chicago-area Jane Collective is getting well-deserved attention for their organizing pre-Roe. But in other areas of the country, including Northern Indiana, abortion supporters also offered quiet networks that transported women across state lines to obtain abortion care.
A related finding from our oral interviews is the importance of fundraising. The anti-abortion movement has been powered by massive fundraising through churches. One result is that crisis pregnancy centers, which seek to deter women from abortion, far outnumber abortion clinics across the U.S. Activists we interviewed reminded us that no matter what SCOTUS decides, donating to abortion funds—locally or nationally—will remain essential to those seeking abortions who will need medically accurate information and funding to travel, to cover childcare, or simply to cover the cost of an abortion.
Early activists also emphasized the necessity of better messaging. “Pro-life” is a simple and simplistic slogan that has the virtue of being easy, though empty. What can it mean to be pro-embryo but not pro-woman’s life, pro-health care, or pro-gun reform, as so many are? One of activist we interviewed said, “‘Right to Life’ is a crock of shit with beautiful PR.” “Pro-choice” feels like a weak alternative, because the decisions we make about our bodies and the direction of our lives are so much weightier than a “choice.” We need wordsmiths to capture the complicated truth: “Life is very interwoven,” one activist said. Embryos grow not in incubators but in humans who already have value and are woven into networks of familial and community responsibilities.
Positive visibility also matters enormously as we work to de-stigmatize one of the most common medical procedures in the U.S.: About one in four women will terminate a pregnancy in their lifetimes. You’d never know this, given the silencing and shaming around abortion.
Activists emphasized the importance of wresting this narrative from antis, and, instead, story-sharing everywhere about the positive impact of abortion on the lives of those faced with unwanted pregnancies, as well as on their partners, their families and their communities. In South Bend, for example, Planned Parenthood used to underwrite a popular radio station, so listeners heard the name repeatedly in a positive context. More recently, local groups worked to raise funds and win grants to bring a Whole Woman’s Health abortion clinic to our community. And an energized group of younger activists founded Pro Choice South Bend, a group that de-stigmatizes abortion through story-sharing events and online activism, which has trained the clinic escorts who volunteer to protect patients from the throngs of anti-abortion protesters who mass outside the clinic. These local efforts, grown through decades of relationship-building, have made a difference in our community.
Embryos grow not in incubators but in humans who already have value and are woven into networks of familial and community responsibilities.
Pre-Roe organizers also described the importance of building diverse coalitions if we wish to secure abortion access for all in the long term. This, too, is a local task. Early activists described meetups in the late 1960s and early ’70s fueled by potluck dishes and good music. Those gatherings brought together activists in the anti-Vietnam war and environmental movements, liberation theologian and abortion-access activists, all combining their energies in newsletters and events that helped promote everyone’s vision of a more just world.
This remains pressing work. We should be inspired by the intersectional principles of SisterSong and other women-of-color organizations. They, like earlier activists, remind us we must consider decisions about our bodies in the context of other justice work. Deciding whether and when we become parents is inextricable from our access to affordable housing, safe drinking water, quality childcare and public education from pre-K to college and trade schools. We all must strengthen our relationships to those already working on these crucial quality-of-life issues in our communities, and work to reach across racial and economic lines as we do so.
One activist urged us, “Don’t give up on people,” since allies are everywhere. Diverse coalitions make us all stronger.
We should be inspired by the intersectional principles of SisterSong and other women-of-color organizations. They, like earlier activists, remind us we must consider decisions about our bodies in the context of other justice work.
Finally, we must focus democratic energy to ensure our elected officials represent the will of the people.
Handwringing over the SCOTUS decision, whatever it is, is wasted energy. Instead, we must learn from pre-Roe organizers how to act now, and for the future. As one activist urged us, “One person can make a difference, but it’s a whole heck of a lot easier to do with more people.” We can all begin in our own communities, right now.
Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.