Meet the Coalition of Governors Determined to Protect Abortion Rights for All Americans

The Reproductive Freedom Alliance is a nonpartisan coalition of 23 governors determined to protect abortion rights and reproductive health.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer listens to pastors at an abortion round table at Liberty Temple Baptist Church in Detroit on June 28, 2022. At right is Rev. Dr. Genetta Y. Hatcher, at left is Rev. Stancy Adams, and far right is Pastor Richard White III. (Sarah Rice / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Just hours after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health in June 2022, the clock began ticking for women in states harboring abortion bans and trigger laws that, upon Roe’s reversal, would be allowed to take effect. One by one, antiabortion states instituted a patchwork of polices that could make the procedure all but inaccessible depending on your state and your zip code.

It was because of her zip code that one patient, who wished to remain anonymous, drove four hours from Sparks, Nevada (a suburb of Reno), to San Francisco in early April to have an abortion.

She had made the decision to terminate her pregnancy after learning her baby would suffer a severe abnormality, but because her life was not at risk, doctors in Reno refused to perform the abortion—even though it’s legal in the state.

She had the choice of making the eight-hour drive to Las Vegas, where the total cost of the abortion would be double what she would have paid had a local provider been available, or drive four hours to San Francisco. Not only was the Bay Area city much closer, but she had learned that California would reimburse her for all her expenses, including gas, lodging and the cost of the procedure.

She said the decision to terminate was hard as well as very emotional.

“I was just standing in front of the [San Francisco] clinic door bawling my eyes out,” she told Ms. “I couldn’t say a word. And the doctor came out and took me inside and just let me cry for a while. She just let me cry.”

This type of nonjudgmental and supportive abortion care is what a growing number of states across the U.S. are offering in the wake of Dobbs for people like her—patients denied abortion services in their own state for myriad reasons.

In California, one of the most protective states providing legal abortion, more than $200 million was allocated in fiscal year 2022-2023 to support women seeking abortion services as well as abortion providers.

Under Gov. Gavin Newsom, California has passed numerous laws since Dobbs to protect abortion access. Seeking to have a broader impact, Newsom convened the the Reproductive Freedom Alliance and serves on its executive committee. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)

“We thought we needed to assure Californians that we had their back, that they could get the reproductive healthcare they need,” said Julia Spiegel, California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) senior policy adviser for reproductive rights.

California has done more than allocate dollars and resources. The state has passed numerous laws since Dobbs to protect abortion access, including measures to limit the ability of antiabortion states to enforce their abortion restrictions on women who travel to California for the procedure. Just three days after the Supreme Court decision, the governor issued an executive order to protect California providers from out-of-state investigations, extraditions and prosecutions. Then, in the 2022 midterm elections, less than five months after Roe was overturned, California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 1, explicitly enshrining the right to abortion in the state constitution.

Seeking to have a much broader impact, Newsom convened a nonpartisan coalition of 23 governors determined to protect abortion rights and reproductive health. Called the Reproductive Freedom Alliance, the coalition’s executive committee—comprised of California, New Mexico, Illinois, North Carolina and Massachusetts meets frequently to help set the group’s trajectory. Spiegel said the alliance won’t allow itself to get distracted by the enormous scope of work and the ongoing attacks on reproductive freedom.

“The most immediate one in terms of time frame is the mifepristone case before the Supreme Court. But there are many others,” Spiegel said. “You saw the IVF case out of Alabama. We are following the Idaho litigation about the travel ban for minors. There are so many different kinds of threats. … We have to stay on top of all of them.”

Governors in 23 states joined the Reproductive Freedom Alliance to protect the rights of U.S. women—especially those in states with abortion bans.

Many states, like California, are seeing a surge in patients traveling from other states to seek abortion services. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy orÏganization supporting reproductive health and rights worldwide, nearly one in five U.S. patients are now leaving their own state for abortion services.

In Colorado, New Mexico and Illinois, where the right to abortion is protected, the influx has been more sizable as nearly every neighboring state is hostile to abortion.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) participate in “Women’s Rights are Human Rights: How to Provide Abortion Care in a Post-Dobbs World” during the Clinton Global Initiative September on Sept. 19, 2023, in New York City. (Noam Galai / Getty Images for Clinton Global Initiative)

“We’re seeing not just a large number of women coming from surrounding states that are adjacent to us, but also from as far south as Texas,” Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker (D) told Ms. “If you look at the map in terms of where someone could turn from a state where it is illegal, or it’s been nearly banned altogether—if you go south from Illinois, it’s basically all antiabortion states.”

Pritzker said he is proud of what Illinois has done to support abortion rights, including repealing the state’s trigger law in 2018 and passing the Reproductive Health Act in 2019 in anticipation of a Roe reversal. The law establishes the fundamental right to reproductive health, including the right to have an abortion. The state has also stockpiled medication abortion and made it available to its clinics in advance of any legal roadblocks, as well as expanded the types of healthcare workers who can perform abortions, such as nurse practitioners. And state Medicaid funding for abortion is provided for low-income women.

“Altogether, the message that has been sent to people across the country about our state is that we will protect your fundamental freedoms,” Pritzker said. He adds that members of the alliance rely on each other for best practices and new ways to protect reproductive rights—a value New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) said cannot be overstated.

“It shows the alignment of Democratic governors who are very clear about women’s health, public health and the fact that the Dobbs decision is a complete violation of long-held constitutional rights—fundamental rights for women and their families,” she said.

While the alliance allows the governors to speak with one voice and leverage any number of ideas and strategies, Lujan Grisham notes that each state operates within its own unique space and reproductive landscape. For New Mexico, that means reinvesting in women’s health.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) has taken many steps to protect and expand access to reproductive healthcare services in the state. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

“That’s why I am building a clinic in the southern part of the state,” Lujan Grisham said. “We need more primary care clinics that have the full range of services for women. [Currently] we don’t focus on good care. We don’t focus on good prenatal care. We don’t focus on maternal well-being postpartum. All that gets enhanced by virtue of fighting for women’s right to have the right care at the right time.”

In North Carolina, another member of the alliance’s executive committee, the political landscape has challenged Gov. Roy Cooper’s (D) efforts to protect abortion rights and reproductive freedom. While the governor has issued executive orders to prevent out-of-state investigations and extradition of abortion providers, for example, last year he was not able to stop the GOP-controlled Legislature from overriding his veto of a 12-week abortion ban after Democratic lawmaker Tricia Cotham switched parties and voted for the ban.

“We had a number of Republicans who had promised their constituents they would protect women’s reproductive freedom. Yet they went back on that promise, and by that one vote women’s rights had been curtailed, and women’s lives had been endangered,” Cooper told Ms. “And what we are concerned about is the fact that Republicans have said that this 12-week abortion ban is not enough—that after the next election, they will come back and go for more.”

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper has vetoed every anti-choice bill that has come across his desk. But because of North Carolina’s term limits, he will not be running for governor in November. (Sean Rayford / Getty Images)

Jenny Black, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, said the abortion bans are not only confusing for patients but they have also made these women’s already difficult situations more challenging.

“More than half of our patients have small children at home. They are thinking about the families they already have and how to make their resources go further. And they simply cannot travel for three days at a time and leave children at home,” Black said. “So they are talking about missing work. They are talking about having their kids miss school and come with them, and what to do with their kids while they have their appointment. It means finding overnight accommodations. It means paying for gas, and sometimes preventing them from making rent at home.”

Black said the attacks on access by antiabortion lawmakers have been constant, and it is impossible to overstate the value Cooper has brought to this fight.

“He has vetoed every anti-choice bill that has come across his desk. And it is a core value that he has demonstrated time and again that he will fight for. I am eternally grateful for his fighting spirit,” Black said.

But because of North Carolina’s term limits, Cooper will not be running for governor in November. He said it is critical for people to understand that reproductive freedom is on the ballot this election.

“Your zip code should not determine your constitutional rights. But that is what we got with the Dobbs decision,” Cooper said. “And the people—not only in North Carolina, but the people across this country—want reproductive freedom, whether they live in red states or blue states.”

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2024 issue of Ms. magazine. Join the Ms. community today and you’ll get the Summer issue delivered straight to your mailbox.

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About

Belle Taylor-McGhee is a media and public policy professional, reproductive justice advocate and writer. She is a member of the OCs OTC national steering committee working to advance an over-the-counter birth control pill in the U.S.