Andrea Lees had never before considered running for office. But faced with the reality of what a Trump Administration might mean for reproductive rights—and civil rights across the board—she’s reconsidering. Lees is now meeting with others about a possible run for local office.
“Honestly, I’ve never seen myself running for anything,” she says. “But it’s so important to at least look into it, to see how I can get involved, on any level.”
Across the country, people like Lees who have little to no experience with activism or public office are stepping up to support reproductive rights. In Kentucky, protesters gathered in the capitol in January, pushing back against a twenty-week abortion ban and ultrasound law. In Ohio, activists hung coat hangers on the statehouse fence to express their opposition to a law banning abortions after six weeks. The idea for the Women’s March on Washington—which flooded the capital and cities across the United States with more than four million people on January 21, many of them marching for reproductive rights—was conceived of by a retired lawyer in Hawaii.
One could easily read the message as “enough is enough”—a reasonable reaction, given the legislative trends of recent years. Kelly Baden, the interim senior director of U.S. policy and advocacy at the Center for Reproductive Rights, says that since 2010, the rate of attacks on reproductive rights has significantly increased. “State by state, bill by bill, we have seen the creation of a pipeline of legislators who have built a career out of banning abortion.”
Since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, states have passed more than 1,000 restrictions on abortion access, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit that tracks reproductive rights. More than a quarter of those were enacted between 2010 and 2016. Legislation concerning medication abortion, private insurance coverage, later abortions, parental involvement, and abortion counseling constitute more than 50 percent of the regulations passed between 2011 and 2015, the institute reported.
“There are some parts of this country where it’s as if Roe v. Wade never existed,” says Brigitte Amiri, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project. “The layers upon layers of abortion restrictions have really taken away a woman’s ability to access abortion on a practical level, even if the right remains on paper.”
The Hyde Amendment has restricted federal spending on abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or endangerment of the woman’s life since 1976. These same restrictions on funding are also in force in thirty-two states and Washington, D.C. And similar regulations prevent military personnel, prisoners, Native Americans, people with low incomes, and Peace Corps volunteers—all groups who rely on the federal government for their medical needs—from easily accessing abortion services.
Restrictions on private insurance plans’ coverage of abortion are on the books in eleven states. Individual health care providers may refuse to provide abortion services in forty-five states; institutions may refuse in forty-two. In twenty-seven states, there is a mandatory waiting period for women seeking an abortion; many of these waiting periods are long enough to essentially require two individual trips to the clinic. More than half of the women in twenty-five states live in a county that lacks an abortion provider.
And politicians continue to push for new restrictions. “Even if they know courts will strike down the extreme legislation, they still want to pass it for symbolic reasons, perhaps to show how anti-abortion they are,” Amiri says. “A lot of this is about controlling women and their decision-making, shaming women, stigmatizing abortion, and intimidating abortion providers and trying to shut them down.”
State legislatures, adds Baden, can also serve as a testing ground for abortion restrictions. But ultimately, taxpayers bear the legal costs when legislation is challenged and then found unconstitutional in the courts. Reproductive rights organizations pay in time spent fighting restrictions rather than realizing a vision of full reproductive rights. And women pay the highest price of all if the legislation is upheld.
Like others concerned about abortion access, Amiri is expecting things to get worse under President Donald Trump. “We are gearing up for the fight of our lives,” she says. She believes the election has emboldened state politicians to move on bills that were previously stagnant. In Ohio, for instance, lawmakers passed bans on abortions after six and twenty weeks of pregnancy. Governor John Kasich vetoed the six-week ban and signed the twenty-week one.
Under a Trump Administration, Amiri says, reproductive rights advocates need to stay vigilant about Roe v. Wade. But the real threat lies in the smaller attacks that chip away at the right to abortion.
Baden says some abortion providers in states where anti-choice legislation has been introduced have received calls asking if abortion is still legal. “I can only guess that there are women who don’t even make it that far,” says Baden, “and assume their constitutional right to an abortion is gone in their state, and they make their decisions accordingly.”
In the first weeks of January, two anti-choice bills—one that defines life as beginning at fertilization and another that would ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected—were introduced in Congress. New bills in the House and Senate would defund Planned Parenthood. Just four days after President Trump was inaugurated, the House passed a proposal to make Hyde Amendment restrictions on federal funding of abortion services permanent. Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the March for Life—a first for a sitting Vice President—and President Trump supported him via Twitter.
Despite these challenges, Baden doesn’t want reproductive rights advocates to lose hope. “We have a lot of momentum on our side,” she says. In June 2016, reproductive rights advocates won a huge victory when the Supreme Court struck down two Texas laws: One required doctors who perform abortions to have hospital admitting privileges, and the other mandated abortion clinics meet regulations for an ambulatory surgical center. Both laws were deemed unconstitutional because they placed an undue burden on abortion access.
And, says Baden, “It’s not just the courts stopping this. When voters are asked to vote on a ballot measure, they vote pro-choice.” According to a Pew Research Center report, 59 percent of U.S. adults say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 69 percent say Roe v. Wade should not be fully overturned.
There’s also been legislative movement recently. On January 31, U.S. Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, along with Representative Jan Schakowsky, Democrat of Illinois, and other co-sponsors, reintroduced the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (EACH Woman) Act, which would “ensure affordable abortion coverage and care for every woman.”
When it comes to legislation, Baden says it’s a two-way street: “We know that we have to use their own tactics against them and make it clear that any bill restricting abortion rights is an attack against our dignity and self-worth.”
Just as important as fighting in the courts, Amiri adds, is grassroots activism. “We’re already seeing a lot of people being aware of the right to abortion and how they can get involved to protect that right,” she says, “and hopefully that continues and we can build on that momentum.”
Andrea Lees is one of those people getting involved. In addition to looking into a run for local office, she’s inviting a group of women to sit in on the conversation. A thirty-seven-year-old mother of two young children living in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, Lees is trying to make what time she can devote to the cause count. As a cardiology physician assistant, she knows firsthand what abortion access can mean for a woman’s health.
Lees has long been a proponent of reproductive choice, but it wasn’t until after the election that she became an activist.
“I was always ready to argue the democratic philosophy to friends and family but never calling senators and donating money and getting out and physically marching,” she says. “But this is different.”
Since the election, Lees has decided to “go retro and make a lot of noise, like the generations of women activists who came before me.” She participated in the Women’s March on Washington. She has upped her Planned Parenthood donations and now supports federal funds being used for abortion services, something she used to question.
Young people are mobilizing as well. Junghye Kim, a student at Dartmouth College and president of the New Hampshire College Democrats, helped organize a bus, funded by the pro-choice group NARAL, from her school to the Women’s March on Washington, although she was unable to attend herself. She says that after the election, she and her friends “felt hopeless in a way we had never felt before.” Some friends discussed whether they should preemptively get IUDs.
Kim says she feels a sense of responsibility to reproductive rights: “It falls on our shoulders to make sure that Congress doesn’t get away with taking away money from these causes,” she says. We have “to make what progress we can while maintaining how far we’ve come.”
Amiri believes such commitment, multiplied by the millions, can have a huge impact. “The more we speak out on our issues,” she says, “the more it decreases stigma and decreases shame associated with abortion and also shows elected officials that they are going to be held accountable to the majority of Americans who support the legal right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy.”
Many new activists, like Lees, find themselves searching for guidance as they learn how to become effective advocates for reproductive rights. Amiri has some suggestions.
First, follow your local reproductive rights organizations on social media. You might start with the ACLU, Center for Reproductive Rights, and Planned Parenthood. Sometimes things happen so quickly that advocacy organizations have little time to react, she says, leaving grassroots activists with even less time. Social media connections allow for a more rapid response.
Amiri encourages reproductive rights advocates to engage at the federal, state, and local levels, and she urges people to write letters and make phone calls. “Our voices are the majority,” she says, “and the more that we speak, the more we can hopefully make change.” Amiri also urges people to talk to friends and family about reproductive rights—and not just to mobilize action. Conversations about abortion can reduce shame and stigma. An easy way to get started is by suggesting an abortion-related fiction or nonfiction book to read.
If you’re a member of a faith community, Katey Zeh, who chairs the board of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, recommends using an issue relating to reproductive health that your faith community already cares about as an entry point for discussion about reproductive rights. And she suggests starting the conversation in smaller groups.
For secular reproductive rights advocates who are looking for a way to connect with local faith communities, Zeh says it’s all about relationship building. “There has to be an openness and a willingness to listen,” she says, “to create partnerships that can be really long lasting and effective in the community.”
Baden agrees: “What we need now more than ever is a sense of community.” Amiri also stresses the importance of solidarity when working toward full reproductive rights. “I come to work every day with the strong belief that together we can make progress on this issue,” she says. “So all women are able to get the health care that they need.”