The Next Abortion Strategy

An illustration of a blindfolded person facing left, behind them a frowning person faces right
While pro-choice politics collapsed, organizers took a different approach

By Sarah Leonard

Some part of me laughs at these conservatives grasping for control over women when somewhere, right now, a pregnant person is self-managing an abortion and a hundred Brett Kavanaughs can’t stop it. We’ve always had abortions and we will tomorrow and the next day. There’s another part of me that thinks of a woman I once escorted home from an abortion clinic: She had no money, a bad boyfriend, and one child, and she knew she had made the right choice, but she cried and said it took everything in her to get the abortion. I wanted to attack with my bare hands every member of the conservative apparatus that had militated for decades to put the burden of cost, stress, and shame on her and this humiliating feeling of helplessness in me.

Anti-abortion politics is many things — an intimate attack on anyone who can get pregnant1, a white supremacist strategy for growth, a religious imposition — but it must be seen now as part of a larger strategy to control the many by the few. We are in a new era of minority rule, of which the Supreme Court’s June ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization forms an essential piece. Other elements include gerrymandering to destroy the Black vote, the elimination of limits to money in politics, the growth of the prison and immigration detention systems and militarized police, recent attacks on trans children and adults, and catastrophic blows to union power. The only way for the most powerful people in America to retain that power today is to criminalize and disenfranchise more and more of the population. It’s an old playbook with fresh menace. Contemporary abortion politics is not an arena where, as talking heads like to have it, two sides with different moral outlooks have clashed. Rather, it’s an issue that has been developed and exploited by the right to consolidate the Republican base. 

Anti-abortion politics emerged from a well funded effort to activate latent anti-abortion sentiment in order to consolidate a right-wing Republican constituency. Our opponents have been successful because they got organized, forged solidarity across different interests, and built power. Our side, by contrast, feels powerless. One of the downsides of having outsourced our work to large organizations like Planned Parenthood Action Fund and NARAL for decades is that most people don’t remember that there are many, many ways to engage in politics. When the Dobbs ruling came down, I got a lot of phone calls from friends saying “I don’t know what to do.” Lots of longtime activists found this irritating (they could’ve used the help before Dobbs), but it’s not surprising given that our political culture has been reduced to two-party contests and the niche interests of major donors. 

We do have power, even in this moment of extreme legal and physical vulnerability. It will be hard to hush up the fact that people have abortions and return it to the unspeakable thing it was in the 1950s, and it will be hard for the pro-life contingent to maneuver around an invigorated majority that wants to retain — and even expand — the rights they are used to. In a best case scenario, this legal loss can galvanize a new fight. (See: Kansas voters’ resounding rejection of an anti-abortion state constitutional amendment.)

As we enter that fight, we must re-skill our movements. Scholar Andreas Malm has used “deskilling” to describe what happened to movements after the 1980s when they reduced their militancy, and peaceful protest became the dominant way of expressing displeasure with war, pollution, rape, or anything else. We will have to take care of abortions ourselves, and seize our own human rights. As we explore below and in several pieces in this issue, we need to re-learn how to perform abortions, how to support one another in getting them, how to make the lives of pro-life politicans and prosecutors hell, and how to organize local power. We cannot wait for the foundations and the national politicians to do it for us. 

It’s going to be rough going — and if it is going to work at all, we need to get behind the people who’ve been doing more grassroots work for quite a long time. Below, I discuss the landscape of abortion funds, which have long formed the bridge between pregnant people without money and the care that they need, and which have been at the forefront of advocacy for publicly funded abortions. Abortion funds fit within in the framework of reproductive justice, created by Black feminists in the 1990s. That framework encompasses all the intersecting issues beyond abortion — from food to housing to decarceration to health care — that we all must get behind. (In fact, you’ll notice that any political movement on the left in 2022 tends to highlight these intersections. Defunding the police requires investing in housing, mental health care, and free public transit. Environmental justice demands the same things.) In seeing abortion as part of a constellation of issues dealing with bodily autonomy, we can ensure that organizing around it unifies instead of dividing us. Yes, gay rights are also threatened by the precedent set by Dobbs. Yes, the ruling will impact people in liberal states differently, if at all. But as Kate Redburn put it in a recent Lux newsletter, “The only way to combat political narcissism is by articulating a set of shared values that cut across identity. We call for reproductive justice and sexual liberation because we care about bodily autonomy, sexual freedom, and the fundamental equality of all persons. These are the values that so offend the reactionary minority that has hijacked the political system.” 

By showing what diverse movements have in common, we start to organize people against money. And as people become politically skilled and organized at the grassroots, it becomes possible to think about longer term strategies to take over political institutions. Local ordinances and state laws will be vital in the near and distant future. By learning to organize ourselves we’ll be more likely to move state power to our advantage.

I do sympathize with those who, in despair, are saying I don’t know what to do. It can be quite hard to get involved in a struggle that seems scattered and outgunned. We have to start somewhere. So what follows is the result of conversations with activists and organizers working on the issue from many different angles. This isn’t a comprehensive guide, a foolproof plan to defend abortion and defeat the right. But it’s a start, and it’s something to do. 

Help Someone Get an Abortion 

Getting an abortion was already hard in the United States. There is a critical shortage of abortion doctors because of the threat of harassment and assassination by right-wingers, and because abortion has been pushed out of medical training programs. There is also a critical shortage of clinics, because of onerous regulations, slim financial margins, and the lack of doctors. America’s demented health insurance system makes it harder, especially, but not only, because of the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for abortions, affecting anyone on Medicaid (private insurance won’t necessarily cover an abortion either, and it’s possible that employer-provided insurance plans could be impacted by state abortion bans.) The $600 average cost of a first-trimester abortion, plus the costs taking time off work, getting child care, paying for travel, etc., is out of reach for many people. Plus the raft of restrictions implemented by states that require waiting periods, parental consent, treatment before many people know they’re pregnant, and more.

This situation is the result of a combination of state repression, capitalist inequality, and our own deskilling around doing abortions, which in many cases can be done at home. We live in a country where the business of medicine tells us that we can fix our problems only with doctor approval (the American Medical Association’s support of the first abortion bans is an early example.) This despite the fact that the medical establishment is notoriously sexist (women are diagnosed later than men for hundreds of diseases, in part because, as Forbes recently noted, “women were excluded from clinical trials due to concerns about possible long-term effects on their fertility and unborn children”) and racist (a 2016 study of medical students produced the unbelievable stat that about half of them believed Black people have thicker skin than white people). Deskilling abortion has not been helped by the fact that major repro rights organizations like Planned Parenthood have, as part of their strategy for defending the importance of abortion in clinics, and perhaps for liability reasons as well, discouraged self-managed abortions, describing women taking things into their own hands as dangerous.

But self-managed abortion at least up to 12 weeks isn’t dangerous. In fact, it’s incredibly safe, and effective about 95 percent of the time if done with a combination of Misoprostol and Mifepristone pills, or about 85 percent effective if done with Misoprostol alone. In this issue, we’ve included a guide by Naomi Braine to self-managing an abortion, with a list of resources to help you get pills and guidance. In many cases, you can do your own abortion. It is our job to take care of ourselves and each other, no matter what the law says. When I called Laurie Bertram Roberts of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund (an abortion fund) she said that “if there’s a number one thing I’d say to do in this moment, it’s learning about self-managed abortion and teaching other people and in whisper networks if need be.”

The future doesn’t have to look like the coathanger past, thanks to pill access (more on later term abortions further down, which are more complicated). In this issue of Lux, we feature Las Libres, a Mexican feminist organization that has for years helped people give themselves Misoprostol abortions by guiding them over a hotline —  they did this first when abortion was illegal in Mexico, and they do it today now that it’s nominally legal but not always easy or pleasant (medical sexism is not an American exception). Today, Las Libres is helping more and more Americans have abortions by mailing the pills to P.O. boxes and talking the pregnant person through the cramping and bleeding. Back in 2018, journalist Lizzie Presser reported on a loose underground network of women who were training in abortion provision and helping other women abort at home, often for reasons of cost or comfort. Early research on the network indicated that the abortions were generally safe, and in the first trimester. There’s been a revival of interest in the Jane Collective, a group of feminists in Chicago that provided 11,000 illegal abortions before Roe was decided. There’s a new HBO doc about the group, and several books. In the age of pills, getting together to provide illegal abortions will look different, but the principles would be the same. 

The fact remains that self-managed abortion can only get us so far. The official, World Health Organization-recommended 12-week limit on medication abortions is shorter than the 15-week abortion bans imposed by many states, which progressives have long fought on the grounds that many people still don’t know they’re pregnant at that point. Medication abortions also come with non-medical risks. Pamela Merritt, executive director of Medical Students for Choice, has long advocated self-managed abortion, but told me “that’s just one limited choice and for certain populations it puts them at higher risk because they’re already heavily surveilled. So, as a Black woman, I see very little comfort in people in the South, where the bulk of the Black population lives, having an option that basically requires breaking the law.” She notes that while the WHO does have a protocol for medication abortions beyond 12 weeks, they carry not just a health risk, but also the risk of “somebody finding the material of pregnancy, seeing blood, alerting authorities, or having to go to the hospital.” 

Some states’ abortion bans have exceptions to save the life of mother, but without trained practitioners, “they won’t be able to fulfill that obligation,” Merritt notes. Abortion training will be nearly impossible in those states (she describes a possible trend toward AI simulations rather than actually watching and doing the procedure repeatedly, a laughable substitute). We’re not talking, in these instances, about easy medication abortions. A life-threatening medical emergency is almost by definition “a complicated procedure and requires doing the procedure over and over again,” Merritt said. “If you’re mid stroke and you need an abortion that’s not easy, if you’re having a heart attack and you need an abortion that’s not easy. That requires skill and skill requires training.” It was already a challenge for her organization to place medical students in residencies where they would receive abortion training, and post-Dobbs, so many clinics have closed that the options are even fewer. So there’s a vicious cycle: Medical schools don’t train students in abortion, some manage it anyway and go to train in clinics, but there aren’t enough clinics, and more are being shut down. The result is a dearth of abortion doctors and understaffed clinics. 

Some of these problems can only be solved from within the medical establishment — by pushing med schools to incorporate abortion into their core curricula, for example — but others can be helped by those of us on the outside. I noted that when most people think of abortion clinics, they think of Planned Parenthood, where abortions actually make up a small part of the clinics’ work. “I try to avoid saying that a nonprofit that does provide repro health care shouldn’t receive donations,” Merritt told me, “but from a strategic angle independent clinics right now need that cash and abortion funds need that cash. If you are concerned about abortion access and want to make a difference then you need to invest in independent clinics that exist in 24 states” [where abortion is legal and clinics have survived]. A number of clinics are moving or being built just across the border from ban states. Some of them are crowdfunding, like a Bristol, Tennessee clinic and Texas’s Whole Women’s Health

Abortion funds, meanwhile, are still strategically smart to support, even as they reshape their missions around the new bans. For 50 years these funds have tried to turn the right to abortion into access to abortion, generally with tiny staffs and small budgets. Many of them belong to the National Network of Abortion Funds, which provides some coordination and can receive donations that are then divided among the funds. They have also been major supporters of public funding for abortion. Despite an influx of donations post-Dobbs, the funds are still stretched. People have to travel longer distances, travel costs are up with inflation, and abortions themselves have become more expensive, with the cost of abortion pills increasing and state restrictions increasing costs for clinics and sometimes forcing patients into more intensive second-trimester procedures. The legality of abortion funds operating in some states with new bans is still unsettled; in the meantime, out-of-state funds are stepping up. For example, when the National Abortion Federation stopped funding in Kentucky fearing legal risks, the Chicago Abortion Fund sent $5,000 to a Kentucky abortion clinic, deciding that they were likely protected from repercussions. Giving to the small abortion funds that are willing to take these risks and help compensate for the loss of Southern and Midwestern funds can make a real difference in patients’ lives. 

For the dozens of abortion funds in states with new bans, the terrain is far more complicated. The people who run the funds (or even volunteer there) could potentially be prosecuted for aiding and abetting abortion — and they don’t have their own legal funds, lawyers, or big backers to help them test the waters. “I would love to see support for abortion funds who want to challenge conspiracy laws,” Roberts said, “but I don’t see that coming down the pike.” (If/When/How is a notably heroic legal organization defending people who are prosecuted for pregnancy outcomes.) Several important funds have gone on hiatus, including the Frontera Fund, which has aided people in the impoverished Rio Grande Valley, and has helped undocumented immigrants who can’t leave the narrow band between the southern border and the CBP checkpoints that delimit the area. “Our responsibility is foremost to our community and staff, “ founder Rockie Gonzalez told me, “and ceasing operations means we are without doubt complying with the letter of the law.” 

Against these odds, some of the smallest funds are continuing to operate, like Buckle Bunnies Fund, a mutual aid group operating out of the San Antonio area. “There are a lot of things that we still can do as a mutual aid fund and not a non-profit,” founder Makayla Montoya Frazier told me. “Our flexibility is whatever we want it to be. We can go wherever we need to be for the patients. Maybe that looks like not being a public facing organization anymore. But I think enough people know about us by word of mouth now such that if someone in Texas needed an abortion, someone would say to them Buckle Bunnies can help you.” Many of the people who run abortion funds are involved in organizing work outside of them, and they have plenty of experience being flexible. “Regardless of what Frontera is able to do,” Gonzalez told me, “there’s much for us to do as individuals. I will say personally that I will do everything in my power to help people trusting enough to come to me to get the abortion care they need. I can do that as a person because it doesn’t have implications for the organization. I’ll do what I can to protect people in Texas against these archaic laws…we are not our organizations.”

Roberts notes a number of things that even abortion funds in the south can do within the bounds of legal restrictions. “What we’re going to do is give out legal health information as harm reduction so that if people choose to self-manage their abortions they can do it safely,” they said. “It’s no different than having a needle exchange — you’re not promoting heroin, you’re protecting people’s health. Because this is a public health issue we need to be thinking about this in a public health framework.” They say they expect to continue doing sex education so people know their options because “otherwise there’s no such thing as choice.”

Their fund, as well as many others, works within a reproductive justice model that emphasizes holistic support ranging from abortion to parenting support. The Yellowhammer Fund, where Roberts worked until recently returning to the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund that they founded, keeps a public Amazon list of period supplies they encourage people to donate from. “Send us Plan B,” Roberts urged. “We just had 6,000 requests to get Plan B and we have a shortage.” They have long been an advocate for locally-run supportive parenting centers to compete with crisis pregnancy centers, which sometimes lure patients in with offers of resources like cribs and diapers. 

Roberts believes that anyone at all can help. They recommend starting with consciousness raising and education in your own community, including learning self-managed abortion. But they also note that fundraising in some of the poorest parts of the country is always going to be hard, so people in richer states might pick an abortion fund and raise money for it. “Small fundraisers count, large fundraisers count. I’ve been amazed by the amazingly thoughtful small and large fundraisers people have done — from selling stuff on Etsy to having yard sales to people who have a small band collecting donations when they have an event. I love the men who are leaders of bands and now collecting at their events.” Frazier, of Buckle Bunnies, agrees. “Raise money, donate money….Some of these people want us to be a 501(c)(3) because they want it to be tax deductible, and that’s kind of fucked up and self-serving. You should be putting yourself and your wallet on the line for those who have less than you.”

While many people want to volunteer, most abortion funds are small and don’t have volunteer coordinators. “It’s not that we’re ignoring you,” Roberts told me, “it’s that we literally just put you on a list and we’ll get to you when we have a chance because we’re in crisis.” Given the intimacy and political sensitivities involved, volunteers also have to be vetted. On a panel I hosted with Gonzalez, Roberts, and others, this spring, they were wary of newly outraged people starting their own projects without recognizing that better organized ones already exist. That doesn’t mean do nothing, Gonzalez said, “but rather look to the leadership of people who’ve been doing this work for a long time because we’ve learned a lot about how to keep people safe….we’re talking about people’s lives and their livelihood and potential criminalization and we want people to be careful of that.” Like Roberts, she notes that “we are in a long game; sometimes it’s asking for a little bit of patience.” (She’s been working on a project called Operation Save Abortion that is designed to train people new to the movement.) 

The risks Gonzalez mentions are a reminder that the situation we’re in blurs the once slightly clearer line between service provision and political confrontation. “What’s missing [right now] is what actually won us Roe,” said Merritt. “Too much of the history of abortion and family planning access is being written as if the court gave it to us and that’s just not true. There was movement organizing and direct action happening all over the place. As frustrated as some people might be with that generation of feminism, it was that roar that got it.”

The Anti-Anti strategy

April, 1992, Buffalo, New York. The New York Times described the scene like a battle: Early each morning, abortion-rights supporters with Buffalo United for Choice “handle six phone lines at their command center and jot down notes from reports coming in from the field.” The abortion rights activists were there to counter Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group who had flooded Buffalo for a week of furious activity, designed to meant to mimic 1991’s “Summer of Mercy,” during which 25,000 activists caused weeks of chaos in Wichita, Kansas — targeting in particular the clinic run by Dr. George Tiller, which had been bombed in 1986. (In 1993, a member of the anti-abortion terrorist group Army of God shot Tiller in both arms, and in 2009 another abortion opponent murdered him at church.)

But in Buffalo that spring they had no such luck. Operation Rescue activists, Ms. magazine noted in a recent history, “were unable to shut down a single clinic in the city because of the robust response of [clinic] escorts and supporters, causing Time magazine to refer to the anti-abortion group’s effort as ‘Operation Fizzle.’” 

The 1990s saw the rise of clinic defense — of which this is an extreme example — as a strategy in response to extraordinary violence and aggression by the terrorist wing of the anti-choice movement, especially the Army of God, whose members took hostages, killed people, and planted bombs. Anti-choicers murdered at least seven people at clinics during the ’90s. They poured butyric acid through clinic mail slots (releasing fumes that can cause respiratory damage), sent anthrax threats, regularly committed arson, and conducted relentless pickets involving everything from lying down in front of cars to yelling at patients. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, increasing penalties for blocking clinic entrances. The children of Dr. David Gunn, who was assassinated the year before, attended the bill signing. Extreme violence on the part of anti-choicers waned in the 2000s as the movement gained more respectable political power. 

Clinic defense has continued: At Jackson Women’s Health Clinic in Mississippi, commonly known as the “pink house” for its pepto-bismol walls, the Pink House Defenders protected what was the last abortion clinic in the state until this summer, when the Supreme Court’s decision forced its closure. (It is moving to New Mexico.) The defenders engage with anti-choicers, or “antis”, as organizers call them, filming them and generally helping to distract them while patients get to their appointments. In Charlotte, a local abortion clinic welcomed volunteer defenders after a Christian group bought the property next door to use as a base to harass patients. And in New York, NYC for Abortion Rights regularly protests outside Old St. Pat’s Basilica, a Catholic church in SoHo that hosts antis. They slow those antis’ monthly march after mass to a nearby Planned Parenthood, where the antis harass patients. All of these groups have taken to TikTok to parody clinic harassers and demonstrate clinic defense to other young activists. 

Nonetheless, physically defending our turf is the exception these days. Many large institutions like Planned Parenthood believe that clinic defense simply contributes to a sense of chaos and confusion and could scare patients; they have a long-running strategy of what they call “non-engagement” with anti-choicers. After Trump was elected, the anti-abortion movement was galvanized like the rest of the right, with anti-choice coalition ProtestPP calling a day of action against Planned Parenthood (their big goal was to eliminate its federal funding, which Planned Parenthood receives as a health care provider). When asked why they chose clinics as protest sites that day, Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League told The Nation, “That’s where our people are used to being.” After years of actions, Planned Parenthood-adjacent sidewalks were basically a comfy home base. 

Planned Parenthood discouraged their supporters from counter-protesting. “We want to make sure patients don’t get scared,” said the vice president of public affairs at Planned Parenthood of New York City at the time. Some protesters rejected this logic, pointing out that they themselves had been Planned Parenthood patients, and had the right to make tactical decisions about their own health care. One protester talked to The Nation about having had two abortions and two kids: 

“I had no health insurance, no partner, I had to cross a line of antis to go in. I was shaking,” she recalls. “But it wasn’t because I was conflicted about having an abortion. It was because I was broke, and didn’t have any means. There were no counter-protesters. I was by myself.” [Jen] Roesch says she would have welcomed counter-protesters at the clinic when she was 19. “It would have made me feel supported. It would have taken away that sense of personal isolation.”

The protesters shouted and sang that day, and they did another thing — they became NYC for Abortion Rights. In addition to the SoHo protests, they’ve gotten another anti-choice group expelled from the church they used as a base in Brooklyn, and they’ve shown up at anti-choice actions to combat the growing presence in New York of anti-abortion groups like Love Life. We “​​listened to our elders” who had been active in the ’90s, organizer Anne Rumberger told me when we talked a couple weeks after the Dobbs announcement, and direct action seemed like an “important way to contribute to a strong pro-abortion politics in New York City,” where few people believed abortion was under threat but patients still braved a gauntlet of anti-choicers. They’ve adjusted their tactics occasionally in response to Planned Parenthood’s asks (for example, singing instead of chanting). Rumberger also sees the protests as a way to welcome people into more active political engagement. 

“I think that people have been told for a really long time that the way to contribute to pro-abortion politics is by doing really passive activism like voting for pro-choice Democratic politicians and contributing financially to Planned Parenthood or to NARAL or writing letters to their elected officials. And I don’t think any of those things are bad things, but it’s not enough to provide the foundation for a sustainable movement that uses a variety of tactics and has a longer term agenda,” she said. “It goes hand in hand with the professionalization and NGO-ification of a lot of women’s rights groups…a lot of that kind of politics now seems to be done by professionals.” 

Rumberger doesn’t claim that the group’s tactics apply everywhere. “Every clinic and every city is different,” she said, and “the people who are on the ground need to make the decision that works best for their unique context.” While Planned Parenthood’s preferred tactics may have to do with not scaring their large donors (major ones include Warren Buffet, MacKenzie Scott, and Bill Gates), many people running independent clinics operate on razor-thin margins, under enormous physical and psychological stress, and have an understandable skepticism of inviting confrontation.  

Direct action groups across the country stay in touch and have developed networks to share information about anti-abortion extremists in order to keep each other safe. Before protests, a group’s Instagram will often post photos and information about the most aggressive anti-choicers. As clinics shut down in ban states, some fear that habitual clinic harassers will turn their energy on places like New York, California, and Illinois, so Rumberger said it will be important to talk with organizers around the country who may have already encountered them. And while her group remains focused on New York, “if there were calls to do any sort of mass disobedience in states that have banned abortion [from groups in those states], we’d all be very open to that and excited to participate.” 

Like many of us, Rumberger is interested in how abortion activism can connect up with other parts of the left so that there needn’t be a separate march for every separate bit of our souls and bodies being attacked by the right. NYC for Abortion Rights already has a good relationship with anti-fascist organizers in New York, since anti-abortion politics are a longtime breeding ground for white nationalist politics, and a natural alliance with police abolitionists (during the most recent monthly confrontation in SoHo, police started hitting and shoving protesters, and the crowd broke into a ringing chant of the abolitionist slogan “we keep us safe!”)

Sharing tactics is one way to share the movement. “Showing up every month and doing clinic defense might inspire people to show up and protest a fossil fuel infrastructure project, or join a defund the police action,” said Rumberger. “We’re providing a space for people to gain confidence as activists and organizers.”

Recently, a new direct action effort hit the headlines, of a quite different nature. An anonymous group called Jane’s Revenge, operating at night when their targets were empty, graffitied and threw Molotov cocktails at crisis pregnancy centers and anti-abortion organizations’ offices in several cities. One Twitter communique allegedly from a group member reads: “We broke windows and wrote messages of ‘god loves abortion’, ‘fake clinic’, ‘this place is not safe’, and ‘stop lying’. It was fun and easy.” No one knows if Jane’s Revenge is a group, or simply a floating idea picked up by individuals, but the Department of Homeland Security quickly dubbed them “violent extremists,” and Facebook labeled them a terrorist organization. 

I, for one, was very happy to see crisis pregnancy centers finally labeled correctly. These are places that specialize in tricking pregnant people into visiting so that they can be tricked out of abortions. These centers operate with confusing names, locate themselves next to real clinics, and lie to patients about how far along they are or what the law will allow in order to convince them to carry the pregnancy until it’s too late to terminate. Their staff don’t usually have medical training. They are the place where those nice people outside of clinics take you when they say “you don’t have to kill your baby, let me take you to a safe place” and then stick you in a van. They’re absolute abominations and lawmakers have barely regulated them. Their existence suggests that people with wombs are too stupid and fallen to decide what happens to our bodies. 

So: What’s a little vandalism? There are plenty of people who will make the reasonable decision that vandalism is, for them, out of the question — especially if they are extra-vulnerable to the law due to racism, immigration status, or any number of other factors. But for people who love to fuck shit up, why, as Trump, Samuel Alito, Kavanaugh, Greg Abbott, et. al., have stuck their hands under our clothes again and again, have we not played rough? 

This is not a question that’s particular to the movement for reproductive freedom. In the last year, one of the most talked-about books on the left has been Swedish activist and academic Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Hardly an instruction manual, the book instead makes the case that given the mass death approaching via the climate crisis and the fact that “the ruling class really will not be talked into action,” property destruction is an important piece of a larger strategy. In fact, he argues, every major movement venerated today for its non-violent character did destroy property, and often engaged in armed self-defense. Malm cites British suffragettes physically attacking politicians, planting bombs where royals would be passing by, fighting cops, and breaking windows. “Is not a woman’s life, is not her health, are not her limbs, more valuable than planes of glass?” Emmeline Pankhurst asked the public. In interviews, Malm has also pointed to the property destruction in the nationwide uprising after police murdered George Floyd. On the third night of protests in Minneapolis, protesters burned down the third precinct police station, and the uprising swept the nation. All over the country, people marched peacefully in the daytime and broke windows at night. 

It’s important to remember what gets built when we tear things down. The Watts riots were followed by a massive politicization in Black communities, and the founding of the Black Panthers. The Black Lives Matter movement also led to new political organizations and a tremendous shift in the popular consciousness. As Oakland organizer Cat Brooks explains in this issue, the defund movement needs more than a period of uprising to win, and at the moment, it’s been largely outflanked (especially in the press.) Yet it’s added resources and momentum to activist groups building alternatives to 9-1-1 and teaching cop watching. Direct action, at its best, is symbiotic with the building of movement infrastructure.

But perhaps the most relevant example can be found by looking to our opponents in the present fight. The anti-abortion movement over the last half century has also deployed tactics somewhere in between lawsuits and killing people. They have engaged in direct action: clinic sit-ins, blockades, civil disobedience of all kinds. Rumberger pointed out to me that Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, loved to compare his movement to the Civil Rights Movement. In 1991, Time asked Terry if he was worried about his aggressive tactics turning people off. “Absolutely not,” he answered. “Look at the arrests in the civil rights movement. The majority of Americans were against the tactics of the civil rights workers, the lunch-counter sit-ins, etc. And yet those street-level protests produced political change. Frankly, the fact that 20 percent of the people polled liked our tactics was a shock to us.” In other words, the right adopted tactics that the left has abandoned, and used them to win.

They haven’t been abandoned everywhere. We can learn from Latin American activists fighting for abortion and against femicide under the banner of Ni Una Menos (“not one less”), and from Irish activists who won the legalization of abortion in 2018. They deployed tactics such as occupying government buildings and organizing general strikes that include labor, environmentalists, and more. 

As tactics evolve, they will have to find their targets, preferably ones that allow us to stop the things we don’t like, at least temporarily, and make it harder for anti-abortion people to continue their political work. After the Supreme Court ruling, NYC for Abortion Rights led a protest from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to the University Club on the Upper East Side, which was hosting the Federalist Society, the right-wing legal organization to which all six of the conservative justices have ties. I went to this march and had the gut-level pleasure of seeing wealthy people used to the comfort of private clubs get ruthlessly hassled on their way in. The fight was off our terrain (clinics) and onto theirs (private clubs). As a bonus, it highlighted the cosseted elitism of the people who want to control the bodies of millions of Americans. (The doormen were quickly replaced with a dozen or so cops.) The Federalist Society should never meet in peace again. Neither should district attorneys who prosecute people for doing abortions, politicians who back bans, crisis pregnancy staff, pro-life lawyers or media figures.

Sarah Schulman writes in her history of ACT UP and the AIDS crisis that “decisions did not have to be unanimous and people did not have to agree. There was a one-line principle of unity: ‘Direct action to end the AIDS crisis.’ So if members wanted to do direct action (as opposed to social service positions, such as caring for those dying from AIDS) they could. There was no effort to force the entire organization to agree on one strategy or analysis. As a direct action movement, ACT UP was an organization of and for people with AIDS.” Today, it makes equal sense that a movement of and for people who need access to abortion would deploy the same strategy.

Doing It Ourselves

Since the Supreme Court draft opinion leaked this spring, I have seen representatives of the big national organizations — namely, Planned Parenthood, NARAL, the Center for Reproductive Rights — declare in press releases, interviews, and fundraising appeals that they’ve long anticipated the fall of Roe, that they’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and there’s a plan. They sound about as convincing on this front as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. As far as I can tell, there is no plan. There is a failed national strategy tightly attached to lobbying the federal government, running defensive lawsuits, and electing Democrats who have done fuck all for us.

Last year the New York Times ran a powerful piece by journalist and Lux contributor Amy Littlefield, called “Where the Pro-Choice Movement Went Wrong.” In interviews with 50 people, she found that a “lack of preparedness was not an anomaly for the movement, which has grown accustomed to reacting to crises rather than preventing them.” Chief among their mistakes, she wrote, “was the relative neglect of grass-roots groups in states where the battle over abortion access has been quietly waged for half a century.” Especially after Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, state-level officials began whittling away at abortion access more aggressively. And in 2010, in a moment that many people point to as a major turning point, Republicans swept state legislative elections, giving anti-abortion groups free range in some places to pass their wishlist of restrictions.

What I’ve seen post-Dobbs is disconcerting. It appears, so far, to be the smaller organizations that are hungry to take the necessary risks to figure out what help we can still provide to pregnant people, and the large organizations that are terrified of violating laws that haven’t yet been clarified in the courts. The current situation is filled with perilous gray zones. For example, can a state prevent a woman from traveling to another state to seek an abortion? Interstate jurisdiction, it turns out, is a rather underdeveloped area of law. Will district attorneys prosecute people at abortion funds who give women money to go out of state? What are the risks to clinics in states where abortion is legal if they treat someone from a ban state? As explored above, small abortion funds are navigating this minefield every day. 

But it seems like the more resources an organization has to defend, the more conservative they tend to be. On June 30, the three Planned Parenthood clinics in Montana, a state surrounded by ban states, started refusing abortion pills to patients from states with trigger laws restricting abortion — before knowing whether organizations outside those states could be penalized for serving them (the Montana clinics will continue to provide surgical abortions). I was speaking to Laurie Bertram Roberts on the phone as this news broke. “​​Why are we acquiescing to undetermined maybe-laws?” she said. “It just feels like premature giving up.” Meanwhile, independent clinics in Montana are continuing to offer the full range of legal abortion options. Larger abortion funds have also quickly sought to mitigate their risks, as the NAF did by pulling funding from Kentucky. Jezebel also reported that NAF appeared to put financial pressure on abortion providers to align with a strict compliance regime for Texas’s abortion ban, even when some were ready to challenge it. As for NARAL, people told me with varying degrees of diplomacy that they had no idea what NARAL’s plan was; what was once a more grassroots organization with local affiliates has been consolidated into a nationally focused and controlled organization. One recent morning I was stopped by a NARAL fundraiser drumming up money on the street, certainly the type of NARAL activity with which I’m most familiar. I asked her what the plan was — where my money would be going — and she gestured vaguely to the importance of electing Democrats. 

It’s not shocking or necessarily crazy that these organizations would protect their substantial resources, which they see as vital to the fight ahead, including the endless litigation that will answer vital questions about who can ban what. But while they’re being led around by the voices of risk mitigation, abortion providers and supporters have dedicated their lives to a terrifying fight. “They got a MacKenzie Scott gift,” Merritt said to me, referring to Planned Parenthood. (The gift was for $275 million.) “That’s the definition of being able to take risk. If you’re not willing to go to jail to defend the right to an abortion you’re in the wrong movement.” The specter of small providers beginning to take the hits without massive support from national organizations is terrifying. “What good are national orgs if they can’t find ways to take some of this risk?” asked Roberts. “Especially off marginalized communities that are running local organizations. If you have hundreds of millions of dollars, use that money for lawsuits. If you have that kind of money, why in this moment are we out here flying blind and having to stop services because no one is giving us money outside of NNAF [the National Network of Abortion Funds]?”

One way to look at this is that the tactics that are now needed to win back and protect our rights are tactics that big national nonprofits aren’t prepared for and don’t like. The infrastructures of Planned Parenthood and similar orgs are not geared toward mass mobilization — sure they call marches, but nothing too aggressive — and it seems unlikely that big donors accustomed to galas will be excited about direct action. But it certainly seems to me that these big organizations could have a role standing up for the risk-takers and providing expertise to the larger movement, full of people who are willing to go to prison to take care of others. Perhaps the most we can hope for, though, is that they will cease denigrating tactics to their left, such as clinic defense.

 Meanwhile, the right has continued to build power that extends from the courts to the grassroots. In a particularly chilling response to Dobbs, law professor Sherif Girgis of the Federalist Society told the New Yorker “the legal nerd in me is intrigued by the very difficult and mostly unsettled legal questions about the kinds of policies that states are likely to pursue…there’s not a ton of law on some of them” and “that combination is exciting for me.”   

For those fighting for reproductive freedom, it’s time to organize from the bottom up. There are, for example, several pro- and anti-abortion measures on ballots in state elections across the country. Much of the enforcement of various laws will rest on the discretion of elected district attorneys, sheriffs, and judges. Focusing on electing national Democrats is not looking all that useful for abortion rights when we’ve lost the court for half a century, and a Democratic congress with a Democratic president can’t be moved to get rid of the filibuster to protect abortion or to expand the court. Until we build enough power to hold elected officials accountable, there’s not much point in putting them there.

What’s absolutely clear is this battle will require a diversity of tactics. Local elections, direct action, legal defense, clinic construction, mutual aid, and donating to abortion funds will all play vital roles. There is a wide range of things to do. We have a lot to learn from the many organizers and providers who have been fighting for reproductive justice for many years. But it won’t do to accept direction from the top down. By experimenting, by taking action, by engaging in solidarity both in and outside of the law, we become reskilled as political people again. If there’s no plan, we can make one. 

Illustration by Colleen Tighe.

  1. Much has been made over the use of the term “woman” versus “pregnant people.” We think this is a distraction. Activists started using “pregnant people” so that we could have trans-inclusive abortion language. The simple fact is that not only women have abortions! Trans men have abortions too. Young girls have abortions too. And as scholar Kate Redburn pointed out in a recent Lux newsletter, cis women and girls, trans men, and trans women are all subject to the right wing’s attempts to intimately invade our bodies. We must stand together. This controversy is not intrinsically a generational one — Latin American activist and scholar Victoria Gago has noted that in the powerful “green tide” that won many reproductive rights throughout Latin America “young people took leadership in the streets, with the patient support of the ‘pioneers’ from older generations. New language became common sense, using gender-neutral terms in the highly gendered Spanish language, and specifically speaking of gestating persons, thanks to the struggle of non-binary people and trans men.” Being trans-inclusive is not some mystical skill unavailable to the uninitiated; it can be learned. The idea that trans advocates are “taking away” people’s ability to call themselves women, instead of helping the feminist movement to evolve, is a nasty talking point that transphobic writers use to scare other women and turn them into TERFs (trans-exclusinary radical feminists). Places like the New York Times should be mortified to print this type of garbage, yet they do. We reject attempts to divide cis and trans folks, and resent the need to write this long-ass footnote about a manufactured drama that serves no one but TERFs! You will see that throughout this piece, I use “pregnant people,” “women,” and various other terms. I use the words interchangeably as do most organizers I know. The fact that what has long been articulated as a war on women also targets people who are not women is leading us to expand and develop our vocabulary, as all movements do.