Abortion is already a state issue — we should act like it

Abortion is already a state issue — we should act like it
© Greg Nash

I am an optimist. I spend my working hours focused on building a world in which all people have full autonomy over their bodies and their futures. A world with universal access that respects and sees all reproductive and gender-affirming services as essential health care.

But as a realist who works to ensure abortion access, I believe contingency planning is crucial. As a pragmatist and community organizer at heart, I know that my state organization’s work is most impactful in the communities that we call home. This is why I am troubled when I look back on our movement over the past 10 years and observe its hyperfocus on federal legislation and the Supreme Court.

With a pending case before the high court that could overturn Roe v. Wade in 2022, it’s time for real talk. Rather than placing all of our hopes on the Supreme Court, or federal legislation, we should focus on the places where we have made significant, proactive advancements. We should zero in on places where the movement has won major battles against anti-abortion extremists and persons seeking to limit access to abortion care. 

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While “trickle-down” language gets more airtime on Fox News, the most effective conservatives know that local work drives national change. And despite progressives’ grassroots credentials, our opponents have been beating us at our own game for decades. Quiet strategies like court-packing and winning back state legislatures went unnoticed for years, until 2010 when these locally-driven efforts culminated in a state-by-state, anti-democratic assault on redistricting maps. This ensured that slim-majority Republican state legislatures and Congress would be easier to hold — and grow in strength — for the last 10 years. This decades-long, conservative, anti-choice campaign finally achieved its pièce de résistance, the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney BarrettAmy Coney BarrettA politicized Supreme Court? That was the point Solid majority believes Supreme Court rulings based more on politics than law  Locked and Loaded: Supreme Court is ready for a showdown on the Second Amendment MORE and an anti-abortion majority of justices on the Supreme Court.

We didn’t lose this fight because conservatives outnumbered us; we lost because we weren’t putting resources into local movement building. We were lulled into a false sense of security while we celebrated Obama-era protections for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients (albeit temporary) and the Supreme Court win for marriage equality. In many places, we ceded our power to conservatives while overlooking the wisdom of state-based organizations and community-led coalitions — and our own power in local and state elections.

Looking forward, we will need national funders to look local. We need to deploy resources to abortion advocates and abortion funds in battleground states such as Ohio, Texas and Mississippi — now. The impact of repealing Roe will not be felt equally. People of color, the working poor, immigrants and rural residents will be most harmed. We need to build up mutual aid funds to support people caught in the aftermath of living in a state with “trigger laws,” which is inactive legislation banning abortions that will automatically make abortions illegal if Roe is overturned. And we can’t take our eye off long-term solutions: There is only one way we win back permanent legal protections for abortion care — by resourcing organizations that can elect and cultivate relationships with pro-choice state legislators. This may take years, but it is the only way we will repeal state abortion bans and pass needed investments to expand access to reproductive and gender-affirming care.

Those of us working in “safe zones” (blue states) also need to double down. While this year has been the worst legislative year in history for abortion restrictions, some of us have taken a page from our opposition and have been quietly innovating and creating new models we hope other states can soon follow. Blue state advocates have created the playbook to codify the right to abortion in state law, we’ve worked to ensure advanced practitioners can provide abortion care, we’re using telemedicine to administer medication abortion so people can receive the care they need in the comfort of their own home. And most importantly, we have learned how to build diverse coalitions to expand access to abortion for populations previously excluded due to federal restrictions, i.e. the Hyde Amendment. While the Mississippi case and Texas ban have grabbed the majority of headlines this year, we’ve also seen state advocates blaze new trails in health care policy. We are also working with elected champions on ways we can build capacity to live up to our future role as sanctuary states for reproductive health care, tasked with caring for people traveling to our state who need abortion services.

We shouldn’t be optimistic about the pending Supreme Court case. It seems unlikely that the U.S. Senate, with its current membership, will be able to pass legislation to codify Roe into federal law.

In the meantime, let’s focus more of our time, attention and resources on building up the local movements that are making progress on initiatives like protecting pregnant people against the encroachment of health care institutions that impose denials and delays of reproductive and gender-affirming services, decriminalization for people seeking and providing abortion care, and advancements in telemedicine.

While no one at the federal level may be able to save us, in no way are we defenseless. Because the fight for bodily autonomy and abortion access will be — and in some ways has always been — a 50-state front fight. This gives me hope because it means that the change we have seen in our local communities can and will also trickle up. I am optimistic that by investing our time, attention and money in community-led movements, we will see a path to passing federal protections for abortion — and access — in all of our futures. 

Christel Allen is executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon.