States and localities must take bold and urgent actions to protect abortion access
When Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy retired in 2018, advocates like me — who have worked to safeguard abortion access for decades — warned that the next big challenge to the bedrock protections for abortion wouldn’t be far behind. Three years and three Trump appointees later, the Supreme Court’s decision to hear Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization feels very much like the other shoe dropping.
Based on precedent, this case shouldn’t get a Supreme Court hearing — that it will is a testament to the impudence of the Court’s new anti-abortion majority. The court has consistently ruled that states can’t ban abortion before viability, and this case is about Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban — well before that mark. In the years since Roe v. Wade, abortion access has been decimated across the country — including Mississippi, where Jackson Women’s Health is the only clinic left in the state. Even so, this case is, as our current president might say, a BFD.
We know the brilliant litigators arguing against the state of Mississippi will do everything possible to win this case. Congress and the president have a role to play too: we need a nationwide standard of protection for abortion rights and access. Even so, we must also be working in the states to secure every protection and remove every barrier, everywhere we can.
For decades, conservative state legislatures have chipped away at abortion access, picking up momentum in the last 10 years. If the Supreme Court decimates the fundamental holding in Roe, conservative states will likely perceive a green light to ban abortion (indeed, 10 already have “trigger laws” on the books stating that abortion will be banned immediately if Roe is overturned).
States with progressive legislatures must work to protect the right to abortion access. With a patchwork of restrictions already forcing too many — especially those most marginalized — to jump through hoops to get the care they need, states that can must ensure that abortion is truly accessible.
States have historically passed abortion protections in spurts. In the 1990s, when it looked like the Court would overturn Roe in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Connecticut, Maryland, Maine, Nevada and Washington all passed laws to protect abortion rights. While there were a handful of new measures over the next couple of decades, the floodgates opened after Trump was elected. From 2017-2020, states including California, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington D.C., all passed laws that protect the fundamental right to abortion, remove barriers, or otherwise expand access. My organization, the National Institute for Reproductive Health (NIRH), was on the front lines with our partners in a number of those states. So far this year, Hawaii, New Mexico and Virginia have all passed more measures supporting abortion access. NIRH is working hard to add New Jersey to the list, and there is more opportunity out there.
There is a role for cities to play, too. NIRH works to use all the levers of municipal power to fight for access to abortion care. In Louisville, KY, that meant passing a local safety zone ordinance to protect access at Kentucky’s only two clinics. In New York City and Austin, it meant securing city funding to support access to abortion — and in the future, this practical support could become even more essential.
Electing more pro-choice legislators and governors is the other critical piece to this puzzle. Virginia was once an epicenter of anti-abortion activism, but shifts over several election cycles culminated in flipping the statehouse, leading to two proactive abortion laws in two years, along with a host of other progressive victories. When it comes to abortion access, elections matter. And as Virginia showed us, when it comes to elections, abortion matters.
Actions in the states to protect abortion access are not merely stopgaps — rather, they pave the way for nationwide change. States like Massachusetts set the stage for the Affordable Care Act; state-based organizing delivered Georgia’s electoral college votes to the Biden-Harris ticket and two new U.S. Senators.
Across this country, the vast majority of people want abortion to remain legal and accessible. We know this through polling and elections, and most importantly, we know it because people in every state access abortion care. We’re a country that has incorporated the guarantee of access to abortion care into the fabric of our lives. And we can’t let a handful of anti-abortion zealots on the Supreme Court take that away.
Andrea Miller is the president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health (NIRH) and its Action Fund. Miller has served for more than two decades in the leadership of and as a consultant to a host of non-profit, advocacy and philanthropic organizations. By forming strategic partnerships with a wide range of organizations to directly impact the reproductive health and lives of women across the country, NIRH has had the opportunity to engage with more than 180 reproductive health, rights and justice organizations nationwide.