‘This Is the Time To Decide Exactly What You Are Willing To Commit To’
Discourses with Robin Marty on keeping abortion accessible after the end of Roe v. Wade.
When it comes to the future of abortion access, community and solidarity are perhaps all we have left.
We won’t have Roe v. Wade, that is all but certain. We won’t have the Democrats who’ve made careers off of pretending to prioritize abortion access, and certainly not Republicans. We won’t have the myriad tech companies looking to sell you birth control through Instagram.
But what we will have is a network of organizers who have been planning for this day for decades, supported by volunteers and donors who see no other option but to keep abortion accessible, legality be damned.
Yesterday I spoke with Robin Marty, the operations director for the West Alabama Women's Center and the author of The New Handbook for a Post-Roe America, about the kind of support that abortion clinics and funds will need next, even in states where abortion will immediately become illegal once Roe is overturned. (FYI, Marty’s book, a guide to accessing abortion and supporting access in a post-Roe society, is currently free to download from Seven Stories Press.)
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What events led to the Supreme Court's draft opinion to strike down Roe v. Wade?
There's so many steps and missteps that led us to where we are right now. But I think the most important thing that happened that is really being ignored is the 2010 midterms. That was really the turning point when it came to the idea of restricting abortion into non-existence, giving power to the religious right, and giving them the ability to not just motivate political figures, but to actually become the legislators themselves.
We saw our first grassroots swell through the Tea Party, who were opposing Obamacare as being a government expansion of healthcare, but also the idea that it was going to be this huge expansion of abortion. That's how they got the Stupak-Pitts Amendment.
We saw an explosion of model legislation from Americans United for Life, the National Right to Life Committee, bills passed primarily to every red state, three-fourths of the country. So we saw a surge of primarily 20-week abortion bans and telemedicine bans. The idea of mandatory ultrasounds, expanding waiting periods, all happened within the first few years after the 2010 midterms and were brought about because of them.
This is what led to the platform that allowed Donald Trump to be elected. And obviously once Donald Trump was elected and had control of reshaping the judiciary, this was all inevitable.
How did people at your clinic react to the draft?
This decision is not surprising. What we were sideswiped by was the leak. And it's not even because it was unprecedented.
It's because when you are in a state like Alabama, which has a law that predates Roe v. Wade that says that abortion is illegal, and you know that if the Supreme Court actually says, "Roe v. Wade is no longer in effect," that means that pre-Roe law is immediately enforceable.
So staff members, patients, when people hear "the Supreme Court said Roe v. Wade is overturned," they don't understand this is a draft. They think that abortion just became illegal. I had staff who were contacting me like, "Does the clinic still open?"
We also had patients who would come in and say, "I heard that Roe v. Wade was overturned and abortion is illegal. Can I still have an abortion?" Because at this point, when you are pregnant and you don't want to be pregnant, you are desperate, and you are going to do whatever means necessary in order to not be pregnant.
What will happen to abortion access in the South?
The Southeast is entirely full of states that either have trigger laws on the books, or have six-week bans that have been enjoined by their state courts. All of those will go into effect.
Within a matter of a few months, the only place where you would be able to get a legal abortion in the South would be Florida, only up until 15 weeks. And the activists can't challenge that 15-week ban, because that could send it up to the state Supreme Court, which is going to say, "There is no longer any constitutional right to an abortion." And then Florida's gone, too.
So within a matter of months, the closest place for somebody in the state of Alabama to get an abortion is going to be Washington, D.C. Maybe North Carolina, Southern Illinois. They're going to have to fly there, for the most part, and spend multiple days away from their homes.
This is not going to be a realistic option for most patients that we see who are in poverty, who need financial assistance just to get their abortion here, can only take so much time off. They already have children. They already have all of these lack of resources that cause them to try to access abortion in the first place. And none of the lack of resources are being addressed.
It leads to unhealthy pregnancies, because people were seeking out abortion to start with, and also because Alabama has basically no insurance thanks to not expanding Medicaid. It leads to miscarriages that are going to be suspected as being abortions, and possible jail time.
It leads to people who are going to seek out their own means to try and terminate a pregnancy. On the one hand, there are very, very safe ways to do that compared to pre-Roe, but it's going to open up many, many people to some sort of legal risk. “After Roe” is not going to be the idea of a bloody coat hanger or the septic wards. It's going to be people behind bars.
What will happen in those states where abortion will remain legal?
We are seeing a surge of people who are opening clinics in these states and getting them as close to the border as possible. We are going to see a lot more accessible abortion in those states.
My biggest concern right now is that we are putting so much resources into new clinics, abortion funds, and practical support groups. All of it is very necessary, but we aren't doing anything to resource those clinics that are being left behind, in states where most people get their healthcare from the emergency room because they don't have insurance. And now you are saying that if you stay here, all abortion options are illegal. If you do need follow-up care [to self-managed abortion], your options are either sit and hope it gets better, or go to an ER and hope you don't get arrested.
Red state clinics have an amazing opportunity right now because they already provide this sort of healthcare. They're already reaching out to these communities to be safe spaces where they can offer an ultrasound for a person who is bleeding and afraid to go into a hospital. They can do a pregnancy test or other exam to make sure that if a person did their own abortion, it was successful. A patient doesn't have to worry about whether they're going to get turned over to the police.
These aren't getting resourced and I don't feel like people have an interest in resourcing them. If we get to a place where all of them end up closing, then between Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, there's going to be four Planned Parenthoods.
So you're seeing money being funneled into states where abortion will remain legal, but these Southern clinics, even if they can't provide abortion, are still very useful for other things related to reproductive justice?
Very much so. At West Alabama Women's Center, we've already begun working with TKO Society, a Black trans group in the state, to help their clients access HIV care. We have upped our contraceptive programs and are starting to do other reproductive healthcare programs, annual exams, STI testing, things like that.
“This is the time to decide exactly you are willing to commit to if you want to help make sure abortion is accessible even if it isn't legal.”
It was my perception that when state laws came down people were like, "We need to funnel money to these places." But since the draft came out, have you not seen that kind of response?
I don't think it's been the same way that it was when the Alabama ban happened in 2019. Everybody turned around and started giving money to the Yellowhammer Fund. It not only provided the resources for them to exist for years, but the money was used to keep this clinic open when the doctor and the previous clinic owner wanted to retire. This clinic provides half the abortions in the state.
[The funding poured in] because it was (a) the most extreme ban that had ever passed and (b) it was one state. And now you've got all of these states competing for resources and attention. Half of the states are going to be banning abortion almost completely within six months.
The issue has always been that when funding goes to national organizations, you have to wait for it to trickle down to the states. If people wanted to help Alabama and they're giving to, say, National Network of Abortion Funds, they can't guarantee their money is going to go to Alabama. And when you have large philanthropic donors like MacKenzie Scott giving $276 million to Planned Parenthood — all we need to be able to stay open is $500,000 and I don't know if we can do it.
There have been massive amounts of money given to Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and I think it's all very well and good. I’ve got to be honest, I cry a little bit every time I see a new press release telling me, here’s $150 million about to be spent on the midterms. Yes, we need to win elections, but in 2009 when we had Obama in the White House and a veto-proof Senate and control of the House of Representatives, we still got an Obamacare that ended up carving out the ability to access abortion. I don't believe in elections anymore. I believe in providing care directly to people.
How will this change how abortion funds operate right now?
It's already starting on the ground, but what I imagine is that organizations are going to link up to each other a lot more. We’re already seeing this in abortion funds, where when you have a patient traveling because they need a later abortion, it's too much for any one fund to handle. So they ask everybody, "Can you pledge money for this person? Can you help organize the travel?"
We are going to see resources go to these destination states, primarily because people think that there's no point in giving money to places in the South because the South is a “lost cause.” But we do local organizing, we resource people, there's jobs down here. This is about an entire culture change, not just about moving people like they are chattel.
For people who want to continue to have access to abortion in the future, what should they be doing right now, particularly regarding concerns of online surveillance?
If a person thinks that they might potentially get pregnant and need an abortion, there's places that are doing early provision of abortion pills. Recognize that you need to be certain that people aren't aware that you've done that unless you completely trust them. Not just because you could be in trouble if you end up being caught managing your own abortion in an illegal situation, but because if you get pregnant later and want to be pregnant and then miscarry, that could also come back and get used against you, because how do you prove you didn't use those pills?
Honestly, the more that I'm being asked about surveillance, the more I find myself thinking, the question is well-intentioned, but it's also making it so that abortion is going back undercover. That is a dangerous thing.
So I'm telling people it's a good thing to protect yourself as much as you can. But also this is the time to decide exactly you are willing to commit to if you want to help make sure abortion is accessible even if it isn't legal. Figure out what your risk tolerance is, what you can do to help. Because I guarantee you, there are organizations who will welcome the help of people who are not worried about whether or not they get arrested.
This is going to end only after a lot of arrests, unfortunately. And so the burden is on those of us with privilege, who are white, middle class or above, cishet, that we do the actions that are the most likely to get the police surveillance on us, so that the marginalized communities already being harmed by abortion restrictions, voter suppression, lack of healthcare, lack of clean water, lack of schools, are not also impacted more by these laws.
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Can you share a little bit about what your handbook discusses beyond the logistics of getting an abortion?
I think a lot of people don't think about what all goes into trying to either access an abortion, or trying to fight against abortion restrictions. When I rewrote the handbook I made sure there were to-do lists, because it felt imperative to give people action.
That's something that's really happened over the last 24 hours, that people have really been connecting to this idea of somebody giving them instructions. I was really shocked to see the entirety of my press run get bought yesterday. Every print book is gone. There were 1,000 free downloads. It went into the top 100 on Amazon. We had to do a new print run. So it just echoes how much people want a thing to do.
So with these 10 lists in the book, you may not need to do every list. There's something in there for every person, regardless of whether they're capable of becoming pregnant, they're interested in helping somebody be able to access an abortion legally, helping somebody access abortion illegally and as safely as possible.
It's also simple information that I feel gets lost in the greater landscape, such as how the right is using ideas like “born alive abortions” and misnomers like that in order to change public opinion, and how to battle that yourself, and make sure that you are giving correct information about when a person can become pregnant. There are lawmakers who think that you can hold in your period. This is vital for people to understand how their bodies work. So it was very important to me to make sure that people felt like they could take action because I know, right now, sometimes I feel really hopeless. And I don't want to.
What else did you include in the second edition that you might have left out of the first?
I feel like I gatekeepered myself and allowed myself to be gatekeepered by not adding information about how to actually perform your own abortion using herbs. I did that because I got worried and because I was afraid of giving people that information. But on the second go-around, I decided to include it because the idea that people can't do abortion because of herbs and that people are going to harm themselves is essentially, honestly, it's my own racial bias. Because in communities of color, this has been going on forever.
Also there are people who are not going to be able to get medication by mail. Is it going to work? I do not know. I know that when it comes to herbal abortions, it is necessary to start it extraordinarily early, that it is time-consuming, there are teas and such that have to be done over and over again. But the stuff I included should be fairly common to get ahold of, and also have the best results without worrying about toxicity. We're not stuffing anything inside a vagina, we're just drinking stuff. And if it doesn't work, it is probably not going to make things any worse than if they weren't able to access anything whatsoever.
How does police and prison abolition tie into reproductive justice in this way?
Prison abolition is necessary because we all know that inherently prison is a racist system. Officers and prosecutors have the ability to use discretion. We know, especially down here in the South, that people who are going to end up in jail will be people of color.
The most telling thing about how little our government cares is the fact that the state of Alabama was given COVID funds like all other states, and it chose to use it to build new prisons. When we are in a country that thinks it's cheaper to build a prison than it is to give them healthcare, then we've got so much more to talk about than just the ability to do your own abortion.
What is your message to people who want to better help funding?
The first priority is seeing if there are clinics trying to stay open and help them. The second priority is groups like If/When/How, which is doing a legal bail fund and other things to protect people who might be criminalized for their pregnancies. Their Repro Legal helpline is going to be a huge asset as we go forward. And then making sure that you are resourcing your locals, whether it be a local abortion fund, practical support group, clinic, or activism group. Especially groups that are led by Black and brown people, because they're the ones that are going to be the most targeted.