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Roe v. Wade at 50 (Almost): What Abortion Access Looks Like After Constitutional Right Overturned

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This Sunday marks what would have been the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that guaranteed a constitutional right to abortion. But the landmark decision was overturned by the ultraconservative Supreme Court just over six months ago in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. The court’s removal of the right to safe, legal abortions has led to total abortion bans in 12 states. Meanwhile, the push to ensure access to abortion has spurred new legal challenges and greater reliance on the abortion pill mifepristone, as medication abortions account for more than half of all U.S. abortions. We get an update from Amy Littlefield, abortion access correspondent at The Nation, whose most recent piece looks at how cities and states are acting to limit the damage from Dobbs. “There are an untold number of people staying pregnant against their will, despite the best efforts of activists,” she says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This Sunday, January 22nd, would have marked the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision that guaranteed a constitutional right to abortion. But just over six months ago, the court upended five decades of legal precedent when it struck down Roe v. Wade in the case known as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. The court’s removal of the right to safe, legal abortions has led to total abortion bans in 12 states, with low-income and Black and Latinx and Indigenous people among the most impacted.

Meanwhile, the push to ensure access to abortion has spurred new legal challenges and greater reliance on medical — on the medical pill, the abortion pill mifepristone, as medication abortions account for more than half of all U.S. abortions today. Starting today, New York City plans to offer free abortion pills at four sexual health clinics.

For more, we’re joined by Amy Littlefield, abortion access correspondent at The Nation. Her most recent piece is headlined “Cities and States Are Acting Fast to Blunt the Impact of Dobbs.” She’s just back from New Mexico, where activists are working to expand abortion access as people seek help there from neighboring states, like Texas, where abortion bans are in place.

Amy Littlefield, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Why don’t you give us a lay of the land of abortion access around this country today?

AMY LITTLEFIELD: It’s so great to be back with you, Amy and Juan, on this somber and also, I would say, hopeful anniversary — or, what would have been the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

So, I want to talk about the literal map of abortion access in this country right now. As you mentioned, 12 states ban abortion entirely in this moment, with some limited exceptions depending on how — each state law is different in terms of how dead or how sick the pregnant person has to be before there can be an intervention to save their life and terminate the pregnancy. Most of the states that have these bans do not make exceptions for rape or incest. And what’s really important, Amy, is, when you look at the map, there’s Idaho and South Dakota, and then there’s 10 states with these total bans that are all in a row in a deep red brick wall across the South. So, if you start in El Paso, Texas, and move to the east, to the eastern edge of Alabama, we’re talking about a solid block of 10 states. Moving up north to Missouri and to West Virginia in the east, we’re talking about states all in a row, multistates deep, more than 1,300 miles of states pushed together, where legal abortion is effectively gone.

And I want to tell you a number that I can’t stop thinking about since I found it, which is 58,000. Amy, that’s the number of abortions that happened in Texas in 2020. Fifty-eight thousand, OK? That’s like a decent-sized city — right? — that happens to be composed entirely of people of childbearing age, most of whom are women and also trans and gender-nonconforming people, who are pregnant and don’t want to be. And I ask you to imagine, in this landscape, this deep brick wall of abortion bans, where those 58,000 people are going to go. Right? What happens to them? And we know, you know, from speaking to activists in states like New Mexico, some of them are making it out. Some of them are making these arduous journeys in cars filled with sleeping bags and coolers. They’re driving across state lines. They’re boarding planes as part of airlifts coordinated by grassroots activists. But I think the emerging picture is that that is the exception and not the rule, and there are an untold number of people staying pregnant against their will, despite the best efforts of activists to help them get access to abortion pills even in states where abortion is banned or to get outside of the state to seek legal abortion elsewhere.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Amy, there have been some states that have enacted laws that strengthen abortion rights or rejected ballot initiatives that would restrict the procedure. Could you talk about some of those states and what they are doing, in effect, to assist those in the abortion ban states?

AMY LITTLEFIELD: Absolutely, Juan, and you’re so right. I mean, there is this emerging picture of states, on the one hand, going as far as they can to ban abortion, and then, on the other hand, this really historic momentum building behind pro-abortion rights policies that once would have felt unheard of in this country. And that’s happening not just in blue states like California and New York, Washington, Oregon and Illinois; it’s also happening in cities and counties within these deep red states.

So, for example, Nashville, Tennessee, the City Council there has passed legislation deprioritizing enforcement of abortion-related crimes, because abortion is illegal in Tennessee. So, the Nashville city councilors said, “Well, what can we do?” You know, they have also allocated half a million dollars to Planned Parenthood to fund reproductive healthcare.

So we’re seeing cities and counties trying to step up. Atlanta is another one that’s directed public funding, as well as Seattle — right? — a city that you might have expected that from. New Orleans, cities in — Denton, Texas, these are places that are passing proactive measures to blunt the impact of criminal abortion laws and also to try to shore up reproductive healthcare access wherever they can.

In the first three months after the Dobbs decision came down reversing Roe v. Wade, we saw 17 states and at least 24 municipalities moving to expand or protect abortion access. That’s according to the National Institute for Reproductive Health. So, that’s really historic, and it speaks to a huge surge in momentum and, I think, a lot of Democratic politicians at the local and county and state level understanding that there’s tremendous power in local government. Now, the anti-abortion movement was very savvy about realizing that before, but I think we’re seeing a long-overdue recognition of the power of local government among progressives right now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk, as well, about the actions of the federal government, of the Biden administration, and the announcement earlier this month of the Food and Drug Administration?

AMY LITTLEFIELD: Right. So, what happened earlier this month is that the Food and Drug Administration announced an easing of restrictions on mifepristone, the abortion pill, which is one of the medications taken to induce a medication abortion. And what it will allow is for the abortion pill to be sold in retail pharmacies, like CVS and Walgreens, if someone has a prescription. This is a game changer for people who live in states where abortion is legal, who might be able to go to a CVS or Walgreens. This is if these pharmacies go through the certification process the FDA has set up. Then you can go to a CVS or a Walgreens in a state like Massachusetts, where I am, or New York and get your prescription for the abortion pill filled there, which is a huge shift. I mean, before, because of the pandemic, the Biden administration had made the abortion pill available through the mail, from mail-order pharmacies. Before that, you had to go in person to a clinic in order to get it. So, this is a game changer, but one that affects people in states where abortion is already legal. The same thing with Mayor Eric Adams’ decision and the public health clinics that are going to be offering the abortion pill in New York City for free — I mean, that’s a huge, hugely significant decision.

I think each of these decisions moves the Overton window — right? — takes a step towards destigmatizing abortion and could lead to people in states where abortion is banned, you know, in Tennessee and Arkansas, demanding not just a reimplementation of the protections in Roe v. Wade, but free abortion pills in the public health clinic. If it’s happening in New York City, I think that shifts the Overton window for everyone else.

And I want to say — you know, not to give Eric Adams too much credit here. I want to just say these movements, these victories belong to the movements that are advocating for them, and not to the politicians, because we know Democrats have spent a long time treading water when it comes to expanding abortion access, and I think they’re moving now because of this crisis and because of the enormous amount of momentum behind the deeply popular right to an abortion —


AMY LITTLEFIELD: — and restoring it and expanding it.

AMY GOODMAN: It may have explained why the House division between Democrats and Republicans is so close, that it wasn’t a red wave, as many had predicted, because of people’s concern about reproductive rights access. But what about, for example, Kathy Hochul, the governor of New York, who ran on a very pro-choice stand against Lee Zeldin, fiercely anti-choice, and yet she appoints to the — she nominates to the highest court Hector LaSalle. Many progressives are condemning this move because he is anti-choice, not to mention anti-labor.

AMY LITTLEFIELD: Absolutely, Amy. And I have to say, the sound and the fury that are merging the enormous amount of resistance around LaSalle’s nomination shows what happens when two of the most enormously powerful and surging underpinnings of the Democratic Party’s power get together — right? — labor unions, on the one hand, opposing LaSalle’s stance against unions in rulings against unions, and then abortion rights, right? I mean, I wish we saw more collaboration — and I think we will — between those two extremely powerful movements.

But the reason why LaSalle is a deep concern for supporters of abortion rights, and the other day more than a hundred experts and advocates and organizations that support abortion rights signed on to a letter opposing his nomination, is because of a ruling in favor of crisis pregnancy centers. These are anti-abortion centers that often pose as abortion clinics, that try to look like medical clinics. And when Attorney General Eric Schneiderman tried to investigate them several years ago, he was stymied by a ruling that LaSalle had signed on to. And so, that’s of tremendous concern, especially because, you know, these policies, like the one in New York City to issue free abortion pills in public health centers, the efforts by the New York state Legislature to shore up abortion access, they don’t mean anything if the courts are against those policies. And if the highest court in the land is going to come down and reverse those policies or stymie those policies because of an anti-abortion stance, then, you know, these policies, even in a state like New York that’s considered safe, are dead in the water. And so this is hugely consequential.

And I think it’s clear that Kathy Hochul didn’t read the writing on the wall, right? I mean, Democrats owe the fact that they averted a total disaster in the midterms to the reversal of Roe v. Wade and the enormous amount of work and grassroots organizing that went into pushing back against that overturn and trying to restore abortion rights. I mean, if you don’t believe me, consider the fact that there were six states where abortion was directly on the ballot in the midterms, OK, starting with Kansas in August, of course, which we talked about on the show. And even in red states like Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, the abortion rights position won in every single one of those ballot measures. And so, what that says is that the Democratic base is fired up on this issue. It sees a connection between abortion and other economic issues. And some Democrats are recognizing that. And it would seem some Democrats, like Kathy Hochul, are not understanding precisely what their constituents want.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Amy, we just have a few seconds left, but I wanted to ask you — you mentioned you had been to New Mexico recently and the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Could you talk about what you saw on the ground there?

AMY LITTLEFIELD: Yeah. So, I visited the headquarters of the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which is an abortion fund that provides practical support. They help with the logistics of people traveling to New Mexico. And again, remember, New Mexico is right to the west bordering Texas, that state where there were 58,000 abortions in 2020, OK? And this is a state that had about a tenth of that in terms of their 2020 numbers for abortion.

So, this is a grassroots organization. Every week they reserve 10 spots on an airplane to bring patients from Texas and airlift them to New Mexico for an abortion. And they have set up — their offices have begun what looks like sort of a field hospital in this new borderland of abortion access. They’ve got cots for people to rest on. They’ve got heating pads that were stitched by volunteers; cookies baked by volunteers; freezers full of frozen dinners; maxi pads; toys for kids. I mean, it’s this real — it’s this way station for people who are making a long journey from out of state, mostly from Texas, to come to New Mexico, which has become this haven destination for abortion. You’re seeing clinics following the flow of patients moving to New Mexico from states where abortion is banned.

But the most chilling thing that stuck with me from this visit, Juan, is that they told me that they don’t always — they’re not always able to fill those 10 spots on the airplanes that they fly each week. Sometimes they have seven people coming. Sometimes they have fewer. And what I think that speaks to is an enormous amount of confusion and an enormous amount of sort of lack of information for people who need an abortion and might not know where to go. And we don’t know how many of those patients are self-managing an abortion with the help of grassroots organizations or, you know, some underground networks. We don’t know how many of those people are just staying pregnant against their will. And that really is the human rights crisis that is unfolding in real time right in front of us on this Roe v. Wade anniversary.

AMY GOODMAN: Amy Littlefield, we want to thank you so much for being with us, abortion access correspondent at The Nation. We’ll link to your latest piece, “Cities and States Are Acting Fast to Blunt the Impact of Dobbs.”

Next up, as Senator Bernie Sanders gives a national address on the state of America’s working class, we’ll look at what he addressed last night: the growing problem of medical debt and the movement to stop hospitals from suing patients, having their wages garnished, putting liens on the homes of people facing medical bills they cannot afford. Stay with us.

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