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Amy Littlefield on Life on the Abortion Borderland After Dobbs & State-Level Work to Preserve Access

Web ExclusiveJune 26, 2023
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As we mark the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, we continue our interview with Amy Littlefield, abortion access correspondent for The Nation. In a special issue called “Body Politics,” her article is “'The Message They've Received Is That You Don’t Deserve to Be Cared For’: Life on the Abortion Borderland.” One of the activists she profiles is Reverend Erika Ferguson, an interfaith minister for over 20 years, who started the Tubman Travel Project after Texas banned abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. She also discusses the role of the ban’s architect, Jonathan Mitchell, her reporting in New Mexico, the overall state of abortion access nationwide, and how the forefront of abortion rights activism is at the state level with ballot initiatives.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

On this first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe, we continue with Part 2 of our conversation with Amy Littlefield, abortion access correspondent at The Nation. In an upcoming special issue of The Nation called the “Body Politics,” Amy has an article headlined “'The Message They've Received Is That You Don’t Deserve to Be Cared For’: Life on the Abortion Borderland.”

One of the people that Amy Littlefield profiles in The Nation is the Reverend Erika Ferguson, an interfaith minister for over 20 years, describing what motivated her to begin the Tubman Travel Project on the night when one of the most restrictive abortion bills in the nation, Texas Senate Bill 8, which banned abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, went into effect on September 1st, 2021.

REV. ERIKA FERGUSON: At midnight, when S.B. 8 went into effect, one young girl I was doing a lot of work with to make the decision about whether she was going to carry the pregnancy or end it sent me a text. And I still have it. It was exactly at midnight. And she said, “How am I going to get out of the state? I can’t even figure out how to get a bus across town.” And it was in that moment, I said, “Don’t worry. I will help you.” I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to do that, but I knew that I would. And the rest, as they like to say, is history.

AMY GOODMAN: Or “herstory.” That’s a clip of Erika Ferguson, shared with us by Amy Littlefield, who profiled Reverend Ferguson and others in her new piece for The Nation.

Amy, thanks for staying with us to do Part 2 of this conversation, which is what’s happening in the country right now. Explain, after your trip to New Mexico, what exactly Reverend Ferguson is doing.

AMY LITTLEFIELD: Thank you, Amy, for giving me this opportunity to talk about this remarkable woman, Reverend Erika Ferguson. So, the heroism and the bravery of what she’s doing is remarkable. She is traveling with — so, every week, one day a week, she goes to a North Texas airport and meets a group of strangers. And she greets those strangers, who need abortions. These are Texans who need abortions, who she’s about to fly with out of state, women she’s never met before. She greets them by telling them her story. She has had two abortions herself: one when she was 14 and another when she was 18. And she told me that the warmth and compassion she received from the people who cared for her during that experience at the clinic are what animate her decision to help these Texas travelers.

She has called this project the Texas — the Tubman Travel Project, because she sees a parallel between people leaving states where abortion is banned to go to states where it’s legal and the journeys taken by enslaved people who traveled from states where slavery was in place to states where, you know, they could have freedom. She is a Black woman. She understands that the risk of criminalization is present, not just in this aspect of her life, but, of course, all around, and she is consciously taking the risk that is involved in traveling with these women openly from a state that is at the epicenter of efforts to criminalize and punish anyone who helps somebody to get an abortion.

And so, she travels with these women on the journey. She told me, you know, she’s a minister, but she said she doesn’t talk about God to these women. The way that her ministry shows up is that she tells them, “You are going to be safe, and you are going to be cared for.” And then she flies with them to New Mexico. They go to a clinic there. They then recover at what’s this headquarters of a nonprofit called the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, that I visited. It felt like a post-abortion field hospital on this new abortion borderland — New Mexico, of course, right next to Texas, a state where abortion remains legal. Volunteers have written notes to the travelers telling them that they support their decision, that they’re sorry they had to make such a journey. There are healing justice practitioners there, doulas who talk with women, who give them massages. There’s tea. There’s cookies baked by volunteers. And then they get on the airplane to fly home. And they’ve had to leave their families and their lives behind, you know, to travel out of state for this journey.

And it’s when they’re getting ready to leave the state that Reverend Erika Ferguson tells them, “This is where I’m going to say goodbye to you.” And that’s when the travelers understand the risk that she’s taking. She says, “If you see me get arrested at the airport, if you see anything happen to me when we touch down back in Texas, I want you to keep walking like you’ve never met me before. You have done what you’re here to do. And I’m going to say goodbye to you now.” And that is when the travelers begin to understand the risk that this remarkable woman has taken in traveling with them out of state, because the three anti-abortion laws that exist in Texas really should not be interpreted to apply to abortions that happen outside the state, according to a Texas judge’s ruling there, but that doesn’t mean anti-abortion strategists won’t use creative mechanisms to try to go after anyone who helps someone get an abortion.

And we’ve seen that happen before in Texas, including recently with a case earlier this year, where Jonathan Mitchell, the Texas anti-abortion strategist, filed a lawsuit accusing three women who helped a friend self-manage her abortion of murder under the state’s wrongful death statute. That woman’s ex-husband is suing these three friends for over a million dollars each. So these are the kinds of strategies that we’re seeing. These are the kind of risks that Reverend Erika Ferguson and people like her all across the country are taking in order to hold up this grassroots network of abortion access in the post-Dobbs era.

AMY GOODMAN: Amy, you talk about Jonathan Mitchell. Give us a full profile of who he is and what his strategy is.

AMY LITTLEFIELD: So, Jonathan Mitchell was the Texas solicitor general, so he actually defended the anti-abortion omnibus law H.B. 2 in Texas before the notoriously conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. This was a law that ended up shutting down half of the abortion clinics in Texas, before it was ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court back when it still had a pro-choice majority.

Jonathan Mitchell then went on to start in private practice. And he’s the architect of Texas Senate Bill 8, which is the bounty hunter law, the six-week abortion ban that’s enforced by private citizens. He worked with a grassroots activist named Mark Lee Dickson, and together they came up with these city ordinances that would ban abortion within cities in Texas and be enforced by private citizens. And they pioneered this private enforcement mechanism in small towns and some cities across Texas, where sort of no one was watching in the beginning. And then, when they saw that it could work, it was wrapped into Texas Senate Bill 8. And, of course, that went into effect and allowed Texas to ban abortion at six weeks, while Roe v. Wade was still the law of the land.

Now Jonathan Mitchell is really sort of at the forefront of testing out different legal strategies. I think the next really crucial anti-abortion frontier, that he’s very much at the forefront of, is involving the 1873 Comstock Act. And, Amy, we’ve talked about that on the program before. This is the law named for anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock that once banned the mailing of abortion devices, drugs and paraphernalia. Anti-abortion activists are trying to bring it back into force, because, again, they recognize they’re not going to be able to pass any new laws in this current political environment, where most people are against them, and so they’re going to rely on this law from the 19th century and try to convince courts that it should still be able to be enforced.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about — over this last year, give us an overall picture of abortion access in the United States. It may be that people don’t realize how difficult it is to get abortion right now. And yet, Part 1 of our conversation, Amy, you were talking about how the anti-choice movement is concerned that, actually, they’re failing, even as they gain in bans across the country.

AMY LITTLEFIELD: Right. I mean, there is this dizzying contradiction that is at the heart of the question of abortion access in the United States today. It depends entirely on where you live, right? In states like New York, abortion has never been more protected. I mean, New York has just passed this shield law that will allow doctors, like Dr. Linda Prine, to ship abortion medication, to provide telemedicine appointments and then mail abortion medication to states where abortion is banned. And she has openly said, “I’m going to do that. And I’m going to avoid going to Texas after I start doing that.” Right? She’s going to stay in New York, because she feels like she’s protected as long as she stays there. And that’s going to have a remarkable impact, if that effort is able to scale up in getting access to people in these states where abortion is banned.

But then you have to look at the map, Amy, and you have to look at the South, and you have to look at the fact that of the 13 states that currently have bans in effect against abortion, 10 of them are all in a row across the South, beginning with Texas and moving east. And so, you know — and then we have more states coming, you know, that have bans and various forms of restrictions, as well. So, if you live in the South, if you live in a state like Mississippi and Alabama, you know, not only is abortion — you have to look, you know, a couple states deep in any direction to think about what your options might be, or you could go to PlanCPills.org and find out about ways that you can get access to abortion medication through informal networks. And when these, you know, networks, like the one that Dr. Linda Prine is launching, are able to get off the ground, I think we’ll see that landscape shifting, as well. So, abortion access is always dependent on geography. And that is even truer today than it was before Dobbs.

AMY GOODMAN: And what exactly this means, especially for the Black and Brown community around the country?

AMY LITTLEFIELD: Right, right. I mean, right, and a huge caveat there, right? Depends on geography, and it also depends on the wealth you have access to and the resources you have access to, to travel. So, there are an untold number of people who are too poor, too young, for whom traveling is just not even an option. You know, I talked to one counselor in Texas who — the moment the Dobbs decision was overturned, she had to break the news to a teenager sitting in front of her, who had gone through the whole process, was about to have her abortion, and then the Dobbs decision came down. And the teenager was like, “Oh, I guess I’ll just stay pregnant,” because for so many people, the number of steps involved in traveling out of state or figuring out, you know, how to get access into an informal network to get abortion access, it feels so unfathomable, that it’s not — it’s like a done deal, right in that moment.

And so, we have to remember that states across the South that are forcing people to carry pregnancies against their will are also states where life can be harder already for Black people, for women of color, for trans people. You know, these are the same states that are passing, you know, a record number of anti-trans measures. These are states where people might be struggling already to raise the families that they already have — right? — and that have sparser protections in place for people who are trying to raise their families in safe communities.

And so, that’s why I think it’s a really important sign, Amy, that reproductive justice is finally taking its place at the center of the abortion rights movement. You know, I heard a lot of messages at the abortion rights rally that I attended, hosted by the Women’s March in D.C. on Saturday, about how Black women do not lead single-issue lives. You know, I talked to a woman named Cassandra, who had gotten out of the train at Union Station. She and her husband were just there to tour D.C. They’re from Georgia. And she saw the rally happening, grabbed a sign and was like nodding along, like, yes, Black women don’t lead single-issue lives. That was the message that spoke to her. I think that’s increasingly the message that’s at the center of this movement, and needs to be, frankly, because that intersectionality, that understanding that abortion is connected to immigration, is connected to, you know, economic resources that are not available in this country, to a whole host of different concerns that affect people’s lives — I think we’re going to see more holistic messaging from the abortion rights movement. And that’s a very positive sign.

AMY GOODMAN: And as we move into the 2024 elections across this country, can you talk about the effect you think this has, these polls that have recently been done, that shows a skyrocketing in support for abortion across the political spectrum? I mean, you were in Kansas when that vote took place. Talk about what are the signals to the anti-abortion movement, that while they are winning now, they could be largely losing.

AMY LITTLEFIELD: I mean, I think we’re going to see a huge number — and we already are seeing efforts to get abortion on the ballot in many states in the coming months and year. Ohio, very importantly, is facing a deadline to gather signatures on the petition to get the question of abortion access on the ballot. I know a lot of the organizers, with groups like URGE, for example, are in Ohio. You know, they spent their weekend of the Dobbs anniversary in Ohio gathering those signatures, because I think the forefront of the abortion rights movement right now, that work is really concentrated in the states and in trying to build local power. And so, you know, states, from Ohio to Florida and beyond, are working on these ballot initiatives to try to protect abortion access in their state.

Of course, there’s a huge backlash to that, right? So, Ohio, the way that Republicans in Ohio are trying to scuttle this is by making it harder to pass a ballot initiative, like the one that Ohioans are — who support reproductive freedom are trying to pass. And so, we’re going see this anti-democratic backlash and this deeper understanding of the fact that abortion rights and democracy and voting rights are integrally connected.

And I think we’re finally starting to see Democrats catch on to the fact that abortion is a winning issue. You know, those of us who cover this issue have been saying that for a really long time. Finally, Democrats are realizing that that’s true. So it’ll be interesting to see what they do — besides running on the message of abortion, you know, how they deliver on those promises.

I think where we really are seeing that in a historic way is in the states. So, the National Institute for Reproductive Health released new data showing that more than $200 million has been allocated by states and municipalities to support access to reproductive healthcare, including abortion. And that’s quadruple the amount that happened in the three years before Dobbs, in just one year after the Dobbs decision. So, there’s been a lot of really remarkable, historic efforts at the state and local level, and a lot of organizing taking place. And I think we’re seeing leadership from state-level politicians and activists to make abortion more accessible.

I mean, the huge and crucial caveat there is that that doesn’t touch, you know, people in states where abortion — and areas where abortion is heavily restricted, although we have seen some of these, you know, positive signs in states like Texas and in states where abortion is heavily restricted. So, it’s a patchwork, and I think we’re seeing more comprehensive messaging from the abortion rights side — that’s very encouraging — but we’re also seeing more extreme messaging from the anti-abortion side. So we need to remain vigilant of that, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Amy Littlefield, abortion access correspondent at The Nation. In an upcoming special issue of The Nation called the “Body Politics,” she has an article headlined “'The Message They've Received Is That You Don’t Deserve to Be Cared For’: Life on the Abortion Borderland.” We’ll link to that at democracynow.org.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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