The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Abortion rights groups grasp for a post-Roe strategy

Abortion rights advocates protesting in New York on Saturday. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
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Mini Timmaraju was at her home in Philadelphia when she heard the news. The conservative movement had won its nearly 50-year battle to overturn the right to an abortion.

Timmaraju, who leads the prominent abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America, jumped in her car and headed for the rally quickly forming at the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington.

Friday became the day she and other abortion rights advocates had been dreading as the Supreme Court issued its anticipated ruling striking down Roe v. Wade. Shortly after the ruling came out, more than 1,000 activists and leaders joined a call to quickly touch base on messaging and their response. It was organized by the Liberate Abortion Campaign, which has frequently held calls — daily in some cases — with more than 150 abortion rights groups to plan and mobilize for when the court knocked down the right to an abortion, as a leaked draft in May had suggested it would do.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” said Jessica Arons, senior advocacy and policy counsel for reproductive freedom for the American Civil Liberties Union. “This could be a generational project. It could take a lifetime to get back to where we were yesterday. But we can’t give up on our fundamental freedoms.”

It’s a precarious moment for the abortion rights movement, which must grapple with determining how to divide its resources and money during the biggest political fight of its life since the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion. The Supreme Court’s decision Friday to overturn Roe’s decades-old protections means a seismic shift in how early in pregnancy states can ban abortions, and is already leading to a nation of patchwork laws, where the procedure is illegal in many politically red states but still allowed in blue ones.

“For so many years, we’ve talked about what it will be like in a post-Roe world,” said Leila Abolfazli, the director of federal reproductive rights at the National Women’s Law Center. “It is raw right now.”

Supreme Court ruling leaves states free to outlaw abortion

Abortion rights groups say they’re gearing up for a lengthy battle to restore nationwide access to the procedure but there’s little they can do to fundamentally change the country’s new post-Roe reality. They’re focusing on three buckets of response: electing political leaders who support abortion rights; helping women living in conservative states maintain access to abortions through funding and travel; and devising legal strategies that could challenge abortion restrictions and shore up existing protections.

Not everyone in the movement is aligned on which strategies to prioritize, according to interviews with several people close to the movement who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. Some contend the focus on states should have intensified years ago.

“I would argue if we had paid attention to strategies in the states from the beginning, like Mississippi, it wouldn’t have gotten to the Supreme Court,” said a person working in the movement for over two decades.

But some activists such as Timmaraju argue groups are in “remarkable sync with each other.” The regular calls organized by Liberate Abortion are divided up by groups homing in on various aspects of the response, such as those focused on messaging, grass-roots organizing and crafting policies to be introduced at the state level.

On Friday, the coalition — along with other major abortion rights groups — briefed Hill staffers and members of Congress on messaging and the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision on various states, according to several people familiar with the call.

Throughout the weekend, websites such as abortionfinder.com will be updating information with states where the procedure is no longer accessible, as clinic operators from Wisconsin to Louisiana to Arkansas cancel scores of appointments; and as protests and rallies are being organized at courthouses and town halls across the country.

Here's how abortion rights could change over the next few months

For years, Republican-led states have passed restrictions on the procedure that courts immediately blocked because they were at odds with Roe’s landmark 1973 decision, which protected abortion up to the point of viability — typically viewed as between 22 to 24 weeks. This included everything from most bans on the procedure after fetal cardiac activity is detectable — which is sometimes as early as the sixth week of pregnancy — to 15-week bans, to “trigger laws” prohibiting most abortions almost immediately upon Roe’s overturning.

Meanwhile, Democratic-led states have rushed to shore up and expand protections during this year’s legislative sessions, such as establishing funds to help pay for abortion access for patients from out-of-state and allowing more providers to perform the procedure or prescribe medication.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal advocacy organization that represented the clinic at the center of the Supreme Court case, is focusing its efforts on “keeping as much access for as long as possible,” chief executive Nancy Northup said.

That will mean court challenges of bans and attempts to resurrect pre-Roe prohibitions, as well as efforts to establish the right to abortion under state constitutions. In states where such protections exist because of voter decisions or state Supreme Court interpretations — including Montana, Kansas and Florida — the center will work to protect and strengthen them.

Synagogue challenges Florida abortion law over religion

Lawyers have been mulling legal strategies that are not reliant on the precedent set by Roe. In Florida, a synagogue filed a lawsuit against a new state law banning abortion after 15 weeks, arguing it violates the religious freedom rights of Jewish people. Under Jewish teachings, the lawsuit states: “abortion is required if necessary to protect the health, mental or physical well-being of the woman.”

Arons called the reversal of Roe “a moment for reflection and soul-searching,” and said there’s a general feeling the abortion rights movement relied too heavily on the courts and legal system.

Christian Nunes, president of the National Organization for Women, said the fight must turn to the local, state and regional levels, with support for abortion rights candidates and ramping up pressure on state legislatures to act. “That’s where we should have always been turning,” she said.

Nunes noted that much of the focus of the abortion rights movement has been at the federal level. Meanwhile, conservative states have been passing more and more restrictions as part of an ongoing strategy.

For the abortion rights movement, the state-by-state work entails defending protections in states where they exist and pushing for them in others. For instance, groups such as the ACLU are working on ballot campaigns to enshrine reproductive rights in the state constitutions of Michigan and Vermont. And they’re also working against campaigns to amend the state constitutions of Kansas and Kentucky to take those rights away.

Three of the largest abortion rights groups have pledged to spend $150 million on the midterm elections up and down the ballot. The funding from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, NARAL and Emily’s List will go toward states, including Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, California, Kansas and Wisconsin.

Emily’s List, a political action committee that backs Democratic women who support abortion rights, has been investing in both federal and statewide races, including attorneys general candidates who say they won’t prosecute over new abortion laws and gubernatorial candidates who can serve as backstops against antiabortion legislation.

The next frontier for the antiabortion movement: A nationwide ban

Spokeswoman Christina Reynolds said Emily’s List is also seeking to defend and flip seats at the federal level, mindful of the desire among some Republicans to pass a nationwide abortion ban. She acknowledged voters are motivated by a host of issues, but noted that elections have been decided by just a few thousand votes and turnout is key in the midterms.

Abortion, Reynolds said, “doesn’t have to be the only issue, it doesn’t have to be the biggest issue but it will be a major issue. And we think it can move enough people to make a difference race by race, state by state.”

Congressional Democrats, as well as advocates, are seeking to mobilize voters around the Supreme Court decision, believing it could help save the party from losing majorities in both the Senate and the House.

In recent days, Democrats in both chambers have convened private, caucus-wide meetings to plot out how to mobilize its base around the issue, recognizing there’s not much they can do with razor-thin majorities to blunt the impact outside of messaging.

That reality has left providers on the ground to grapple with a quickly changing landscape.

In states that are banning abortion, the National Abortion Federation — an association of abortion providers — has connected clinic operators with business consultants to help them determine the steps they’d have to take to potentially wind down their business. The group recently launched a members-only online marketplace for clinic operators to buy and sell supplies they may no longer need.

“That helps both clinics who are thinking about shutting down or stopping some services and clinics who are looking at scaling up or needing to increase their capacity,” said Melissa Fowler, NAF’s chief program officer.

Other providers such as Whole Woman’s Health have scaled up tools to help connect patients to abortions in states where the procedure is still legal. Whole Woman’s Health operates nine clinics in five different states, including Texas, where abortions beyond the earliest weeks of pregnancy have been banned since September.

Women traveling from Texas already make up 30 percent of the patients seen at its Minnesota clinic, which is situated near major highways and an airport, said Amy Hagstrom Miller, the head of Whole Woman’s Health.

As clinics halt procedures, women seek care in other states and protests occur across the nation, the broad message from abortion rights groups is “letting people know that our rights have been overturned,” Kelley Robinson, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund said.

“For the first time, the courts have taken away a constitutional right,” she said. “And really making it clear what that means.”

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