“I think the first thing that’s going to happen is we’re going to have a clinic-free state within the next twelve months. If I were going to put money on it I’d say it’s Missouri.”
Last June, shortly after associate justice Anthony Kennedy announced he’d be retiring from the Supreme Court, Minneapolis-based writer and activist Robin Marty started a thread of tweets about abortion. “FACT: There is absolutely no way that the next Trump appointee won’t vote to overturn Roe,” she tweeted. “That’s inevitable. Work from that assumption.” The thread picked up enough likes and retweets to catch the eye of an editor at the Huffington Post, who asked her to compile her thoughts into a post for the site. After her article went live, it received over 30,000 shares. Things snowballed from there and Marty found herself with a book deal for a one-of-a-kind guidebook on abortion that she’s completed and released just in time for the 46th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, January 22nd.
In a Handbook For A Post-Roe America Marty leans on her decade of experience as a journalist covering reproductive justice—she is a SheSource expert on reproductive rights at the Women’s Media Center and spent five years as a senior political reporter at reproductive justice site Rewire News—to explain the ins and outs of the fight for reproductive freedom in America.
Abortion access in America is dwindling; there are already seven states with only one abortion provider left. “This isn’t a crisis the Trump administration caused,” Marty explains in the book. “This is only a crisis that Trump has brought to the main stage.” Through consultation with abortion providers, lawyers, cybersecurity professionals, and reproductive justice advocates, she has assembled a practical action plan for readers that explains why you should quiz your doctor, how to take advantage of existing abortion care networks, why you should be mindful of the electronic trail you’re leaving, and other invaluable lessons that will help you obtain the abortion care you need.
Last month I spoke to Marty about her new book, and about why we should be worried regardless of whether or not Roe v. Wade is actually overturned.
The book reads like a survivalist guide for an impending emergency.
One of the things that I said when I pitched it originally was that I wanted it to be the anarchists handbook of abortion. What if I want to do menstrual extraction? What if I want to try to do my own abortion with pills? What if I want to go sneak cytotec across a country line and through a checkpoint? I wanted all of that information to be available just because people are going to look for it anyway. At the very least in this way it’s all in one place, and it’s all easily accessible for everybody. In certain cases there’s also caveats to let people know that there are people who have died from using parsley to try and end a pregnancy, or there are people who have been arrested because they tried to induce their own abortions, so all of those concerns can be addressed as well.
What is it about the current climate that made you feel like we had finally reached a tipping point where abortion rights are concerned?
Oh, well, to be fair, I think that we reached that tipping point a long time ago. What’s happened now is that we’ve reached a point where the general public has noticed it. The general public is actually in the place where activists have been for years. We have reproductive justice groups that are run by people of color and women of color that have been fighting this for decades already. It’s just that with Trump getting elected and with this last Supreme Court justice coming on and making it almost certain that Roe v. Wade could be overturned, all of the privileged people who have never really had to think about how this might affect them realize now, we might be in trouble because it might be my abortion that is on the line.
A 2017 study conducted by researchers from Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco found that “there appears to be more online searches for abortion in states with more restrictive abortion laws.” Can you explain your concerns about the significance of surveillance in a post-Roe America?
I think that it is something that we really have to watch out for. A really great example is in Indiana in 2015—I think it was when Purvi Patel was charged with inducing her own miscarriage. She was charged with murder and one of the things they used against her was the fact that they looked at her phone records and saw that she’d said that she was not happy about being pregnant. She said that she had researched things online. They used that and the fact that when she showed up at the hospital she appeared to not care enough about the fact that she had gone into labor as signs saying that she must’ve decided that she was definitely going to try and procure an abortion on her own. So, we have to be especially careful with what sort of research we do online, what sort of things we say over the telephone. Are our telephone systems secure? Are we using encrypted messaging to talk to each other? Are you clearing your cache when you go to look up abortion information?All of the privileged people who have never really had to think about how this might affect them realize now we might be in trouble — now it might be *my* abortion that's on the line. Click To Tweet
I like the “When in doubt, print it out” motto you have at the end of the book.
Yeah, I firmly believe in that. I have an entire cabinet full of all sorts of information because I never know when it might disappear. It’s really important especially if you look at the beginning of the Trump Administration. They were redefining the definition of ‘person,’ they were going through and removing all of the language around trans rights, all these different things that they just kind of wiped clean and now there’s no backup of any of it.
You worked as a political reporter before going freelance as a writer and activist. When and why did you make that jump?
I was working for Rewire and I spent a bunch of years there basically tracking state-based legislation. I think it just became time for me to go and move into freelance because I wanted to do more than just track state abortion laws. I got interested in what was going on in the anti-abortion movement so I started spending more time looking into what’s going on with their movement, their movement leaders, actually going to abortion clinics, and going to protests and really trying to leave the legal and legislation part behind and tell the story of the people who were being affected on both sides of the divide.Are our telephone systems secure? Are we using encrypted messaging to talk to each other? Are you clearing your cache when you go to look up abortion information? Click To Tweet
Time magazine named “Guardians and the War On Truth” as person of the year for 2018. Given the state of media do you think journalists have a responsibility to also be activists?
That’s a good question and it’s complicated. I’ve watched journalism and activism go back and forth. My actual background is as an activist originally. I started out doing a project called the Center for Independent Media. Really for me, coming of age and becoming a journalist was always a form of its own activism.
All the people I interview who oppose abortion, they all know exactly where I stand. They are all completely aware that I’m a pro-choice activist and in some ways they appreciate that because they know that I can’t use a bias towards them. I have to report everything accurately because people are going to be looking for my biases. They already know where I am and so I in some ways have more of an obligation to make sure all of my reporting is the truth and is accurate and reflects exactly what happened because they’re expecting it not to be—they expect that activism to show up. So in some ways, by being an activist, it actually makes me a better journalist because people know that the writing that I do has to be verified and has to be true.
A positive by-product of the advice you provide on reproductive rights activism is that you provide a framework for what white allyship should look like when it comes to activism in general, especially when it comes to performing acts of civil disobedience. Why was it important to you to include this?
I think it’s really important right now, especially in Minneapolis we have a lot of racial injustice that’s happening primarily in our community around police activity. This is happening everywhere but in Minneapolis it’s really noticeable because we are predominantly white, and so with the Black Lives Matter movement happening out here it’s become very obvious that it’s the white allies who need to step up and who need to make this change, because we are not the ones who are being targeted by the police.
We are the ones who can use our privilege without having to worry about somebody shooting us or hurting us or murdering us because of our activism. That’s something that we need to bring to a national scale and I think that’s what a lot of people are doing, but we need to recognize that there’s two parts of white allyship right now that we can really focus on.
- We have the ability to confront police without usually getting harmed, we usually have more financial means to be able to bail ourselves out of jail, to miss work, things like that.
- We’re also the people least likely to be suspected of breaking laws if we’re trying to do something that is outside the legal bounds. (Plus, we have an obligation to because we have been getting so many advantages from the system of systemic racism as is.)
You facilitate workshops on reproductive justice activism in red and rural states where many of the U.S.’s “abortion deserts”—regions where a person would need to travel over 100 miles to receive abortion care—can be found. What’s that like?
So, I haven’t done that work as much anymore because in complete honesty there are so many other groups that can do it so much better than I can. People ask me to speak to my own experiences about talking to members of the anti-abortion movement and all of the stuff that I do talking with pro-life people.
One of the things I do talk about with red state people is the fact that there’s this consensus that when it comes to the idea of red states being pro-life that there’s not a lot of common ground we can work on, whereas I find that there is an intense amount of common ground we can work on—maternal mortality, working on more rights for women, more rights for people who want to try to continue pregnancies or support their families.
There’s this idea that pro-life and anti-abortion are the same thing whereas in a lot of cases people who say that they’re pro-life will find themselves agreeing in many circumstances with the decision to abort a pregnancy, it’s just they don’t like the idea of it being accessible and readily available. Anytime you give an example about a woman who is ready to finally go back to work and support her five children and then she finds out that she’s pregnant again they’ll often say well ok in that circumstance I agree with it. Often when you approach them with real life situations they will find that that’s that exception that they’re willing to say in this case it’s ok but overall they still stay that they’re pro-life and against abortion.Being an activist actually makes me a better journalist because people know that the writing that I do has to be verified and has to be true. Click To Tweet
It sounds like just personalizing it for people is the key to changing their mind.
Basically. There’s this saying that abortion providers have when they talk about how people who oppose abortion come in and actually get abortions—which is a pretty common phenomenon—they say that there’s this belief in the three exceptions: rape, incest, and mine.
One of the most striking facts in the book was that there’s a lack of abortion training in places where you assume it’d be a given like OB-GYN training practices. According to a 2015 piece in The Atlantic this training problem extends to American medical schools too. Should we be worried about a decrease in the number of trained abortion providers in the coming years?
Definitely, and not just because of abortion itself. Obviously abortion is something that should be part of all medical training in general because it’s another part of controlling reproductive rights, but also because so many of the abortion procedures are used in either managing a miscarriage later on, or should a person need an abortion later to save her life, which is something that happens quite frequently. You don’t want to find yourself at an emergency room at a hospital and find out that there’s no provider inside that hospital who actually knows how to do the type of procedure that you need.
The abortion conversation tends to revolve around what’s happening at the federal level but in this book you make the case that our eyes should really be on local politicians.
I’ve been yelling that from the rooftop for years now. If you look at Guttenmacher and their studies about how I think there are nearly 300 [edit:288] different abortion bans that have passed since 2010, most of those passed between 2011-2013 and that was when we needed to pay attention. We kinda missed that boat. Now they’re coming back around again which is really frightening because a lot of these abortion laws that popped up in the first place—I talked about them a lot in my first book, Crow After Roe—that were meant to overturn Roe v. Wade, now these laws are coming back because they know that they have a different configuration on the Supreme Court.
Can you explain why city councils are, in your words, “abortion clinic gatekeepers”?
I think that in a lot of cases city councils have the biggest influence when it comes to the right to an abortion. A lot of times it’s because if you look at red and rural states they have a very anti-abortion legislature. They’ll do everything they can to make abortions hard to get, but the cities themselves are usually fairly progressive. In a lot of cases even if there’s multiple clinics in a state, there’s only one or two cities that actually have abortion clinics. So if you can be a gatekeeper that is on city council you can pass noise ordinances, make sure that building codes and variances are allowed that will keep these buildings open or allow new clinics to open within your cities — in that way you can gave a huge impact on the access your state has even though you’re just working on a city level.There’s this belief in the three exceptions for pro-life abortions: rape, incest, and mine. Click To Tweet
St. Louis is a really good example of this because St. Louis is fairly progressive. Their city council tried to pass a general nondiscrimination act and one of the things they said was that you cannot be discriminated against because of race, gender, orientation, but also reproductive health care choices. The idea was that you could not fire somebody or refuse to hire them, or refuse to let them into a shelter, or refuse to give them services, based on the fact that they had had an abortion or worked for a place that offered abortions, worked for a place that offered birth control, that they were using birth control and they weren’t married, any of that.
That passed and I can’t remember—it was like the Catholic Council of something or other [edit: the Archdiocese of St.Louis]—challenged it because it said that it would force them to give up their religious beliefs. It was never about that. Missouri is obviously not—in any way shape or form—a progressive state, but the city was trying to take action to at least protect where they could and part of it had to do with the abortion clinic because St. Louis has the only one in the state. So, work on your city. Use your city to try and keep abortion accessible, keep people from being attacked over their beliefs and over their sexual health care and basically hope you don’t get sued because man they sue a lot.
According to the polling numbers the majority of Americans don’t want the Roe v. Wade ruling overturned. Do you think that’s enough to keep Roe intact or is its overturn an inevitability?
I honestly don’t believe that Roe is going to be overturned. I think that on the Right it’s way too easy to organize, to get voters in, to do fundraising—all of their activism basically revolves around this idea of abortion being made illegal. If you make abortion illegal that would take so much momentum off the table for them for preparing for elections. I just can’t see that happening, it’s way too easy of a tool for them to use.
What I do see happening is the Supreme Court either choosing not to take up any abortion bills or deciding that as long as abortion is technically legal it doesn’t matter what kind of restrictions you pass on it. So, for instance, in Iowa—where the heartbeat ban is being debated again because it went up to the state supreme court—I could see the Supreme Court saying, ‘Ok we believe that you can pass a heartbeat ban because you are not technically making abortion illegal in your state.’ [edit: the Iowa fetal heartbeat abortion restriction was declared unconstitutional.] There’s still legal abortion even though it’s almost impossible to get one before six weeks.
If they do that, then all the states that want to can pass heartbeat bans, abortion is almost illegal in the state—it’s technically still legal—but Roe was never actually overturned. I see some scenario like that happening where maybe in Mississippi they will finally allow the admitting privileges law to go into effect—no doctors in Mississippi can get admitting privileges who are working at abortion clinics, the clinic closes down and ok, technically abortion is still legal in Mississippi, you just can’t get one anywhere in the state.
I see that sort of thing happening in all of these red states without Roe ever being overturned and then that way the Right still has the ability to politicize Roe and to do their activism around it, but they also get the added benefit of abortion being made inaccessible in a lot of states.If you make abortion illegal that would take so much momentum off the table for the Right preparing for elections. Click To Tweet
And you think that loophole behavior of not overturning it but still creating a de facto ban is going to escalate in the next few years?
I would be highly surprised if we don’t have a state where abortion is either illegal after six weeks or there’s no clinic. Honestly, I think the first thing that’s going to happen is we’re going to have a clinic-free state within the next twelve months. If I were going to put money on it I’d say it’s Missouri.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.