The A Files - Episode 7

YOU CAN’T FIX ABORTION WITHOUT VOTING RIGHTS!

Ever wonder how a country where most people support abortion access keeps passing such ugly abortion bans? Renee and Regina have answers! And they promise to talk about gerrymandering without putting you to sleep. In this episode, they explain the link between voter suppression, racism and abortion bans—and then LaTosha Brown of Black Voters Matter joins us to explain what’s really happening across the country, and what we can all do about it.  Plus, in There Are Other Books, we’re reading Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl González.

LaTosha Brown: This whole notion of, “Well, if you didn’t vote in the last two elections, then we’re just going to purge you from the vote.” That’s like telling someone, “If you don’t drive your car, we’re going to take away your driver’s license.” Where they do that at? Where does that happen? Do we take gun licenses because people don’t shoot?

Renee Bracey Sherman: Hello and welcome to The A Files, a secret history of abortion. I’m Renee Bracey Sherman.

Regina Mahone: And I’m Regina Mahone. Renee and I are friends who talk about abortion.

RBS: A lot, and today we’re pivoting from all abortion all of the time and moving to why we have to talk about all abortion all of the time.

RM: Okay, but where do we begin?

RBS: So, often I share the data point that 80% of the country supports abortion access, right? And people are like, “What? That doesn’t make any sense. Why don’t we have access?” And the reason is twofold. One, I remind them that we’re told it’s a touchy subject that we can’t agree on, even though we are agreed. The reason number two is because of gerrymandering.

RM: Ah, yes. Good old gerrymandering. Want to tell the audience what that is?

RBS: Yes. Gerrymandering is what it’s called when our political system is absolutely fucked six ways from Sunday. Make sense?

RM: Seriously, what is it?

RBS: Whatever. That was clear, but fine. Okay, so it’s this way in which voting districts are redrawn or broken up to favor one political party over the other. That’s how politics seem to get redder and redder, more conservative, right? But the nation itself and pop culture get more and more liberal. They break up districts, packing, and cracking, which means they pack one type of voter, let’s just say Black voters into one district, so they get one vote in Congress rather than allowing them into multiple districts, which could create competitive races overall. Cracking is where they break up districts with, let’s just say a lot of voters of color, and move them into other districts, so they’re now dispersed among conservative voters, diluting their vote.

RM: But wait, let’s also talk about how gerrymandering relates to voter suppression because I think a lot of people hear these terms but aren’t always clear on how they’re connected. Although gerrymandering is a form of voter suppression, voter suppression is the umbrella, so to speak. And gerrymandering is one spoke of that umbrella. Or as our guest, LaTosha Brown will later describe it, a three-legged stool. Gerrymandering is a form of voter suppression like voter ID laws, or the disenfranchisement of incarcerated people, or formerly incarcerated people who can’t vote. Or, Renee, did you know, even the days when elections are held is a form of voter suppression?

RBS: Okay, actually that does make sense because Tuesday is the most random day of the week.

RM: So random. And not to mention we don’t even get that Tuesday off from work, but that, of course, is by design. Not to mention just the emphasis on presidential elections over state and local elections, but we get into that in even more detail in our conversation with LaTosha. So let me get back on track here. The point is that conservative politicians want to make it as difficult as possible for people to exercise the right to vote. That’s what voter suppression is all about.

RBS: So Regina, to get specific, do you remember in the early 2010s, when all of a sudden there were a ton of abortion restrictions popping up all across the country? It was like state by state, it seemed unending.

RM: Yeah. How can I forget?

RBS: Well, that didn’t just happen. It happened because gerrymandering happened. After President Obama was elected, Tea Party conservatives worked out a strategy to take control of the state houses during the midterms, specifically with an aim of redrawing the districts in their states after the 2010 census. They did it, which enabled the state legislatures to pass these really extreme laws, even when the majority of people in those states didn’t agree with them. And some of the very first laws they passed were abortion restrictions. But one really frustrating thing is that the mainstream pro-choice movement didn’t always understand how much voting rights and abortion rights were connected. When I was a baby in the movement, I remember the way that Planned Parenthood and larger abortion organizations reacted to Mississippi having both abortion rights and voters rights measures on the ballot. Do you remember that?

RM: Yeah. In general, the pro-choice movement has a terrible track record when it comes to holding both the need for abortion rights and voting rights at the same time. But this election in 2011 comes up a lot, because the pro-choice activists did more harm than good. In the end, the personhood ballot measure was defeated, and national reproductive rights groups celebrated that win, calling it a huge victory for the movement. But dear listener, remember they didn’t do the same organizing against the voter ID law that was also on the ballot. And guess what happened? That measure was approved, which was a huge blow to voters in the state who are already disenfranchised. And it was the reproductive justice folks who had to remind the pro-choice activists that a total victory in this election was not for the people of Mississippi.

RBS: This is just another reminder of why we need reproductive justice, because it’s about our whole lives.

RM: Exactly. A reproductive justice lens also creates this space for everyone who’s been disenfranchised, like people who are criminalized. And surprise, it’s Black and Brown people. According to the sentencing project, around 4.6 million people with felony convictions cannot vote in this country. And it’s no surprise that this country has set up a system in which Black folks are heavily criminalized, given they also make up the core of the Democratic Party.

RBS: 4.6 million. That’s more votes than Trump, I guess, won the election by. My goodness.

RM: Lots of air quotes there, but yes, exactly. Other folks who are disenfranchised at the ballot box include the millions of people who physically cannot access voting booths or polls. LaTosha gets into this in our interview, but the Republican Party has been intentional about reducing the number of ballot drop-off boxes. If you don’t have access to a car or other transportation to get to the closest box, you’re not able to exercise your fundamental rate as a US citizen.

RBS: It sounds like the abortion playbook. If you can’t get to a clinic, you can’t get the abortion. Wow. The similarities are wild.

RM: And one last affected population I’ll mention before we turn to our interview, is survivors of abuse. Kylie Cheung writes about this in her latest book, Survivor Injustice, and specifically how abusers can directly block survivors from voting by preventing them from leaving the house or gaining political information that would inform their voting decisions. And with cuts to domestic violence services, which is a policy decision, they’re being directly affected by voter suppression. In our society, we don’t talk enough about the interconnectedness of these issues, but they are connected, and it’s all designed to keep folks who are in power, in power, and make our country’s leaders look less like the folks who are actually in our communities.

RBS: Yeah, I’ve been on panels with Chase Strangio, who talks about this intersection a lot. He talks about how a lot of white gays were super excited when the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage but didn’t pay attention to Shelby v. Holder, the case that stuck down voting rights and fucked us to where we are right now. It was the same week. This is why we have to have an intersectional approach to this issue because the exact same people are attacking our rights from different angles.

RM: One person who really understands the importance of approaching voting rights intersectionally is our guest, LaTosha Brown. LaTosha is the co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, which was instrumental in securing progressive wins in big Senate races like Alabama’s in 2017 and Georgia’s in 2020 and 2021. She’s also a jazz singer, and you’re going to find out right now about that.

LaTosha Brown: (singing) My name is LaTosha Brown. I am an activist and freedom fighter, and I am co-founder of an organization called Black Voters Matter. I started with a freedom song called Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, because I’m a native of Selma, Alabama. And it is in Selma, Alabama that is known for being the birthplace of the voting rights movement. And so I grew up in a small town that was very instrumental in protecting democracy and being the cornerstone for the voting rights movement. And that’s had a major, major impact and influence on the shaping of my life. And now a core part of what I do is I fight for voting rights.

RM: We are so, so thankful for you being with us. When we knew we were going to do an episode about gerrymandering, about voter suppression, we knew we wanted to talk to you, so we just appreciate it so much that you’re here. To give our audience some background, one of the things that was key to destroying Roe was the decade-long strategy of passing laws restricting abortion access and voting rights across the country, which really came to a head during the Tea Party backlash to Obama’s presidency. Elected officials affiliated with the Tea Party took over state houses, and then rewrote legislative districts, gerrymandering our nation all to hell. So could you just walk us through what gerrymandering is, what happened, how we got here?

LaTosha Brown: Gerrymandering has been a tool for those who have been empowered to draw congressional districts, to draw voting districts in such a way that they have an unfair advantage. We saw that, a most recent example of that, I think is from my home state of Alabama. For years in the state of Alabama, there’s only been one competitive district for African-Americans to be able to send someone to Congress. Now, the significance of that is 25%, 26% of the population and Alabama are African-Americans. So it has a sizable Black population, but the districts have been drawn in such a way that it’s almost impossible for Black voters to have a significant impact other than in the 7th Congressional District.

And they drew districts, intentionally gerrymandered districts in such a way to prevent there from being a second competitive district for African-Americans to actually have a sizable influence and voting block in that district. And so that particular case went all the way up to the Supreme Court. Now, just gather this, we have one of the most conservative supreme courts in modern history as it relates to not just some of the political issues we’ve been seeing, but particularly been voting rights. This has not been a court that has been friendly to voting rights, right?

RM: Right.

LaTosha Brown: And so it was so egregious with what the Alabama Republican-led legislature had done, the US Supreme Court said, “You all have lost your mind. Go back and draw the district. This is blatant racism. You really got to go back and draw districts.” And it went back to the state of Alabama. They redrew the districts in pretty much the same way. And so now it has actually gone a step further and the DOJ got involved. And there is likely to be a special master, someone, a third party to come in to really draw the district, because the elected officials in that state refuse, even under an order from the highest court in the land, refuse to draw a district in such a way that would make it competitive for African-American voters. So when you think about political gerrymandering, that has been a tool that has been used quite frankly by political parties, and not just Republican parties.

RM: Right.

LaTosha Brown: It has been used by the Democratic Party to give their party, their candidates, or who they deem should be the voters, an unfair advantage by drawing a district in such a way that it dilutes the power of particular voting blocks.

RM: Right. And so we’re talking about gerrymandering, which of course is a problem unto itself, but it is also one form of voter suppression. For the listeners, can you just give a brief rundown of other forms of voter suppression?

LaTosha Brown: I always say that voter suppression is like a three-legged stool. There’s always been the legalization of some policy to undermine, dilute, or marginalize voters. Let’s not forget we’re in a country that the enslavement of human beings used to be legal. There’s always been this vehicle around using the law and policy to be able to create barriers to make it very difficult for people to vote. Some of the examples of that is right after the Georgia 2021 election, people know that in the last few years, Georgia has basically shocked the nation.

A state that has been traditionally a very red, very Republican state, in the 2020 presidential election actually was flipped and went from Republican to a Democrat state where President Biden won. That was a significant difference. And part of that resulted in communities of color and young people, people who normally had been marginalized and pushed out the process, there had been a lot of work done on the ground, what I call by third real groups, groups that actually are democracy groups that are not tied to any political party, and their interest is making sure that we have democracy for communities of color.

And that particular race, what we saw is this major influx of new voters in the process. Right after that, it was a special US Senate race, which was a highly, highly contested race in the state of Georgia, one of the most expensive races ever in the history of this country. That particular race, you saw people do it again. They came back out, and that seat that had traditionally been held by a Republican was flipped to a Democratic seat, two Senate seats, which was an enormous feat. And as a result, what we saw, and we see this politically in this country, every time there has been a progressive movement forward, there’s always been a backlash.

Every time there’s been Black progress, there’s always been white backlash that is historic. And this is not atypical to what happens in America history, that ultimately, immediately, after the 2021 election, what we saw was legislation to come up, a bill in Georgia called SB 202. And essentially what that bill basically did, is it sought to discourage, to create barriers, to make it more difficult for people to vote by eliminating drop boxes. Now, instead of having the number of drop boxes where people in rural areas, folks with disabilities, people who may not work conventional hours, that instead of being able to mail to vote, have the access to mail-in ballots, that now they have the drop boxes where they’ve actually moved them in buildings. So if the buildings are closed and you don’t get access to it, which it, one, restricts access, they cut the boxes down until I think you only have a box of every 100,000 voters. So they cut down the capacity for people to have access.

In addition to that, what you also saw is a full-fledged attack on organizations that had been helping people to vote with this SB 202 bill. They made it a felony, a felony offense for organizations such as mine and other nonprofits, that what we had done to really be able to offset that, there were so many restrictions and barriers that have been created for people to vote, where they would go, and they would show up, and their name wasn’t on the roll, or their precinct had been moved, or they had combined the precinct. So instead of there being, where there had been 10 precincts, now there were five, which means that now you’ve got crowds.

I need folks to understand. People were waiting in line as long as 12 hours in Georgia to vote. That’s just how egregious and bad it is. What we would do in other organizations, we would provide water, we would bring chairs so that the elderly, or those who were tired, or those who may have had a disability could actually have a seat. We would provide pizzas and provide food for people standing in line, because we didn’t want people to leave. We were not encouraging them to vote for a particular candidate. It was simply to be able to make the pain a little bit more palatable, because it’s actually ridiculous. And so this bill basically sought to criminalize and make it a felony for someone like me to be able to give a bottle of water to someone who may be standing in line for hours. Those are some of the things that we saw as barriers.

The second leg in this voter suppression stool has been around fear, to create an environment of fear that would discourage people from participating. There’s always been a strategy to put fear in those, fear in people, for them not to participate. I’ve seen things like flyers go out to say that, “If you show up to the polls, we’re going to arrest you.” It’s not true, but the whole notion is to use fear as a tactic.

And then the third piece falls in what I said initially around weaponizing the administrative process, that the laws that are currently already on the board to use those and distort those in such a way that it also creates a barrier. An example of that would be in the state of Georgia, where even currently, as we speak, there are 125,000 thousand voters that are going to be purged from the voting rolls. This whole notion of, “Well, if you didn’t vote in the last two elections, then we’re just going to purge you from the vote.” That’s like telling someone, “If you don’t drive your car, we’re going to take away your driver’s license.” Where they do that at? Where does that happen? Do we take gun licenses because people don’t shoot, that they don’t hunt? At the end of the day, it’s another strategy and another barrier to make it that much more difficult for people to participate in the process. So those are the three core ways that we see voter suppression plays itself out in this nation.

RM: There’s so much emphasis put on presidential elections, but from my understanding, a lot of the changes that happen around gerrymandering are at the state level, local level, and specifically on these off-year elections, who’s getting elected, and the primaries, all the elections that we’re kind of convinced not to pay attention to. So could you talk a little, because again, there’s so much focus on the presidential election, which of course is important, but a lot of other stuff happens in all of these other elections.

LaTosha Brown: That’s a wonderful statement that you raised, a wonderful issue that you raised, because I do think that that is the biggest misconception, that whenever you take, I remember my first year in college, my first poli sci 101 class, the first thing they teach you, all politics are local. But we operate as if that’s not true, when in fact that is very, very true, that what we see is a lot of these national fights, that the seeds of those fights start on the local level. And oftentimes the people who can actually do more about, in terms of policy or create the most harmful policy, are the ones that are closer from the local level, and the state level, and the federal level.

And so that’s why I always frame, “When do you not need your paycheck? If you’re a worker, when do you not need your paycheck? Do you not need your paycheck because the first of the month, do you not need your paycheck because there’s the end of the month?” Okay. You might argue that, well, there’s some times that I’ve got to pay my bills, but I need my paycheck. I don’t know about everybody else, but I need my paycheck all the time. I need money all the time. There’s not any time that I don’t need money. There are times I get money and leaner times than others. My point being, when do we not need power?

RM: Right.

LaTosha Brown: Do we only need power every four years when there’s a presidential election? When do we not need protection and policies that protect us every four years? The truth of the matter is we have to really look at elections not just at being an end in itself, elections are a means to an end, that I, as a human being and as a taxpayer, as a mother, as a grandmother, as a family member, I have responsibilities.

And anytime that there are policies that are passed that impact me and my family, I should be a part of that process. Because when I pay more taxes, that’s more money that comes out of the mouths of my family, when I actually don’t have access to the best schools, and the schools in my neighborhoods are not funded, that means that my grandchild or my niece cannot get quality education. When I don’t have healthcare, or when my family, or when my aunt can’t get Medicaid, that means that she is not going to get the kind of care, that she cannot literally afford her insulin or the medicine that she needs. We need power on the local level, on the state level, and the federal level. There is never a point in time in any election that we can allow our power not to be centered.

RBS: You’ve described state laws criminalizing abortion in the South as not just a tax against reproductive rights, but a tax against democracy. To you, what role do voting rights play in the broader struggle for reproductive justice?

LaTosha Brown: When you take a poll, the polls now say that in terms of Americans across the board, regardless of religious ideology or affiliation, that 72 to 74% of Americans actually believe that abortion should be a right. And so how is it that you have almost 75% of the population, the overwhelming vast majority of people are saying that this should be a fundamental protected right? And we’re in a time where abortion, quite frankly in many of the states, is illegal, and that there’s federal statute that supports that. That happens when we’re not engaged. When you don’t have a robust democracy where people may feel a certain thing but they don’t have the power or don’t utilize the power to change it, this is how we get to this point. We have gotten to this point around this attack on abortion.

And let me say this because it’s much greater than we put it in the framework of attack on abortion. But who really has the right to tell any single person, and particularly, this country got a lot of nerves to tell Black women or women in general what to do with their bodies. How dare you. But what to do and what decisions you can make about your body. That’s just a fundamental human right. And we have to recognize it and see it as such. And there are those who have actually been very manipulative and exploitative of attaching this issue to something other than what it really is, which is quite frankly, a person’s right to have authority and autonomy over their body.

And so what we see, though, is we’re seeing, we’re in this battle because voter suppression has had an accumulative effect in our communities. Voter suppression in those three ways that I talked about, the intimidation and the fear, the weaponizing of the administrative process, and the legalizing of barriers to make it more difficult, it has had an accumulative effect, that half the population in this nation are not voting, which means that you have a substantial part of the population that we’re not literally creating policies that are shaped by their voices or by their values. But the bottom line is literally the fundamental idea that a person should have authority and autonomy over their body and be able to have the full right and faculty to make those decisions about their particular body. The overwhelming vast majority of people in this country actually agree with that. Yet, here we find ourselves here, not just because I would love to say, “Blame it on the boogeyman.” I would love to say, “Yes, it has been the Republicans” and they have.

RM: Right.

LaTosha Brown: On the policy front, yes, they are solely responsible. This falls into their lap. But they’re not the only ones responsible for this. We’re sharing some of the responsibility because we’ve not showed up, and we’ve not demanded power, we’ve not organized ourselves, and we’re not utilizing the fullness of our power as citizens in this nation to say, “You cannot continue to pass public policy that does not look out for the interest of the people. And so we find ourselves at this moment because we have not been good stewards of being democratic participants, and we are literally funding a system that we are actually supporting to hold them accountable.

RM: A while ago you wrote an article for Rewire News Group, where you argued that mobilizing Black voters, “Wasn’t about helping the Democrats gain more power, but it was about Black voters sending a strong and clear message to America that we know our collective power.” What do you mean by, “Our collective power?” How can we continue to harness it, stay hopeful in the times that we’re in?

LaTosha Brown: Not a single aspect of our lives is not impacted by policy, public policy, nothing. If you have a family member die, in order to collect the insurance, you’ve got to have a death certificate. That is regulated, that is a public policy that created that process, to be able to collect social security when you retire, that’s a public policy process. To be able to actually get your employer to pay you minimum wage or whatever, the agreed upon contract, that’s a public policy issue. To make sure that you are not discriminated against or to be able to bring a lawsuit to those who have discriminated against your business, that comes from public policy. My point being everything around you is regulated from your lights, to your utilities, to the gas you put in your car. Everything is actually regulated.

And so my philosophy is real simple. If there is anything that is going to impact me and those that I love, I need to be a part of that process. I’m the first to tell you that I don’t think that voting is the end all, going to be all. I’m the first to tell you that I don’t think that voting’s going to solve every problem we have. What I do know is I do know that not voting can put people in place, make an impact collectively, where we vote as a voting block and put people in office that, if no other reason, to reduce, to stop, or to slow down the harm happening to your communities.

You don’t get everything you want and a bag of chips, at the very least, we also have to employ what I think is a harm reduction strategy, and I also think it’s a strategy to send a strong message when people are operating against your community, that when people operate against your community, you have to use that power as a voting block to move them out the way. They’ve got to go. That there has to be consequences when people are not being accountable to community or they’re doing that are harmful to our communities.

RBS: In every episode, we’re asking our guests to give a call to action to our listeners. So what resource do you think people listening to this podcast should absolutely check out or contribute to?

LaTosha Brown: My call to action is please come join us and join our movement, blackvotersmatterfund.org. You can go to our website, blackvotersmatterfund.org. We have campaigns throughout the year. We’re getting ready to launch a big campaign for 2024, and we need volunteers. If you can contribute $5 or resources, you could buy cool t-shirts, because we got cool t-shirts and cool swag, or come and roll with us. We have the Blackest Bus in America that we ride around throughout the country, spreading love and building power. And so there are three quick things I would say. Please join us and support our work and our movement, you can go to our website, you can go to our social media, you can follow me on social media, Ms. LaTosha Brown, M-S-L-A-T-O-S-H-A Brown, and really be able to lift up this work, because it makes a difference when we’re able to lift up this work.

The second thing is find a political home. If you do not have a political home, you need a political home, whatever organization that is. It can be the ACLU, it can be a civic group, it could be a local group. But unfortunately, right now, I meet too many people that, when I’m talking to them, they sound like only the CNN or the Fox headlines because they’re getting all their political ideology in their political position from mainstream media, who has a different kind of interest necessarily than you, may have a different interest than you. And so I think it’s really important that you put yourselves in this era, with what we’re experiencing with the political division, with the just extreme racism and the polarization that is happening, it is really important that you join or you become a part of some organization that can help feed you information to help shape your political ideology from a place that aligns with your values.

The third thing that I’ll say is real simple. I’m going to need you to vote. I deputize you a voting ambassador. You should see yourself as responsible of at least five other people, of getting them to vote, whether that’s getting them registered or just simply making sure that you call and you get them to vote when an election is coming up, that we have to really see that we are our own communications and information networks, and we can’t just depend on the media, which has a different kind of incentive of what information they’re giving us. And so that would be my call to action. It is time to work. Let’s get in. We got to fight, we got to fight back.

And what gives me hope is that we’re at this period that I really believe that part of the political tension that we’re experiencing, part of the attacks that we’re experiencing is because we’re winning. That what you’re seeing right now, you are starting to see a more representative and reflective democracy. You’re seeing more women in Congress that have ever been in Congress before. You’re starting to see people of color be in public office. You’re starting to see younger people actually go to Congress at every level of government. We have an America that is younger, that’s more diverse, that’s actually more progressive. And there are people in this nation that are afraid of that and doing everything they can to try to suppress that. And so I would just say rise up, mighty people, rise up.

RM: Thank you so, so much.

LaTosha Brown: Thank you.

RM: I knew LaTosha was an amazing singer, so I was hoping she’d sing, and when she did right out of the gate, I was just so excited.

RBS: Yeah, she is just amazing. Her voice is angelic. She’s truly an amazing organizing force when it comes to getting people out to vote. And so I’m so glad that we were able to have her on the podcast today.

RM: Yeah. And I really liked what she had to say about how we always need power and how it’s not enough to just be reacting to all of the bad policies coming from the right. We really do need to be actively organizing even when it’s not an emergency. Anyway, I think it’s time to move on to our last segment, There are Other Books. Renee, do you want to introduce this segment?

RBS: So There are Other Books is our segment where we take some time to talk about another book, any, any, any other book that includes an abortion but is not The Handmaid’s Tale, because we’re really tired of hearing about The Handmaid’s Tale, and also there isn’t an abortion in it, so we want to talk about books that have abortions and protagonists of color, too. So what’s our choice this week, Regina?

RM: We are talking about Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez, which was published in 2022.

RBS: I love this book.

RM: The book mentions abortion a couple of times, and while only briefly, you and I have talked about how it’s just incredibly impactful, but we wanted to talk about it in the context of gerrymandering in particular, because the book really impacts the colonization of Puerto Rico, and how it’s rooted in capitalism, and also the way Puerto Ricans are fighting back against these systems of oppression. So the main character of the book, Olga, she’s a 40-something wedding planner with ultra-wealthy clients. Her brother Prieto is an elected official, first a city councilman, then a congressman. They’re the children of parents who met as organizers with the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican revolutionary group in New York similar to the Black Panthers.

Their father died from AIDS. Their mother left them at a young age with their aunt to play a major role in the revolution in Puerto Rico. And so there’s a lot of parenting themes and dynamics that are happening in the book. But the abortion comes up when Olga mentions supporting her brother, who’s going through his own reproductive healthcare crisis, and she mentions how she just wants to be there for him in the same way that he was there for her and her abortion. And I really love that community care aspect of it, again, because it was such a small part of the book, but it had such an impact, I think, for people to see there are ways you can show up for people who have abortions, and that’s one of them. What did you think of the book overall, Renee?

RBS: I really loved this book. I could not put it down once I started reading it. I learned so much about how Congress today and in decades prior has really had a control on Puerto Rico, and how them not being able to have a clear representation in Congress, and clear voting rights, and all of that in the continental US because their colonization status impacts their ability to rebuild, but also to have a free Puerto Rico. Do you want to talk a little bit about that from the book?

RM: Yeah, so those issues are really explored in the context of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island. And because of the way the United States others Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans, the response to the disaster wasn’t like it is or can be in other states when disasters strike. Puerto Ricans, also, as you mentioned, don’t have full representation in Congress, despite being citizens, and that is another form of voter suppression, right?

RBS: Yeah. I truly came away from this book just loving the story of what Olga went through and just how disaster capitalism, and white supremacy, and voter suppression and colonization are all interlocked in one, and the author just does such a great job.

RM: Yeah, disaster capitalism happens all of the time. It’s often when, for example, what we saw during COVID, corporations are raising the cost of basic services, things like fuel, housing, and they’re also seeing record profits. So it’s not like they have to do those things, but they’re doing it because people are vulnerable and they’re taking advantage of them. It’s disgusting. And the author, Xochitl Gonzalez does such an incredible job of just weaving all of these threads together in a book that is not Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and includes an abortion.

RBS: It is not. One thing just for readers to note, just a trigger warning, there is a rape scene and a discussion of rape towards the end of the book. Personally, I don’t think it was actually necessary, and I know a couple of my friends didn’t think either, but just so folks know that that is in the book. But otherwise, it is a fantastic book and we hope everyone reads it. Well. that’s it for this week’s podcast.

RM: Our next episode will be the last one of the series.

RBS: Boo.

RM: Time flies when you remote record a podcast with your friend.

RBS: As always, links to any articles or books you mentioned today will be in the show notes and on our website at wearethemeteor.com/theafiles.

RM: Thanks for listening.

RBS: Say, “Abortion.”

RM: Vote. Bye.

RBS: The A Files is produced for The Meteor by LWC Studios. Our hosts are me, Renee Bracey Sherman, and Regina Mahone. Our executive producers at The Meteor are me, Renee Bracey Sherman, and Regina Mahone, Cindi Leive, and Tara Abrahams. At LWC Studios, our executive producer is Juleyka Lantigua, Paulina Velasco is our managing producer, and our producer is Anne Lim. Kojin Tashiro is our sound designer and engineer.

RM: This podcast is produced with support from The Meteor Fund, The Meteor’s non-profit initiative. Additional thanks to Pop Culture Collaborative for their support. You can subscribe to The A Files wherever you get your podcasts. And please take a second to rate us five stars, please, and leave us a review. It would mean a lot.

RBS: For links to any resources mentioned in this episode or for more information, visit our website at WeAreTheMeteor.com/theafiles. You can follow us on social media, @rbraceysherman on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter and @reneebraceysherman on Instagram for me. For Regina, she’s @byreginamahone on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter and Instagram. And you can follow The Meteor, @themeteor on all platforms. Thanks for listening. Thanks for saying the word abortion. And remember, everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion.

CITATION:

Bracey Sherman, Renee, and Mahone, Regina, host. “Voting Rights, Gerrymandering, and Fixing Our Politics .” The A Files, The Meteor and Lantigua Williams & Co., February 14, 2024. Themeteor.com/theafiles

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE A FILES

The A Files - Episode 6

EPISODE 6 – PRO-CHOICE, BUT NOT PRO-EVERYBODY?

Who gets left out of the national conversation about abortion? Two key groups: people with disabilities, and trans people. In this episode, Renee and Regina get into why that is, and what it costs us. First, Kendall Ciesemier of the ACLU joins the conversation to talk about how the abortion debate has used disabled people as pawns; and then Cazembe Murphy Jackson of WeTestify highlights what the trans and repro rights movements really have in common. Plus, Renee and Regina talk about Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters in There Are Other Books! 

Renee Bracey Sherman: Hi everyone. It’s Renee here. Just a heads-up that this episode includes mentions of sexual assault. Please skip what you need to and take care.

Kendall Ciesemier: When abortion just suddenly doesn’t exist in the state of Texas or Ohio, that’s taking all of our energy. And I think that’s also intentional. We can’t have these bigger, broader conversations where we connect the dots and make people really understand these issues because we’re just spending all of our time playing whack-a-mole these days.

Regina  Mahone: Hello and welcome to The A Files, a secret history of abortion, a podcast from the Meteor. I’m Regina Mahone.

RBS: And I’m Renee Bracey Sherman. Regina and I are friends who talk about abortion.

RM: A lot. Today we want to talk about where the abortion rights movement really struggles with ableism and transphobia.

RBS: It’s complicated, but it’s also not that complicated. We just wanted to talk about these two issues in the same episode because when it comes down to it, reproductive justice, trans justice, and disability justice are all about the same fundamental thing, bodily autonomy.

RM: Yeah, people tend to make this seem more complicated than it really is, but what we’re talking about is centering the needs and experiences of those who are directly affected by the stigma and attacks on their bodily autonomy. By that, we mean let trans folks and disabled people tell you what they need and do that.

RBS: We have a lot to unpack here, so we’ve got some help. We’re talking to Kendall Ciesemier and Cazembe Murphy-Jackson about disability justice and trans justice. They are two really great writers and activists who have personally taught us both a lot, and I’m really excited for you to hear our conversation with them both.

RM: And before we get into the interviews, let’s quickly explain what we mean when we say the abortion rights movement struggles with ableism and transphobia. What does that look like, Renee?

RBS: Well I think the most obvious example of transphobia is when people are insisting on focusing on biological women when it comes to talking about abortion rights. I know, it’s so boring. And instead of saying people who have abortions, which is just a fact, because trans men and non-binary folks also have abortions, they insist on saying, “Women, women,” it’s boring.

RM: And then when you don’t say woman, they say it’s somehow erasing the important problems facing women, but no one who is saying people in place of women is seeking to take that experience away from them.

RBS: Yeah, this has been a conversation since I guess the beginning of time. These are the same white suffragette girlies who weren’t allowing Black suffragettes to march with them that Sojourner Truth was talking about in Ain’t I a Woman. They were always policing who gets to be called a woman. No one is literally ever saying that women don’t get abortions too. Good Lord, we know. So that’s just one example of transphobia in the movement. And when it comes to ableism, well, abortion and disability justice get pitted against each other all the time.

RM: Right, there’s actually this book, Dangerous Pregnancies by Leslie Reagan. So in Dangerous Pregnancies, Reagan looks at the German measles epidemic and its role in fueling ableism in this country and in our society, specifically the way children born with severe disabilities from the German measles should be treated. This case, they were taken away from their parents and institutionalized and this created a lot of stigma around having children with disabilities and how that’s navigated in such a shameful way in our society.

RBS: Yeah, it was this idea of whiteness and that what white women in particular deserved was a healthy baby, and so therefore abortion was there so that they could have their two and a half kids and white picket fence and all the things. But I actually still see this narrative today with some abortion rights organizations encouraging storytellers to talk about why they had abortions, particularly for health indications, focusing on fetal disabilities and the way in which this fetus wouldn’t have a life. I think it’s really, really painful for people who are living with those disabilities.

RM: So it comes from within the movement and outside the movement. The anti-abortion movement is always using disability to virtue signal and accuse abortion activists of doing eugenics.

RBS: Which it’s a really, really messy complicated history because unfortunately everyone was doing that around the turn of the century. But whatever, we’ll get into it. All of this is distractions from the shared goal of the disability trans and repro movements, which is simply bodily autonomy and the right to do what you want with your own body.

RM: So let’s get into our interviews with Kendall and Cazembe.

RBS: Hi Kendall. Welcome. Can you introduce yourself for all of our listeners?

Kendall Ciesemier: Yeah, so my name is Kendall Ciesemier. I use she/her pronouns. I’m a writer and producer and the host of a podcast by Ms. Magazine called United Bodies. It’s all about the lived experience of health.

RBS: I love it. So you and I have known each other for several years now, and I think you’re such a really smart and thoughtful activist. And in 2022, you wrote a really great op-ed for the New York Times condemning people who try to pit the disability justice and abortion justice movements against each other. For folks who haven’t read it yet, could you talk a little bit about how you feel about the way ableism is used to restrict abortion care?

Kendall Ciesemier: I wrote this op-ed because I specifically wanted to attack the anti-abortion movement and say, “Stop using me as a pawn. Stop using disabled people as pawns and your advocacy. You’re not holier than thou for trying to protect the lives of disabled fetuses. You can’t actually claim a moral high ground.” But at the same time, I also invoked the ways in which I think the pro-choice movement or the abortion rights movement can make me uncomfortable, which I think is in mostly talking about the intersection of disability and abortion as it pertains to fetal abnormalities and advocacy for abortion access in order to accommodate fetal abnormalities. Where I think the pro-choice slash abortion rights movement is missing, what we’re missing in this conversation, is disabled people who can get pregnant and why disabled people who can get pregnant deserve abortion access.

And it seems like we’re so focused on disabled fetuses and not focused on disabled people who can get pregnant, and that is really frustrating. As someone who’s squarely in my own reproductive window and pregnancy poses some level of extra or additional threat to my already existing health milieu, if you will. And so that’s why I wanted to write the piece to really just provide a, “Hey there, what we’re forgetting is talking about disabled people who can get pregnant,” and maybe we should center those folks when talking about the intersection of disability and abortion.

RM: So this has come up a lot on the podcast also in our book writing around this issue, particularly because as you pointed out, the pro-choice movement can often miss the fact that not only do disabled people need abortions, but also that they’re sexual human beings who deserve pleasure and deserve to experience the fullness of life. And so one of the things that stuck out to me from the article was when you talked about the additional systemic reproductive oppressions against people, actual people, not unborn life, actual people with disabilities. So can you just talk a bit more about that and just the way that all of these issues intersect?

Kendall Ciesemier: Yeah, so I think that bodily autonomy is a conversation that applies to disabled people in a way that we don’t often talk about. Both in the fact that disabled people have their own agency and should have their own autonomy and should be able to make choices for themselves, whether that’s sexual or otherwise. I think there’s that lens of it. And then there’s the fact that disabled people are three times more likely than their peers to be victims of sexual violence, and that is because of the way that people have access to our bodies, either out of necessity because we’re put in situations where we need extra support or accommodation or care from other people. So we’re made vulnerable by a lot of those circumstances. You can think about just people who have a lot of engagement with the medical system. I myself experienced child sexual abuse by a doctor when I was very, very young.

I was born with liver disease and I have had a whole lifetime of exposure to the medical system. There’s just an unfettered access, if you will, to our bodies I think in ways that that’s not a conversation that’s I think typically reflected in our dialogue about who’s at risk for getting pregnant through sexual violence or who’s at risk for needing access to abortion or just the complete backward moral about-face ways in which even, for example, Justice Brett Kavanaugh before overturning Roe V. Wade, he in 2007 affirmed the state’s ability to terminate pregnancies in two disabled women who did not want their pregnancies to be terminated. It completely doesn’t line up with logic. You can’t be on both sides of an issue unless you think that disabled people just don’t have lives that are their own and shouldn’t have agency of their own. And I think that’s something that we see reflected in a lot of both government decisions, but also just in dialogue amongst movement people and also just national dialogue about this issue. I think it’s an often overlooked topic.

RBS: We’ve been talking about the way our movement hasn’t shown up in addressing ableism and transphobia. How do you feel like repro activists could show up better for disability justice? How would you like to see people talk about that intersection and what else is there?

Kendall Ciesemier: That’s a great question. I think that people in the pro-choice movement should, I think center disabled voices, disabled pregnant people, because what gets lost in all of the fetal abnormalities conversation is just the fact that disabled people have children, and that is a whole issue. The fact that people don’t see disabled people as people who can be parents because we infantilize disabled people. And also we say that it’s important healthcare, abortion is healthcare, right? That’s very common, but it’s especially healthcare for disabled people because in so many people’s lives, a pregnancy can really, really threaten their life and in ways that are even predictable, whether they take medication that complicates the pregnancy or what have you. And so I think it’s just really about more inclusive abortion stories, and I think you do a great job with that Renee, but I don’t think that that’s always reflected more broadly across the movement.

And so I think just broadening the conversation and really explicitly making those connection points between the trans-bans, gender-affirming care for trans people, and abortion access, we’re talking about the same issue. The states that have banned abortion are the states that have banned gender-affirming care. I think we just need to dig a little deeper, and I think that’s hard, a hard ask sometimes when the emergency light is on, when abortion just suddenly doesn’t exist in the state of Texas or Ohio or we’ve got a ban in South Carolina. That’s taking all of our energy, and I think that’s also intentional, right? We can’t have these bigger, broader conversations where we connect the dots and make people really understand these issues because we’re just spending all of our time playing whack-a-mole these days, which is why we should have had the conversation a long time ago. But now that we’re here, I just think it takes more interesting reporting.

It takes more thorough examination. It takes more time, more energy, and more discussion. Abortion isn’t just a topic that you give just the factual updates every day about how XYZ state has done XYZ thing. I just think that we can be a little bit more sophisticated in how we approach these topics and really break it down for people. I think a lot of publications and journalists think that abortion journalism is just about the politics of it all when the actual lived experience of human beings is so divorced from the politics of it all. It’s so divorced from what XYZ person said yesterday in a press conference. I think we spend too much time on the gamification of it all and less time talking about just the lived experience and all the ways that these things tie into our lives.

RBS: You talked a bit about the way in which disabled people are desexualized or infantilized and aren’t centered when it comes to reproductive and pregnancy support. What do you think it will take for people with disabilities to have full bodily autonomy and actually, what do you think full reproductive justice for disabled people actually looks like?

Kendall Ciesemier: It’s a great question. Actually, I’m a little bit skeptical that we’re even there yet Renee, that we can even really have that conversation because I think we just have a disability 101 problem to be honest. If people can’t use public transportation and they can’t use the bathroom on airplanes and then they’re on airplanes and their wheelchair breaks because the people don’t care about them. If we can’t get access to affordable healthcare and we go bankrupt, and I think Medicare for all would be nice, just healthcare access period, that would help everyone. But I don’t know if we’re even at the next level of that conversation yet where we can be like, “Okay, what does that look like specifically around abortion or reproductive access?” It’s like gosh, I just want people to be able to take their medicine in the morning or get a job that pays them.

I feel like it’s so far away from being something where we can even talk about the specificity of reproductive healthcare, but I think realizing that disabled people have sex is a really good start on the reproductive side. And then it’s like, “Okay, there’s just morbid curiosity about how people have sex,” and I feel like that’s something that people and disabled people share in a lot of ways. I just also feel like a lot of times this education isn’t extended to disabled people. I have always been living in disability. And so being an adolescent, there’s no guide, there’s no conversation. It feels like there’s just no one telling people how to have sex or if you can have sex or what kinds of even contraceptives you can use and what you can’t use. I actually do think a lot of this stems from ableism within medicine and the assumptions that doctors make about disabled people.

And so if you don’t know about some of these issues, it’s just even starting to learn about them and starting to engage in these conversations and realize that it’s really not that far from you. One of the things I always say to people is like, “Oh, you really enjoy work from home, don’t you?” Or, “Oh, you really like a mental healthcare day or to get time off work for therapy or something,” because everyone in New York City’s in therapy. So that’s something that people can really understand.

RBS: If they can afford it.

Kendall Ciesemier: If they can afford it, for sure. But these things, therapy has become very culturally, in a good way, so happy for it, but I’m always thinking like, “Okay, if this is something that you have access to and this is something your job is letting you have time to do or whatever, these wins, these victories if you ever had an accommodation at work, whether that was for pregnancy or for childcare or literally any of these things, a lot of these wins were paid for by disabled people who literally put their bodies in harm’s way to get some of these victories.”

The ADA, what’s so cool is the Pregnancy Workers Fairness Act that just passed, that took forever to pass, it was actually modeled off the Americans with Disabilities Act. These things aren’t so far from us. Even if it doesn’t seem like disability is in your life, I think is really closer than you think. So I think that’s some of the just origins that we need to start with. I just think there’s so much to be done, so it’s hard to give a step one, step two, step three.

RBS: Well thank you so much for joining us, Kendall. I really love Kendall and I’m so glad she could join us to give a little disability and repro justice 101. Next up, we’re talking to Cazembe Murphy-Jackson, who I also really love. He’s a trans activist and abortion storyteller with We Testify and he’s truly wonderful to talk about repro issues with. But first, let’s take a quick break.

RM: So we like to start these conversations just asking our guests, if you wouldn’t mind introducing yourself and also explaining a little bit about what brought you to abortion rights and reproductive justice organizing

Cazembe Jackson: I’m Cazembe Jackson. I use He/Him pronouns, and I’d say I’m a southern Black queer trans man, and I think initially what brought me to abortion storytelling and reproductive justice is a group called Sister Song in Atlanta, Georgia. I know it’s been mostly southern Black women that have really held me and kept me in this and sustained me.

RBS: You and I have known each other for such a long time, and I truly love learning from you and your work as a Black trans southern organizer, disabled person, and socialist. Can you talk about how all of your identities and political beliefs are connected to reproductive justice and abortion access?

Cazembe Jackson: I think that it’s connected in so many ways. The rise of attacks on queer and trans people, whether it’s through vigilantes or through the court, but I think it’s connected to abortion access because the same thing is happening. The Supreme Court took away abortion access and then just about a year later ruled that business owners could deny queer people their services based on their religion, which is I think a first step in taking away rights from queer and trans people. We have to be fighting for the liberation of all oppressed people because yeah, people who get abortions, that’s everybody. That means it’s all kinds of folks from all kinds of walks of life, different classes, different genders, even different races that have to come together around our issues in order for us to achieve abortion access and reproductive justice. I believe in collective liberation.

RBS: To me, and I think all of us, it’s so simple that abortion access and trans liberation are connected because they’re both rooted in bodily autonomy and liberation, but not everyone understands that. And so I think generally, what do you think people miss when it comes to that intersection of reproductive rights and trans justice?

Cazembe Jackson: I don’t know if people are missing it out of ignorance, I think people are missing it on purpose. When folks are talking about the fact that there are men getting abortions or non-binary people who have abortions that don’t identify as women, it is made to seem like we’re trying to erase the fact that a lot of women do get abortions, which is not true. I just want to be included in it. I think it’s on purpose because the people who do get that they’re connected, it’s such a simple connection that folks are making every day. And a lot of the reproductive justice organizations, particularly in the South, are very welcoming of trans people and want to include trans identities and non-binary folks in the conversation about reproductive justice. Folks are understanding that it’s an intersectional fight.

RM: I see these as distractions rooted in white supremacy. So we’re going to talk just a little bit more about it because earlier on our podcast, we were talking about how it’s really important not to disconnect the transphobia we see in the mainstream reproductive rights movement with the transphobia and anti-LGBTQ violence and harassment we see in broader society. And it’s just another reminder about how it’s not just the folks on the right attacking trans folks, and even as simple as the way in which trans folks interact in the healthcare system at doctor’s offices, they can’t seem to get patient-centered care right.

Cazembe Jackson: Yeah, I think the medical industry is one that’s definitely racist and a lot of the time transphobic. And so as a Black trans person, it’s like yeah, I don’t know what patient-centered care feels like, but I know what it would look like. I think patient-centered care starts with education and folks really being willing to learn to do something different then what always has been done. Just asking people what their pronouns are and what their name is that they want to be called can make them feel like there’s been a container created for folks like me. So it lets me know I’m welcome in the space and that it’s going to be a safe experience for me.

I think when I’m thinking about patient-centered abortion access, I’m definitely asking folks what their body parts are called as you examine them. I think a lot of folks that refuse to ask pronouns or about different words about body parts and stuff like that are refusing to recognize that trans people exist, like they know us and our bodies better than we do. And that reminds me of a book actually that Bell Hooks wrote called Ain’t I a Woman. And it really just makes me think of being Black and gender being so connected anyway because Black women were never really supposed to be able to fit into this mold of what it meant to be a part of womanhood. And so I think it’s directly connected.

RBS: So one thing that really frustrates me, and I know you and I have talked about this before, is just the conversation around trans race and repro seems to center around how trans people have abortions and just focusing on their presence or phrases like it’s not just women who have abortions, which to me feels like it sort of defeats the purpose because it’s still erasing and not actually centering trans people. They’re literally not mentioned in this race that is about trans folks having abortions.

But overall, simply acknowledging that trans people exist and have abortions feels like the bare minimum at this point. And when you joined We Testify, you and I had this really deep conversation about what it means to have trans people on We Testify. And I remember you were so surprised that you weren’t an only, but trans people and non-binary folks in repro is still few and far between. How can we actually create really thoughtful trans-inclusive spaces and not just asking pronouns? I think if the rest of the space doesn’t feel centering of trans people, to me it seems like what’s the point? What are your thoughts on that?

Cazembe Jackson: One way to make a more trans-inclusive space is to have more trans people in the space, but I would also say when we talk about making the space inclusive for trans and non-binary people, also just don’t be weird. Don’t be asking people random questions and all of that. Trans people are people. That’s the second part of it – is that we’re people, and so talk to us because just like every other group is not a monolith, I think it’s the same for trans people, and so different trans people will want different things. And even the trans person that you’re talking about where I wasn’t the only person, that person, even though we have so much in common, is totally different than me, totally different and even talks about their abortion in a different way, talks about their experiences as a non-binary person and trans person in a very different way than I do.

And both of our stories are valid and necessary and needed in these abortion access spaces. But I think back to your original question about what can we do to be more inclusive past the formalities, if we’re thinking along the lines of collective liberation, they say if you can’t feel the fire from your ally’s fight that you’re not close enough, so you got to get closer so I can actually help you put the fire out. I’ve got to be close enough for the water to reach. And when I think about Black women, the fight of Black women is my fight. In the world outside of my bubble, people see me as a masculine Black woman. So if Black women are under attack, so am I. That’s my fight. And I think it’s the same thing for trans people. One, because you never know if you’re going to end up trans. It’s a progression and a journey, number one. And two, if you never identify as trans, it’s still your fight because they’re going to come for you and the identities that you hold one way or another.

RM: The right is waging this very real fight against trans people, and the tactics they’re using are extensions of what they’ve been using to ban abortion, but also what they’ve been using to defund resources for people with disabilities. And so we just would love to hear you talk more about what you think the response should be from organizers who aren’t already fighting for trans rights and disability justice, and also from Democrats in office, right?

Cazembe Jackson: Yeah, the Democrats in office are embarrassing.

RM: To put it simply, yes.

Cazembe Jackson: To put it simply, and this is not what we elected you to do for the most part, so do better. But yeah, I think what organizers should be doing or talking about, I’m a trainer and really believe in political education as the backbone of movement-building behavior. There’s mad books on queer and trans folks, mad books on abortion access, reproductive justice. Organizers need to be getting familiar with what has gone down because I think history is cyclical. And so if we’re familiar with what has happened and what people have done to fight it, I think it makes us more prepared to be able to understand the issue and fight it. And I think if we can zoom out and see more than just this moment, but see what became before this moment, then we can actually start to envision what can happen in the future.

Also, one of my other organizations that I’m a member of, Southerners on New Ground, part of the slogans they say is that you have to be willing to be transformed in the service of the work. That could mean a whole lot of things, but to me, I think it means if you started organizing around reproductive justice 10 years ago, you shouldn’t be on the same stuff anyway. You should have transformed by now and be willing to learn new things and to do new things. I’m not the same person I was when I first came to We Testify, and I think that’s what has to happen because doing the same things with the same people and the same thinking is not going to bring us new results.

RBS: Something you’ve talked about so brilliantly is the difference between wealthier white folks asking for insurance to cover IVF, IUI, and whatever other reproductive assistive technologies that they might need to become pregnant or build families, but a whole bunch of Black and brown people don’t even have insurance or the money to afford those services. Why is it bullshit that if people are sitting here asking for insurance to cover all these reproductive technologies, but people don’t even actually have insurance, living wages, all of those things?

Cazembe Jackson: I feel like that’s a loaded question. It’s heavy because there’s a lot of people who want to make families, and it definitely is harder. I think in my opinion, it’s harder for queer and trans people and disabled people, and it really to me does boil down to bodily autonomy and self-determination for all of those groups of folks. I think when we talk about how many folks don’t have insurance or a way to get fertilization treatment and all of that, Black and brown people are creative and queer people too. I don’t know how long it has been, but definitely, in the time that I’ve been queer in the last 30 years, I have definitely seen us be creative, lesbians partnering with men to have babies, and I mean trans men and trans women being in relationships.

I don’t think that it’s just to get pregnant and have babies. Obviously, trans people are hot and they fall in love with each other, so that happens. But also it’s a creative way to beat back at the system to be able to make our own families when that’s what we want. But I think the contradiction of white people with insurance, Black and brown people without insurance wanting the same things is another symptom of capitalism because capitalism says somebody’s got to be at the bottom being withheld their rights and resources in order for the system to work.

RM: You’ve offered some really great call to actions already, but in every episode we do directly also ask folks to give a call to action to our listeners. Is there a resource you think people listening to this podcast should absolutely check out or contribute to?

Cazembe Jackson: When I’m thinking about call to action, I’m like donate to your local abortion fund and check out a training on how to become an abortion doula. Go volunteer. Drive somebody to an abortion or hang out with them afterwards. It’s so many different ways that folks can be involved that doesn’t have to be telling your story, but also tell your story. Because the more of us that are telling our stories about our abortions, the more normalized it becomes and it helps to remove the stigma that so many people place around abortion.

RBS: I love that. So thank you so much for joining our podcast. It’s so good to chat with you. And now it’s time for our segment. There are other books where we go where no person has ever gone before in exploring a book related to abortion that is not the Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a hard task, but someone has to do it and we’re up for it.

RM: We have to do it.

RBS: We’ll do it. Today we are talking about Detransition Baby by Tori Peters. And before we started recording Regina, you were just telling me that you just finished reading it.

RM: Yes, like last night, like a minute before I went to sleep. I really enjoyed this book, but it took me forever because there’s so much sex in the book. I normally listen to books while I’m driving around town with my three-year-old. I started listening to this book without realizing it is very much an adult book, so I had to keep stopping it and only listening to it when I was alone. But there is so much here to unpack. But first, Renee, can you tell the people what the book is about?

RBS: Detransition Baby is the debut novel and national bestseller by Tori Peters. It is one of the few bestselling books by a trans writer. The book centers on three characters. Ames, a white person who recently detransitioned from a trans woman. Reese, Ames’ white ex-girlfriend, who is also trans. And Katrina, a biracial Asian cis woman and Ames’ boss who Ames has an office affair with that turns into something a bit more complicated when Katrina realizes she is pregnant. When Ames and Reese were together, they wanted to have a child together, but they broke up in the past. And so as Ames is deciding about his parenting role with Katrina, he explains that he does want a parent, but he also wants to do it with Reese as well.

So they’re trying to figure out whether this triad of people can be parents together as Katrina and Reese are just meeting each other. To me, the story was so beautiful because it’s really about choosing family and the entire book centers on trans identity, womanhood, and a pregnancy decision, and whether these three people want to parent this child together or whether they should all go their separate ways. It’s so beautiful in thinking about quote unquote choice as a concept and people and the families that we choose.

RM: Yeah, and one of the most powerful aspects of the book for me was how the pregnancy brings up questions about identity for all of the characters. We don’t get that often because there’s so much emphasis put on the pregnancy and not necessarily the impact of the pregnancy and the life of the child being born and how that’s going to shift how a person even understands themselves and how they interact with the world. And so I just really appreciated how the book explores this in particular, through the lens of trans and queer folks, which we don’t get often.

RBS: I also just really loved the exploration of womanhood throughout the book in all of its forms, everyone’s experiences with it. It was really great. So there we go. There are other books.

RM: There are other books written by trans people too.

RBS: Written by trans people with abortion in it. Love it.

RM: Well thank you again for joining us for another episode of The A Files. That’s it for our episode today. For links to any of the articles and books we’ve mentioned, you can visit our website at wearethemeteor.com/theafiles.

RBS: See y’all next time. The A Files is produced for the Meteor by LWC Studios. Our hosts are me, Renee Bracey Sherman, and Regina Mahone. Our executive producers at the Meteor are me, Renee Bracey Sherman, and Regina Mahone, Cindi Leive, and Tara Abrahams. At LWC Studios, our executive producer is Juleyka Lantigua. Paulina Velasco is our managing producer, and our producer is Anne Lim. Kojin Tashiro is our sound designer and engineer.

RM: This podcast is produced with support from the Meteor Fund, the Meteor’s non-Profit Initiative. Additional thanks to Pop Culture Collaborative for their support. You can subscribe to The A Files wherever you get your podcasts. And please take a second to rate us. Five stars please. And leave us a review, it would mean a lot.

RBS: For links to any resources mentioned in this episode or for more information, visit our website at wearethemeteor.com/theafiles. You can follow us on social media @RBraceySherman on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter and @ReneeBraceySherman on Instagram for me. For Regina, she’s @byReginaMahone on the social media platform, formerly known as Twitter and Instagram, and you can follow the Meteor, @TheMeteor on all platforms. Thanks for listening. Thanks for saying the word abortion. And remember, everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion.

CITATION:

Bracey Sherman, Renee, and Mahone, Regina, host. “We’re Past “Safe, Legal, and Rare.” The A Files, The Meteor and Lantigua Williams & Co., February 14, 2024. Themeteor.com/theafiles

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The A Files - Episode 5

EPISODE 5 – THE OTHER A WORD: ADOPTION

Is adoption really the “solution” to unwanted pregnancies that anti-abortion and some pro-choice advocates say it is? (Spoiler: nope!) In this eye-opening episode, Dr. Gretchen Sisson joins Renee and Regina to explain the real relationship between adoption and abortion, and why we should put children and pregnant people, and not solely the needs of adoptive parents, first. She also joins Renee and Regina for a There Are Other Books segment on Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. 

Regina Mahone: Today on The A Files, we’re talking about another A-word.

Renee Bracey Sherman: The scarlet A, adultery.

RM: No.

RBS: Apples.

RM: Not that one.

RBS: Adolescents, aardvarks, antelopes?

RM: I guess-

RBS: Avocados?

RM: … you’re getting warmer but colder at the same time. We’re talking about adoption, but those are all good topics for season two.

RBS: Great. Let’s do it. Adorption.

RM: Adorption.

Hello and welcome to The A Files, A Secret History of Abortion, a podcast from The Meteor. I’m Regina Mahone.

RBS: And I’m Renee Bracey Sherman. Regina and I are friends who talk about abortion a lot.

RM: Today on the podcast, we’re talking about adoption and what it has to do with abortion and the reproductive justice movement. We’re speaking with Dr. Gretchen Sisson about her research on abortion and adoption and her book, Relinquished.

RBS: And then we have a very special There Are Other Books in which we discuss the book and television series Little Fires Everywhere. See, a book can be a TV show sometimes. Let’s get into it.

RM: Okay, so in our Abortion Sigma episode, we broke down the concept of pro-life and how it changed the meaning of abortion and how in society we think about abortion. It became less about this medical care and more about, “Oh, if I have an abortion, that means I’m against life,” which is a fallacy, of course, and in convincing many of us that abortion is against life, the anti-abortion movement has made it easier for us to see adoption as the rightful alternative to abortion. If you don’t want to “Kill your embryo or fetus,” then you should do your godly duty of giving your child up for adoption. But the logic of this is illogical, right, Renee?

RBS: So it’s so illogical. Okay, think of it this way. Imagine a logic model, right? Those arrows, and you have the binary decisions, yes, no. And you sort of take it as a maze, right? At the beginning, you are pregnant. The question is, do you want to be pregnant? And maybe is it safe for you to be, is it healthy for you to be pregnant? Your options there are, yes, I do want to be pregnant, or no, I don’t want to be pregnant. And if the answer is no, I don’t want to be pregnant, then you end the pregnancy. You terminate, you have an abortion, right? But if the answer is yes, I still do want to be pregnant, then you start to think, “Do I want to parent this child?” Yes or no? And if the answer is yes, then you give birth and you parent the child.

If the answer is no, then you can start to think, “Do I want to pursue relinquishment through adoption?” Right? Then there, yes or no? And if it’s yes, then you could do a non-kinship relinquishment, meaning the child goes to strangers, people that maybe you choose, maybe you don’t, I don’t know, depending on the place that you go to, but it is legally binding, and then you are no longer legally their parent. If the answer is no, that you don’t want to pursue relinquishment through adoption, you could do a kinship adoption with a family member. It’s either informal and they just care for your child, or sometimes it’s legally binding. It can be all of these things. And, of course, this is what reproductive justice is about, because there’s not actually just this simple logic model. What’s on top of that logic model is how much money you have, where you live, what your race is, who you live with, if you even have support for parenting, all of these things.

So it’s not as simple as a yes or no, but I think it’s important to break down the logic model to help understand people’s decision-making. And at the end of the day, it’s either if you want to be pregnant, you then parent or you can place for adoption. If you don’t want to be pregnant, it’s abortion. You don’t sit here and say, “Well, I’m pregnant.  It’s either between abortion or adoption,”  as the anti-abortion movement wants you to think. The only solution for terminating a pregnancy is abortion. The anti-abortion movement has worked really hard to make you think that this logic model doesn’t exist and make you think that decision-making looks different.

RM: In spite of this very logical decision-making process, anti-abortion activists continue to push the idea that adoption can solve the need for abortions, and they aren’t the only ones. Pro-choice folks like President Obama have-

RBS: No.

RM: … suggested it’s the perfect alternative to abortion. Here, let’s play that clip.

President Obama: So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions. Let’s reduce unintended pregnancies. Let’s make adoption more available.

RM: That sounds nice, but in practice, that’s not at all how it works.

RBS: I’m actually really glad that we’re talking about this because adoption is this issue that is just thrown out there as a solution to everyone’s unexpected pregnancy problems. It’s glorified as this perfect thing, but when you talk to people who’ve actually been adopted or those who have been adopted, it’s not at all what the anti-abortion movement and some pro-choice people like Barry make it out to be. It’s really, really complicated. My youngest brother is adopted, and a lot of people in my family are adopted through relinquishment or stepparent adoptions, transracial, international adoptions, et cetera. And I might add, they’re all supportive of abortion. Okay, so adoption is a really broad term for a lot of things. So to clarify, let’s talk about the difference between adoption versus foster care, for example.

RM: So many people confuse both of those terms, right?

RBS: Oh my gosh, constantly. So foster care is when a child has not yet been adopted. They may have been removed from a home for a number of different reasons. The state may have taken them, right? And decision-making by the foster parents who are taking care of them is shared by the agency and perhaps the birth parents, and the state. It really depends. The foster parents receive money to care for that child while they’re in their custody. Adoption is where a birth parent or first parent relinquishes their child, and therefore adoptive parents have the legal rights and responsibilities for the child. There’s a lot of narratives that we have been told about adoption, things that I’ve heard or that you don’t want to adopt because those babies are undesirable or something went wrong with them. They’re inheriting the problems of the birth parents. There’s bad genetics, right?

RM: The “Crack babies.”

RBS: Right. All of these narratives that are out there that are actually really racist and really classist because, if you look at who generally is the adoptive family background, they tend to be white, wealthier, or upper middle class. So there is this idea that there’s something wrong with these children, that they’re like damaged goods, which is a really fucked-up narrative for then a child to go into a home where people are thinking that they’re going to be the savior for that child, right? The stories of adoptees are starting to come out, and so they’re talking about what adoption looks like from it being really difficult to be a child of color, adopted by white parents, or move to a completely different country. All of that, right?

And just to be clear for this episode, we are focusing this conversation and interview on the experiences of birth parents who relinquish their children rather than adoptees because it’s an underexplored topic and it’s a moment in which adoption is pitted against abortion as the false solution, and it’s being pushed on pregnant folks. But adoptees are starting to talk really frankly about their own experiences more and more these days. And I really encourage all of you to go listen to what they have to say.

RM: And so, before we get to our interview with Dr. Sisson, we want to correct the record on these different ideas about adoption. Since what the anti-abortion movement says about adoption doesn’t really reflect people’s actual experiences. One of the most high-profile and recent instances in which adoption came up in the context of abortion was during oral arguments in the Dobbs case. You may remember Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who is an adoptive parent…

RBS: Of Black children.

RM: Yes, of Black children, suggested during oral arguments that abortion wasn’t necessary because of safe haven laws. Let’s play that clip.

Justice Barrett: Both Roe and Casey emphasized the burdens of parenting. And insofar as you and many of your amici focus on the ways in which the forced parenting, forced motherhood would hinder women’s access to the workplace and to equal opportunities, it’s also focused on the consequences of parenting and the obligations of motherhood that flow from pregnancy. Why don’t the safe haven laws take care of that problem? 

RM: Okay, first, let’s explain safe haven laws. These state-based laws allow people who just gave birth the ability to relinquish their parental rights without being held criminally liable or prosecuted for dropping off their child in a safe location like a fire station or an ER so that the infant may be adopted or put into the foster care system. But here’s the thing with Justice Coney Barrett’s line of thinking: it completely ignores the physical and sometimes life-threatening effect of pregnancy on bodies, which, by the way, is just so much more dangerous than abortion.

RBS: I also think that we need to have a conversation about what are the actual numbers here. There are about 18,000 to 20,000 private domestic adoptions per year of infant relinquishment, but that’s compared to 800,000 to a million abortions each year in the United States. I am not a math genius, but those numbers are not the same. I believe they’re not even close. The reality is that hella people don’t want to be pregnant, so they’re going to need abortions, hella people to the tune of a million people. Anyway, I’m ranting.

RM: I’m glad you brought that up because it feels a bit like a tale to me. Anti-abortion folks know that more people would choose an abortion when facing an unintended pregnancy. So to entice more people to adopt or to relinquish their rights, the anti-abortion movement pushes policies that provide adoption benefits. Things like the adoption tax credit, which primarily benefits the adoptive parents, but can include some expenses for the birth mother too.

RBS: How kind.

RM: And if you hear tax credit and a bell goes off, me too. It was so painful for families when Republicans in Congress completely blocked the 2021 Expanded Child Tax Credit from continuing. I have to say this every time I mention the tax credit too, it lifted 2.9 million children out of poverty. I’m not even making those numbers up. That’s what happened. But instead of advocating for the continued expansion of those funds, anti-abortion folks are suggesting we increase the adoption tax credit, which benefits mostly white and affluent folks who are doing most of the adopting.

RBS: It just feels like if we gave money to parents to raise their own kids, they might be happier. But of course, we can’t do that in the US because we hate anything that makes parents’ lives easier. It’s weird because we have all of this money that we throw at everything except making sure parents can be parents. What else do we fund other than helping parents be parents?

RM: Crisis pregnancy centers.

RBS: No.

RM: No, but that’s it. They also want crisis pregnancy centers, which are known to lie and mislead pregnant people, to get more money for services like adoption counseling. People don’t want adoption counseling. They want abortions. In fact, I think that’s the whole shtick of the anti-abortion movement. If they can’t find a problem their solution solves, they create one, like the lie the anti-abortion movement pushes that anti-abortion bans protect the life of the pregnant person. They also want to protect faith-based adoption and foster care agencies. But many folks have reported on the abuses within these agencies, some of which have been caught stealing children or engaging in coercive adoption tactics. If you haven’t read Catherine  Joyce on this subject, add her books to your list. In particular, The Child Catchers.

RBS: Here’s the thing that feels hard to say or to talk about, but it’s actually really important to see adoption and foster care as connected to nothing but the legacy of slavery and stealing native children and putting them in boarding school. The idea at the root of all of these concepts is that there is a more superior race or religion who are better suited to have children from undesirable families and care for them. And transracial adoptions like this are also complicated, and many of the families taking in children from other cultures, races, and ethnicities are not equipped to adequately support their children’s born identities. And what often can happen is that their identities are ignored, and the child is forced to assimilate to this white evangelical lifestyle. It can cause real trauma on top of trauma of being taken away from your family.

Adoption and foster care, or the family policing system, as Professor Dorothy Roberts has coined it, is just another version of family separation that has existed as long as the United States has existed, right? We just sort of cleaned it up, and I mentioned the power dynamics. That is the most disturbing aspect of adoption as a system and the foster care systems more broadly. The intersections of race and class and these transactions are impossible to ignore. Poverty, which is created by white supremacy, colonialism, capitalism, et cetera, allows adoption and family separation to flourish simply because people are poor.

RM: So clearly, adoption is super problematic, right?

RBS: Well, yeah, as a system, adoption is super problematic, but there are becoming more situations in which adoption is better for everyone involved. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, but it’s complicated, and it takes a lot of work and thoughtfulness of everyone involved. And I just don’t think that people think about that when they hear adoption or go into it, or think about what it is. Actually, you know what? Let’s just get into it. Here’s our interview with Dr. Gretchen Sisson.

RM: Hello, Gretchen. Welcome. Thank you so much for being here.

Gretchen Sisson: Thanks for having me.

RM: Can you introduce yourself?

Gretchen Sisson: I’m Gretchen Sisson. I’m a sociologist at the University of California in San Francisco, where I study abortion and adoption in the United States, and I am the author of the new book, Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood.

RBS: We are so excited to talk to you about your book, Relinquished. So what in particular sparked your interest in the adoption angle of the abortion conversation?

Gretchen Sisson: So it really goes back to my time in Boston. I was working at an organization called the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy. And so I was working with these incredible young mothers. They were lobbying the Boston City Council, which at the time included now-Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, to change the pregnant parenting student policy at Boston Public Schools. And I was just so inspired and deeply impressed by the work that these young women were doing to advocate for themselves and their children, but at the same time, dismayed that they had to do all of this political work just to get the basic protections that they should have. 16 and Pregnant started airing on MTV, and there was this story in the first season about Catelynn and Tyler, who relinquished their daughter. And the particular through line of that first season of 16 and Pregnant was how mature, how self-sacrificing Catelynn and Tyler were, how they were in fact better parents than the young women who were raising their children by virtue of having given up their daughter for adoption.

And at this time, I had also recently read Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away, which is a tremendous account of adoption pre-Roe and the coercive maternity homes at that point. I was starting to look more seriously at adoption and really wanted to put these narratives together. As I mentioned, I was volunteering at the local abortion fund, and it was kind of these overlaps of volunteer academic professional work that I was doing where adoption was consistently the solution, the quote solution. So the solution to infertility is just to adopt, right? The solution to… not just young parenthood, but to any parenting and poverty really is like, oh, you should just relinquish your baby. The solution to abortion is, “Oh, we’ll just offer adoption as an alternative.”

And so there’s this recurring idea of if we just transfer these babies from these undeserving families to these more deserving families, and the more deserving families are almost always middle-class or heteronormative, usually white, and have a certain amount of social power that goes with that, then adoption is going to address all of these areas that we choose not to publicly invest in. And so that’s why I wanted to start looking at adoption more deeply.

RM: We talked about the way that media creates these false narratives around adoption, but the anti-abortion movement, one of the biggest players in terms of working really hard to spread the narrative that if someone wants an abortion, the more selfless thing they should do is have the baby place it for adoption. And you’ve written that most people considering adoption aren’t trying to decide between abortion and adoption. Can you explain what your research has found and why that myth persists?

Gretchen Sisson: Yeah, I think it persists first because the anti-abortion movement wants it to. It was always a political message of, “Oh, we’re not forcing parenthood on anybody.” You can pursue an adoption instead of having this abortion. But what we found is that women and pregnant people aren’t choosing between abortion and adoption. They’re first making a decision about whether or not they want to be pregnant. And most of the women I interviewed would get to a certain point in their pregnancy where that felt impossible. So maybe they were hoping their partner would come through more. Maybe they were hoping they would get that job. Maybe they were hoping their own parents would be able to offer more support or that they’d be able to find stable, affordable housing that would let them bring their baby home. Whatever one of those factors kind of falls apart at some point in their pregnancy and they’re facing this crisis, that’s really when they turned to adoption.

There were a number of women that I interviewed that did want to have an abortion, but they couldn’t get one for whatever reason, usually because they discovered that they were pregnant pretty late and they were past the gestational limit or they just couldn’t afford one, and they didn’t know where to go to get one. And I should say they’re the minority, right? They’re sort of the double minority in that most birth mothers who’ve relinquished didn’t want to have an abortion. And most people who want to have an abortion and they can’t have one, don’t choose adoption. And it makes sense, right? First, you’re going to make a decision about whether or not you want to continue the pregnancy, then you’re going to make a decision about who’s going to raise your child based on what you feel is possible for you.

RM: So for your research, you’ve talked to parents through hundreds of interviews who’ve relinquished their children for private adoption. What were some of the most common things that they told you about their experience?

Gretchen Sisson: I think that the financial constraint was really the biggest recurring theme, especially among mothers who’ve relinquished more recently. So my sample includes mothers who relinquished from 2000 to 2020 for some of the mothers in earlier adoption. In that 2000 to 2005 window, you see some of the themes that are actually really strong echoes of pre-Roe, right? They were from conservative families, evangelical families, where there was this high stigma around being an unmarried mother. There was a stigma around the fact that they’d had sexual relationships at all. They were really pushed by their parents to relinquish, and this was also their first pregnancy. They were moving towards adoption as a way of delaying parenthood. And so the pressures that police women pre-Roe applied if you are women now, but for those to whom they do apply, they were still very real. And then, for women who relinquished later, you weren’t seeing as much of that.

So really, these decisions were entirely, I cannot afford to have this baby. And for many of them, it wasn’t their first child. They were already parenting. This wasn’t a way of delaying parenthood. They just could not financially care for another child. And I think that poverty is really increasingly the primary contributing factor to why relinquishment occurs that were prior involvement with the child welfare or family policing systems. So you see a lot of women who have lost older children to foster care who are told this baby’s likely to be taken into foster care. But if you relinquish them through a private adoption, then you’re going to get to pick the parents. It might be an open adoption. You might have more contact, and particularly for women of color and very particularly for Black women who are disproportionately surveilled and policed by that system, this can be a really persuasive argument, or they’re worried that they can’t afford this baby and it’s going to jeopardize their ability to care for their other children, and they’ll put the custody of all of their children at risk.

So you see this sort of shift over the 20 years from it being about these conservative ideologies to being more and more about financial constraint. And I think that you see both of those factors across the board. I think they’re still relevant for everyone, but I do think that we’re at a historical moment where adoption is just increasingly defined as a response to poverty.

RM: We’re curious, as you’re working on the book and doing research for the book, were there things that surprised you about adoption?

Gretchen Sisson: I mean, I think that kind of what Renee got to earlier about this sort of bipartisan lack of scrutiny really for adoption in the systems that allow us to separate families and the ways that adoption is really aggressively marketed to a lot of pregnant people. Today, you have adoption agencies doing geofenced advertising for not just abortion clinics. So if you go to an abortion clinic, you’ll start getting ads on your phone for adoption agencies, but for methadone clinics, for drug treatment facilities, so that they’re really targeting pregnant people who are in really vulnerable places who might be having questions about their pregnancies and what they’re going to do and whether or not they want to parent and what that might look like. So many adoption agencies will buy Google keywords for single parenting in this state and need help. You’ll get an ad for an adoption agency, or “how do I enroll on WIC in Indiana”?

And they’ll get this ad for an adoption agency. And it’s hard to overstate if you are struggling to figure out a path forward for you and your future child and you want a parent, you feel bonded to your pregnancy, you want what’s best for this child, and you get sucked into this highly targeted advertising rabbit hole online and these profiles of adoptive families who have gorgeous homes and big backyards, and all the profiles talk about their, it’s very classed, these really safe neighborhoods, and how fantastic their local schools are, and how they go to the farmer’s market every Saturday morning. And if you are kind of alone in your pregnancy and your parents aren’t supporting you, your partner’s not there. Here are our wedding photos from 10 years ago. Here are our parents who are so excited to be grandparents, the mothers who told these stories to me. They get infatuated, they get starstruck by some of these profiles, and it really pulls them in.

And it’s not an accident that they come across these ads because there aren’t enough babies to meet the demand. There are far more families that want to adopt than there are infants available for adoption. And so they’re increasingly more and more aggressive in reaching out to pregnant people and making themselves really persuasive. And I think that was part of what surprised me in this work was not just seeing the impact of the advertising myself on my end, but hearing from mothers who felt often in a very lost or vulnerable place, hearing how much these ads in these profiles felt like a liferaft or something. And they’re not given adequate options counseling, right? They’re not given adequate rights protection, and they just cling to this, and this is the situation that they end up in.

RM: So to go back to a point you made earlier, adoption often occurs when birth parents don’t have the resources to support or raise a child they’d otherwise really want to. And it’s also used as a state control over who gets to parent children. At the same time, people on the left celebrate adoption as a progressive way to form families that aren’t strictly biological. And it’s a way that some people and people who are not able to carry a pregnancy to term create their families. Still, we’re wondering, “What would happen to adoption if the goals and values of reproductive justice were realized?”

Gretchen Sisson: So there’s two ways of thinking of this, and the first one is continually reminding ourselves that adoption is about finding homes for children and not finding babies for parents. That adoption is designed to meet the needs of children because I think that so much of how we understand adoption is about how they want to have a baby. They’re dealing with infertility, or you have this couple and they want to adopt, and they’d be great parents and they probably would, but adoption should never be about their desires and their wants. It should be about what a child needs. And when we say it’s about finding a family for a child rather than finding a child for a family, I would add, “What do we need to do to make the family that they’re born into safe and supported?” Because most of the time, that’s what those parents want.

This is where you get into the idea of adoption abolition, which of course borrows tremendously heavily from Black feminist thought, heavily on Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariame Kaba. And the idea of, if you say  “we don’t want to separate families”, what world do we need to create where families stay together? And I think that is a world that feels very progressive, very innovative. Nobody is saying adoption is unethical, so babies should stay in unsafe families. Nobody’s saying that. What we’re saying is, their parents shouldn’t be homeless in the first place. What we’re saying is, their parents should have safety and security in their own lives to parent the way that they want to.

What we’re saying is that people should have access to the abortions that they need, so that path is available to them if they don’t want to be parenting in the first place. And so I think this is why it ties so well into reproductive justice issues because it is about understanding and supporting the entire family to make adoption mostly unnecessary. I think we should view adoption as a failure of society to keep families together. And sometimes those failures are going to occur. And then we need to look at what does ethical practice looks like? What does it mean to keep a child in a community? All of those things. But what should come first is, what are the conditions needed to keep families together?

RM: Well, thank you so much, Gretchen. I feel like even being pretty familiar with a lot of these issues, the way that you’ve explained them to folks, I hope helps them to better understand why adoption is a lot more complicated than the justices on the Supreme Court, for example, suggested. So we really appreciate you joining us today. And now, I think, Renee, we’re going to switch to a new segment.

RBS: Okay. So, Gretchen, I hope you’ll stay with us for our next segment. Every episode we have a segment called There Are Other Books, where we boldly and bravely talk about an abortion novel, literally any abortion novel that isn’t The Handmaid’s Tale. And we usually do this after chatting with a guest, but we just had to do it with you this time around because you read a bananas amount of books faster than anyone I’ve ever known. So will you sit and chat with us for There are other books?

Gretchen Sisson: Yes.

RBS: Awesome. So today’s book, we wanted to talk about Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. It is a fantastic novel, and there’s a TV adaptation that stars Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon, and a huge, amazing cast. It is a really fantastic book. Regina, do you want to talk about why we chose it this week?

RM: Sure. Well, it overlaps, of course, with the topic we’re talking about, which is adoption, because there’s this idyllic suburb in Cleveland that is the center of the book, and all of the chaos that ensues follows this controversy around a transracial adoption. And the way that one of the characters in the book starts looking into one of the other main characters, I’m trying not to spoil it. It’s really hard to explain books about spoiling them, but there’s also an abortion.

RM: But there’s also an abortion, of course. And because it’s not The Handmaid’s Tale, we wanted to make sure to talk about it. And I think one of the most interesting things about the book is the way that it shows how we have this scarcity mindset in our society because of everything we’ve talked about with the lack of resources for parents. And it’s resulted in this division among parents where you’re a good parent or a bad parent. So in this book, in so many ways, it’s like the Richardsons, which were the white family. They’re better than the single mom and her daughter, who are staying on their property, renting property from them. And it ends up showing up in this way with the abortion, but showing up in a way where it’s like, “Oh, well, our daughter is not going to have an abortion. So it’s your daughter who had the abortion.”

RBS: Yeah. I mean, I really love this book because it brings together all of the different narratives around reproduction. There’s the story of a surrogacy. There’s the story of an adoption. There’s a story of an abortion. There’s parenting, there’s having one child, there’s having multiple children. And in this little town, it shows how class and race really impact who gets connected and who gets supported as a parent, who gets believed as a parent, how immigration shows up in adoption. Gretchen, what did you think of the book, and especially that adoption plotline? How does that feel related to your own research?

Gretchen Sisson: I really loved this book, and I will say, as Renee mentioned, I’m a big book person. So nine times out of 10, if something is adapted for a movie or TV, I’ll be the one who’s like “the book was better”. But I actually think that the TV show was excellent as an adaptation, and I think that it actually added some things to the book. So in the book, I don’t think that there’s a commentary on race, but I think it’s implied that Kerry Washington’s–Mia is the character’s name–she’s white in the book. And so I think adding those racial dynamics to the adaptation made it a really far more compelling story and giving it an eight-episode arc and allowing to explore the characters in kind of more depth in some ways than the book had space to do. Because I think you get into Elena, who’s Reese Witherspoon’s character, her conflict over being a mother, over being a mother of four, whether she wanted to have four children that close together, and those circumstances, I think that there’s a lot of complexity to the show.

So for people who’ve read the book, I would recommend watching it as well. I thought it was really well done. So I think that the show has a lot more complicated racial dynamics than the book does, but the adoption is in both. And it is an immigrant woman named Bebe. Again, it’s been a while since I read the book, but I believe that she’s undocumented and that that’s part of the vulnerable position that she’s in because there’s only certain kinds of work that she can do. There’s only certain sources of support of which she can avail herself as an undocumented single mother in the United States and just as a spoiler. But she ends up giving her daughter to a safe haven at a fire station. And then the book follows what happens next after the child is adopted and who has the right to this child, and what lengths Bebe will go to reunite with her child.

We did an impact study, actually, of the TV show, and we found that people have very conflicted feelings about who deserves to have this baby in their lives. And I think that what both the book and the show do a good job of is really showing the ways in which Bebe is vulnerable in which her relinquishment of her daughter is a crisis response. And I think that when you have Justice Coney Barrett talking about how easy it is to use safe havens and determinate parental rights that way, this idea that this is an empowered decision, and then you have this really visceral, painful example of the type of mother that might use that and the type of position she might be in, I think is just another way of showing the falsity of that idea.

RM: Interesting fact about the book and the character Mia, the writer actually said that she never defines her race in the book. And when she wrote the character, she actually wrote the character as a person of color, but was a little bit hesitant to be the person to address these dynamics of race and class. She says in this interview, I thought of them as people of color because I wanted to talk about race and class, and those things are so intertwined in our country and in our culture, but I didn’t feel like I was the right person to try to bring a Black woman’s experience to the page. And so I was like, “Why did I think of her?” It’s because the writer was thinking of her as a person of color. And so it makes so much sense, and Kerry Washington was like a cast, as Mia in the show.

Gretchen Sisson: Maybe after doing that white person thing of assuming that unless you specified someone wasn’t white, that they’re all white. But I think-

RM: That’s what I was like, I’m pretty sure I assumed it was a Black person too. But anyway.

Gretchen Sisson: Well, yeah, no, I mean, I think that it just gave me a different appreciation of all the power dynamics that were happening. And it’s hard for me now to remember the book and not have Mia be a Black woman. Right? Yeah, good point, Celeste.

RBS: So it’s just a reminder that there are other books you can read something other than The Handmaid’s Tale, and if you need another book, absolutely follow Gretchen because she reads tons of books.

RM: Well, now we have more books, more TV shows to watch, so everyone’s going to be really busy. But before we go, Gretchen, we like to ask everyone, “What is a resource you think people listening to this podcast should absolutely check out or contribute to?”

Gretchen Sisson: So I think that there aren’t that many organizations that do adoption work from a reproductive justice lens. Empower Alliance is a great one, JMacforFamilies and the Movement for Family Power. They specifically look at families that are separated by the family policing system. On Your Feet Foundation is a great one. And so I think just give some of these accounts a follow on Instagram, and then also look for adoptee voices on Instagram, on TikTok, on Twitter. Follow some adopted people who are really sharing their perspectives on what adoption has meant for their lives. Even as a researcher, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from these people and owe a debt of gratitude to them for informing my research. So for people who are invested in reproductive justice and don’t have a lot of background in this area, join the online conversation that’s happening because it’s really rich.

RM: Thanks again for joining us, Gretchen. We appreciate you so much and look forward to telling everybody about your book because it’s amazing and perfect.

RBS: Oh, it’s so good.

Gretchen Sisson: Thank you, guys, both.

RM: Okay, that’s it for The A Files today. Shout out to our guest co-host, Dr. Sisson, and be sure to check out Relinquished. All the details on how to get our book will be in the show notes.

RBS: It’s so good. So definitely read it. And for a reading list, links to articles in the books we’ve mentioned today – there were a lot – and more information. Visit our website at wearethemeteor.com slash The A Files.

RM: See y’all next time.

RBS: Say the word abortion and adoption.

The A Files is produced for The Meteor by LWC Studios. Our hosts are me, Renee Bracey-Sherman, and Regina Mahone. Our executive producers at The Meteor are me, Renee Bracey Sherman, and Regina Mahone, Cindi Leive, and Tara Abrahams. At LWC Studios, our executive producer is Juleyka Lantigua. Paulina Velasco is our managing producer, and our producer is Anne Lim. Kojin Tashiro is our sound designer and engineer.

RM: This podcast is produced with support from The Meteor Fund, the Meteor’s nonprofit initiative. Additional thanks to Pop Culture Collaborative for their support. You can subscribe to The A Files wherever you get your podcasts. And please take a second to rate us, five stars, please. And leave us a review. It would mean a lot.

RBS: For links to any resources mentioned in this episode or for more information, visit our website at wearethemeteor.com slash The A Files. You can follow us on social media at @rbraceysherman on the social media platform, formerly known as Twitter, and @reneebraceysherman on Instagram for me. For Regina, she’s @byreginamahone on the social media platform, formerly known as Twitter and Instagram. And you can follow The Meteor @themeteor on all platforms. Thanks for listening. Thanks for saying the word abortion. And remember, everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion.

CITATION:

Bracey Sherman, Renee, and Mahone, Regina, host. “Abortion Criminalization: Don’t Talk to the Cops!.” The A Files, The Meteor and Lantigua Williams & Co., February 7, 2024. Themeteor.com/theafiles

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE A FILES

The A Files - Episode 4

EPISODE 4 – LOVE ABORTION? DON’T TALK TO COPS!

All around the country, people have been arrested and criminalized for trying to access abortion care. In this episode, Renee, Regina and special guest Rafa Kidvai of the Repro Legal Defense Fund talk about the devastating personal toll that anti-abortion extremists don’t want us to see. They break down how and why abortion criminalization happens, and some surprising rules for responding to it. Plus, in There Are Other Books, Renee and Regina discuss the novel An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. 

Renee Bracey Sherman: Hi, everyone. Renee here. Just popping in before the episode begins to say that this episode’s interview includes mentions of unsafe abortion methods and criminalization. We’ll include the timestamps for these mentions in the show notes. Please skip what you need to and take care of yourself.

I think people have magical thinking about what abortion bans will do. Elected officials will be like, “Oh, we’re just not going to talk about how we’re going to enforce it.” And then that leaves people to think, “Oh, well, if abortion’s banned, people just then won’t want one, they won’t try to get one.” And that’s not actually what happens.

Regina  Mahone: Hello and welcome to The A Files, the Secret History of Abortion, a podcast from The Meteor. I’m Regina Mahone.

RBS: And I’m Renee Bracey Sherman. Regina and I are friends. We talk about abortion.

RM: A lot. Today we’re talking about abortion criminalization, and before we get into it, off the top, let’s clarify all the terms we’ll be using today just so we’re on the same page.

RBS: So in the last 20 years, there have been at least 61 cases where people have been subjected to the criminal legal system. They either actually or allegedly self-managed their abortion or helped someone else get an abortion. And the government can use all sorts of methods to criminalize people who have abortions without explicitly outlawing abortion. The majority of those cases were in states that have no laws against self-managed abortion, so it wasn’t even a crime. Instead, people get hit with charges like mishandling of human remains or homicide, but we want to be absolutely crystal shiny, Windex clear. Abortion is healthcare. Abortion is absolutely not the problem. What is the problem? Well, all of the arbitrary and bullshit tools of white supremacy, all of the things that they use to control our bodies and our lives and control people who do not have any power. They really just won’t let us do our own abortions. And if we do, we’ll be criminalized for doing it. Which brings me to what we should go over next. Self-managed abortion.

RM: And I feel like people think that term means a lot of things. Like they hear the phrase medication abortion and things like that, and it gets really confusing. So Renee, break it down for the people.

RBS: Let’s talk about it. Okay. So self-managed abortion, that just basically means that a person decides that they want to have an abortion on their own outside of the medical system. It doesn’t necessarily mean that someone has to do their abortions on their own completely. In fact, many people do have a support person with them, whether it’s a friend or also like a doula, or midwife. There are so many safe ways to self-manage an abortion. Safe ways are usually with abortion pills, the same ones that you’d get at a clinic.

People can also safely self-manage at home with a midwife or a doula who can do an MVA, which is a manual vacuum aspiration or extraction, or even using herbs recommended by an herbalist. But what we usually hear about is the unsafe self-managed abortion methods, particularly because our nation’s history with criminalizing abortion is really, really long. And that’s what they’re talking about when they say back alley abortions. That’s the coat hangers and knitting needles and the instruments that are used to remove a pregnancy. It can also be unsafe behaviors like douching with bleach or detergent or even Coca-Cola or trying to throw yourself down the stairs.

RM: Renee, you talked about your own experience with this when you testified before Congress in 2022 and then became the first person in history to share the self-managed abortion pill regimen at a congressional hearing. Let’s listen to a clip of your testimony.

RBS [testimony]: I feel so lucky that when I was 19, my abortion care network clinic was 10 minutes from my home and an Orthodox Jewish nurse held my hand and she did so because her faith called her to, but that almost wasn’t my story. Shortly before my appointment, I didn’t know if I could hold on. I didn’t think I could be pregnant for another moment. I hoped it would all go away, and when it didn’t, every day I considered throwing myself down the stairs as I had seen in movies and in history books. One night I drank an unsafe amount of alcohol believing it would cause a miscarriage. It didn’t.

Thankfully I went to my appointment and received my abortion. That was when it was legal in every state. Now it is not, and I know some will try the methods that I did, and I want them to know that there are safe methods to self-managing their abortions, according to the World Health Organization. It is one Mifepristone pill followed by four misoprostol pills dissolved under the tongue 24 to 48 hours later, or a series of 12 misoprostol pills, four at a time, dissolved under the tongue every three hours. There’s no way to test it in the bloodstream and a person doesn’t need to tell the police what they took.

RBS: Honestly, it was really, really scary. I was nervous and that was not a story I’d ever told publicly before. I hadn’t told my family about it, and I was deeply ashamed because of how sad and scared that Renee was at 19. But also I felt like I needed to use that moment to show other people that they’re not alone if they’re considering an unsafe or ineffective method and that there are safe methods available like abortion pills, especially now. It also felt really important to me because at the time, South Carolina had introduced a bill that would have made disseminating the information I shared a crime. So to me it was a really important free speech issue.

RM: Yeah. The laws around self-managed abortion, it’s such a legal gray area, right? They’re changing all of the time. Over a dozen states require that medication abortion be provided by a physician, which can be challenging in this climate where a lot of people are seeking appointments, but there are fewer states offering them. And if you self-manage your abortion, you could be charged with practicing medicine without a license.

RBS: Okay, Regina, I’m raising my hand on behalf of the audience with this question I get all the time. Roe legalized abortion. So how is it that people were criminalized for their pregnancies while Roe was the law of the land? And why are we only talking about this now?

RM: The Supreme Court justices wrote the Roe decision very much centering the rights and opinions of doctors instead of the people who actually need the abortion. And subsequent decisions increase the amount of involvement the states could have in the ability for doctors to provide these abortions. It was never about giving the people who have abortions the ability to decide if, when, and how to grow their families.

RBS: Right. And for me, here’s the thing, laws are both real and not real. Laws are ideas. They are ideas about how to corral and organize people and what a set of morals are, and they’re these imaginary things until they get enforced. Laws are very real for some people because they’re a set of rules that can be enforced to put people in jail and treat them a certain way. But also, laws aren’t real because certain people are able to violate them all of the time. They’re just ideas. The people most likely to be arrested, charged, and put in prison are people of color. That is not a coincidence. It’s how the system was designed.

RM: So what makes laws real is how we experience them. Taking abortion pills on your own, for example, is legal in some states with a provider and illegal in other states when a provider is involved. But for example, in D.C., self-managing an abortion or helping someone to do so, is decriminalized. And you helped make that law happen, right Renee?

RBS: I did. I DMed my city council member, Christina Henderson, and told her that we needed it as a law and she proposed it and it became one in February 2023.

RM: Shout out to DMing your city council member. It’s the criminalization that makes the pills seem different. People need them just as much in Texas as they do in D.C. Or California.

RBS: Yeah, I was interviewing Farah Diaz-Teo of If/When/How for the book that we’re writing. And she said it so succinctly. Criminalization is how we enact stigma.

RM: It’s so true, right? The criminalization and stigma make this vicious cycle that keeps abortion inaccessible. Abortion is stigmatized, which paves the way for the laws banning it and the enforcement through criminalization, which then adds stigma towards people who want to access it. And it’s just over and over and over again. But in reality, no stigma or criminalization are ever needed. Renee, you wrote a really powerful piece for the nation about how the police are often on the side of the anti-abortion extremists and not the patients or clinic escorts who are helping them get to their appointments.

RBS: Yeah. The police are there to enforce the “law” no matter whether the law is arbitrary or detrimental to people’s lives. Our guest for today is Rafa Kidvai from the Repro Legal Defense Fund, and they have a lot to say about this. So let’s get into our interview.

Hi Rafa. Thank you so much for being here.

Rafa Kidvai: It’s nice to be here.

RBS: So can you introduce yourself and how did you end up in this role and working on the legal side of reproductive justice?

Rafa Kidvai: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. I have so much respect for you both. It’s a joy to talk to you. My name is Rafa Kidvai. I am the director of the Repro Legal Defense Fund, which is at If/When/How. We’re a legal group that defends, supports, and organizes for reproductive justice. We provide legal services and legal funding to help people determine if, when, and how they want to build a family. And so the people we provide legal services and legal funding to are those that are being criminalized for pregnancy outcomes like self-managed abortions. We also organize and train lawyers and law students to become the next generation of people who are providing legal services. The way that I got here to me makes a lot of sense, I don’t know if it does externally. So I moved to the United States for college and from my first year, started working with a bunch of other students to volunteer at the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Conference. One of the first sessions I attended was people talking about incarcerated mothers.

And so after college, I went to law school, became a public defender, worked with bail funds and then experienced pregnancy. And I think all of that meant that I wanted to be doing this exact work all the time, every day. And so it doesn’t feel like a detour, but maybe it sounds a little bit like it. It feels like a returning home maybe.

RM: So for a lot of people there isn’t a clear connection between abortion bans and criminalization. I think part of the reason for that is because of the way anti-abortion elected officials do not say how they want to actually enforce their bans. They just focus on how their law is about stopping abortions. But the reality is if you have a law making something illegal, the person breaking the law will then be held accountable in some way. Right? So could you just explain a bit more about how abortion bans make people criminals?

Rafa Kidvai: I have so many things to say to this question. So one, I would say that criminalization is not about people’s actions, it’s about people. I think that’s fundamentally a problem with the conversation. So a criminal by definition is just someone the state wants to get. It’s really not about someone’s actions, it’s not even about the law. It’s really who does the state want to target and control? And so where there are bans, I think they just tell you very explicitly this is what the state is committed to controlling, and criminalization is often a response to people exercising their bodily autonomy audaciously. We know that in the vast majority of states, there was nothing explicitly in the law that said self-managing your abortion is “illegal.” And yet we know that’s where people have been investigated and arrested. And even now with unprecedented control of abortion access, self-managed abortion continues to be the place where people are criminalized.

And it’s really because it’s about the people who are self-managing. It’s about which identities of folks don’t have access structurally, it’s about who the state doesn’t want to have kids, certainly not on their own terms. And so people who self-manage are black and brown, they’re immigrants, they’re people who are trans and queer, people who are deemed on the margins, people who don’t trust the medical system, anyone who feels afraid of the state for good reason is going to probably overlap with the group of people that needs to self-manage their abortions. And so, I think really what’s happening here is that the state is trying to convince us that self-managed abortion is somehow more wrong. And the second we start talking about something being wrong or bad, I think what follows immediately is criminalization.

RBS: Something I think about a lot is the way in which I think people have magical thinking about what abortion bans will do. Regina, like you said, elected officials will be like, “Oh, we’re just not going to talk about how we’re going to enforce it.” And then that leaves people to think, “Oh, well, if abortion’s banned, people just then won’t want one. They won’t try to get one.” And that’s not actually what happens. And I think that they forget that the entire point of the criminal justice system or injustice system is to dispose of people that we deem not contributing to society in a certain way that capitalism or white supremacy wants. I feel like this is a really big topic and somebody should make a podcast about that. Is there one like that, Rafa?

Rafa Kidvai: Oh my God, you’re so sweet, Renee. I have a podcast called No Body Criminalized, and I would say obviously my best episode was when Renee came, don’t tell the others. And I didn’t respond to one piece of your question, Regina, which was like, what does it do when you make the impact of abortion bans opaque? I mean, it’s intentionally confusing. I think the whole point is for it to be intentionally confusing. I’ve talked to doctors about how they’ve had people leave their state to come get abortions when they didn’t have to leave their state in the first place. And I think sometimes the work is done there alone. I think we see this in prosecutions all the time. The moment of an investigation is enough to create the cascade that destroys someone’s life. And yes, in an ideal situation, you don’t get convicted, you win at trial.

But I have to say, as someone who tried cases, winning a trial is both one of the saddest, most exciting moments of your life at the same time because at that moment, you realize what little you’re celebrating and how much has been lost along the way, and how much more of it is loss than win, even with the win at the end of the trial. Imagine our clients are people who are charged with homicides for abortions, and it just means that you’re in this limbo walking around the world with the stamp on you and the world has suddenly been made deeply inaccessible. You’re marginalized further, which means that then you have to do things to survive. And the problem with this country is that our response to people trying to survive is to punish them. It’s just such a fundamental problem.

RBS: Can you talk a little bit about what are the societal and cultural impacts of pregnancy criminalization overall? Because one of the challenges that I deeply feel is that this is not new. After Roe fell, people were like, “Oh my gosh, people are going to be thrown in jail for having abortions.” This has been happening for decades and essentially actually centuries, but I think people are paying attention to it now because middle-class or wealthier white people are experiencing it and not just low-income white people and folks of color as has happened for the last couple of decades. Can you talk about all of that?

Rafa Kidvai: Yeah.

RBS: Give me an answer for all of that.

Rafa Kidvai: Yeah, I know. It’s like cis white women and they’re afraid you’re coming for their IVF cannot be the person that leads our movement. Right? Because that person drops off real early. And truth be told-

RBS: And they’re late to the game.

Rafa Kidvai: Yeah, I was going to say, truth be told, they’re both late and they’re not really going to be the target eventually anyways. So I think that criminalization creates a harmful lifelong cascade, a domino effect in someone’s life from the moment of state contact. And I don’t just mean the moment of an arrest or the engagement with the cops, and of course don’t talk to cops. Thank you, Renee, for always telling people don’t talk to cops.

RBS: Never talk to the cops.

Rafa Kidvai: We like to yell it. Exactly. First, let’s go back a little bit. Who are the cops? The cops aren’t just police officers in criminal cases, the cops is an apparatus. It’s a whole bunch of people. Prosecutors are cops, judges, cops, ACS workers, cops, sometimes welfare workers, cops. They are everywhere, and they’re expert gaslighters. So very good at telling you that they’re there for your own good while they’re harming you simultaneously. And so when someone’s in a moment of trauma, you’re engaging whether you want to or not. It’s very confusing. You can do a thousand know your rights trainings about don’t talk to the cops, and let’s be real. The cops come to your door, they bang really hard. I don’t know what happens to you. I’m a public defender of many years. I’m telling you now, the fear of God is in my body and I’m like, “Maybe I should open it.” It’s very powerful. It’s impactful. And so I think that it’s really easy to engage with cops, but they’re everywhere and they’re more than who you think.

So that’s the first piece. And because that’s true and they’re in every part of your life, you can lose your job, your housing, custody of your children. I mean, I think this is a really big one. I think we really need to be talking about the family separation system and how moments after someone’s arrested in a criminal case, there’s an automatic removal of a child the person has, and let’s be real, a lot of abortion seekers, most are parents, people trying to be parents of the kids that they have. And so you’ve taken the person that they’re doing all this for, you’re taking that person away. And so I think fundamentally, yes, you lose resources, but you also lose community. When you’re incarcerated, a lot of people talk about losing connection to the outside and not having enough contact. That’s why I think there’s so many letter writing programs because it’s deeply isolating emotionally. And so it’s not just the cost, it’s not just the, I can’t afford my life anymore. It’s that it is painful to exist now, I think is the impact of criminalization.

RM: Could you say a bit more about how the police work hand in glove specifically with prosecutors and anti-abortion law firms to build cases against abortion providers and seekers?

Rafa Kidvai: Yes. Okay, let me step back. Our legal system is one that fits this idea of a perpetrator and a victim against each other. Obviously, these categories of people don’t make very much sense at all in people’s actual lives. I think that there is some confusion in the minds of people sometimes because prosecutors have done a good job of saying that they’re doing stuff in the name of survivors, right? This is us. This is about interpersonal violence. We are stepping in, keeping the community safe. Obviously not true from the experience of survivors, and just I think we need to think about survivors as not just survivors of intimate partner violence, but also state violence. And so anyone the state engages with experiences violence and experiences trauma. And prosecutors–I think people like to say overzealous prosecutors, I would say a prosecutor doing their job– and police have misused and misapplied laws to arrest people and get away with it.

So you’ll see in the abortion arena, anything from manslaughter, homicide, to endangering the welfare of a child who’s not been born yet, or chemical endangerment when someone uses antidepressants during pregnancy. That’s not what the law was meant for. We’re talking about laws that were written to protect survivors of IPV from experiencing injury while they were pregnant, now being used for abortion, that’s not what the intention of the law was. Police officers and prosecutors don’t care about the law. They just use anything they can. And then prosecutors use what we like to call “the kitchen sink” where they literally just throw stuff at the person and hope something sticks, and they want it to be the most egregious thing so that they can charge the highest amount of bail for that purpose. So this isn’t just an abortion situation. This is literally how the criminal punishment system works. They make shit up and then they do what they want.

And so I think that’s why it’s so important for me to talk about cops as a category of people that we need to be organizing against because it’s not about the law. It’s not about right, wrong, good, bad, victim, perpetrator. It’s about a group of white supremacists that are committed to controlling certain bodies.

RBS: So let’s talk about those cases for a second. For example, there was a case of a mother and daughter out of Nebraska who were sentenced to jail time in 2023. A lot of people see these cases and are rightfully infuriated. It can garner a lot of headlines and public attention and outrage. But some of those cases aren’t talked about as much in the public by movement leaders, organizations, other folks, right? People will send me these cases and say, “Oh my God, Renee, did you see this?” Yes, yes, I saw it. I saw it. I read it. I heard about it. I’ve probably heard about it before it was even an article, but I’m not posting about it, I’m not commenting on it publicly. I am declining the interviews. And I think that can be really confusing to people because they’re like, “Well, shouldn’t you be outraged? Shouldn’t you be drumming up attention and outraged with your words publicly and talk about it?”

But there’s a reason, and we don’t do that on purpose. Also, being outraged online is not the only way to be outraged. I just have to say that. But we don’t do that on purpose. Rafa, can you tell the listeners why we do that?

Rafa Kidvai: I have a bunch of different feelings about this. One, I think for the most part, whether a case is public or not is decided by the state. So the earliest descriptions that are leaked, are leaked by cops and prosecutors. They’re meant to sway public opinion. And then I think that creates a cascade of legal consequences for somebody. Remember, a jury is the jury of your peers. It’s your community. And if your community has been told a bunch of lies about you and stories about you, even if they know not to believe them, those seeds have been planted. None of our brains are that strong, y’all. We are all susceptible to stigma. We’re all susceptible to bias. And it’s relying on that. When you’re seeing someone in a lineup, you immediately assume a number of things about them, whether you intentionally believe it or not, just seeing them in that position.

And then, I mean, in my most vulnerable traumatized moment, do I want to be photographed and then have that image replicated over and over again? Absolutely not. Journalists are really trying to get people to pay attention, which means they use the images that get people to pay attention. They use mugshots, they use people in handcuffs, they use people crying. None of these things are good for the person themselves. So I think that the primary issue that a lot of our movement has is that the decision to make a case public is not about the person themselves. And that is a huge problem. Some of our large organizations literally, I think, parade their clients around to talk about their cases. And I hope that they do that thoughtfully, and I hope that they do that with the person’s consent. You can have anything you say be spun when there’s the impetus to do so.

So I think that giving out information is really dangerous, even if it’s something that the person wants. And part of telling someone when you’re preparing them for a case is to say, “Your face is going to be on billboards. You’re going to be recognizable. Some people in this world are going to continue to believe what they believe about you. This could mean you lose your job.” So when I think about a case, I don’t know, if I’m not thinking about the person, it’s very easy to make it public. And if I’m thinking about the person, it’s a very difficult decision. It’s really laying out what that means for somebody and how long-lasting that stuff is and how the internet is kind of forever, and how terrifying and scary that is. And also, someone’s defense can change right up to the moment of trial. And so in some ways, when you tie someone to a public story, you’re tying them to a narrative that now the prosecution can use to claim inconsistencies where they do not exist.

And so we don’t want to give them any fuel. And I think, Renee, I think it’s funny that people reach out to you and say, “Have you heard about this case?” Because I imagine you’ve heard about this before they’ve heard about this, but you’re making a decision in that moment to not talk about it, even though people are looking to hear you talk about it. I think that’s actually really powerful and meaningful. I would love people who are public about their words to say, actually, it’s equally important when not to speak as it is when to speak. And then, yeah, there will be times maybe when someone wants to tell their story, and that better be a really smart strategic move. But I will tell you now, we are not giving the feds their material. We don’t need to do their work for them.

RM: I did want to just jump in and say real quick, part of why we wanted to ask this question is because we want people to think about the role they play when they amplify these stories, whether or not they’ve read them, feel comfortable with what’s in there and what resources should have been shared that weren’t shared. All of these things, because we all are playing a role in our sharing of media and our talking about these stories and things like that.

RBS: Yeah. For me, it just comes down to consent. Did this person consent for their story to be out there? And it’s not clear because I cannot imagine that any of us would like to be known from one of our worst or hardest moments in which someone, the state, said lies about us. That is really, really difficult. And when we work with abortion storytellers, yes, their stories are polished and not in a way of so much like a PR, “let’s make it look good” way. No. What I mean by polished is that we give them the space and time to think about what of their experience they would like out in the public.

And I believe every single person who’s having an abortion deserves that space to be able to figure out if they would like to share their story, first of all, and if they’re going to share, what gets shared with it. One of the things that’s come up in some of the cases that have been in the news is how Facebook has turned over DMs and text messages are being used, and this way in which digital surveillance and social media companies are actually acting as part of the state. Can you talk to us about digital privacy and what are some things that people might not know that police can access and use to bring charges around criminalizing their pregnancy?

Rafa Kidvai: Yeah. The state of surveillance is bad in the world right now, y’all. We’re being surveilled all the time, constantly. It’s just a bad sitch. I think there’s been a lot of focus on things like period tracker apps, on new technologies, fancier technologies to surveil people. I first want to say that I don’t think that’s really where we need to focus. I think all the technology, of course, will continue to get more complex, but the state has everything it needs to surveil us regular shmegular right now. I don’t think technology is really the issue. It’s the desire to surveil. That said, I think we have to remember that everything that we say publicly is so self-evident, will be used and will be brought to proceedings. When I would go over discovery with my clients from the prosecution, people are always surprised that their Facebook screenshot with their cover photo was in the printout.

And it’s like, “Yes, if it’s public and it’s on the internet, trust that it’s going to get taken by the state.” So that’s the first thing you want to think about. I think the second thing you want to think about is your phone. I’m a big fan of using Signal. I like using Delete Me for the Internet. I think we just need to get overall better at using platforms like Signal, because again, it’s not about our actions. If you feel like you are somebody the state wants to target, it might be your abortion, it might be something else, but also trust that they will go through your phone and whether they can search it legally or not, that’s what I like to say. How do you make yourself a safe person is the biggest question. Not what technology will surveil me. Facebook gives up messages and yes, fuck Facebook. And at the same time, those messages were handed over by a person who got afraid of the government, right?

And do we want to blame that person? Yes or no? I don’t know that person, but I can say that the state is pretty powerful, and a police officer coming to a young person and asking them for information with the risk that they too might be punished in some way or impacted in some way, is a valid fear. It’s a human response. And so I think that yes, technology is important. Think about what you’re putting up on your public Instagram for real. Really, really think about it. It’s not about silencing yourself, I think, is how you have to think about it. It’s about shifting the strategy maybe in your mind a little bit to realizing actually, I’m not trying to give them stuff to criminalize me. I think we feel very comfortable giving the government information even when it’s not asking for it. And I think maybe making ourselves a little bit more resilient and learning to say no culturally is where we need to focus around surveillance. So be smart about it if you can. And I know that’s a hard thing to say to people because we’re trying our best.

RM: We’ve talked a bit about abolition. We’ve talked a lot about policing. What would police and prison abolition mean for the reproductive justice movement? What would that look like?

Rafa Kidvai: So one, abortion itself feels like abolition, feels like they’re like twinning. I think that people often think of abolition as breaking things down. And I always like to remind people it’s about building things up. I think the abortion movement and the repro movement has been really good, honestly, about mutual aid and sharing resources and building up systems outside of the state, systems that we can trust. So I think we have some really good foundational stuff down in terms of how we support each other and building up supportive systems. And I think that the second thing that is really powerful about our movement is that I think repro holds attention that people who work with maybe criminalized survivors also hold, which is that I think abolition asks us to think about what true safety is. What is a culture of safety? What does it mean to be safe without replicating these ideas of perpetrator or a victim?

And I think that our movements see people who are survivors and experiencing violence and are being criminalized at the same time often. And so I think it gives us an entry point into really, I think, leaning into abolition because we’ve already done the groundwork of building supportive structures, of building things up where they don’t exist, of holding each other’s secret stories. I know you both hold secrets for people. That’s how I think about it. Being a good person to hold people’s secrets, being a vault, I feel like sometimes that is abolition, and I think we do a really good job of that.

RM: My favorite thing is when I’m telling Renee a secret and she’s like, “I’m actually Tweeting it right now.” Thanks, Renee. Appreciate it. 

RBS: I’m actually X-ing it right now.

RM: Or X-ing it, whatever.

RBS: Okay. So in every episode, we are asking our guests to give a call to action to our listeners. What is a resource you think people listening to this podcast should absolutely check out or contribute to? And it’s okay to mention your own if you’d like.

Rafa Kidvai: Oh yeah, absolutely. I love my resource. I’m going to tell you that I’ve never loved an organization as much as I do mine. So, now is a really scary time, and there’s a lot of confusion about care and access and legal risk. And I feel like I want people to really know that there is a movement that’s been working that didn’t start in the face of Dobbs, that’s been doing this for decades, that knows how to support people, provide resources. We will continue to show up. And so there are two of these resources. The first one is the Repro Legal Helpline, free confidential legal services for abortion and pregnancy outcomes. The number is 1 (844) 868-2812 or reprolegalhelpline.org. And this is the place you want to call if you or a loved one is in legal trouble, or you have a question about the law and abortion. If there’s an emergency, call this number.

And then there’s the Repro Legal Defense Fund, which is the love of my life. And we are who you call when you want money for your case. And we’re an abortion and pregnancy legal defense fund that offers person-centered resources. So we try to solve your problems, not your perceived problems, from bail, to legal fees, to practical support for anyone who’s being punished via the family court systems, the immigration systems, i.e, deportation systems, and then the criminal systems. And that’s reprolegaldefensefund.org. I really like both these resources a lot, not just because I work there, because they’re really, really good at what they do, y’all. We are efficient and thoughtful and compassionate, and really a lot of good stuff. I really, really recommend if people need resources, you can trust that these folks will show up.

RM: Thank you so much for joining us, Rafa. This was fantastic.

Rafa Kidvai: Of course. Thank you for having me. You’re a joy.

RBS: Rafa is just so, so smart, and I’ll be thinking about what they said, especially about surveillance for a very long time. Okay, now it is time for There Are Other Books.

RM: Yes. This is a time for us to uplift stories that aren’t The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel.

RBS: Okay, Regina. You want to get us started?

RM: Yes. So let’s talk about An American Marriage. It’s a book written by Tayari Jones. The book was published in 2018 and centers around the relationship between Celestial and Roy who are married for only a year before their life is changed when Roy is accused of rape. Celestial finds out that she’s pregnant as Roy is incarcerated and decides to have an abortion. But after her abortion, Roy is really angry with her and they’re exchanging letters. And part of the book is the letters that they have between them. So we’re really seeing two characters who are forced into decisions about when and how to grow their family because of systemic racism and the impact that discrimination and prejudice can have on people’s whole lives.

RBS: Yeah, I remember when I read this book shortly after it came out, I identified with Celestial a lot when I had my abortion. It was kind of similar circumstances. My ex-boyfriend at the time, or my fetus daddy as I refer to him, he had been incarcerated for over a year. And I remember taking his nieces up to go see him. And it’s really difficult to take children into that experience to visit a family member. And you want to keep those connections, of course, but having them be patted down by police and there’s no humanity, it was really, really awful. And so when I got pregnant, incarceration or my fetus daddy’s experience of incarceration and my desire to not parent with someone who’s incarcerated was one of the many things that impacted my decision. And so I really identified with Celestial in her decision. I got it, because I know what it’s like.

And even though at the time my fetus daddy was outside, he was not incarcerated, I knew there was a good chance that he could go back in. And I believe he did. And that was just not the way that I wanted to parent and to raise a child. And I know that there are a lot of people who do parent in that way, and it’s hard and they’re making it work. For me, that was not something that I wanted to do, and I also just didn’t want to be in that relationship for a lot of other reasons, because it was toxic and dangerous, too. So anyway, all that to say, I really, really got it with Celestial. I really loved this book, and I think that there’s a really good conversation in this story about how incarceration impacts family building in a lot of different ways.

Whether someone is saying, “Hey, I need an abortion because I’m facing incarceration,” or, “Because I don’t want to parent with someone who’s incarcerated,” or, “I do want to parent because this is my only connection to that incarcerated person, or “I’ve got to figure out how to parent while I’m incarcerated”. It’s all of these things. Regina, what did you think of the book?

RM: Well, part of why we wanted to talk about this specific book in this episode is because as I mentioned, how it highlights the impact of systemic racism on people’s decisions about when to grow their families. And I wanted to highlight because for me, this book brought up a lot around immigration and the storytellers I’ve edited who’ve talked about the way that being undocumented in the US immigration policies also affect their decisions around when to grow their families, because of course, that is directly related to someone being incarcerated or being removed from this country, and threats of deportation, and how they can have their children put into the foster care system as a result of the US immigration policies. You know, Renee, it’s almost as if all of these harmful policies are connected or something. I don’t know.

RBS: Almost. I mean, what I think is really important about this book, but it’s really just a reminder, is that these systems are designed to keep black and brown people down, and yet people are still making decisions under these complicated systems, and they are still finding love, and they are still building families. And so to me, it is a reminder that how beautiful reproductive justice will be in the world when we have it, and that it is trying to thrive even with these structures destroying our lives.

RM: That was perfect. That’s exactly the thought that was in my head. So great. Well, on that note, that’s it for the episode today. For links to any of the articles and books we’ve mentioned, you can visit our website at wearethemeteor.com/theAfiles.

RBS: See y’all next time. The A Files is produced for The Meteor by LWC Studios. Our hosts are me, Renee Bracey Sherman, and Regina Mahone. Our executive producers at the Meteor are me, Renee Bracey Sherman, and Regina Mahone, Cindy Leive, and Tara Abrahams. At LWC Studios, our executive producer is Juleka Lantigua. Paulina Velasco is our managing producer, and our producer is Anne Lim. Kojin Tashiro is our sound designer and engineer.

RM: This podcast is produced with support from The Meteor Fund, The Meteor’s nonprofit initiative. Additional thanks to Pop Culture Collaborative for their support. You can subscribe to The A Files wherever you get your podcasts. And please take a second to rate us, five stars, please, and leave us a review. It would mean a lot.

RBS: For links to any resources mentioned in this episode or for more information, visit our website at wearethemeteor.com/theAfiles. You can follow us on social media @rbraceysherman on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, and @reneebraceysherman on Instagram for me. For Regina, she’s @byreginamahone on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter and Instagram. And you can follow The Meteor at @themeteor on all platforms. Thanks for listening. Thanks for saying the word abortion. And remember, everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion.

CITATION:

Bracey Sherman, Renee, and Mahone, Regina, host. “Abortion Criminalization: Don’t Talk to the Cops!.” The A Files, The Meteor and Lantigua Williams & Co., January 31, 2024. Themeteor.com/theafiles

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE A FILES

The A Files - Episode 3

EPISODE 3 – GOOD STATES, BAD STATES? NOT SO FAST

Think so-called blue states, with Democratic lawmakers, are abortion safe-havens? Pull up a chair and let’s talk. In this episode, Chelsea Williams-Diggs of the New York Abortion Access Fund joins Renee and Regina to talk about how even “liberal” governments need to do better for pregnant people. It’s all about the healthcare system, abortion funds, and the hidden realities of actually getting the abortion you need. And in a special edition of There Are Other Movies, Renee and Regina talk about Little Woods, a film directed by Nia DaCosta starring Tessa Thompson and Lily James.

Regina Mahone: All right, everybody, strap in. We’re getting on a roller coaster and that roller coaster is called the American healthcare system.

Renee Bracey Sherman: This is not a good roller coaster. It has 5,000 twists and would kill you instantly. This is offensive to roller coasters, Regina.

RM: No, but it’s like Space Mountain except they charge you $80 an hour to wait in line and then once you get to the front of the line they’re like, “Nope, sorry. We’re all full.”

RBS: It’s like Space Mountain if Space Mountain just sucked. It’s like shitty Space Mountain.

RM: Hello and welcome to The A Files: a Secret History of Abortion, a podcast from The Meteor. I’m Regina Mahone.

RBS: And I’m Renee Bracey Sherman. Regina and I are friends who talk about abortion.

RM: A lot. And now we have a podcast about it. Every episode we’re unpacking a layer of the abortion conversation that too often gets overlooked or erased. Today we’re talking about the one, the only, American healthcare system. Look, abortion is healthcare, plain and simple. It’s a phrase people in the movement say all the time at rallies. Abortion is essential healthcare and yet it’s not treated that way. Why do politicians, insurance companies, even some clinics treat it differently from other forms of healthcare? We’re going to get into that.

RBS: Yes, we will dig into that in this episode and then we’ll get into how isolating abortion just makes access even harder, even in blue states, which are supposed to be just like the mecca of abortion access. To get a better picture of that, we’re talking to Chelsea Williams-Diggs, who’s the Executive Director of the New York Abortion Access Fund.

RM: And later we’re going to talk about the movie Little Woods, which came out in 2018 and starred Lily James and Tessa Thompson.

RBS: We’re already cheating on our book segment and doing a movie, but whatever. Just go with it. It’s going to be fun.

RM: But let’s get into healthcare. If you want to know how abortion bans and stigma came about, go back and listen to episodes one and two of our podcast. The main thing you need to know is this. It wasn’t until the 1800s when physicians in the American Medical Association pushed out Black and brown midwives from the field that we started to see the groundwork for the campaign against abortion as healthcare that we have today. So it was in 1970 that we see the first law to actually isolate abortion from reproductive healthcare, and that’s the Title X Family Planning program.

Think of the Title X program as the services provided by obstetricians and gynecologists like cervical cancer screenings, contraception services, and HIV prevention and treatment. So Title X is the government program that funds those services for people with low incomes, but included in Title X was this provision, it still exists today, explicitly banning abortion counseling and care from being used with Title X funds. If you are a business, which clinics are, some of the services you offer are subsidized through the government, some of them aren’t.

And it makes the care that’s not being subsidized more expensive for patients, right? And then for patients, it can be extremely stigmatizing if you go to your doctor for a pregnancy test or a pap smear and it turns out you’re pregnant. And they’re like, “Oh, I’m sorry, we don’t actually provide that service, you have to go somewhere else.” That was my experience when I had an abortion. I actually went to my regular doctor I’d been seeing for a number of years, had a pregnancy test and she was like, “Yeah, sorry, I don’t provide that. You have to go see someone else.”

And I felt like, “Okay, did I do something wrong? What’s wrong with abortion that you don’t provide it?” It really is stigmatizing when it is separated from other care that you get from the same doctors who are looking at your reproductive parts, right? And there have been numerous other ways that anti-abortion Republicans and Democrats have blocked access to abortion care. That includes things like the Hyde Amendment. There’s also the Mexico City policy and the Helms Amendment.

RBS: Can you break all of that down for us, Regina?

RM: Absolutely. So let’s start with the Hyde Amendment. The Hyde Amendment was introduced in 1976 and it prevents people who receive Medicaid from having their abortions covered through that insurance program. There are so many people affected by the Hyde Amendment because it’s not just people explicitly on Medicaid, it’s also anyone who receives government-sponsored health insurance plans, including federal employees, people in the military, veterans if you’re getting VA coverage, and also importantly, indigenous folks.

These are folks who receive these benefits because the government stole their land and now they get health coverage through the Indian Health Service and the government decided because of the Hyde Amendment that they’ll provide some services but not abortions. And then there’s also the Helms Amendment and the Mexico City Policy, so both of these are international restrictions. They restrict abortion care for people who are outside the United States and the United States is sending their countries different non-governmental organizations funding to provide reproductive healthcare services like HIV testing and things like that.

And if someone at one of those organizations shows up and is also pregnant and wants an abortion, that organization may not even be able to mention the word abortion to them or provide any sort of counseling because of these restrictions. And so Republicans haven’t just made abortion care harder to access in the United States, they’ve also managed to make it more difficult for people in developing countries. In other words, they have colonized other countries with US funds, which is a whole other level of awful.

RBS: Wait a minute, let me back up. So U.S. is colonizing other people and destroying their access to health insurance. This is… Wow, I’m so surprised that the party of small government turns out to be a colonizing big government. I’m shocked.

RM: And so let’s get back to what’s happening at the state level in the United States. So then there are all these other restrictions that make abortion even more difficult for people to access. We saw those restrictions grow in number after several Supreme Court decisions in the late eighties and nineties that effectively gutted the 1973 Roe v Wade decision making it meaningless in practice. And so we have things like trap laws now, which are targeted regulation of abortion providers.

And Republican state legislatures use those to make it as difficult as possible for clinics to stay open. So for example, a clinic that provides mostly first-trimester abortions because that’s what their state law is, might have to convert their clinic into an ambulatory surgical center to provide care, or they have to make their hallways bigger to fit a gurney inside because that’s what you have to do at an ambulatory surgical center.

And then clinics have to have a number of staff, which is costly, right? Or they might have to have a contract with a funeral home for the states where you have to basically send those remains to a funeral home. Again, all of these things cost money, whether it’s the patient who ends up having to shoulder the cost or the clinic.

RBS: I mean the entire point of these trap laws is to make it really difficult to provide abortion because they know that none of it is medically necessary. All of these things are ridiculous. I think the most ridiculous one that I’d ever heard was about the cutting of the grass and the height of the grass at some clinics. And then also what you can and can’t put on the walls to make the abortion clinic room look inviting and fun.

They’re really just trying to make it the most dreary-looking abortion clinic possible. Kind of like the one that they show in Juneau, just the really dreary abortion clinic.

RM: And it’s all about patients who go to these clinics feeling like they’re being punished, right? You have to go into the corner and have your abortion because you needed this abortion and shame on you for having this abortion. The other big thing when it comes to providers is the insurance reimbursement rates are so low. Again, making it incredibly expensive to stay open, to operate as a business, to pay your staff when all of your money is going to filling this gap that the right has created in legislating away abortion access.

So when we’re seeing clinics closing even in blue states, quite often it’s because of the politics of abortion.

RBS: So even beyond all of these restrictions, the financial reality of abortion is that it’s really expensive, and that’s whether you have insurance or not. Even once you get insurance, there are no promises that your insurance plan is even going to cover abortion. And even if your plan does cover abortions, it might only cover a certain type of procedure, like only a first-trimester abortion, but not one in the second or third trimester.

And so it ends up being this weird game of Tetris, where at the clinic they have to say, “Okay, we’ll have your insurance cover this blood test or this exam here, but then you have to pay out of pocket for another thing.” But at the end of the day, the costs generally end up falling on the patient. I get this question all the time. They’re like, what’s the best state to have an abortion? And I’m like, there technically isn’t one, because not having an abortion ban does not mean that it’s easy or even possible to get an abortion, right?

Anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers exist in blue states because they are everywhere. Nationally there are three crisis pregnancy centers for every one abortion clinic. In New York City, and I want to be clear, I said New York City, CPCs, as we call them, they outnumber abortion clinics. They specifically situate themselves next to the abortion clinics in hopes that you will be confused.

RM: Not to mention the fact that CPCs will generally name themselves similarly or practically the same name as the abortion clinic that they’re next to. A lot of them have choice in their name because they want to confuse you as much as possible. One of the things that’s interesting about the ineedana.com website and how it got started is that the founder was looking for an abortion and had to go to Yelp to find their options because it’s really confusing if you just try to Google abortion clinics near you.

And so the ineedana.com website, you can go and find where abortion access is in your state, whether it’s online or in a physical clinic, and what states are closest to you.

RBS: I’ve been to a couple of these anti-abortion clinics and they are nuts. They’ll tell you things that are straight-up not true. They basically told me that birth control doesn’t work. They also told me that if you take abortion pills, you’re just passing the pregnancy and it’s now in our water system, and so our water just has abortion pills and blood and fetus parts in the water. It’s truly wild the things that they will say.

In other words, now that I’ve gone through an entire rant, yes, even in your perfect little blue state, abortion is treated like a very limited, kind of shameful, definitely expensive procedure. On that really depressing note, we are so excited to talk to someone who’s actively helping folks access abortions. Here is our conversation with Chelsea Williams-Diggs.

RM: Well, welcome. Thank you for being here. Can you just introduce yourself and the New York Abortion Access Fund?

Chelsea Williams-Diggs: Sure. My name is Chelsea Williams-Diggs. I’m the interim Executive Director of the New York Abortion Access Fund or NYAAF for short. I am a reproductive justice activist, a student of abolition, a lifelong Black feminist, and someone who’s just really grateful to be in this movement at this time. I often say I’m in the right place at the wrong time as an ED of an abortion fund in this space.

And NYAAF or the New York Abortion Access Fund is New York’s statewide fund. We’re only fund in New York, and we support anyone living in or traveling to the state of New York who needs help paying for an abortion.

RM: Love it. I think it might be helpful to just explain how NYAAF works with other abortion funds around the country.

Williams-Diggs: So NYAAF is a member of the National Network of Abortion Funds or NNAF. The National Network of Abortion Funds is basically a membership organization that supports and connects abortion funds across the country. There’s over a hundred funds mostly in the U.S. who are doing mostly local work of supporting their community members and those folks traveling to their communities access abortion. Prior to Dobbs, we had been in deep community with abortion funds across the country, so that looks like, you are a fund in Florida or somewhere else, and someone is coming up to New York.

We’re in conversation with you all. We might be splitting the cost if there are certain things that some funds do that other funds don’t. The magic of abortion funds, and I think the tragedy of the reality of this work is how much collaboration there are as we speak, email threads with dozens of abortion funds trying to work together to get the money together to support someone. We’ve seen other abortion funds really show up for our callers that have no connection to their state or anything.

So it’s a really beautiful community and I’ve been really blessed and count myself lucky to know so many amazing folks in abortion funds across the country. They are truly the best folks, truly.

RBS: One of the things that really frustrates me is when people in states where abortion isn’t criminalized, rest on their laurels and look at the other states with pity saying like, “Oh, that won’t happen here. It’s so good that we have access here.” And I feel like you know this better than anyone, that abortions can still be extremely difficult to access in states like New York that are considered bastions of access, right? Can you talk about that disconnect? What are people missing?

Williams-Diggs: Thank you, Renee. I hear you so much. Everyday frustration about the way that folks, particularly within New York and other states, talk about this work and how often it can be rooted in a savior complex talking about, “Oh, those folks in those other states in the south.” And I think there’s a lot of pieces to it. But I think first and foremost when we are talking about abortion access, we know that this work isn’t siloed from other issues of injustice. No matter what state or city you are in, reproductive justice has not been realized.

Definitely not in our country, and we know that’s true because again, it’s connected to all these other issue areas. So that’s one piece. I think getting them more into specifics, we know that blue states are not immune to any type of inequity, especially when we think about income inequality when we think about policing, they really show up in New York State and New York City in really palpable ways that directly create barriers to folks accessing abortion.

My other frustration is just the disconnect between talking points and on-the-ground realities and implementation. I think most folks don’t fully understand what it can look like on the ground at different clinics, at different points in pregnancy when you have different experiences, right?

RBS: I feel like something I’ve explained to people is that the clinic can be right across the street from your house, but if you don’t have somebody to watch your kids if you can’t afford it, it doesn’t matter. You just can’t get to it and I think that people really need to understand that.

And one thing you’ve talked about is how the Dobbs ruling overturning Roe v. Wade has really increased demand for abortion funding at the New York Abortion Access Fund in such a way that it has caused real strain to the organization. How does something like Dobbs change the way that NYAAF operates and abortion provision overall?

Williams-Diggs: Everything really started to change around SBA in Texas in September. What year was that? 2021, at this point. I can’t even keep up with all the years. It’s been decades, and it also feels like just yesterday. So I think that is when things really started to shift, I would say for NYAAF, but for abortion funds across the country, and then of course Dobbs changed everything. So of course I want to remind folks that abortion funds have existed long before the fall of Roe or the Dobbs decision.

A lot of the initial reaction is like, “Wait, abortion funds already exist, support them. We got this.” Which on one end was true, and on the other end, if I’m being frank, our movement while we had the existing infrastructure, the amount of demand really is stretching us often. At NYAAF, I am our first and only paid staff member, so we want to hold those two truths at the same time to say we have the existing expertise and the infrastructure and we are running out of money and we’re exhausted.

So what I’ve been saying wherever I can is that we are absolutely in a crisis and it doesn’t feel like everyone either knows, or to be honest sometimes cares, about this level of crisis that we’re in. Since the Dobbs decision, we’ve obviously been seeing a lot of folks traveling to New York. We’ve supported folks from now 30 states, DC, the Virgin Islands, so we’re seeing folks from everywhere. And we know part of that is because of course, as I mentioned, when one state bans abortion, we all feel it.

It’s been a huge influx of folks. At the same time, we’re seeing actually an increase of resident New Yorkers accessing our care, which is a great thing. We want folks to know that NYAAF exists, that abortion funds exist. But at the same time, when we’re running out of money and we’re not seeing the level of support that’s necessary to really meet this moment, it puts us in a really difficult situation. So in 2023, we are on track to move well over $2 million.

We’ve already moved, I believe, just over one point something million dollars. And once again, reminding folks that this is one staff member and a group of volunteers. So in comparison, in 2021, we moved just over $500,000 in 2021. In 2020 NYAAF moved just under $200,000. And we know that this is a long fight, and as states continue to pass bans and other restrictions, more and more folks are going to need to travel for care.

RM: We just want to get into what the barriers are for real on the ground for folks in New York.

Williams-Diggs: So I’ll start from the beginning. So abortion funds pay for abortions. So folks often think that they know how much an abortion costs. And in fact, I don’t know if y’all are fans of the rapper Latto. But she has a song out and there’s a remix with Cardi B, where she says some version of, I’m probably not going to get this lyric right. Where she says, “I’ll spend that 500 before I ever trap you.” Basically alluding to the fact that she would have an abortion before she’d ever trap someone. I was happy.

I was like, “Okay, Latto knows how much an abortion costs generally, or at least the first trimester in abortion. So in New York though, abortion can be more expensive. Surprise. So in New York, first-trimester abortion averages around $600, and that includes medication abortion at clinics in New York as well as procedural abortions. Abortions later in pregnancy can be… Honestly, every week I get a new number. So I used to say it can be more than $20,000. And then we got another abortion that was like $25,000.

I think this week we officially hit the over $30,000 mark. That is a lot of money. I think the general statistic is most Americans don’t have a couple of hundred bucks for any emergency. So if you’re talking about anything from $600 to $30,000 for the procedure itself, then of course we’re thinking about hotel costs, travel costs, childcare, lost wages. We’ve had people travel from out of state here and thought that they could pay for their Uber from the hotel or from the airport to the hotel, and then suddenly they see their cost and, “We can’t do this.”

We’ve got emergency calls, “Can somebody help me? I’m stuck at JFK.” So then taking maybe perhaps a step back, “Okay, why are people paying out of pocket if New York has all these other great protections?” So New York is one of, I think 17 states where Medicaid covers abortion. New York also has this new thing that any New York state regulated insurance must cover abortion, and in most cases must cover abortion without copay or deductible.

So it’s like, well, then who possibly have to pay for an abortion out of pocket except for, again, folks maybe coming from out of state? There are some clinics that don’t accept Medicaid or insurance either at all or after certain gestational limits. So there are folks every day that call NYAAF that have Medicaid or have insurance, but the clinic that they’re going to for a variety of reasons does not accept it. This happens all the time. Which means that NYAAF is effectively filling in that gap between what is a policy, a law, and what is the actual reality on the ground.

Then, of course, there are folks who live in New York, but their insurance is not regulated by New York state. So for example, a federal employee, someone in the armed services. Suddenly the Hyde Amendment creeps back up and it’s like, “What’s up? We’re here.” Then of course, there’s people who are uninsured, but make too much money for Medicaid. Happens all the time. And then of course, you have folks who are undocumented, young folks and other people who maybe do have insurance but don’t want to use it for privacy reasons.

That’s a huge thing as well. And then of course, what does access actually look like at the state level? We see people often traveling from upstate New York, other parts of the state to New York City to access care. And that’s really difficult. That’s several hours on a bus or a train or a drive. That’s again, hotel costs, all those things. And then of course, the policing crisis.

And again, as we think about the particular experiences of folks who are Black, brown, undocumented, all these folks with disabilities, all these other experiences that make day-to-day life difficult, that make walking down the street dangerous on a regular day. You heightened that in this moment of trying to access abortion care where there’s so much attention on these health centers.

RBS: No, it’s so much, and I think people don’t realize how much and how intricate it truly is. There’s a lot of headlines where a city or a state is like, “We’re putting X, Y, Z amount of money in our budget to give to this abortion fund to fund abortions.” And I think a lot of people are like, “Oh my gosh, that’s wonderful. That’s so exciting.”

Can you walk us through what that means in a process when New York City says, we’re going to give money to NYAAF to pay for New Yorkers abortions or the state? What does that actually look like? Is that real?

Williams-Diggs: Is that real? That’s a great question. Is anything real? So New York City was the first city to allocate municipal funding for abortion access. They did this in 2019. It was a huge deal. And I think was, in many ways, one of the first actions of New York City in a while to really stamp itself again as an abortion-access city. NYAAF at the time was still all volunteer-led. We still mostly are, and we were obviously excited to get this additional funding.

I think what cities and states have opportunities to do is to fund abortion directly and to do that, of course, by investing in abortion funds, but also to make sure that you’re doing it in a way that is as barrier free as possible. So with New York City, they did a reimbursement model, which inherently put all other things aside, means that you don’t get the money until you’ve already spent it. Which as an organization that’s actively running out of money currently, that’s tough.

And when we think about other abortion funds and other cities following suit and other cities have done things slightly differently. I know in Philadelphia, they did not do a reimbursement model. It was just like, here have your money. We believe that our public dollars should be going directly to fund abortion. But ultimately it’s been a really difficult process to receive that money and to date, we’ve only received a small fraction of the total amount allocated to us year over year.

RBS: Let’s talk about then the state, right? The New York State government has largely sidestepped directly funding abortions the way that New York City has. And instead they created a fund to help providers increase their capacity and provide security, and I think those things are absolutely important. The question is, how effective do you think these measures are in terms of fixing the overall systemic conditions that make abortion funding necessary to begin with?

Williams-Diggs: So we love our providers in New York, and we absolutely believe that they should be getting additional state funding to ensure that they have the staffing, the training, and of course the security that they need. But ultimately, the providers are one part of an ecosystem that make access possible. So it’s really important that we look at these issues holistically and really understand what, again, it looks like on the ground. New York has not funded abortion access directly. They’ve only funded providers.

So it is very frustrating from our perspective to say, yes, New York is a safe haven. Yes, New York is an abortion access state. But if you can’t pay for it, what happens? And again, I struggle with this a bit because as I think about the ecosystem largely, I try to both honor the work of abortion funds and honor the work of NYAAF without overly being like, we are the end all be all, right? Which again, can sometimes be so hard when you’re so passionate about your work. But to some degree, NYAAF is New York’s only abortion fund, right?

So right now, if NYAAF runs out of funds, if NYAAF has to start turning away callers, that means that directly then people aren’t able to access abortion. And that then means that all the things that we’re saying and speeches are not actually being realized. And I will say, I do understand to some degree, so many people still don’t know what abortion funds are, and they don’t fully understand the importance of their work. So I think this is why this conversation’s important.

And I think this is perhaps my biggest takeaway is how important it is to trust abortion funds. Elevate and trust them as experts in this work. I think that is super, super clear, and it’s super important that both city government, state government, philanthropy, other folks in the reproductive rights, health, justice movement really understand and honor the expertise of abortion funds in general, but specifically in this moment. It’s so, so important.

RM: So is there anything else that we didn’t talk about that you’d like to talk about?

Williams-Diggs: One thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about is the immigration injustices, right? And the many asylum seekers that are coming into the US and New York specifically, and the ways that intersects with abortion access. We get these calls sometimes that just truly lay bare all the ways that all the systems are failing our most marginalized. New York City and New York State positioning itself as a safe haven for folks who are migrating into this country.

We’ve seen great reporting on the ways that is actually much more complex in reality for folks who are finding themselves here after often very difficult journeys and even worse treatment in other parts of the US, quite literally being bused here. I think about that a lot, and I think about again, how New York City and New York State can do so much better. What does that look like to make sure that undocumented folks can have access to Medicaid throughout the state?

What does it mean to, again, think about healthcare more broadly, to think about immigration justice? One more thing that’s also been on my mind a lot lately is about really centering the experiences of folks having abortions later in pregnancy. For me, it’s just so important. It’s not always politically expedient or whatever to see blue states or Democrats or liberals often shying away from talking about that. I really want to make sure that folks understand that abortion funds support all people, right?

NYAAF does not have any eligibility requirements or cutoffs. And abortion funds are seeing, of course, many folks who are getting abortions later in pregnancy. And those abortions are often very expensive. And again, folks have abortions later in pregnancy for many reasons. They say, if you support the most marginalized, everyone wins. So if we center folks who are having abortions later in pregnancy, we all win, right?

If more providers provide abortions later in pregnancy, we all win. There is no such thing as abortion freedom anywhere, right? Abortion, liberation, reproductive justice, anywhere. And there are so many reasons why that’s the case, and I’d argue one of the ways to get there is to center the experiences of folks having abortions later in pregnancy.

RM: Thank you. And then in every episode, we’re asking our guests to give a call to action to our listeners. You’ve mentioned several, but if there’s a resource you think people listening to the podcast should check out or contribute to, you can totally say NYAAF, but this is your time for your call to action.

Williams-Diggs: So wherever you live, wherever it is, find your local abortion fund and support them in all the ways. Of course, giving them money is magic. That’s where it all happens. Becoming a recurring donor, even if it’s five bucks a month, give what you can. If you can’t give, that’s totally fine, but following them on social media, supporting them when they have events, and really just seeing what’s going on with them.

Your local abortion fund is your home for abortion expertise. They are the ones who understand what abortion access looks like in your community. They’re the ones who can tell you where they need support, where we can all do better. So find your local abortion fund, please, and donate directly and support them directly.

RBS: I love it. Chelsea, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. We are so thankful for all the work that you do, and we really enjoyed the conversation. So thank you.

Williams-Diggs: Thank you, Regina. Thank you, Renee. Have a good one.

RBS: Chelsea is so great. She’s doing really crucial work in New York with such a small team, and we are so grateful that she took time out of her day to talk with us. I loved that conversation.

RM: And I definitely want to reiterate her point about abortion funds filling in these gaps that state and federal lawmakers have created, and the folks at these funds are real people, volunteers who are exhausted. The fact of the matter is abortion funds continue to exist in those states because the need continues to exist in those states. But guess what, Renee? People in power could actually do something about this. It’s wild.

I know. There’s several bills if they’re put into place, could actually help to address this systemic issue by doing things like ending the Hyde Amendment, which is what the EACH Act would do. And then there’s this new bill that Representative Ayanna Pressley introduced not that long ago called the Abortion Justice Act, and she did that alongside some We Testify storytellers, right?

RBS: Yes. It was monumental. Basically, Representative Pressley wrote a bill that would protect people seeking abortions and providers from criminalization. And that’s really critical, and honestly, what we should have done from the beginning. It also calls for investment in abortion care training, research, doulas for everybody. Oprah voice, “You get a doula, you get a doula, you get a doula.” And of course, everyone needs a doula and it would require insurance to cover abortion care.

In addition to establishing a federal legal right to an abortion and spontaneous abortion care, also known as miscarriage. It’s really trying to address all of the systemic barriers that our healthcare system and pro-choice politicians have generally left to the side in favor of just calling for the right to abortion, barely and not real access. And I know you might be thinking, “Okay, that’s a cute little bill, but it’s a pipe dream.”

We need pipe dreams to keep people energized and also to talk about what is a vision, and it’s what we would call in the movement a messaging bill. So we can have it out there, we can talk about it. We can really say, this is the vision, this is what we’d like to do. States can emulate it. They have legislation that they can copy, and then hopefully one day people will be supportive of it.

Representatives, as you contact them constantly, they will sign on and then we’ll eventually have the votes, and it won’t be a bill. It will be the Abortion Justice Act, and it’ll be law of the land. We need to show up, make our dreams are reality, show up for the Abortion Justice Act.

RM: And the EACH Act.

RBS: And the EACH Act.

RM: All right, now it’s time for our final segment called There are Other Books. This is the part of the show where we discuss a fictional depiction of abortion that isn’t The Handmaid’s Tale because we’re tired of talking about that one.

RBS: So tired.

RM: Any book, anything at all, as long as it isn’t The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood or the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

RBS: But actually Regina, we’re switching it up this week. We are doing… There are other movies.

RM: Yes. All right, so we’re going to be talking today about Little Woods. I have been wanting to watch this movie for a long time. I’m so glad I finally had an excuse to sit down and watch it because if you have a toddler, it is really hard to watch an actual movie from start to finish. I did watch it, but in parts, but I made it happen. So anyway, Little Woods, it’s about two estranged sisters in North Dakota who are just trying to survive, just trying to get by. One sister, Tessa Thompson.

She’s on parole after getting caught selling drugs she picked up in Canada since they’re not that far from the border. And her sister played by Lily James is already a mom, and she finds out in the movie that she’s pregnant again by her son’s father. And so Lily James’s character knows that she cannot handle another child. At one point, I remember her saying something like how she’s barely making it with just her one child. And it’s true, they’re living in a van that’s illegally parked in a parking lot.

The van is actually pretty cozy and she’s doing everything she can possibly do to make sure all of her son’s needs are met but clearly she’s struggling to get by. She’s also attending school, working as a waitress. She brings her son to work with her. And so another child would just be extremely difficult, if not impossible for her. So she decides she wants an abortion. And Renee, you wrote a really great piece for the Washington Post when the movie came out about the abortion in Little Woods and how it’s different from other movies. Do you want to talk about it?

RBS: Yes. I love this movie. So first off, the sisters are adopted, and what I love is that when Lily James’s character wants an abortion, Tessa Thompson’s character is actually really supportive. She’s not like, “Oh, well, I’m adopted and you shouldn’t do that.” I also think that it’s really wonderful because it shows a full spectrum of why someone might choose to have an abortion. It’s one of the few depictions with a character who’s choosing an abortion, who is already parenting, who is dealing with financial logistical barriers.

Because they’re in North Dakota, which at the time North Dakota only had one clinic, so it was easier for them to try to go to Canada to get free healthcare there. I won’t spoil how they do it, but it’s actually really interesting and quite creative. And I think it’s this really nuanced depiction that parallels lack of access to abortion with lack of access to healthcare overall. They’re in this North Dakota town. Tessa Thompson’s character has been charged for the drugs she’s bringing over the border from Canada because it’s cheaper over there.

It’s like Oxycontin and other painkillers and people need them. A lot of the guys are working on these oil rigs. It’s an oil boom town. And so they have a lot of long-lasting pain from this backbreaking work. And they don’t have health insurance. They can’t really go see the doctor. They need this medication.

RM: It takes up six or seven hours if they have to sit in the waiting room to see the doctor. Even then, they might not see the doctor and they have to work. They need that money.

RBS: They need to work. They don’t have paid leave. And so it shows how all of these things can be impacted at the same time. And so it’s just this entire system makes it really difficult for people to be healthy. And so I just love that abortion is a larger piece of that.

RM: I just want to reiterate too, how important it is that there is a depiction of a parent showing how having an abortion is in so many ways a parenting decision. The moments between Lily James’ character and her son were some of the hardest moments for me as a parent because you could see how hard she was trying to give her son the absolute best life in the circumstances she was in. And that is the reality for a lot of people.

It may very well come down to what is the best life that I can possibly give the child I already have? And so I just wanted to reiterate, this is one of the rarest depictions of abortion from a parent’s perspective, and they do it in such a gentle way.

RBS: The director, Nia DaCosta, is this amazing director, phenomenal Black director. She also did Candyman, I love horror films so that movie is great too.

RM: I didn’t know that.

RBS: Yes, she directed that as well. And so she’s really fantastic and I really, really love the film.

RM: There’s so many other movies.

RBS: You don’t have to only watch The Handmaid’s Tale, so I love it. Well, that’s all for us. So for a reading list, links to the articles and the books that we’ve mentioned today and more information, visit our website at wearethemeteor.com/theafiles

RM: See you next time.

RBS: The A Files is produced for The Meteor by LWC Studios. Our hosts are me, Renee Bracey Sherman, and Regina Mahone.

RM: Our executive producers at The Meteor are me, Regina Mahone, Renee Bracey Sherman, Cindy Levy, and Tara Abrahams.

RBS: At LWC Studios, our executive producer is Juleyka Lantigua. Paulina Velasco is our managing producer, and our producer is Anne Lim. Kojin Tashiro is our sound designer and engineer.

RM: This podcast is produced with support from The Meteor Fund, The Meteor’s nonprofit initiative. Additional thanks to Pop Culture Collaborative for their support. You can support us by subscribing to The A Files wherever you get your podcasts. And please take a second to rate us, five stars please and leave us a review. It would mean a lot.

RBS: For links to any resources mentioned in this episode or more information, visit our website at wearethemeteor.com/theafiles. You can follow us on social media. I am @RBraceySherman on Twitter and Renee Bracey Sherman on Instagram. And for Regina @byreginamahone on Twitter and Instagram. You can follow The Meteor @themeteor on all platforms. Thanks for listening. Thanks for saying the word abortion. And remember, everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion.

CITATION:

Bracey Sherman, Renee, and Mahone, Regina, host. “Busting the ‘Blue State’ Myth.” The A Files, The Meteor and Lantigua Williams & Co., January 24, 2024. Themeteor.com/theafiles

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE A FILES

The A Files - Episode 2

EPISODE 2 – EVERYONE LOVES SOMEONE WHO’S HAD AN ABORTION

Abortion stigma is so baked into our culture that even some pro-choice politicians won’t say the word. But Renee and Regina will! Abortion! In this episode, they sit down with Dr. Tracy Weitz to understand where the stigma comes from, why even popular slogans like “safe, legal, and rare” perpetuate it, and what a world without stigma would actually look like. (Plus, Renee explains how “everyone loves someone…” ended up on Saturday Night Live.) And in There Are Other Books, it’s all about the novel House of Cotton by Monica Brashears. 

Regina  Mahone: So many politicians, democratic politicians, won’t say the word abortion. They just won’t say it. Listen to this.

President Biden: The second order I’m signing, relates to protecting women’s health at home and abroad.

Karine Jean-Pierre: The right to choose, critical rights, like the right to healthcare, women’s fundamental rights under Roe v Wade.

President Biden: Access to reproductive healthcare.

RM: It is women’s rights, it is reproductive healthcare, but say the word abortion. Why won’t they just say what they mean?

Renee Bracey Sherman: All of that abortion stigma hurts my brain. Day after you’ve had too many martinis, sunglasses, and Advil. Painful in my brain. The word is just not that hard to say. Abortion. Abortion. Just say it. Try it. Abortion.

Hello and welcome to The A Files: a Secret History of Abortion, a podcast from the Meteor. I’m Renee Bracey Sherman.

RM: And I’m Regina Mahone. Renee and I are friends who talk about abortion.

RBS: A lot. And now we have a podcast about it.

RM: We do. Thank you for joining us for another episode of The A Files, where we’re unpacking another layer of the abortion conversation that has been completely overlooked or erased. Today we’re talking about abortion stigma, what it looks like, how it shows up in our language, and who exactly is responsible for it.

RBS: We also had a really great conversation with Dr. Tracy Weitz of American University about abortion stigma, the past, the present, hopefully, it won’t make it to its future. It’s a great combo.

RM: Later we’re talking about the book House of Cotton by Monica Brashears. But before we get to all of that, Renee, last episode, we promised we’d talk about your connection to a Saturday Night Live sketch where Cecily Strong plays a character named Tammy the Trucker. Let’s play the clip.

Cecily Strong on SNL: … And it’s hard to know what to say to make other truckers feel better. There’s one mother trucking thing we can do to fight for mother trucking freedom to make her own healthcare decisions, and that’s vote, and I hope to hell everyone votes, because remember, we all love someone who’s had an abortion. I mean, drives a truck.

RM: Renee, do you remember hearing that? For those who don’t know our very own Renee Bracey Sherman created the phrase, everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion.

RBS: It was such a wild and surreal experience. I had gone to bed early that Saturday night, and I woke up Sunday morning to tons of texts and messages and DMs, and I was really confused as to what was going on and a lot of congratulations. That’s great. Didn’t know you were working with her. That’s amazing. How did you get that done? I was like, what are you talking about? And then someone sent the clip, and it was really wonderful to watch Cecily Strong once again, share her abortion story, which she had done the year before as Goober, the Clown.

Colin Jost: So Goober, you had an abortion when you were twenty-three?

Cecily Strong: Hey whoa, slow down. I’m a clown. Let’s clown around. Hey, smell this flower.

Colin Jost: You’re not going to squirt me, are you?

Cecily Strong: Oh, I would never.

Colin Jost: Okay.

Cecily Strong: Oh, gotcha, gotcha! I had an abortion the day before my twenty-third birthday.

RBS: And to be able to talk about it in such a fun, creative, but also honest way, and to say something, like everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion, to bring that message to the masses through SNL, was huge, particularly as we’ve been pushing that message for a long time because we want to center love and support in abortion stories, but I’ve been told for years that messaging doesn’t test well, we don’t know if people will actually like it. It’s too long. We don’t know if it’s factually accurate. The excuses really are quite extraordinary. And so it was really wonderful to see the message used in such a beautiful way, and since then, to see it on signs at rallies and really just see people loving it. I couldn’t have been more thrilled.

RM: It’s striking to me that Cecily Strong is willing to say this on live television, but so many actual elected officials, especially President Joe Biden, have a million chances to do it but don’t. They won’t even say the word abortion.

Joe Biden: It reinstates the changes that remain Title X and other things, making it harder for women to have access to affordable healthcare as it relates to reproductive rights.

RBS: We didn’t do it, Joe.

RM: This is abortion stigma, plain and simple, right?

RBS: Absolutely. This has been going on for so long. My organization, We Testify, created a campaign because we were so frustrated with seeing the president unable to just say the word abortion. Our campaign was, say Abortion Joe, and it just seemed so simple, but it started to get comical as soon as he was elected and took office that his press secretary would get asked about abortion and then she would do anything to not say the word abortion, started just making up phrases, like a woman’s constitutional right to make decisions about her own body as protected by Roe v Wade. You know what’s shorter than that? Just saying the word abortion.

And at first, we thought it was a bit of a fluke, but then we started to notice that it was actually an ongoing thing, particularly as they would issue statements about the Roe v Wade decision, commemorating it, and not use the word abortion. It was wild. But this didn’t start with Joe Biden. This is something that I think politicians, particularly Democrats, have had a hard time with for a long time, which is so ironic because they’re the party that runs on abortion rights and gets elected by people who support abortion rights.

RM: Exactly. And President Biden, when he does talk about abortion, he’s always hedging. He recently was saying, oh, I’m not that big on abortion because of his religion, because he’s Catholic. But there are so many people who are religious and are big on abortion, and so clearly it’s just an excuse that he’s using to do the absolute bare minimum when it comes to protecting abortion rights.

RBS: I mean, for the record, I’m super big, very, very, very big, bigly, very bigly on abortion. Love it, big on abortion, so big. But I do think that when he leans into his religiosity, it makes it seem like this is a really difficult issue for him, and maybe it is internally, but also like sir, you’re at work. You signed up to show up–

RM: You are at work.

RBS: –for people, are at work for people who have abortions and everyone else. You signed up to be a pro-choice president, so fucking be it. The abortion rights movement is constantly getting beat up on. We have lost access to abortion. Who cares that you’re not big on abortion? Who cares?

RM: Who cares? Ambivalence like that is so unhelpful, especially when we’re fighting an anti-abortion movement that honestly has been super successful in changing laws without even having the White House. And it’s just wild, just wild, to see such hesitant leadership now, especially when in the past abortion activists had really radical goals. How did we go from abortion on demand to the right to choose as defined under Roe v Wade or whatever?

RBS: Actually, let’s talk about how we got to this point where Democrats are so weak on abortion. And yes, dear listeners before you say, but Renee, Republicans are the ones banning abortion. Stop criticizing the people who are trying to help. Yeah, I mean, we’ll get to that, but also, Republicans aren’t the party that promised to protect abortion if elected. Democrats did. Republicans told us exactly what they were going to do, and unfortunately, they’ve done it. I think that we need to talk about and challenge the Democrats who said that they’re here to help us but are actually harming us along the way.

RM: Republicans did tell us exactly what they were going to do, and part of that was with the language they chose. Renee, you probably already know this, but I appreciate you playing along. Did you know that the term pro-life was originally used by progressive folks?

RBS: What? Oh my gosh. Tell me more.

RM: I appreciate you, Renee. So one person in particular, A.S. Neal, a Scottish author who is all about the free school movement, used it in a book in 1960, but the year is important. The free school movement, it’s this idea that was embraced by the counterculture movement of the sixties. They felt there should be alternative schools for kids outside the public school system. A.S. Neal wrote in one of his many books about education, “No pro-life citizen would tolerate our penal code, our hangings, our punishments of homosexuals, our attitudes towards bastardy.” And the Oxford English Dictionary actually cites this as the first modern use of the term, and it was in 1960. Again, I said that year was important. It was in the late 1960s that the phrase was appropriated by the anti-abortion movement to talk about its biased, completely unscientific perspective on abortion rights. The Right to Life League, which if you go to its website, it considers itself to be the first pro-life organization in the country, didn’t actually form until 1967, so seven years after Neal’s book came out.

Fast forward to, of course, Ronald Reagan. He won the presidency in 1980, claiming to be the first pro-life president. And the rest, as we say, is history, except it’s not history at all, because we are living the legacy of pro-life language today. The movement claims to be pro-life, meaning that they support all life, including the lives of embryos and fetuses, which let’s be clear, are potential lives because these new humans haven’t yet been born. But in seeking this claim, the movement could redefine what an abortion meant. Because prior to the modern anti-abortion movement, abortions before quickening, when the pregnant person feels movement in their uterus, abortion wasn’t even controversial. But now we’ve got “life language” abortion becomes a problem on the prenatal health side, not only for folks seeking abortions but for anyone who needs to be able to make decisions about their own body. So this is the sort of pro-life that reproductive justice folks are constantly calling out for being hypocritical.

But of course, the movement also weaponizes language that’s not even based on medicine or science for purely fear-mongering purposes. They’ve created terms like partial-birth abortion, which isn’t a thing, but the term was actually created in 1995 by the National Right to Life Committee, not some doctors, not the medical community, but the National Right to Life. The movement has since moved on to “dismemberment abortion” another really disgusting way to describe a common abortion method. By doing abortions in this way, doctors are trying to prevent unnecessary morbidities that might result if they do an abortion a different way. But because anti-abortion folks have weaponized this language to such a degree, now providers have to use other methods and they may not be the most effective method for having a later abortion.

But the Democrats, as you’ve talked about, have not been doing themselves or pregnant people any favors in their own language choices, right Renee?

RBS: You might hear people say, I’m pro-choice. I’m not pro-abortion. As if to separate the two, making pro-choice seem like a more thoughtful approach that isn’t so abortion-forward. But the truth is that this distinction is swimming in abortion stigma. The pro-choice movement hasn’t always been called this. So basically here’s what happened. According to the book Before Roe v. Wade: Voices that Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court’s Ruling by Linda Greenhouse, there was a huge discussion about what to name the movement after the win for abortion.

And this person named Jimmye Kimmey introduced the framing. Jimmye was the director of the Association for the Study of Abortion, and in 1972 wrote a memo that emphasized the need to find a phrase to counter the Right to Life slogan. So Jimmye Kimmey floated a memo and said, okay, we could call it Right to Choose, Freedom of Conscience, couple of different things. She said she didn’t really like either, but the concept of choice was preferable to that of conscience, and she felt like “A woman’s conscience may well tell her abortion is wrong, but she may choose and must have the right to choose to have one anyway, for compelling, practical reasons.”

Now, I can understand how they came to that language, but part of it was because they were trying to minimize use of the word abortion. Toni Van Pelt, the former president of NOW who resigned in 2020 amid a lot of accusations of racism and being just generally a shitty boss, told Vice News that “We had a big discussion about whether we would say pro-abortion or pro-choice, and we determined that we would go with pro-choice because our goal was women’s self-autonomy. We didn’t want to make it seem like we were pushing abortion on people.” Again, they wanted to take a step back and they wanted to be acceptable to the mainstream.

RM: The concept of pushing abortion on people makes me go bananas. Because the people who created the abortion rights movement in this country were people who had abortions, were people who were focused on repealing abortion laws. People like Pat McGinnis; she’s considered one of the first abortion activists in the country based in California. She, along with two other women, were initially doing abortion referrals in the country after they all had their own abortions. Pat had went to Mexico for hers and said she shouldn’t have to go out of her community for an abortion. And so they started out doing referrals and then really focused the movement on fighting for abortion on demand, repealing abortion laws. The fact that these established, mainstream pro-choice organizations, those radical feminist roots of abortion advocacy and turned it into this, is just hard to wrap your brain around.

We talked in the first episode about reproductive justice and why the framework has been so important. If you haven’t listened to that episode, definitely go back. But it’s worth repeating again how the founders of the movement intentionally centered the experiences of women of color in defining not only what RJ is, but also why it’s crucial for reproductive freedom.

RBS: 100%. I also want to acknowledge the conversations about language that are still happening in the protest movement today. One of the things that’s been a point of contention with transphobes, TERFs, gender essentialists as they’re rebranding themselves or whatever, are insisting on using the word women or some other specific language, this uterus image, just to insist that only cisgender women have abortions and only cisgender women have periods. And of course, they hate the term cisgender, and it’s really frustrating. They’re simply wrong because women, girls, and of course non-binary people and trans men have periods and abortions, and there are girls, women, trans, and non-binary people who also don’t have all of these things. Hello, I have an IUD. I don’t have a period. That’s not what makes us who we are. It’s ridiculous. And I will say I personally don’t enjoy being identified based on my reproductive parts, and I think it’s okay for us to just say that there are people who have abortions and people who haven’t, yet.

But I don’t know. I’ll be honest, this is maybe my hot take, so be ready. I actually don’t like the terms birthing people or people with uteruses because, for me, I am not a birthing person and I am more than my uterus. I don’t like bio-essentialist language or iconography at all. The image is, I don’t know, it’s just really boring to me and for me, and again, I just mean for me, it doesn’t feel representative of my abortion experience. Not to mention it leaves so many groups of people I care about out of the conversation, but we have to be real that inclusion is not solely about language. It’s actually about how you show up. Part of that language matters. Of course, that’s what this entire episode is about, and you can have the best intention for your language, but if your space is not actually inclusive and doesn’t match this language, and doesn’t feel inviting and supportive of trans folks, then what actually is the point?

And I think it’s a deeper issue of patriarchy. Because all trans folks are interested in doing is gatekeeping who gets to identify as a “woman” or a man, and it’s based on white cis-hetero norms. Just because they’re progressive doesn’t mean that they don’t have aggressive ideas of gender. Those ideas are also then put upon black and brown people and how our bodies should look and how we should behave. Of course, language matters, but this language is a signal towards a larger issue of white supremacy and patriarchy and maintaining who gets to exist in the world and who doesn’t.

RM: So that’s an overview of where we’re at with language and abortion stigma. To dig a little deeper, we called up Dr. Tracy Weitz.

RBS: Here’s our conversation with Dr. Weitz.

Hi, Tracy.

Tracy Weitz: Hello, Renee. Hello, Regina.

RM: Hello, thank you for joining us. Can you introduce yourself, Tracy?

Tracy Weitz: Sure. My name is Tracy Weitz. I’m a professor at American University. My friends call me, all abortion all the time. I started volunteering in my first abortion clinic when I was 18 years old, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

RBS: Today we’re talking about the ways that language really reinforces abortion stigma. And of course, you wrote a really hugely influential article about why we should stop using the phrase safe, legal, and rare as a pro-abortion slogan, or really a pro-choice slogan. Can you talk about why it’s so bad? The central thesis of your belief of why that statement is terrible?

Tracy Weitz: The whole idea that it should be safe, legal, and rare suggests that there’s something wrong with abortion. We know there’s nothing wrong with abortion. It’s a normal part of pregnancy outcomes. It’s been here for forever. It’s going to be here for forever, so I’m just opposed to it as a phrase, but then if you take it apart, it’s also problematic. So starting with the last word, which is rare. It’s never going to be rare. I did some statistical calculations in that paper. Even if you look at the contraceptive failure rates for the best contraception, and you imagine that people are fertile from the age of 15 till forty-five, and they use the best contraception methods and they want to be pregnant only two times, you’re still going to have a certain number of abortions, and those are going to happen at such frequency that you’re never going to get to a rare number. So that’s just statistically not possible.

And then the second is, it suggests that we could come to a number and the anti-abortion movement would stop fighting. We would get to a number. They’d be like, “Oh, okay, finally, you got it down low enough that we’re all okay.” So never going to get rare.

Let’s go to the first word, which is safe. And so when one hears a word safe, the first thing that comes to your mind is unsafe. That just suggests that there is unsafe abortion, which unsafe abortion only comes about when it’s illegal. And even when it’s illegal, it’s not necessarily always unsafe. So the whole phrase is wrong and each word is wrong. And I was trying to say that as taking this up as our ideal, just will perpetuate stigma. And it blames people who have abortions for the conflict over abortion. And I don’t really think that we need to blame the people who have abortions for the social conflict over abortion.

RBS: They want rare meaning unthinkable, so we’re just constantly moving the goalpost and catering to people who simply are never going to agree with us.

RM: So good. I don’t know who these people are, but some of our listeners might be skeptical about a focus on language and stigma. How do you think the symbolism of language translates to concrete policy and healthcare? In other words, how these slogans are then going to translate into policy in healthcare?

Tracy Weitz: There’s a whole marketing, billion-dollar industry that figures out how to sell stuff to us. They know that what words they use, what symbols they use, what colors they use, all those things make a huge difference in whether or not you choose product A or product B. And the idea that somehow for issues, like abortion or marriage or religion, we would be neutral in our understanding and not be influenced by language. I think it’s incredibly naive.

Language matters in everything we do. It primes your emotional response and that emotional response primes how you cognitively think about something. Language, I believe, is critically important, and in some ways, people who support abortion haven’t thought enough about language. The anti-abortion movement thinks about it all the time. I don’t know if you read Jessica Valenti’s blog about how the anti-abortion movement has moved from bans to calling these consensus. They get it. We just haven’t. We think that this is an argument over facts. It’s not. It’s an argument over feelings.

RBS: Facts don’t care about your feelings.

RM: So given how ineffective the pro-choice movement’s language has been, how do you think we’ll be able to really shift the dialogue from moderate asks like safe, legal, and rare to something that would actually improve people’s lives?

Tracy Weitz: I think the major challenge happens when the RJ movement presents itself as the counter movement to the pro-choice movement. That’s the first time there’s really a challenge to the idea that legal abortion is not sufficient as an ask. It’s not enough to just keep Roe, which is what the pro-choice movement had become in a sense. And that becomes everything we focus on in the pro-choice movement for the next whatever, 30 years. And so the real challenge comes from the RJ movement who comes forward and says, that focus on legal abortion is not enough. You need both the means to access abortion, but you also need to focus on the right to parent and the right to raise your children. Could go on for a number of reasons about why the reproductive justice movement is never able to disrupt mainstream, the mainstream pro-choice movement. And that much of that has to do with how money is distributed in the United States, both on the philanthropic side, but also on the political side.

As long as politics stays firmly rooted in the Roe, maintenance of Roe is enough, there’s really no dislodging of it. And we see that now. Even with Roe overturned by Dobbs, all we are offering up as an alternative is to codify Roe. We still haven’t disrupted the legal is enough. Even as we are demanding more, and I feel like there’s more momentum and more effort to ask for something bigger.

RBS: I feel like let’s codify Roe is just the policy version of safe, legal and rare. It is nails on a chalkboard to me and drives me nuts. Why do you think that some sections of the pro-choice movement have become more and more moderate and conciliatory? As we’ve been doing the research, there were so many demands, even at the turn of the century with early feminists of free love and ending marriage and all of this stuff as a governmental institution, but also rallying cries of free abortion on demand. What happened to that?

Tracy Weitz: I mean, at every turn, white feminists sell out their sisters and their colleagues of color for access to closeness to white men. I don’t know how else to say it. The power and privilege that white women get from the economic structures that benefit the white male authority, white women, and I would say straight white women in particular, are never willing to trade that security in for any other larger liberatory demand. They want these other things, but not at the expense of the safety and security of, and for the most part, it’s the safety and security of their children whom they have had with these white men. White straight sisters will probably be upset with me, but that’s really fundamentally what stops the revolution from ever happening.

RBS: They’ll get over it. It’s part of the problem. I don’t know. So you and I have known each other a long time and it’s super no secret that you and I do not love a lot of the slogans that are in our movement. We went through safe legal and we’re already, let’s go through a couple others in a lightning round of what sucks about each of them. A decision between a woman and her doctor.

Tracy Weitz: Okay, let’s just say that there are abortions that people need their doctor’s input on. If you have a genetic condition and you don’t know what the probability of that genetic condition in that fetus is, you might ask a doctor to help you decide how to ride that risk. That’s a very small number of times when someone is pregnant. The vast majority of decisions that people are making about abortions have to do with the future of their life, the context of their relationship, whether or not they feel like they’re ready to parent, whether or not they have the economic means to have. None of those things a physician can weigh in on. I have never gone to my physician and said, “Do you think I can pay my electrical bill next month?” The only reason that person is in that phrase is because we think, and in this case, women in that sentence, need a supervisor. This is really about validation from an authority figure that somehow my decision is legitimate.

RBS: I think people in general want to know that someone isn’t alone in making an abortion decision, but the reality is that the reason a lot of people make abortion decision alone is because you stigmatize the shit out of it and they didn’t have anybody to go to, and that person doesn’t need to be a doctor.

Tracy Weitz: Over 90% of people who by the time they arrive at the abortion clinic, are very confident about their decision. That whole idea that somehow they even need that when they get to the abortion clinic is pretty false.

RBS: Throw in Sarah Cowan’s research that people usually tell between one and two people that they’re having an abortion, so it doesn’t have to be a doctor. People are telling someone. So yes, shout out to the research.

RM: But what about our next favorite phrase, the right to choose?

Tracy Weitz: Probably when the phrase was created it was fine, but what people didn’t imagine is that choice as a phrase assumes that people have the means to pick either option. I choose between a red and a blue car. It’s a trivial choice versus the way people think about abortion is it’s actually quite a decision. It’s quite a meaningful thing in people’s lives, and often because of the way we’ve structured the economy in the United States, people don’t actually have all of what they need to be able to choose on both sides. Many people, if they had more economic resources, would actually like to parent the children that they find themselves pregnant with. They don’t regret their decisions. They know this is the decision that they needed to make. But if things could be different in the economy, if people could have more resources, if we actually cared about low-income families, they would like to have made a different decision. And so choice suggests that you have everything you need.

RBS: I think the other thing that just drives me bananas about the phrase is that it gets used instead of the word abortion. It’s the right to choose. To choose what? The right to choose exactly what?

Tracy Weitz: When I hear politicians say, I support the right to choose, what they are saying is I support this conceptual thing, not that I actually support the people who make this decision. That’s the difference is, you support the people, I give you the resources to make that decision, which is a very different thing.

RBS: Yeah, there’s the right, but I’m not actually going to make sure you have the right to do the thing.

RM: Okay, so these next ones are common rallying cries. How about my body, my choice?

Tracy Weitz: As a queer person, as a fatty, these things, the idea of bodily integrity, bodily autonomy, I care a whole bunch about. again, I get the sentiment behind it, but very few people think about their pregnancies as an expression of what I’m doing with my body. It is a piece of the body, but it isn’t what you’re doing. You don’t want the invasion of your body. I don’t want someone to come into my body and take a piece of it. As a country that was built on enslavement, we should care a lot about when we take people’s bodies and we use them against their will.

But my body, my choice makes it again sound flippant. And I think it just truncates away all of what is actually happening in the way in which people care deeply about being able to make these decisions for themselves. And it’s so funny because when it got co-opted by the anti-vaxxers, when they were like, my body, my choice, I just got so angry both by the co-optation, but also you seem ridiculous. And so it was sort of a mirror back to us about, yeah, no, it doesn’t really work as a sentence. Even as it holds some of what we really care about, which is you should not be able to keep me pregnant against my will. That is just fundamentally so wrong, but it’s not, there’s just something that’s quite right about the sentence.

RM: As someone presently pregnant, I think it’s weird to put a focus on your body because people already touch you. I can’t even tell how many people when they see me touch my… And I’m like, I’m sorry. Yes, it’s my body, my choice. But that still doesn’t, people just see you as a body, as a vessel, and they just completely dehumanize you. In a lot of ways that phrase dehumanizes the pregnant person because it just puts the focus on their body again, instead of the actual life and the experience of pregnancy, which no one really chooses the actual symptoms and all of the shit that you go through when you’re pregnant. No one would choose that.

RBS: I think what frustrates me about it is that it’s so individualistic. It’s really important for, yes, of course, bodily autonomy in that, but it doesn’t actually speak to the world that we want to create where it’s, okay, fine, your body, your choice, then you pay for it. You get it yourself. No one in our community needs to help you. We don’t need to make sure that you have the things that you need. At a larger scale, it doesn’t actually talk about what is the reproductive justice world that we are all trying to build. It sticks in the very American individualistic, figure that shit out for yourself type of thinking.

The next one that we’re going to critique is, we won’t go back.

Tracy Weitz: Yeah. It’s just so funny because all of our vision is actually backward-looking. We would like to codify Roe and we would like to overturn Hyde, and it assumes that there is a back to go to. We remember a time, prior to the 1960s, an era in which lots of people died of illegal abortion. And so we are drawing on a trope in which we are saying, if you make it illegal, we’re going to go back to those days when people are going to die. So that’s the trope. And so it’s in the wrong space because we know that today we have means of managing our own abortions when it’s illegal, that can be very safe, and those times just don’t exist. We’ve already gone back on civil rights. We’ve already gone back on voting rights. White women’s dystopia is separate from the rest of all of the horrors that are going on. And so we aren’t going back as if things are great except for this piece, and it’s just humorous because that’s all we’re asking for, currently in the movement, is to go back.

RBS: I think what’s lit for me is challenging about our movement’s phrasing overall, is that it’s not forward thinking. It’s not very visionary. It’s not saying what is the world that we want to build? We often define ourselves by what of our opposition we don’t want instead of actually what is the alternative that we are trying to create. And, as you pointed out, with white supremacy, both political parties do benefit from that, so then we’d have to discuss who actually is our opposition, because I believe anti-abortion Dems are our opposition and others in our movement do not.

RM: Is there anything we didn’t talk about today, around abortion stigma, around language that you can think of that you’d like to talk about?

Tracy Weitz: Well, one that I just want to call out Renee’s work for so many years in centering the people who have had abortions. It still shocks me that this movement is not centered on and led by people who have had abortions. But whenever we ask what’s happening on the ground, how is this impacting people? We never turn to the people who have abortions. I think it still reflects the deepest stigma in our movement, which is we’re still uncomfortable with the fact that people have abortions and we cannot get over that. And until we get over that the whole reason that we are fighting for this is so that people will have abortions, and in fact, maybe more people will have abortions because there’ll be less stigma and people will feel less bad about contemplating the decision or seeking abortion care, so that’s the piece that still really strikes me is that we’re not over that.

RM: Do you have the call to action to listeners? I don’t know if it’s centering people who have abortions or something else, but what do you think?

Tracy Weitz: My call to action is always the same, which is say abortion. If you’re in favor of abortion, say that you’re in favor of abortion. And if you have people in your life who are against abortion, take them on. It is not okay to say, we agree to disagree, because agreeing to disagree has actually led to the election of people who have criminalized abortion and have made abortion illegal and have made it impossible for people to get abortions or have made it impossible for people to pay for abortions or have created the social stigma. So get over the conflict, engage in the conflict, disagree with people about abortion, break through to the other side.

RBS: That was such a great conversation. As Dr. Weitz said, speaking of changing language, this June, Jessica Valenti had a great article on the new changed language from the anti-abortion movement. Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, has switched from pushing abortion bans to no longer using the word ban and instead replacing it with the word standard or consensus, two really boring non-threatening words that clearly don’t mean what they actually mean. They act like ban is inaccurate because technically people could still have abortions if they, I don’t know, traveled across the states or had a ton of money to circumvent all the laws, but it’s actually absolute bullshit.

RM: It is so important that folks in the media pay close attention to shifts like this in the language. It is their way of trying to normalize what is, in fact, as Renee pointed out, an unpopular opinion. Abortion should be legal, but as consumers of media, you can also be active in pushing back against this language too. I also think Dr. Weitz brought up a really great point about how a proximity to whiteness comes up again and again in power dynamics between pro-choice folks and lawmakers and how that blocks actual progress. I honestly haven’t stopped thinking about that point. And even though stigma is obviously reproduced at the media and government levels, there are other things we can do to address it when it comes up in our daily lives and interactions.

RBS: I think it’s so simple. Just say the word abortion. When I write op-eds, sometimes people want to change my language and I work with editors to explain, here’s why I’m very careful about the words that I use to push back. No, I’m saying the word abortion. No, I’m calling it a ban. No, this is how I’m talking about it. And I think that’s the education that we have to constantly do. Talking to our peers, getting them to understand that words mean things. Words really matter, because it’s conveying a feeling. It’s conveying a vision of the world that we want to create, and the people who are most impacted are listening.

RM: Great. Now it’s time for a final segment, There Are Other Books.

This is a time for us to take a moment to acknowledge the many abortion stories and narratives that are not the 1985 novel, the Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

RBS: Everyone loves it, and yet we all know about it. There are tons of other excellent novels that feature people of color and include abortion. It’s just one part of a larger, more complex narrative, and I’m excited about today’s book. Do you want to talk about it, Regina?

RM: Yes, I do. I’ve been waiting all week to talk about it. We are talking about House of Cotton. It’s the debut novel by Monica Brashears who describes herself as an Affrilachian from Tennessee, which I love and couldn’t wait to say out loud. It’s considered a black Southern Gothic fiction book. When Renee told me about it, I immediately ordered a copy of the book. Actually, it was probably the IG Reels, the author playing her main character.

RBS: Yeah, they were a fun little get ready with me style Instagram video where the author Monica Brashears puts on makeup and gets dressed as her character, a young biracial black woman named Magnolia whose grandmother recently died. And she’s starting a new job where she’s working for a funeral home, acting as an impersonator for people whose loved ones went missing, so they never had a chance to say goodbye or have a real funeral. And she has to read a file to learn about the character. And then her boss’s aunt does her makeup and outfits, and the story goes on from there.

RM: Oh my goodness, the plot is so good. But the thing I love most about the book is that while it’s definitely about an abortion, it’s also not the abortion that defines the character or even what drives the narrative. The worst kind of abortion storyline, in my opinion, is one where it’s the only defining thing about the person.

Don’t get me wrong, abortions can absolutely have that kind of impact on a person’s life. At the same time, we all live complicated lives and have relationships and interests that extend beyond any one thing or moment in our lives. So the fact that Magnolia is such a beautifully thought-through and complex person is what really was, I think, the most admirable thing about the book, the writing, the character development. Also, it was a self-managed abortion, which I think I texted you about this, Renee, while I was sitting at the pool. It was my birthday weekend reading the book, and I was just blown away. The fact that I think this has to be really rare in modern literature, at least in the books you and I have read, and you’ve read damn near all of them, at this point.

RBS: Yeah, I somehow have this really weird knack for picking up a random book, and then there’s a surprise abortion in it. This one was actually recommended to me by my friend Dr. Gretchen Sisson, who researches abortion on television, but she also didn’t know there was an abortion in it. Anyway, I really love this one because it’s a bit gothic, a bit mysterious, and the characters are imperfect.

Throughout the book, Magnolia engages in sex work and is making decisions about a pregnancy and decides to self-manage because she wants to save money and doesn’t want to encounter protesters. She’s also deeply grieving the loss of her grandmother, whose spirit she’s talking to and discusses her decisions and options with. I love the complexity and the steadfastness of Magnolia and what she brings to her abortion decision, and really just the story overall. Also, the cover of the book is stunning. It’s gorgeous, and I am truly a sucker for a beautiful book cover. You should read House of Cotton by Monica Brashears.

RM: And do you know why? Because there are other books.

RBS: There are other books.

RM: All right, that’s it for The A Files Today. See you next time.

RBS: Abortion over everything.

The A Files is produced for The Meteor by LWC Studios. Our hosts are me, Renee Bracey Sherman, and Regina Mahone.

RM: Our executive producers at The Meteor are me, Regina Mahone, Renee Bracey Sherman, Cindy Leive, and Tara Abrahams

RBS: At LWC Studios, our executive producer is Juleyka Lantigua. Paulina Velasco is our managing producer, and our producer is Anne Lim. Kojin Tashiro is our sound designer and engineer.

RM: This podcast is produced with support from the Meteor Fund, the Meteor’s nonprofit initiative. Additional thanks to Pop Culture Collaborative for their support. You can support us by subscribing to The A Files wherever you get your podcasts. And please take a second to rate us, five stars please, and leave us a review. It would mean a lot.

RBS: For links to any resources mentioned in this episode or more information, visit our website at themeteor.com/theafiles. You can follow us on social media. I’m @rbraceysherman on Twitter and Renee Bracey Sherman on Instagram, and for Regina @byreginamahone on Twitter and Instagram. You can follow the Meteor @themeteor on all platforms. Thanks for listening. Thanks for saying the word abortion. And remember, everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion.

CITATION:

Bracey Sherman, Renee, and Mahone, Regina, host. “We’re Past “Safe, Legal, and Rare.” The A Files, The Meteor and Lantigua Williams & Co., January 17, 2024. Themeteor.com/theafiles

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE A FILES

The A Files - Episode 1

EPISODE 1 – UNAPOLOGETIC BLACKNESS, UNAPOLOGETIC ABORTIONS

In their first episode, Renee and Regina take on some of the most common myths about abortion—and trace the relationship between anti-Blackness and abortion bans in the U.S., and how white supremacy helped get us into this mess we’re in. Plus, they talk about their own personal paths to reproductive justice, and introduce There Are Other Books, a segment about a book about abortion that isn’t The Handmaid’s Tale – this time, it’s Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez. 

Renee Bracey Sherman: Abortion access is in the absolute bad place right now, Regina. It’s not good.

Regina Mahone: It really isn’t, Renee. Someone should really make a podcast about that.

RBS: Should we do it? Let’s do it. Hello and welcome to The A Files: A Secret History of Abortion. A podcast from The Meteor. I’m Renee Bracey Sherman. I had an abortion and I write about it.

RM: And I’m Regina Mahone. I had an abortion and I write and edit about it. Renee and I are friends who talk about abortion.

RBS: A lot. Someone once told me that I say the word abortion more in an hour than they had heard in their entire lifetime.

RM: Well, this podcast is going to blow their mind.

RBS: In the greatest way.

RM: Definitely.

RBS: And you’re in really good hands listeners. Regina has been editing and writing about reproductive justice and abortion access for a decade.

RM: And Renee has been writing, researching, and organizing on behalf of people who have abortions for over a decade. She is the Beyoncé of abortion storytelling and has the Ivy Park from the queen herself to prove it.

RBS: Over the years we’ve learned so much about the history and politics of abortion that we really just want to share it with all of you. So Regina tell the folks, what’s this podcast about?

RM: Good question. So on The A Files we’re uncovering the history of abortion that you probably were never taught in school or even at a pro-choice rally. And there’s a reason for that. But we’ll get to that later. Each episode, a guest will join us to unpack another layer of the abortion conversation that has been completely overlooked or erased. Since the Dobbs decision, there has been so much interest in abortion with so many people talking about it, which is great, but also spreading misinformation and lies.

RBS: The bad history, the wrong history. It’s truly ridiculous.

RM: Really.

RBS: But seriously though, the misinformation impacts the stories that we’re all told about those of us who have abortions, and it’s repeated by politicians and reporters, and it’s just all wrong. It fuels the culture of stigma around us. But I promise we’ll get to that in another episode. The A Files is here to set the record straight.

RM: Great. And we want to provide an alternate vision for how abortion fits into people’s lives in this podcast, which is why it’s so important to both of us that we use a reproductive justice framework because it really does center the whole person.

RBS: Yeah. Absolutely. But real quick, Regina, before we keep going, let’s talk to the folks about what reproductive justice is, so we’re all on the same page.

RM: Definitely. So SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective defines the framework as the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities. So Renee, let’s talk about how we both came into the reproductive justice movement and how we found ways to apply it to the work that we do.

RBS: Yeah. I found reproductive justice, well, really, I’d like to say I fell in love with reproductive justice more than a decade ago. I was working with queer and trans youth to support them as they were lobbying at the state capital in California. And it was really beautiful to see them share their stories about what it was like to organize with other queer and trans youth in schools, but also how school policies weren’t protecting them. And I didn’t think it was right for me as a cis straight person to work with these young people to ask them to share their stories, but I wasn’t sharing my own story. So I felt, okay, I have a thing that’s living inside me that I’m afraid to talk about. I should be able to talk about it.

So I started to share my abortion story and I met so many other people who had abortions and it was really wonderful. But at the time, the organization I was sharing my abortion story with wanted me to play up all these justifications as to why I should have had an abortion and downplay the beliefs I had about how race played a really important part in my story.

RM: What didn’t they want you to talk about?

RBS: Oh, it was really weird. They wanted me to talk about how I was in a bad relationship and all those things and really play up the sadness of why I should have an abortion. And those things were true. But I felt like they traded on a lot of stereotypes that were anti-Black and also just they didn’t want me to talk about being biracial and having some white privilege and having the privileges of being able to have money to pay for an abortion when some people can’t. So they really didn’t want to talk about what they called the politics of abortion. And I thought about politics as in Democrats versus Republicans at the time, but it really meant that they didn’t want to talk about power and privilege and oppression and classism and all of those systems and how they impacted abortion access. And as a biracial Black woman, I felt like I just couldn’t do that.

And I found people who were reproductive justice activists, and when they talked to me about how we can talk about abortion access and how race and class and gender identity and location and income, all of it impacts our lives, that’s when I felt at home. I remember when I found the word intersectionality, like, oh my gosh, this is a word for my life. But I didn’t feel like that was the way I was being taught to think about or share about abortion. So it really became this moment of, oh my gosh, I can do this differently. And then I would often be on panels and I was the only person of color sharing an abortion story.

But the reality is that the majority of people who have abortions are people of color. So I felt like why are we not being encouraged to share our abortion stories, but also the larger reproductive justice principles of making sure that all of us have the ability to decide if, when and how to grow our families and to be able to do it free from state sanctioned violence, coercion, and just in this beautiful reproductive justice world that we could create. I just wanted to be in that beautiful world. What about you, Regina?

RM: I love that question. Well, it really started with my abortion. When I got pregnant, I immediately knew that I would have an abortion. I didn’t even really have to think about it. I just knew that’s what I was going to do. It was maybe four months after I’d started dating my boyfriend at the time, and it was just so new. I had no idea if it was going to work out. I was also 29 and just having a great time being young in New York City. But the main thing was that I knew that I didn’t want to become a Black single mother if my relationship didn’t work out. But after my abortion, I realized it was almost like a light switched on that I did actually want to become a mom. And that was really confusing for me. If I knew that I did want an abortion, why did I also suddenly want to be a mom and why did it seem like neither was a good choice for me?

And it just seemed like everything I had learned about reproductive rights up to that point was really inadequate for the moment I was experiencing. And it was only after I was exposed to the reproductive justice framework that all the pieces came together. And I want to give a shout-out to Luz Rodriguez, one of the mothers of the reproductive justice movement. She was my colleague at the time at the Foundation Center, a nonprofit organization that helps other nonprofits find grants from foundations. I was leaving that job to start a new job as an editor at Rewire. At that time it was called RH Reality Check, but it’s still kicking.

Rewire News Group they focus on reporting on abortion rights unapologetically as healthcare. But Luz at the time when I was leaving gave me a copy of the book Undivided Rights, and it’s a book that features different communities who are part of the people of color umbrella, so to speak, explaining how reproductive justice as a framework is necessary for each of these groups. And she also gave me a stack of papers and newsletters on reproductive justice with post-it notes, which still have that pile of papers next to my desk, and I’ve read through them. And I’m just so grateful for having someone really hold my hand and say, “You may have heard of reproductive rights, but there’s more in reproductive justice as you go on to do this work.” And it really did connect the dots for me around my experience with having an abortion, wanting to become a mom, but also feeling like it was probably easier to have an abortion than to become a mom in our society, and really unpacking a lot of that for me. But let me not get ahead of myself.

RBS: So we were both on these separate paths, but then one day they converged.

RM: So I mentioned Rewire. While I was an editor there, you were part of the Echoing Ida Writing Collective. It was a group of Black women and non-binary writers who supported one another in publishing articles about reproductive rights and justice issues. And I remember it wasn’t just that I was starting to edit you and get to know you through your writing, but I was at the time going to a lot of conferences and I always saw you at them. And every once in a while I’d be like, oh, Renee after an event or something, what are you doing after this? And I remember once in Atlanta just sitting on your couch in your hotel room and just hanging out.

So at one point I was in DC where you live, and I reached out to see if you wanted to meet for dinner. Because I thought to myself, well, Renee is definitely someone that I want to be friends with, so let’s go ahead and just start getting together every time that we’re in the same city. And I’m so grateful that we did have dinner that one night and then also just have continued to get to know each other, love on each other and you even… One of my favorite things which you may not know about Renee is that if you go visit her, she may run you a relaxing bath. She will put on spa music without you even asking for it, and just really set the vibes because she wants people to just feel like their best selves all the time.

RBS: I do have a big love of relaxation and abortion storytelling. Those are my things. Okay, but can we tell the story of the canoe?

RM: Yes, but you have to tell it because you do such a great job of telling it.

RBS: Okay. A couple of years ago we were at a retreat at The Wing, rest in peace The Wing. And we were sitting in this canoe on this beautiful lake and talking about what is it that we wanted to do next with our lives. And I asked you what you wanted and you said, “Well, I want to write a book.” And I said, “I want to write a book.” And we talked about what we wanted our books to be about. And I wanted to talk about Black motherhood and the way in which Black people are able to access healthcare overall, reproduction, all of those things, parenting and your journey. And I wanted to write about Black and Brown people’s experiences with abortion. And I remember looking at you and we were paddling, and you turned around and I said, “Hey, Regina, do you want to write a book with me?” And then you said…

RM: Yes.

RBS: So now we’re writing a book together, which we’re in the process of doing right now. But also we have a podcast.

RM: Yes. And the rest is history as they say. Well, not really because obviously we’re working on the book and the podcast. But we are here and we do have a lot to cover today. We’re going to be talking about unapologetic abortions and unapologetic Blackness, and then Renee has some thoughts out of a book she read recently.

RBS: I do. It’s called Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez. But we’ll get to that later on. First off, let’s talk about what’s going on. People like us and all of you listening are doing all that we can to show up for our loved ones who need abortions, and actually all of you who need abortions in this trash heap of a mess. None of this is easy and it’s really exhausting and super demoralizing. But that’s actually by design. It’s designed to break us down and to keep us from achieving a future of reproductive justice.

RM: One of the ways people might have encountered the urgency of reproductive justice is through Black Lives Matter protests. The issue of Black people and children. Children being killed by police is a reproductive justice issue. If Black people can’t walk to the store without being shot at or sleep in their own homes without being shot at by police, we do not have reproductive justice. But the other hard truth about reproductive justice is that without it, the needs of people of color will continue to be left out of policies. Even those pushed by Democrats.

RBS: I know a lot of people don’t want to hear this, but even some of our favorite Democrats like President Obama weren’t the most helpful, right?

RM: Right. I still can’t get over how in 2011, he went against the FDA in their decision to make Plan B available over the counter for all ages and required an age restriction for people under 18. It took us two years, so many lawsuits to make it available for everyone. And then in his signature Affordable Care Act, it includes a ban on federal funds being used for abortions unless under extremely limited circumstances, which by the way, he did to make anti-abortion Democrats happy.

RBS: What a fucking mess. I think we should probably talk about how we got here, the full history of abortion and anti-Blackness and all the things. And how and why they’re intimately connected. We’re starting with anti-Blackness because that’s how abortion bans started in the US. Abortions have been around for 4,000 years, but the first criminal laws about abortion didn’t appear until the mid 1860s. We’ll get to that point. Let’s go way back. People have been having abortions for a very long time. There’s so much research from Hippocrates and ancient Egyptians. But we also know that people have been using methods like the herbs that might be in your garden, because they’ve been passed down in our communities for thousands of years. There’s some common ones, Queen Anne’s Lace, Pennyroyal, Chamomile, and actually even okra.

RM: Oh, I love okra.

RBS: I love the story of that one. It was brought over by enslaved Black folks on the ships because it was actually easy to dry and store. But then there’s also herbs that you may not have heard of like cotton root bark or lovage or dittany. And my new favorite, the peacock flower. An early record about the peacock flower is from a German artist, the scientific illustrator and naturalist Anna Maria Sibylla Merian. She traveled alone with her daughter to South America to draw all of these flora and fauna, and she ended up publishing in this book in 1705, and the book’s called Metamorphosis. And it’s like the Bible, I guess, of flora and fauna of the time.

Anyway, she was observing the enslaved people in Suriname and how they use peacock flower seeds to have abortions. And she wrote, “The Indians who are not treated well by their Dutch masters, use the seeds to abort their children so they will not become slaves like themselves. In fact, they sometimes take their own lives because they’re treated so badly, and because they believe they will be born again free and living in their own land. They told me this themselves.” I highlight the story because I think one, it’s really clear that people have been having abortions for a long time, but also that people were using abortion as a way to be able to get free from the colonization and the white supremacist violence that was happening in their lives. It’s both sad that that’s what they felt like they had to choose, but also they felt like, look, being able to have access to reproductive freedom was key to their freedom overall.

RM: That’s exactly what we’re talking about.

RBS: Obviously people have been having abortions for a long time. And some of the first criminal abortions started appearing in the mid 1800s. What was happening at that time? Well, Black and Brown people were getting free from being enslaved. Indigenous Native American people were being forced onto reservations. There was actually quite mass genocide by white people, and they were afraid that now that Black people were free and their children could not be property for slave owners. They were afraid of the white population dwindling.

So they started putting limits on what white women could do with their bodies. In particular, they went after abortion. The American Medical Association started talking shit about midwives, like cashit going after them, calling them all quacks. Particularly because they were providing abortions. Who were midwives at the time, a lot of them were Eastern European immigrants. They were Native American women. They were formerly enslaved Black women. They were people of the community and they were trusted. Who were the doctors? Well, they were white men.

RM: Because the AMA actually excluded Black people and women.

RBS: Right. So they basically were like, only doctors are great. These people are only doctors. The rest of them who are not letting in any way, they couldn’t possibly be good, but specifically because they provide abortions. So what they started to do was put midwives out of existence, out of business and saying that they were quacks, but then also outlawing. At one point it was any contraception, any abortion care. They made it illegal to talk about, to write about, to offer care. They criminalize people and they used the full government to put pressure on doctors to turn others because they were afraid that white people would continue to have abortions and would not be able to outpace the growth of the immigrants coming into this country and Black and indigenous people growing their families.

RM: So let me get this straight. A bunch of white doctors who didn’t have any experience delivering babies or caring for the people who deliver babies pushed out the people with the most experience, in some cases, personal experience with having babies and delivering babies just because of white supremacy?

RBS: Yeah. That is absolutely correct.

RM: Good job.

RBS: And it continued.

RM: Cool. Continue.

RBS: So they were doing all this for a hundred-something-odd years. But of course, we had the civil rights movement, we had Black people getting free, demanding, separate but equal is bullshit. There was a Native American rights movement, like women’s movement, queer movement, everyone’s demanding rights. So of course, white Christian nationalists are feeling uncomfortable and they’re losing power. Does it sound familiar?

What they decided to do was go after abortion again. At the time at the Supreme Court, they had lost Christian prayer in school. They had lost segregation of the schools through the Brown versus Board of Education, and they lost it through forced busing. So this fight that they had where they were able to keep the country segregated, they lost all of that at the Supreme Court. So they needed another issue that they could use to organize and make as a dog whistle. But they didn’t have the Jim Crow laws anymore, but they needed the Jim Crow voting lines.

Speaker 3: Good evening. In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court today legalized abortions. The majority in cases from Texas and Georgia said that the decision to end a pregnancy during the first three months belongs to the woman and her doctor, not the government.

RBS: So in 1973, the Roe v. Wade decision happens. The Supreme Court hands this down and we’ve got the religious right that’s like, great. Let’s take that. Let’s make that our new rallying cry. We fight for life. You can’t say shit to us. You can’t call us racist because we care about life and babies, and that is what they start organizing around to build their political power once again. What was challenging is that even the pro-choice side and the left, moderates who all supported abortion, didn’t want to be on the other side of “life.” So they seeded the ground of the political right, who then used abortion as an organizing tactic to get anti-abortion politicians into office. And then what they would push in addition to abortion restrictions was also gutting of Medicaid and Medicare and housing for Black and Brown people and undermining all of the gains of the civil rights movement. And that’s what they’ve been focused on for the last 50 years.

RM: And that legacy lives on and we’re experiencing it again now. I remember Renee when we wrote our abortion stories for our book proposal. We both had written about the stigma and shame and fear of becoming Black single mothers. And yet there isn’t anything at all wrong with being a Black single mother. I was raised by one. Black single mothers are truly extraordinary humans for everything they do to support their families, ensure their safety, keep food on the table, and watch their children grow up to be healthy and thriving human beings. But our society is told that Black unwed mothers are a drain. Where do we even begin with how wrong that actually is? Black women didn’t have a legal right to their children during chattel slavery. Newborns were ripped from their mothers’ arms, much like what people have become more familiar with in the coverage of Trump’s family separation policy. But that shit began centuries ago.

When we fast-forward to today, Black children represented 20% of the foster care population in 2020, but only 14% of the total child population in this country. Rather than expand Medicare or provide health coverage that doesn’t put people into medical debt, or provide affordable child care, or allow poor and working families to have food assistance that would actually cover their grocery bills, instead of all of that, the state takes people’s kids away or stops their public benefits if they have too many kids under family cap laws. These laws are rooted in this idea that people who can’t stop having kids should be denied public assistance to feed their children. And they build off of other laws that punish Black women for being unmarried with children or for living in a house with a man who isn’t their husband. And yet even some Black women have drank the Kool-Aid of white supremacy as we’ve been talking about, to spread lies about us. Can we please talk about the panel you were on earlier this year with Catherine Davis?

RBS: No. So I was at this Harvard event for the 50th anniversary of Roe, or what would’ve been the 50th anniversary in January 2023. And one of the people they invited to speak was Catherine Davis. She is the founding member of the National Black Pro-Life Coalition. And oh my God, please do not get me started on this lady, she’s-

RM: Founding member. Wow.

RBS: Yes.

RM: Okay. Let’s play the clip.

Catherine Davis: Most of us think that all the slaves that left Africa came to America. But that’s not true. Only 388,000 slaves landed in America. By the end of slavery, we were 4 million strong because we are very fertile people.

RM: Renee, what was going through your head at that moment?

RBS: I mean, so many things. It was honestly, I was sitting there and there was a lot, I was very surprised to hear come out of her mouth, and I was trying to just disassociate and ignore a lot of it because it was quite jarring and awful. Can you imagine just talking about slavery as if it’s just like only 300,000 slaves were stolen from their land and taken to the United States to be slaves? And then talk about it as if we were at the end, 4 million people strong. I cannot think of another way to describe slavery in such an ass-backward way. Like, what? It is truly really difficult and painful to hear another Black woman minimize slavery in that way, but also justify the enslavement and rape of Black women in this language, and in language that is still being used to denigrate Black women who do have children.

She sat there and said that we are a fertile people. Black people are no more fertile than any other race. And that is dangerous, dangerous language that white colonizers use to justify why we were enslaved, why it was okay to continue to rape Black people, to force them to have children. That is terrifying. It was exhausting. And then what was really painful was that we were at Harvard University for this panel, and she and I are up there both talking and we’re being presented as if the things that we are saying as equal. And if there’s no possible way to fact check, which one of us is telling the truth. I don’t know. One of us sounds like a Nazi. The others talking about, I don’t know, making sure Black and Brown people are able to decide if when and how they can grow their families. Like what? But these ideas about reproduction for all of us stem from anti-Blackness and this hatred of Black people and Black women being able to decide what to do with their bodies and their fertility and their futures.

RM: I can’t get over that. We are very fertile people is what she said. Also to what you were saying, it justifies sterilization. Because we’re so fertile, just go ahead and sterilize us so that we don’t have more children because those children are not going to be of a good quality compared to our white counterparts, which is just wild. This goes back to something you’ve said Renee, about how abortion bans are really a white people problem.

RBS: Yeah. For sure. I actually think that abortion bans are a white people problem. That is my, I believe, really popular opinion, but whatever. I think it’s really clear that consistent polling data have shown that Black and Brown communities are absolutely in favor of maintaining legal and accessible abortion, particularly Black communities. Because we know what it looks like when we don’t have access to abortion care. We know what it looks like to have our reproduction controlled by people in power who don’t look like us. And when you look at who actually votes for politicians who run on banning abortion or supports abortion bans, it’s overwhelmingly white people. white people vote abortion bans in. That’s how they got there.

This is because as we talked about earlier, it is used as a proxy for other racist issues, and it has become the loudest racist foghorn as a way to control and shame Black people’s ability to decide if, when, and how to grow their families. But that also means that unpacking anti-Blackness and centering Black people has to be critical to the conversation around reproductive freedom, parenting and abortion access. Okay, time to move on to our last segment today. Regina, do you want to introduce it?

RM: Yes. This is a little segment we like to call, there are other books. Look, when people talk about abortion stories, the same ones come up over and over again. The Handmaid’s Tale, Cider House Rules, Revolutionary Road, that scene from Dirty Dancing

RBS: Grey’s Anatomy. But seriously shout out to the abortion on TV queen Shonda Rhimes.

RM: The Maude episode, Juno, The Handmaid’s Tale.

RBS: The Handmaid’s Tale times 12.

RM: And we want to thank Margaret Atwood for her service. We really do. But there are other books out there with nuanced, empathetic stories about people who’ve had abortions.

RBS: Yeah. I think those books and films and shows are all great and have a lot to offer. Again, seriously, thank you Shonda Rhimes for all that you’ve done in the Shondaland, Shondaverse. But the reality is that these books that we named and others, they’re not the only depictions and fictions out there. We deserve to have stories that include abortions that aren’t always so dire and focused on the world ending because that’s all people know. The comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s exhausting, people. There are other books. A few months back I tweeted a list of current novels that featured people of color as protagonists, and I had asked, oh, am I missing any? And it was so funny because somebody tweeted back a book with a white person as a protagonist. And it’s wild because even when we’re clearly saying we want protagonists of color, people can still only name novels with white protagonists who have abortions. And again, those stories deserve to be told. But also there are other books. So in this segment, we want to talk about different narratives that are out there.

RM: Well, Renee, what book do you want to talk about today?

RBS: I want to talk about a book that I read a few months back, Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez. It’s a historical fiction book based on the real life story of a nurse who sounded the alarm on the systemic sterilization of Black girls and women in the South who were poor and/or disabled, all because they were afraid that Black folks were going to have children. This book takes place in Montgomery, Alabama in 1973 shortly after Civil, who’s the main character has illegal abortion. And then it also jumps into the future in 2016. We all remember that year revisiting all of the characters. Civil meets with some young girls, Erica and India, who she’s giving them these shots that are birth control. And she starts to realize that these girls haven’t even gone through puberty. Why are they getting these free birth control shots that are being sponsored by the government? She realizes that it is part of something like the Tuskegee experiment, but basically trying to sterilize Black people in the south and she’s really uncomfortable with it.

And then she finds out that behind her back, her boss has the girls sterilized. So she goes with them to court and they have these huge lawsuits. And the story is about what happened. And I picked this one because I thought it was really interesting the mix of what was happening in 1973, the sterilization, eugenics that is not in the very far history and also has happened recently in this country, and how it’s comparative to when we as a nation in 2016 we’re on the precipice of losing legal abortion. It’s a really beautiful story, and I think it’s really this amazing opportunity for people to understand that history in a narrative form without having to read a full research book. It’s really thoughtful. I love Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s writing. I think it’s really beautiful. In college, I read one of her earlier writings called Wench. I thought her writing was just so beautiful in that book, and I was really excited when this new book Take My Hand came out. And of course, the subject matter was right up our alleys.

RM: I think it’s really powerful how the book connects the dots between different forms of reproductive oppression for people of color, because we don’t see that a lot in books about abortion. It’s always generally about the abortion, and it really takes control of the narrative and the character development. And it sounds like this book is more complicated than that. So I’m actually really looking forward to reading this one. It is on my list. And for everyone’s benefit, we’ll put the link in our show notes to where you can buy the book from your local independent bookstore because there are other books.

RBS: There are other books.

RM: Well, thank you for joining us for our first-ever episode of The A Files. We have a great season coming up. We’ll be covering topics like abortion stigma, adoption, ableism, transphobia, and policing with some really smart, incredible guests.

RBS: There’s so much to get to and we’re super excited.

RM: And next week we’ll talk about Renee’s connection to this SNL sketch.

SNL sketch clip: And it’s hard to know what to say to make other truckers feel better. There’s one mother trucking thing we can do to fight for mother trucking freedom to make our own healthcare decisions. And that’s vote. And I hope to help everyone vote because remember, we all love someone who’s had an abortion. I mean drives a truck.

RBS: See you all next time. The A Files is produced for The Meteor by LWC Studios. Our hosts are me, Renee Bracey Sherman, and Regina Mahone.

RM: Our executive producers at The Meteor are me, Regina Mahone, Renee Bracey Sherman, Cindi Leive, and Tara Abrahams.

RBS: At LWC Studios, our executive producer is Juleyka Lantigua. Paulina Velasco is our managing producer. And our producer is Anne Lim. Kojin Tashiro is our sound designer and engineer.

RM: This podcast is produced with support from The Meteor Fund. The Meteor’s non-profit initiative. Additional thanks to Pop Culture Collaborative for their support. You can support us by subscribing to The A Files wherever you get your podcasts. And please take a second to rate us, five stars please, and leave us a review. It would mean a lot.

RBS: For links to any resources mentioned in this episode or more information, visit our website at themeteor.com/theafiles. You can follow us on social media. I am @RBraceySherman on Twitter and Renee Bracey Sherman on Instagram and for Regina at @byreginamahone on Twitter and Instagram. You can follow The Meteo @themeteor on all platforms. Thanks for listening. Thanks for saying the word abortion. And remember, everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion.

CITATION:

Bracey Sherman, Renee, and Mahone, Regina, host. “Unapologetic Blackness, Unapologetic Abortions.” The A Files, The Meteor and Lantigua Williams & Co., January 17, 2024. Themeteor.com/theafiles

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The A Files Transcripts

The A Files: Episode 1: Unapologetic Blackness, Unapologetic Abortions