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Brittany Packnett Cunningham Hey y’all, it’s Brittany. This has been a rough week. The trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd has brought up every single emotion I got. I know that’s happening to my husband. It’s happening to like every Black person I know. In times like this, it’s — it’s honestly really strange to be a Black activist on TV and in the media. You know, my job is to educate and activate folks and I am extremely dedicated to doing that as responsibly as I can. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t take a personal toll. Like, I sucked back tears just last month when I was on TV to talk about the one year anniversary of the murder of Breonna Taylor, and being on TV this week has been no different. Once again, I had to push down my rage and my pain and my grief to get the job done. 

Y’all, ultimately, I believe that freedom is possible, that it will happen. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get tired. I’m very tired of the lather, rinse, repeat cycle of police violence. I’m tired of our trauma having to be dragged across every screen in our homes just for somebody to give a damn. I’m tired of folks acting like racism was solved last summer with a Black square and a company email. More than that, though, I’m worried. I’m worried about the nine year old Black girl who had to watch George Floyd be murdered. I’m worried about all of the witnesses who are blaming themselves for not doing more to save George from what the police were doing to him. I’m so worried about George’s family and this never-ending pain they have to continue to endure. And y’all, even if a guilty verdict comes down in this case, I worry that people will think justice was served. One trial, even one conviction is not justice. There can never be justice as long as the state can kill people. George Floyd should be alive and thriving. And that’s the sad but honest truth. We’re just going to have to sit with that. We all are. And then we’re going to have to give a damn. 


On the show today, the landscape of abortion rights in America. I’ll be talking to Alexis McGill Johnson from Planned Parenthood about the wave of anti-abortion bills being introduced at the state level and just how bleak things are. 

Alexis McGill Johnson I think we should be incredibly concerned. There are about 17, 18 cases right now that are literally one step away from the court taking them up. And any one of those could gut Roe could present an existential threat to Roe

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s coming up, but first, it’s your “UNtrending News”.   

First up, friend of the pod and my play cousin, Ayanna Pressley, is truly doing the people’s work. The congresswoman has reintroduced a bill aimed at ending the unequal punishment girls of color face in schools. Research shows that Black girls are suspended six to seven times as often as white girls, and they are four times more likely to be arrested in schools. So Presley’s bill, the Ending PUSHOUT Act, includes 2.5 billion dollars in grant funding for states and schools that get rid of policies that are more likely to target girls of color, like dress code or communication infractions. 

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) So often we are told that our hair is distracting, that our bodies are inappropriate, and that we have bad attitudes. We are adultified and seen as women beginning as early as preschool. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Seriously y’all, a six year old Black girl was once arrested for throwing a tantrum in her kindergarten class. Black girls are suspended all the time for wearing braids. This has got to stop. You cannot criminalize our identity. It sticks with us for life. You want to know where that school to prison pipeline starts? It starts right there. So let Black girls be girls, stop this mess and keep Black girls in school. 

Now, despite a last minute veto by the governor, the Arkansas state legislature has voted to pass a new anti-trans bill. Last week, I mentioned how Arkansas is set to become the first state to deny trans children basic access to gender affirming medical care. Bill 1570 sailed through the state’s Republican leaning legislature. But then on Monday, Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson had a change of heart, mind, I really don’t know. 

Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R-AR) I must veto House Bill 1570. The states should not presume to jump into the middle of every medical, human and ethical issue. This would be and is a vast government overreach. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham You’re damn right it’s a government overreach. But also, Hutchinson didn’t seem to have a problem with government overreach when he signed the state’s near total ban on abortions into law. From where I stand, Hutchinson just wanted to avoid Arkansas being seen as the country’s most transphobic state. He wanted his hate filled agenda to, you know, just blend in with the rest of the bullshit. Nevertheless, on Tuesday, the majority Republican state House voted 72 to 25 to override Hutchinson’s veto and approve the bill. This is a sad day for Arkansas and it should be a sad day for all of us. But the fight is not over. The ACLU has promised to file a lawsuit to prevent this law from being enforced. Power to all the trans youth, parents, pediatricians and activists who have been rallying against this cruel anti-trans bill and continue to do so. We love y’all and we see you. 

And finally, there has been another uprising at the St. Louis Justice Center. This is the second one in the last two months. You all will probably recall I talked to my very good friend, Kayla Reed, on this show about the uprisings that have been happening at the jail in our hometown. Incarcerated folks are rightfully enraged about the unsafe Covid conditions at the facility, and many are being held pretrial and have to wait on court dates that may not come for the next five years. This past Sunday, about 60 people managed to get out of their cells to protest. And according to reports, they could be heard yelling demands for court dates out of the window. 

St. Louis Justice Center Inmates We want court dates! We want court dates! 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham On Monday, Treasurer and then mayoral candidate Tishaura Jones wrote on Twitter, quote, “There is an immediate need for change in our city’s justice system. We need a clear chain of command and the buck must stop at the mayor’s office.” Well, a bit of good news, even though we’ve got a lot of cells and cages to unlock, on Tuesday my good sis Tishaura Jones defeated Alderwoman Cara Spencer in the St. Louis mayoral election. 

Tishaura Jones I will be the next mayor of the city of St. Louis because of you. So as Mary J. Blige, the great prophetess once said, “Believe in yourself when nobody else does.” And I believe in St. Louis. Do you believe in St. Louis? 

Crowd Yes!

Brittany Packnett Cunningham She will be the first Black woman mayor in my city’s history. And Tishaura says she’ll work immediately to get detainees their court dates and that she plans to restructure the police department and reallocate money to substance abuse and mental health. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s that righteous representation. Lots more work to do, but Tishaura, we know you’re going to get it done. 

Coming up, I’ll be talking to Alexis McGill Johnson about the rapidly growing threat to Roe vs. Wade right after this short break. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And we are back. Well, headlines are already calling 2021 the year of anti-abortion legislation. State lawmakers have already introduced more than five hundred bills restricting the procedure. It’s clear that anti-abortion politicians are now more emboldened than ever and they have their eyes set on a Supreme Court showdown. My guest today says that abortion access is hanging on by a thread. Alexis McGill Johnson is the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood, which just released a new report detailing the skyrocketing number of anti-abortion bans taking place in states across the country. Sure, now we have a president who’s in favor of abortion access, but it’s a problem that he has yet to actually say the word abortion. So what the heck is going on? Where do we go from here? This — this is an important issue, and I needed to talk to Alexis about it. 

Alexis, thank you so much for joining us and for having this critically important conversation. 

Alexis McGill Johnson Oh, I’m delighted to be here, Brittany. Thanks for having me. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I want you to set the scene for us. So if you could just kind of sum up what’s the landscape of abortion rights in America right now? 

Alexis McGill Johnson Look, the state of abortion rights in America right now is dire. You know, we have seen a tremendous increase in restrictions and bans and we are obviously very concerned about the landscape right now. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham You even said that abortion access is hanging on by a thread. 

Alexis McGill Johnson Yes. Yes. By a thread 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That — that’s rough. That is indeed dire. And it’s been a wild year. There’s understandably been a lot of focus on Covid-19. We’ve obviously had a very necessary national and international reckoning on systemic racism. So in some ways, perhaps the issue of abortion has gone under the radar for some people. What’s really been going on? 

Alexis McGill Johnson  Thanks for bringing it back to Covid and the reckoning on race and the economic downturn, because I think all of those things are actually at the — at the intersection when we talk about access to something like like abortion, which we remind people is actually healthcare. Surprise, surprise. And, you know, we saw this at the beginning of Covid. There were a number of restrictions that GOP-led governors and state legislatures put into place immediately during Covid to restrict access to abortion. And we saw the right people were in the process of sheltering in place. They were obviously concerned about the impact of Covid on their own healthcare. And then instead of saying abortion is a time sensitive medical procedure, they limited access on some cases, forcing people to travel out of state, risking Covid themselves, risking spreading Covid to other people, just in some cases to access medication abortion. So it’s just a couple of pills that one would take to terminate within the first 8-10 weeks. And so it is striking how intense and laser focused so many state politicians are in trying to restrict access and to really set up a core fight around access to Roe broadly for this country. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And when you talk about that intense focus, just to put it clearly for folks, we’re talking about more than 500 abortion restrictions that have been introduced in 44 states this past year. 

Alexis McGill Johnson Yes, absolutely. You know, I’d also remind us, Brittany, that these are these are many of the same states where voting rights restrictions are being passed.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s right.

Alexis McGill Johnson They’re the ones where anti LGBT bans are being passed. So we shouldn’t be surprised with a great majority of what’s happening in these states. But — but, yes, I do think, as I said earlier, like abortion sits also at that intersection of understanding race, economics and healthcare, because, you know, our communities are going to be the ones who are most impacted. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham You know, I’m never really surprised by white supremacy. And we’ll get into that in a little bit. But first, I want to get into the main findings of this new report from Planned Parenthood. What does the research show? 

Alexis McGill Johnson Well, it shows, as you mentioned, medication abortion restrictions and bans have tripled. Anti-abortion constitutional amendments have more than tripled. And I think what it says is that we are in the middle of a state legislative season that is shaping up to be one of the most hostile in recent history, particularly with respect to reproductive health rights. And I think that these elections are emboldened, quite frankly, by Justice Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, by the remaking of the federal judiciary under Trump and McConnell. And they are feeling I mean, they’re not even hiding it right? Governor Hutchinson in Arkansas was 100 percent clear, he is signing this into law so he can directly challenge Roe and they’re emboldened and they’re being really clear. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I mean, and when you really dive into some of the details, they are wild. I mean, the lawmakers in Tennessee who introduced an anti-abortion bill that would allow men to veto the abortions of their partners or former partners.

Alexis McGill Johnson It’s crazy. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah, I mean, like what in the world? There’s the one in Arizona that would prosecute people for homicide, for having abortions. And then you mentioned Arkansas, which just passed a law banning abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. I honestly cannot believe that this is happening in 2021. Are we living in some kind of Handmaid’s Tale nightmare like this is Gilead.

Alexis McGill Johnson 100 percent. Look, and like you said, we can’t be surprised about white supremacy. We can’t be surprised around this last gasp of patriarchy either. Right? I mean, and misogyny and misogynoir right? I mean, like it is literally about wrestling with historical control of our bodies, our reproductive systems, our ability to choose freedom and our imagination. So, no, it is extreme. And the fact that there is no state where access to abortion or supporting access to abortion is not supported in the majority. Right? Every single state supports access to majority under Roe. Right. And so clearly, it’s a small group of largely white male legislators who have wrestled control of power, a very vocal minority that controls the levers of power in these states, that is creating these bans consistently, completely out of touch with their own public opinion. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham You cannot be surprised at what happens during the last gasp of patriarchy, that is a word. So the strategy is a direct line from statehouses to overturning Roe vs. Wade. How concerned should we be? 

Alexis McGill Johnson I think we should be incredibly concerned. There are about 17, 18 cases right now that are literally one step away from the court taking them up. And any one of those could gut Roe could potentially present an existential threat to Roe. And at the same time, like not taking one of those cases. Like, the Supreme Court doesn’t actually have to adjudicate. They could actually not take one of those cases and let the law stand that then would basically make Roe meaningless. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Right. 

Alexis McGill Johnson And you know, and I mean, look, we have to talk about what it means, right? If Roe is overturned right? It means that the federal protections are gone. It means that the states you know, get to make this determination. And so 25 million women of reproductive age would be impacted. They would be living in states that would not have access to a provider, would have to travel out. That is why it is alarming to see the number of constitutional amendments and states tripling over the last few months because they understand the impact. And like I want to be 100 percent clear, like our reproductive justice partners have always said Roe is the floor, right? It’s not the ceiling. It is a right. But we still are fighting for access in all of these other ways that particularly impact BIPOC communities and low income communities and trans communities. And so, like the strategy is clear because they have the courts. And I think you know, our fight back is what we have to focus on. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So let’s dive into what’s happening at the federal level. I’m really curious about how you would characterize the Biden administration’s stance on abortion rights. What has he done so far? 

Alexis McGill Johnson He has repealed the global gag rule, right, which impacts access to abortion resources abroad. He has set into motion the rules changing around the Title X domestic gag rule, which has prevented providers from sharing information about abortion. He has you know, has work to do in talking through things, actually saying the word abortion. I’m just going to say it right?

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yes

Alexis McGill Johnson Like, to actually using the language and being really clear in his executive orders because he — he’s got the bully pulpit. Right? And so the power of the White House, the power of the presidency to normalize and destigmatize abortion, I think is one of the most important things that he should be thinking about. He could actually spend some capital on repealing Hyde. The Hyde Amendment bars folks from using their health insurance to access safe and legal abortion. And so I think it is really important we saw that the American rescue plan actually passed without additional Hyde restrictions. He can issue a clean budget that does not have Hyde in it and make sure that we don’t become a bargaining chip in negotiations. So there is a lot that Biden can — can do in this moment. And that’s what we’re going to be pressing on. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham There’s a lot that he can do. And I’m glad that you made this point about the bully pulpit, because it has struck me that he prefers to use terms like reproductive health or the right to choose or health outcomes instead of saying abortion, which to your point, can just reinforce an abortion stigma all the way from the White House. We also know that President Biden is a devout Catholic, and there are stats that show that the majority of people who have abortions are religious. I am a pro-choice person of faith. How much do you think his faith is at play here? 

Alexis McGill Johnson Likewise, I am also a person of faith and I support you know, access to abortion. And his faith may be at play for sure. I’m sure that’s how he would articulate it in many, many ways. And yet, you know, the majority of people of most faiths actually do support access to sexual reproductive health care, including abortion. And so it should not prevent him from actually using the word. It shouldn’t actually prevent him from ensuring that the language that he uses doesn’t stigmatize people who are seeking access and not just people who are seeking access to stigmatizing providers. It’s stigmatizing communities in ways — in the ways in which he is not lifting you up. And so I think there’s a lot that he could be doing. And I appreciate the faith point. I don’t think it’s sufficient. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So let’s get into the real — the meat of this. You’ve stated before that these abortion bans and restrictions are escalating as, quote, “Part of a larger agenda rooted in white supremacy.” Like how so? Connect the dots for people. Make it plain. 

Alexis McGill Johnson White supremacy is ultimately about reinforcing racial hierarchy and patriarchy and misogyny. And what we are seeing is a group of largely white male legislators in states where access to abortion is actually popular, but they are using their power to control the bodies of largely people of color. They are 100 percent clear that they don’t even worry about the political impact of making these decisions because they feel that they can get away with it because of the impact is — is largely on people of color. Like Covid like I don’t need to wear a mask because it’s only Black and brown people who are dying. Why am I worried about that? Right. That’s white supremacy in action. And I think we’re seeing the same things play out where they’re using access to abortion to whip up their religious evangelical base, where access to abortion originally became an issue when they were fighting over issues of white supremacy and segregation. So you can’t disentangle white supremacy as it relates to abortion rights. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Your predecessor, Cecile Richards, was on the podcast, actually our first episode, and she talked about how white supremacy and patriarchy are twins that grew up together. And you are making it plain in the same way, right, and these twins continue to spawn more and more. That’s why we see these anti-abortion bills, as you said earlier, be pushed alongside these other regressive bills around voting rights, targeting the LGBTQ community. These are all things that disproportionately harm marginalized people. 

Alexis McGill Johnson Absolutely. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And I’m sure that is deeply relevant to you in your work always, but especially as a woman of color running a reproductive rights organization. You know, I know you probably understand firsthand how misogyny and racism and the anti-choice movement’s quest for power are all just deeply interconnected in that way. 

Alexis McGill Johnson Yeah, absolutely. Look, I mean, I’m working with my team to, you know, to do the work of a — of an organization that is also 104 years old that has also grown up in — in that twin of white supremacy that also has to do the work to really build equity policies inside of our own infrastructure. So, like, I’m fighting inside, outside every day to make sure that we can show up in the best way for our patients. Right? I mean, I think that’s ultimately what it is. I also think that when you look at who our patients are as a critical part of the public health infrastructure, they may come to us for access to abortion. They may come to us for access to family planning, gender affirming care. But when they leave, they are also subject to these other impacts of white supremacy. Right? They may get pulled over by a police officer. ICE may show up on their job. They may be housing insecure or more likely to get Covid or less likely to get the vaccine because of historical healthcare mistreatment. Right? And so sitting at that intersection and understanding really how white supremacy shows up healthcare broadly and externally is is really important for an organization like Planned Parenthood to think about what it can possibly do to address it. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham You’ve also talked about how the fight to ensure that everyone can access abortion is inextricably tied to really a broader fight for human rights. And of course, that — that sounds right. But can you spell it out for us a little bit more? How are abortion rights human rights? 

Alexis McGill Johnson Yes. And look, to come back to our twins, white supremacy and patriarchy. Right? I mean, like what upholds white supremacy is dehumanization. That is the strategy. Right? Telling people that they are less than if they are LGBTQ, less than as a member of a BIPOC community. They are not human if they are trans or nonbinary. And I think that that to me, the first fight is really around restoring that humanity. And that is actually a fight around justice. Right? That is a fight around making those claims on humanity. And then I think that freedom fight is really about restoring the rights because you can’t confer rights, you can’t confer freedom on people that you don’t think are human. And so abortion rights are part of conferring a right to control your own self-determination. Your bodily autonomy is about your ability to make choices that will help you execute on your own imagination for what you want to do and who you want to be and how you want to live your life in your community. And so abortion rights just sits right in there. I think it is actually the ability to control your body is one of the most critical expressions of freedom. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So on the one hand, we’ve got Democrats now controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency. On the other hand, we know we’ve got a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. What do you think the future holds for abortion rights in this country? How do you think this fight is ultimately going to play out? 

Alexis McGill Johnson You know, look, we are in it for the long game, Brittany, right? I mean, it is — what we’re seeing now in 2020 is a direct result of what we saw in 2010 when they gerrymandered not just the Congress, but they also gerrymandered all of these statehouses. And I keep saying, like 2021 we’re in the locker room it’s halftime we’re coming out for the next ten years because, yes, both Congress and our White House are pro sexual reproductive health majorities. And we are working incrementally to issue change, whether that is from Title X to fighting to make sure that we can repeal Hyde. All of those things are going to be tactical plays over the next couple of years. We have to think about how we force people to spend political capital on that. But the longer term arc is really towards 2030. It is really shoring up our majorities in these states where denying abortion rights should be seen in the same way that people are being denied voting rights. They’re denied rights to express themselves as part of a trans community, like all of these things I think are very connected. And our work is to broaden the movement, to make sure that we can link arms and fight in that way, because that’s the only way that we actually are able to build the power to change the rules back, to engage in meaningful democracy reform that actually is really going to undergird all freedom. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham The power comes in locking our arms together and getting this done. Alexis, thank you for being one of the many impactful voices leading that fight. And I’m — I’m right there with you. Thanks so much for your time. 

Alexis McGill Johnson Thank you so much. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham  Alexis McGill Johnson is the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The ability to control your body is one of the most critical expressions of freedom. Yes, Alexis. Yes, there is nothing more important than our ability to have full agency over ourselves, whether or not that’s about ending police violence and state sanctioned murder or the ability for people who get pregnant to be able to make their own decisions about their own bodies. It is why, especially as a Black woman of faith, I am unapologetically pro choice. My ancestors fought too hard and too long for me to be able to control my body and I won’t turn back. It’s also not lost on me that the so-called pro-life movement began because segregationists who lost their original white supremacist fights, they picked up abortion as a way to expand their coalition. Nor is it lost on me that the same folks screaming pro-life are often the ones who yell blue lives matter when the police kill someone. So we’ve got to link arms and keep fighting for our human right to self-determination. Nobody’s free while there are bans on my body or anyone else’s. 

That’s it for today y’all but never, ever for tomorrow. 


UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

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Thanks for listening. Thanks for being and thanks for doing. I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.