Our Reproductive Rights Will Not Be Decided By A Single Vote

By Kelly Baden

As someone who has devoted her career to fighting for reproductive freedom, I can’t keep going if I don’t see some light at the end of the tunnel. Even during dark times, I look for the silver lining and set my sights on that in order to keep going. Our reproductive rights are generally not won or lost on a single vote, even when that vote is as critical as one of a handful of Supreme Court Justices.

Upon the news of the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, political pundits turned to talking about Roe v. Wade, the decades-old Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion for all 50 states and seemingly cemented reproductive rights in our cultural and political ether. It’s a decision that has been at risk every day since its deciding, revisited often either directly or indirectly as the Justices considered a litany of various abortion restrictions throughout the years. It’s also a decision that might mean more on paper than it actually does in reality.

Abortion isn’t a right if you can’t access it.

The harsh truth is that Roe is already not a reality for many people. Your ability to access the right to abortion can depend on your zip code and the contents of your bank account, with low-income people, people of color, young people, immigrant communities, and rural communities paying the steepest price. And your ability to get an abortion that is nearby, affordable, provided without state-mandated shame or stigma, is mostly determined by people whose names you might not know – your state legislators.

Of course, leaders in Washington, DC have a critical impact on your experience in getting an abortion if you need one, and the tone they set reverberates across the country. President Trump’s immediate actions after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing focused on the political machinations he needed to enact to ensure her legacy would be overturned; but he didn’t stop there. As Justice Gisburg lay in repose at the Supreme Court on Tuesday, President Trump declared his intent to sign a “Born-Alive executive order,” false political rhetoric that belittles and misrepresents the real-life experiences of families. 

The outright lies and the devious half-truths that come from the White House about abortion aren’t a surprise and they do matter, but the fact is, most abortion-related policy change happens at the state level. States have passed hundreds of abortion restrictions in the past decade, from mandatory waiting periods and parental notification requirements, to requiring doctors to perform unnecessary ultrasounds and read inaccurate and shaming state-mandated scripts to a patient, even requiring clinics and providers to adhere to completely medically unnecessary hospital rules and building requirements even though abortion care is incredibly safe.

Of course, the true goal of most of these state lawmakers is to ban abortion completely, but they know they can’t do that until or unless Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court. That’s why states have been passing abortion bans at all kinds of arbitrary points throughout a pregnancy, like 20 week abortion bans, 15 week abortion bans, and 6 week abortion bans. Each of these state laws are attempts to see which kinds of abortion restrictions the courts will uphold. They’re trial balloons, laws passed that might never go into effect but serve to help opponents of abortion learn where a court, including the U.S. Supreme Court, stands, and how far they might be willing to go in altering the landscape of abortion rights. In 2019, Alabama went even farther and banned abortion completely, a law that hasn’t gone into effect and hopefully never will.

Some states have prepared for this moment in a different way: they’ve passed laws that would ban abortion only if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Court – a “trigger” ban that shows their intent to be a state without legal abortion but only if the Supreme Court allows that possibility. Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Utah all have post-Roe laws to ban all or nearly all abortions that would be triggered if Roe were overturned, meaning that abortion would be outlawed in those states as soon as Roe falls.  

But this isn’t the whole story. States can and have made it harder to access abortion care free from political interference, but they can also pass laws to make it easier.  State legislators across the nation are stepping up and building a world where each of us can make our own decisions about our reproductive health, pregnancy, and parenting, free from political interference and violence. In fact, the first six months of 2020, most states took action to protect access to reproductive health care. Virginia, once the home to draconian abortion restrictions, transformed to a leader on abortion access by repealing these bills and passing the Reproductive Health Protection Act. Massachusetts advocates and legislators have renewed their efforts to pass the ROE Act to honor the legacy of Justice Ginsburg and enshrine the right to equitable abortion access in their state.

So while Roe v. Wade is critical, it’s also not enough, and it’s not the goal we seek. We need more and we deserve more. Our futures and our freedoms are not decided by the courts, and our lives and experiences are not up for debate. We can build power in our communities, in our states, and in our homes and chart a new course where lawmakers at all levels have our best interests in mind and where we work together to get to that light at the end of the tunnel. 

Kelly Baden is the VP of Reproductive Rights at State Innovation Exchange where she works to advance reproductive health, rights, and justice around the country by focusing on state policy and advocacy. She has appeared on MSNBC and in outlets like the Los Angeles Times, Cosmo, and Time magazine. Find her on Twitter @kellybaden.