In This Episode
January 22nd was the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade—a bittersweet milestone, because there’s no more Roe v. Wade to commemorate. Since the Dobbs decision last year overturned Roe, we’ve had an election that went pretty well for Democrats under the circumstances, but also created a false sense of reprieve. But now it’s January and the dust is settled and there’s still no national right to abortion. The anniversary can thus serve a real purpose as a wake up call after the midterms lulled many Americans into complacency. How is America different now with Roe gone than it was before? What are pro-choice forces doing to help where abortion has been banned or where it’s under threat or where it’s still legal? What more could they be doing? What more could we all be doing? And as we look ahead to elections in the future, what can our political leaders do to nationalize a referendum on abortion? Reproductive Justice activist Renee Bracey Sherman joins Brian Beutler to reassess the state of abortion rights in post-Roe America.
Brian Beutler: Hi everyone. Welcome to Positively Dreadful. With me your host, Brian Beutler. This past Sunday, January 22nd, was the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe versus Wade. And it was, I think, for many people who knew about it, a more than bittersweet anniversary because there’s no more Roe versus Wade to commemorate. In summer of last year, Sam Alito and Clarence Thomas and three Trump appointed justices struck down Roe versus Wade, which caused a bunch of latent anti-abortion laws to snap back into effect and greenlit a wave of new abortion bans in Republican controlled states. And we touched in a previous episode on what the poster of a future might look like and what abortion rights supporters in politics and advocacy might do in response to the Dobbs ruling. And so I think the Roe anniversary or memorial or whatever you want to call it, is a good time for a check in. Why? Well, for one thing, there’s been an election since Alito et al., handed down the Dobbs decision. And because the election went pretty well for Democrats under the circumstances, it created, I think, a false sense of reprieve from various right wing offensives against the majority of the country. There was this kind of collective sigh of relief over the fact that election thieves lost their elections and anti-abortion politics. And Dobbs proved to be a liability for Republicans, at least in places where abortion was most clearly on the ballot. The center held the public is on the side of what’s right, so things will work out in the end. But now it’s January and the dust is pretty well settled and there’s still no national right to abortion. No way to know if and when such a right will be restored. And ironically, the Roe anniversary played out as a bit of a bummer, even among anti-abortion advocates, because they are now at odds with each other over how aggressively to criminalize abortion or go on the attack against more reproductive rights. So everyone, even abortion ban supporters, was happier before Dobbs. And for all of those reasons, I think the anniversary can serve a real purpose as a wake up call after the election lulled many Americans into complacency. It’s an opportunity for those Americans to ask questions like how is America different now with Roe gone than it was before? And when you go looking, you find lots of ways. Republican states, or at least some of them have moved on from getting abortion bans on the books to figuring out both how to enforce them and how to lean on and threaten others to actually succeed at forcing pregnancies to term. They’re going after employers who help their workers circumvent state level bans and after prosecutors who don’t go after doctors and patients to the full extent of the law. And on the other side of the fight. Well, that’s what I want to learn more about this week. What are pro-choice forces doing to help where abortion has been banned or where it’s under threat or where it’s still legal? What more could they be doing? What more could we all be doing? And as we look ahead to elections in the future, what can our political leaders do to nationalize a referendum on abortion? After seeing how well it worked in states like Michigan. Renee Bracey Sherman is a writer and reproductive rights advocate, and she’s here to help us reassess the state of abortion rights in post Roe America. Renee, it’s really great to have you on the show.
Renee Bracey Sherman: Thank you so much for having me.
Brian Beutler: So before we get into what’s happening to abortion rights on the ground, I want people listening to have sort of a clear sense of how the Dobbs decision upended the movement, sort of both for and against abortion rights. My sense is that for a long time before Dobbs, the right was unified around overturning Roe and was sort of able to paper over internal divisions by focusing on that singular objective and now having accomplished it, they’ve sort of splintered along a line that extends from those who want to just kind of cling to the new status quo for a while, to those who want to be really aggressive. Is that your sense of how it has reshaped the right?
Renee Bracey Sherman: I’ve been in this work for ten years, and we’ve always known that Roe would not survive, but we definitely heard in 2015 and 2016 when we were warning about it before the election that we were being hysterical which is a very sexist term. We were, you know, just worried about things that weren’t real. And yet here we are. And there are so many people across this country that cannot get the health care that they need, whether it’s an abortion as soon as they need one or later abortion or miscarriage care, or just simply a medication that happens to be used for an abortion that they’re using for something else, that they’re being denied it at pharmacies. And so it’s really just destroyed access to health care overall and pregnancy care in this country. I also want to start out by saying that only 20% of this country is considered to be anti-abortion and wanted to overturn Roe v. Wade. This is an extremely unpopular decision, even among people who might be personally anti-abortion. They did not want to see it criminalized and they did not want to see Roe v. Wade gone. I remember a couple of weeks ago and also like shortly before the decision came out, after the leaked decision, Fox News has done polls where they polled their own viewers and their own viewers did not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned. This is an extremely unpopular decision by the justices. So when you’re talking about the anti-abortion movement and and their in-fighting of of what they’re pushing for, this is extremely radical and unpopular opinions nationwide. And so even the unpopular opinions that they have within their own camp are like really, really unpopular across the nation. And and I think one thing I would challenge about what you’re saying is that their fracture isn’t necessarily about whether or not to do these things. It’s at what pace to do them, because there are some who feel like if you do it too quickly, you overturn Roe too quickly, and then you try to ban contraception while also trying to criminalize trans people for existing, while also banning books about Black people. All the stuff at once, I don’t know, maybe they’ll catch on to us. Right. And so they feel like it should be done at a slower pace, whereas others feel that they should do it all at once. And we saw this play out. We’ve seen it over the years in states like Ohio, where the governor there decided to sign the 20 week abortion ban and not sign the six week abortion ban because he wanted to focus on that incrementalism. Right. He never said that he was against the six week abortion ban. He actually supported it. Right. But for them, for those sort of what the the radical anti-abortion right wing nuts are calling the moderates, they’re not moderate, obviously. They support, they don’t like that they support that incrementalism. So that’s what their fights are about. There’s not actually an ideological disagreement. It’s the—
Brian Beutler: Right.
Renee Bracey Sherman: —disagreement is about timing.
Brian Beutler: It’s sort of like the difference between like John Roberts, who wants to kind of hide the ball and work slowly versus Alito and his four companions who are like, let’s just do it. That kind of maps out on to politics more generally and the anti-abortion movement writ large.
Renee Bracey Sherman: Right. And I think what we kind of saw with the leak decision, Roberts had not yet signed on to it, but the other justices had. And so then Roberts ended up signing onto it anyway. So, again, the the radical, really just white supremacist right wing folks are just dragging the others along and trying to make them move quickly. It’s not like Roberts was, again, against overturning Roe. He just was considering maybe we just do it slower and we do it in different pieces and that doesn’t make it right. It’s all wrong. And I think we’re seeing this a lot around the criminalization of people who have abortions. They’ve always been unified in criminalizing people who provide abortions. But what we’re seeing now with the invention of medication, abortion, which has been around in the world since 1988 and in the United States since 2000, people are able to safely self-manage their own abortions. Therefore, we, the people who have abortions, become our own abortion providers. Well, that presents a quandary for the anti-abortion movement, because they’ve always said, well, we’ll jail the providers, but we’ll never punish the people who have abortions. Well, one, that’s not true because former Vice President Mike Pence was governor of Indiana when two women were criminalized for the outcomes of their pregnancies and they were sentenced to jail. One of them was sentenced to up to 20 years in jail. Thankfully, both of them had their sentences overturned. But that was back in like 2015. That was a while ago, right? So this isn’t anything new. The anti-abortion movement has always known that the logical next step when you make something illegal and a crime is that people get criminalized for it. But what they wanted to do is hide that that is the goal. So they said, well, we’ll never criminalize the people who have abortions. We’re just going after the providers. But when you have people who are self-managing or have miscarriages and or are suspected of of self-managing or having their abortions, right, they’re going to be criminalized. There was a young woman in Texas last April who was arrested on murder charges. Right. And the anti-abortion movement was slow to respond and then said, oh, well, that’s not what we meant. But actually that is the logical interpretation of what you’re doing. And that is what happens when you make something a crime. And I think that is what the American public has always understood, even those who might be uncomfortable or misunderstand abortion, they know that they do not want to see people and providers criminalized for the care. But that’s where we’re headed and that’s where we’ve been, honestly, for a couple of years now.
Brian Beutler: There’s there’s little division around ideology. There’s like a more of a division between people who want to hide the ball about what the ultimate goals of the religious right are or the anti-abortion movement are, and those who are just ready to sort of let the whole freak flag fly. Because if you assume that this only plays out in the realm of politics where members of Congress or state legislatures or whatever have to take votes, then that division matters because you’ll get hard line activists pushing for bans on contraception. And those bans will fail in a vote in a legislature. But when you have courts and prosecutors and people who are less directly accountable or, you know, the power that they that they use isn’t sort of in the form of taking a vote on legislation, then it doesn’t really matter matters how how extreme the judge is or how extreme the prosecutor is. And so the the it’s not like the work of years to get to a place where contraception is banned. It can be done by a judge in Texas whenever.
Renee Bracey Sherman: Well, I think it’s a it’s a couple of things right. Back during the Obama years, there was, you know, all the attention to when Justice Scalia passed and Mitch McConnell held up the vote for then Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. And, you know, there was a lot of pushing of how ridiculous it was that, oh, we can’t replace a Supreme Court justice during an election year. They just made that rule up. Right. What wasn’t talked about as much is that McConnell had actually held open nearly 200 seats in the justice in courts and for judges in the branches all across the country. So then when they stole the election and then they stole the the Supreme Court seat, they also stole those 200 judge seats, all at the federal benches across the country. Right. So then when you start looking at who are the judges that were installed in that moment, that becomes those judges that you’re talking about at the federal level that will just let anything go through. So we’ve been dealing with that for four years on top of I actually think there is the in addition to the activist judges, there is the state legislatures that were taken over and gerrymandered all too hell starting in 2010. Right. And some of the first legislation that they passed after they gerrymandered them was the explosion of the antiabortion restrictions that we see the impact of now. So it’s been a decade of that. But also we celebrated that Kansas, the people of Kansas said no to this abortion ban. They won. And in the statewide ballot. Well, what are their legislators doing right now? Trying to pass another ban on abortion. And so we have politicians who then install judges that are not accountable to the people. We have politicians who have chosen their voters instead of allowing the voters to choose them. And so they’ve rigged democracy in this way that we actually can’t fix it. They get to just win and win and win because it’s a tilted board. We talk constantly about why we can’t get any gun legislation done, even though 80% of the country believes in some sort of gun control. Right. Well, it’s actually the same thing. 80% of the country believes that abortion should be legal. We can’t get it done because the courts and the the seats in our state legislatures and of course, also federally have been stacked against us. And they’re not actually representing the people. They are cut in a way that they’re representing what conservatives would like to be able to represent the people. [music plays]
Brian Beutler: So stipulating though that there is at least some disagreement among the anti-abortion segment over tactics, if not ideology.
Renee Bracey Sherman: Mm hmm. Absolutely.
Brian Beutler: Can pro-choice advocates, Democrats, people who disagree with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, is there a way to exploit even that narrow division now that they don’t have the unifying cover of just try working to overturn Roe now that they got what they wanted, sort of the dog catching the car?
Renee Bracey Sherman: It’s a bit more complicated than that. If we actually go back in time to think about how the anti-abortion movement actually came about, it was formed and they chose abortion as a political issue, specifically after they lost the right to school prayer, the right to school segregation, and they lost any sort of ways in which they could really divide and keep Black and brown people separate. They also lost school bussing, right? So they lost those in the seventies and they needed to pick a new issue that would cut across that same racist Jim Crow line and could be a dog whistle of an issue. The 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade provided an opening for them. And so the religious right decided, okay, how can we organize our people while still keeping our nonprofit status as churches and not be political? So they made abortion a religious issue. And so you started to see in the eighties, you see Reagan come up under it, right, Because a lot of Republicans actually supported access to abortion. George H.W. Bush did. Reagan actually legalized abortion in California. And it’s like, how did we how did we get to this point? Right. They picked abortion as an issue to exploit because they could not or didn’t want to be overtly racist and overtly anti-Black, but they could in their policies. So they’ve been using that for the last 40 years, 50 years as their rallying cry for their party, particularly starting in the eighties. The problem with Democrats, progressives, liberals and I think we’re starting to get there is that we allowed them to separate abortion out instead of actually talking about it as the health justice issue that it is as the racial justice issue that it is as the economic and anti-poverty issue that it is and as the democracy issue that it is. Right. They had to fracture democracy through abortion. They literally did it all through abortion. And if we continue to keep siloing abortion as its own issue and as a well, people have separate opinions on it. Instead of actually looking at the structural way and the very anti-democratic way that conservatives exploited abortion to destroy our democracy, we’re never going to win. The majority of people who have abortions are people of color. The majority of people who have abortions are already parenting. The majority don’t have the money for really anything, let alone a minimum of $500 to, you know, ten, $15,000 medical procedure. It is an issue of making sure that people have access to health care. And I think if Democrats would actually organize at that intersection and really talk about it as the democracy and health justice issue that it is, we could bring people together. Right. If we could use intersectionality as an organizing tool, we could win. I hesitate to advocate and using the exploiting piece as the strategy, because then it’s actually not addressing what is our vision for abortion access or for pregnancy justice in this country. Because what we need to be pointing out and organizing around is that the same people who are saying that they’re pro-life and they believe, you know, pregnant women deserve all of the things are the same people who are turning their heads away when we’ve got corporations working people to death and they’re having miscarriages because they don’t have any pregnancy protections in the workplace. We can’t get any sort of pregnancy bill of rights. We can’t get any sort of no people should not be criminalized for the outcomes of their pregnancies. That should be something that we can all agree on, but they won’t. And so we need to take a justice and an intersectional lens to this work.
Brian Beutler: Well, maybe. Maybe I’m a little confused by it because if, like, as you say, the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade highly unpopular, I think it follows from there that advocacy either as a legislator or as an activist or whatever, for codifying Roe, say they did that you don’t like what they did. We’re just going to reverse it. Would be very popular, something like a basis for organizing a movement not just of longtime—
Renee Bracey Sherman: Mm hmm.
Brian Beutler: —abortion rights advocates, but like regular people who are normally tuned out of politics.
Renee Bracey Sherman: Mm hmm.
Brian Beutler: But then, you know, I think based on what you were saying, that would be falling into a trap of taking the abortion issue and putting in a silo. But to me, it seems like the way to actually galvanize the most political support for undoing the damage that was just done.
Renee Bracey Sherman: Well, a couple things. Roe was the floor, and even that floor was inaccessible for a lot of people. Roe legalized abortion, of course, but all of the restrictions that we’ve had over the last ten years were allowed under Roe.
Brian Beutler: Hmm.
Renee Bracey Sherman: So Roe was imperfect. So we both want to be able to build something new and actually organize around something new and fix the problems that we had with Roe that allowed what we’ve had over the last ten years, in particular with those restrictions. So those restrictions cannot come back. The other piece is that. Not all Democrats are aligned. There’s a thing called the filibuster. And a person named Kyrsten Sinema, another person named Joe Manchin, who Joe Manchin openly meets with anti-abortion terrorists and doesn’t give what— I was about to cuss. [laughs]
Brian Beutler: You can cuss.
Renee Bracey Sherman: Fine, doesn’t give a fuck what anyone else thinks. Doesn’t care what any Democrats think, doesn’t care what’s happening to the people in his state. Right. Because he is taking money from white nationalists, all of the corporate interests. You know, he’s actually you can’t even get him to support pregnancy care for workers because he’s anti-worker. Kyrsten Sinema is taking a ton of money from all of the same corporations. Right. So she gets to sit here and say, well, I’m pro-choice, but she hasn’t lifted a finger to do anything about it because of the filibuster. Right. These are the problems that we have where the country can be aligned. Same thing with gun violence. The country can be aligned on gun control. And yet we can’t get anything done because the filibuster exists and because we allow Democrats to be beholden to corporate sponsors instead of the actual people who vote for them and who elect them. And we see the same thing in the House, the party leadership, who all says that they’re pro-choice and that are releasing statements that they believe in a woman’s right to choose, full stop. That’s great. They also went out and stumped for Representative Henry Cuellar when he was in a tight primary race against Jessica Cisneros, who was a huge reproductive justice activist in her community, and came very close to beating him twice, in fact, so close that they had to bring all of them out into Texas to stump up for him. And what did Henry Cuellar do when he came back into office this January? He voted with Republicans on an abortion ban. So we actually need to make sure that we’re holding our party leaders accountable. I think the other piece is that we need to address abortion stigma on the left. We need to address that people will say things like, you know, throwing out later abortion or young people who need abortion. We still allow politicians to support the Medicaid ban on abortion like the Hyde Amendment. I also think that we need to call out politicians who say they’re pro-choice but refuse to use the word abortion. I don’t know if you know this, but for two years the president would not say the word abortion. It wasn’t until Roe was overturned that President Biden finally used the word abortion. I know this because my organization tracked it. And so how can you be pro-choice? But you won’t say the very word that is at the center of the issue that you’re organizing on. And so I agree with you that, yes, they should be saying, look, you know, they overturn it. This is really unpopular. Let’s, you know, get back to where we have national legal abortion. Right. Let’s do that. But there’s not actually any accountability or a heavy push for the people who are standing in the way. And right now, that was actually Democrats. They can say all they want that Republicans took back the House right now. But when Democrats had the House, the Senate and the White House, they still couldn’t get it done because Democrats were in the way.
Brian Beutler: I love me some some Democrat. Democratic Party accountability stuff and I want to get to it like that’s like the bottom half of my list of questions.
Renee Bracey Sherman: [laughs] Okay.
Brian Beutler: But before we do, I did want to ask you because because of me focus so much on how the Dobbs decision affected right wing abortion advocacy.
Renee Bracey Sherman: Yeah.
Brian Beutler: I’m curious how how you’ve seen it work on the on the other side, like how has abortion rights advocacy changed since Dobbs?
Renee Bracey Sherman: Well I think it galvanized a lot of people in the country because there were a lot of people who are pro-choice or were like, I mean, they’re never going to actually overturn it. Right? They knew the restrictions were a lot. If they knew of the restrictions, a lot of them had heard of some. But they really didn’t think that it would get overturned. So I think a lot of folks who are pro-choice but don’t pay attention to it on the Daily were caught by surprise despite the many dire warnings. That said, a lot of people jumped to action and wanted to get involved. And so people donated to their local abortion funds or donated or volunteered with their local independent abortion provider. In my work, people started sharing their abortion stories. I mean, we saw an outpouring of people who were like, fuck it, this is ridiculous. I’m telling you, I’ve had an abortion. My voice deserves to be heard. In fact, I’ve had a couple abortions, right? I’m having an abortion right now. I’m seeing people who are willing to talk about it more than ever. And I think that’s really, really beautiful. What we need, though, is we need to actually have that accountability and really to to make sure that the the organizing is sustained because there’s a lot going on and people can kind of get tired. You know, I know I woke up, I was at a convening of reproductive justice leaders over the weekend. And so I woke up Sunday, the 50th anniversary of what would have been of the Roe decision to the news of the shooting at the Lunar New Year celebration. Right. And I was just woke up so heavy of just feeling like we’re not safe anywhere. And how terrifying all of this is. And I think it can make people feel really tired. And so we sort of need to be doing this work with longevity in shifts, supporting one another. And so I think that is the thing that I’ve seen people really waking up. But I want to figure out how do we sustain that through culture change, through elections, through state and local policy change, because that’s actually where the change is going to be. I’ll also say I think the change I’ve seen in our movement and in organizing is that state advocates for a long time over last decade have said the fight is in the states, please put the fight in the States. And a lot of donations and funding and strategy was really focused at the national level. And so the states were sort of forgotten. And there was this really just like, you know, fuck the South, like whatever, you know, we were never going to win those states anyway. Instead of actually boots on the ground starting to organize, knocking on doors, really doing that work. That investment didn’t happen, which is why all of the cases came out of the South. I’m thinking about when Mississippi had both voter ID and personhood on the ballot and Planned Parenthood chose to only fight personhood, but not the voter ID which we knew was going to destroy voting rights, which would then, of course, impact abortion. Reproductive justice activists in the community said, no, we need you to do both. They chose not to. We lost both. And then that’s, of course, now we end up with the case at the Supreme Court is the Mississippi case, because they’ve been able to gerrymander all of the voting there. So I what I have seen is that we are sort of going back to the I told you so of the states leading on this and and trying to have local municipal wins like cities spending money to help people pay for their abortions, covering travel for abortions, really supportive legislation in local municipalities, states doing the same thing. The state ballot initiatives, as you said, you know, we won all of the state ballot initiatives. But what needs to happen is it needs to be that sustained fight to push back against the politicians that are openly ignoring the will of the people. And we really need to just hyper hyperfocus on local organizing, not solely a national focus.
Brian Beutler: Apart from the ruling itself, like when the leak happened and then the final ruling came down in the summer. What have been the biggest moments since then where the reality seemed to really break through to the masses?
Renee Bracey Sherman: I think when the leak decision happened, there were so many people who I know called me or would I wear my, I had an abortion T-shirt out in public. People were just like really in awe and surprised that was happening. And so they’d come up to me and say something. So I really felt that. I think people were deeply heartbroken when they read some of the stories of the people who went to their abortion appointment the morning of June 24th and had to leave. [sniffles] I think. The folks who… I cared for some that traveled to D.C. from places like Texas and Alabama and Massachusetts, New York, who needed abortions because they could not get them in their communities. And they told me that they’d been telling friends and family what they were going through. And usually they don’t tell their friends and family what they’re going through and that their friends and family showed up for them. That felt like a change. And so, I mean, I’m sure what you meant was more of like the the policy change. But to me, what I could feel the palpableness was the the culture change. And to me, that is is sort of the the watershed moment that we needed for people to realize that every single one of us loves someone who’s had an abortion. And you might know somebody who’s going through an abortion right now and you just don’t know. It could be your coworker, could be your friends, could be honestly the person you’re sitting next to on the plane, that that’s where they’re traveling. Right. And so realizing that this is impacting people all around us. And I think that was the shift that I felt in the culture and and just how many people realized what was happening was real. Another moment, I think that was actually the precursor for that was when the clock struck midnight to September 1st. And the Supreme Court did not intervene in the Texas case of SB 8, and they let SB 8 go into effect, which effectively banned abortion in Texas. And because they were putting civil penalties on anyone who helped someone get an abortion, I think that’s when it really started to sink in to people because we were trying to warn people that if the Supreme Court did not intervene in SB 8, they were not going to save abortion because that was a basic level of like it upended the rule of law that someone who’s not an aggrieved party could try to stop an abortion and sue just for $10,000. And that was it’s wild. Like the American Bar Association was like, what? And we saw corporations like Uber, Lyft, taxi drivers that were concerned because, you know, could the drivers on the various rideshare apps be sued for helping people? I think that was a moment where people were realizing that any and all of us can be swept up into this because for so long they just assumed that it’s the people having abortions or the providers. And I think everyone just assumed it’s not going to be me. And I think people who were having miscarriages or who had pregnancy complications and, you know, didn’t think I’d never be someone who needs an abortion. Realizing that the care that they need is now being put in jeopardy, it really impacts all of us, whether you’re continuing your pregnancy or not. And that was what became so real for most people in this country. [music plays]
Brian Beutler: This is probably because I work in media and so it’s like a hammer nail problem. But at the time I really noticed where the issue seemed to be sort of following me. Everywhere I turned it was news about what Dobbs meant for the country. More than like the other way around, where I would have to kind of track it myself.
Renee Bracey Sherman: Yeah.
Brian Beutler: Was when the the sort of infamous now story of the ten year old girl rape victim from from Ohio who had to cross into Indiana to get an abortion and it became a national news story. And you had, I think, the attorney general of Indiana first thinking that he he was going to like sort of turn up the cruelty of that story. And then there was this immense blowback. But I know because I track local and independent news, that that wasn’t the only horror story worthy of national attention. Right. That Dobbs gave rise to, to many other similarly gut wrenching stories. And I’m wondering why you think that one. And also, you mentioned the Supreme Court allowing the Texas law to go in effect. So you have these, you know, here and there a couple stories that seem to really kind of break through. What do you think limits what gets this sort of drumbeat coverage from national media on a story that has obvious national implications?
Renee Bracey Sherman: Generally, the public believes that there is a certain archetypes of people who are absolutely deserving of abortions, and the rest of us sometimes get put aside. And so I think, you know, there’s those the exceptions rape, incest and health. Right? Because people consider those to be the the most tragic circumstances. And so when you have someone who’s, a story of someone who’s very young and that incredible violence has happened to her and just been perpetrated against her, we assume that these exceptions that they set up would be accessible. But the thing we’ve been trying to say for a long time is that the exceptions aren’t real and they never have been, because in a way, like, you know, we know that survivors are not believed. We know that rape survivors don’t always want to report. And so but people sort of kind of put that out of their mind. And so when you hear all of the things that to us is actually all of us who work in repro are like, yeah, that’s how the system works. [laughs] It’s like, that’s that’s why this system so fucked up and we ought to fix it, right? But to the general public, most people assume that the system is creating space for people like that young girl to get the care that she needs. And then the cruelty is on full display. And that really tugs at people’s heartstrings and upsets them. I think one of the things that felt really hard for me in that moment is what. That little girl must be feeling. And what’s going to happen when she is able to use the Internet widely? I mean, maybe she is now. Depending on how young [laughs] if her parents, how much screen time her parents give her. But to see the way in which people wrote about her. And I think sometimes people forget that people who need abortions are real people. And so to see people debate, that was really painful. And I know that it brought up a lot for the folks who need abortions every day. And I think that that’s really sad. And what I hope is that the public will remember that feeling that they were feeling for her. And remember that there are thousands of people across the country who are having to do and deal with all of the things that she and her family had to deal with every single day that you don’t hear about, whether it’s the barriers that she dealt with, whether it’s the sexual violence that she dealt with, whether it’s that not being believed or just wanting an abortion and not being able to get one. All of that is a tragedy. And I think that I hope that our country can move to a point where we can listen to abortion stories and really recognize the people behind those stories and not only elevate the ones that are deeply tragic and traumatizing, but that all of us deserve access to abortion care at any time and for any reason. We should not have to put all of our reasonings out there for you to see our humanity and believe that traveling to another state for care is inhumane. It’s all of us are dealing with some form of that. And I think the country sort of was was captivated by it because she became a bit of a symbol. And, you know, and I know some folks who are in touch with her and her family and so. You know, my hope is just that she is able to heal and recover and that her family is able to heal and recover. Because being at the center of that, no matter how, no matter how well-meaning it is, is very exhausting and and painful. So.
Brian Beutler: There’s an aspect of this that I kind of want to use as a hook to talk about the sort of Democratic Party accountability stuff that we were alluding to earlier.
Renee Bracey Sherman: Yeah.
Brian Beutler: Because, you know, I, I, I work in journalism. I, I always say like, I think media should be better, journalists should be better. [laughter] And that it shouldn’t it shouldn’t it shouldn’t be that that there has to be this sort of horribly traumatizing story before it’s deemed to meet the threshold of national newsworthiness. And so.
Renee Bracey Sherman: Right.
Brian Beutler: You know, we could have a whole separate conversation about media criticism and what like, better journalism would look like. But. Like, for instance, Republicans have controlled the House for less than a month. And I mean, it’s been a shambles in some really obvious public ways. But [laughter] they’ve been really they’ve been really clear about a few things. And one, to sort of pull at random is like they’re extremely excited to air out Hunter Biden’s dirty laundry, right? They want to circulate his nude pictures and embarrass him as much as possible with the hope of hurting the president. And so, like without even a clear story to tell about why anyone should give a shit about Hunter Biden’s nudes [laughs] they had they managed to get his name and the words investigation and laptop and whatever, you know, into the news and on an almost daily basis. And I think, ir— You know, bracketing for a second, the concerns you raised about how the Democratic Party machinery will will protect anti-abortion members or pro filibuster members. But I think that the the party as currently constituted could be like Republicans are about Hunter Biden’s laptop, but about real abortion ban horror stories of sort of excited by the opportunity to draw attention to more than just the most traumatizing story out of Ohio or Indiana. But like show how this is a problem facing people of all kinds in all kinds of states so that the public consciousness is sort of saturated by it, but they just don’t really do that.
Renee Bracey Sherman: Thank you for saying all of that, [laughter] because this is something my organization has been working on for years. We have made requests of the White House to bring people who’ve had abortions, including those who’ve been impacted by the restrictions to the White House, to the Oval Office to meet with the president so he could use his platform to elevate their stories, just like President Clinton did before he vetoed the Partial Birth Abortion Act in the nineties. They have not responded to our multiple requests. Last year, before the State of the Union, we proposed that they could bring people who are impacted by SB 8 to the State of the Union, and that didn’t happen. Maybe they’ll change their mind this year and do that, we hope. Yeah, there’s a lot that can be done besides reading abortion stories from the floor, which I think they do. And I want to be clear, hashtag not all members of Congress, because I think last Congress, we had the highest number of members of Congress being open about their abortion stories. So there are members of Congress, like Representatives Barbara Lee and Cori Bush and former Representative Jackie Speier and Gary Peters. And just like Gwen, Gwen Moore, and like there’s so many who’ve been open and so generous with their abortion stories, forgetting Representative Pramila Jayapal. And that has been really wonderful. And so I applaud them. What my hope is that the president will stand behind them and use his microphone to elevate the stories of people who have abortions because we should not have had to beg him to say the word abortion. What they what Congress has done is had a number of hearings where they’ve invited people who’ve had abortions to come share their abortion stories. I testified last July where not only did I talk about my abortion, I talked about my attempts to unsafely self-manage my abortions when I was 19. And you know why and how and why people can self-manage safely with pills.
[clip of Renee Bracey Sherman]: 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 miles of plastic pills. Four at a time dissolves under the tongue every 3 hours. There’s no way to test it in the bloodstream. And a person doesn’t need to tell the police what they took. I share that to exercise my right to free speech because there are organizations and legislators who want to make what I just said a crime.
Renee Bracey Sherman: You know, I think that we need the White House to do more. I’m really glad that the vice president has been out there speaking. But President Biden promised us the whole of government, and that includes him and his voice. And so we’re looking to the president to to speak out. I’ll also say to your point about with all of the Hunter Biden and his addictions and his nudes and like Republicans, are the party of stigma. That is what they want to do. They want to stigmatize anyone who is different, who, you know, has made mistakes, who has life experiences. And when they are backed into a corner, that is when their claws come out and they go into attacking via stigma mode really horrifically. Right? They have no policy plans. They actually cannot govern, which is and they have no intentions of governing because they know that the president is not going to sign anything. So they’re just going to use the next two years to just spread as much hate and stigma as they can. And the thing that connects Hunter Biden and abortion is that they want to stigmatize and harm people. They’re stigmatizing Hunter Biden’s addiction issues and the fact that, you know, people are talking openly about mental health and substance abuse and all of those things. Right. They are stigmatizing that. They’re exploiting the stigma to shame people for having addictions, for needing abortions, for mental health issues, for talking about all of that. Right. And they want to make a joke about all of it. The cruelty of all of that is their end game. And so they’re using Hunter Biden to basically shame the president. And really anyone who has an addiction or has a family member with an addiction and to try to say, okay, cut them off instead of actually showing up with love and support. And, I don’t know, maybe a national health system where people with addictions could get health care instead of handcuffs and shame. And that’s the same thing with abortion.
Brian Beutler: I watched your testimony last year in preparation for recording. And, you know, I was wondering why I was watching it. Like, does this undermine my observation about Democrats? Not really sort of like putting a lot of effort into trying to make sure that the media doesn’t lose focus on this issue. And, you know, I what I keep coming back to is that I, I appreciate that they have a harder time controlling what the conversation is about than Republicans do, because Republicans have a huge propaganda apparatus. Right they, they use it to fill news vacuums or displace bad news stories with, you know, stories like this M&M is too fat or this one [laughter] isn’t slutty, isn’t slutty enough or whatever. And it’s like really stupid how it works, but it works. And if you don’t have something like that and like I, I have mixed thoughts about whether it would be good for the country for Democrats to have like a sort of ethics free propaganda apparatus like Republicans do. But since they don’t like what they have is like they like the ability to be creative about how to convince regular journalists to cover more substantive things than the M&M thing or the Mr. Potato Head thing or whatever else. And, you know. It’s not like Republicans aren’t doing that, like they created a select committee on the weaponi— You know, just nonsense. But it’s like a it’s like it’s like a holding up a red flag in front of a bull for the media. Just like we are going to pay attention to this. You’re going to come, you’re going to cover it. That’s going to saturate airwaves and headlines and it’s like we’re going to end up having you do a lot of our work for us. And like there could be a select committee on forced pregnancy. I mean, there could be and it could be called that or it could be called something else, and it could it could convene weekly or bi weekly and and feature different stories from different people from different parts of the country experiencing the post Dobbs future in all the myriad ways people are experiencing it. And that’s the sort of like how do we how do we control the way people understand this story? Thinking that that I think is missing. You know, I’m maybe overly focused on congressional hearings. And your point about who you invite to the State of the Union is part of that, too. But it’s sort of like you want to be thinking on a rolling basis, like, how do I compete for the attention of this newspaper, these cameras, in order to hopefully generate this sort of storyline so that people think about it in that way and not just when the Ohio story happens?
Renee Bracey Sherman: Well, Congress is doing a lot of things. I think the protest champions are really showing up. Right. They had those hearings yesterday. They just reintroduced the EACH Act, which is the bill that would get rid of the Hyde Amendment and ensure that everyone who’s enrolled in Medicaid is able to use their health insurance to pay for abortions. Right. So they’re putting those visionary bills out there. But what is a challenge is that if they’re not taking the votes and if the policy doesn’t change, then what? Right. And so the House did their job. By my standards of like the bills they passed last year, the hearings they did, the Senate did not because they let the filibuster get in the way. And, you know, I, Senator Schumer, continue to have a have votes on the Women’s Health Protection Act. But like didn’t strong arm Manchin to do anything didn’t you know, didn’t actually they didn’t get the votes and they haven’t conceded on getting rid of the filibuster yet. So what feels I hear you on all of those ideas. Right. And those hearings. But. Speaking for the storytellers that I work with, how many times do we have to testify and bare our souls for then nothing to happen? That is very wearing on us and it is very wearing on on their ability like they’re losing their confidence in politicians. Right? They’re happy to come testify, but if the president isn’t willing to say the word abortion, they’re like, what is this all for? And so stuff like there’s stuff that’s free that could be done and isn’t being done. And that feels really frustrating. I mean, my opinion is, is that the FDA has all the evidence that they need to make medication abortion available over the counter. They need to be strong arming that the states cannot make a medication illegal. That the FDA has said is a is to be available federally. They need to really get into the states and sue. And on Wednesday, it was announced that there are a couple of lawsuits getting at that. And so I’m glad that the the pharmaceutical companies that are that are suing those lawsuits were announced Wednesday morning. So folks can go look into that. I’m glad that that’s the the willpower and the work that that folks are putting in. But I feel like so much of it was too late because we asked for President Biden to take action on day one and he dragged his feet for weeks on some simple stuff, executive order stuff that presidents usually do on day one. He didn’t do until two weeks later. Right. Didn’t talk about it when it was a crisis. Really put a lot of it on the back burner. So I think we’re catching up and now we don’t have the House. So Republicans get to decide what sort of hearings there are. But again, I think. Storytellers, abortion providers, people who need abortions. It’s nice that the stories are out there, but I think folks are getting really tired of having to be trotted out there when no action is actually being taken. We need things like abortion pills over the counter in our hands right now, and that is how it is in other countries all around the world. The fact that we took so long to even do telemedicine is ridiculous. The fact that the FDA won’t remove these unnecessary restrictions on medication abortion, that you have to have all sorts of ridiculous paperwork instead of just picking it up at the pharmacy like you get every other medication is ridiculous. And it to me, I mean, I hear you and I’m like, how much more evidence do you need? We’ve literally given you all of the studies. There are studies all around the world, like the US is actually really outdated on this. And I feel like all they want is our stories so that they can look like they’re doing any stuff without actually having to do the hard things to make abortion accessible for people right here, right now.
Brian Beutler: Do you see the medication abortion issue as the missing piece of a Biden administration agenda, post Dobbs that, while maybe too slow, has overall been good? Like, what have they left on the table that you think they could do aside from the medication abortion issue? And just at a general level, when they you know, when they move slowly or when they say that for legal or practical or or prudential reasons, they they don’t want to take this step or that step. Do you do you trust their judgment even if you don’t ultimately agree with them? Or do you think that, like the the system that they’re using to make decisions is itself flawed?
Renee Bracey Sherman: I don’t believe in incrementalism. I do not trust the Biden administration’s judgment when it comes to abortion. They have been too slow. They offer always something that’s mediocre. And they’ve been going just at a pace that does not actually center people who need abortions right now. I think medication abortion is one of those really big pieces that has absolutely been left on the table and the FDA has been extremely slow on it. I think later abortion is a huge one. There’s debates as to whether we could say that Medicaid could cover people’s travel to other states for their abortions, even if it doesn’t cover the actual abortion itself. Right. They haven’t tried to explore that. There hasn’t been money to try to help keep some of the clinics open or move. Right. Like there’s a lot of funding things that they could try. They they I feel like they have not tried. I would love to see them talk about self-managed abortion. But right now on the FDA website, there’s a little banner that says that you should be careful purchasing pills from online. They’re literally the same pills that you would get in a clinic. Right. But they’re using the stigma and fear mongering instead of actually giving people the resources for what they need. I would love to see the president try to maybe figure out some executive order, even if it only impacts people federally, that people cannot be prosecuted for the outcomes of their pregnancy, even if it only works for his administration and it’s only federally, Right? There are ways in which you can put out an executive order and it can be a model for legislation overall. Another thing that’s that’s people will think is separate, but I actually think is is connected is the way in which the Biden administration continues to give untold sums of money to local police forces. Right. Stick with me. They keep doing this right and giving more and more money to police who are obviously shooting Black and brown people in the street. But the other piece is who do you think comes and knocks on your door when they’re going to arrest you for suspicion of self-managing your abortion? Who do you think they’re going to have raiding abortion clinics? You have literally handed more money to the states that are criminalizing abortion and giving them more mechanisms to be able to do that. Put a restriction on that. You know that one, you shouldn’t be giving police more money like that, in my opinion. But add more restrictions to say that it cannot be for the criminalization of pregnancy outcomes. Like where is a larger or even if it’s just a dream bill or a proposal of, you know, like I said, a pregnancy Bill of Rights, both for pregnant workers, but also that everybody gets prenatal care, everybody gets safe access to abortion. People get access to later abortion. Right. He was doing some work on maternal health and yet they left later abortion out. Well, if people are having complications later in their pregnancies, they’re gonna, later abortion is a solution. Right? They left abortion out of the conversation overall. So I think to your question of like, there’s actually a lot on the table that putting aside, you know, a fractured Congress and the filibuster and all of that. He could literally just talk about these things. He could talk about what is a vision in this country. And that’s what it is, the State of the Union. Right. And he doesn’t do it. Last year, I remember at the State of the Union, they had this whole vision and story of like what it was like if you were to be able to drive along with your electric car and high speed Internet [?] he painted a real beautiful picture of what the future of the highways in mid-west America shout out to the Midwest where I’m from. Right. He had this whole vision and he couldn’t be bothered to say the word abortion, but he did say fund the police three times. Right. That tells me where his actual priorities are. What, could he actually sit here and think through what funding the police means to people who are being criminalized for abortion, but also paint a picture of what access to pregnancy care, including abortion, should look like in this country. Just as clearly as he did with high speed Internet and electric cars and all of those other things. Because guess what? Most of this population is going to get pregnant. Cares about pregnancy. You know, like half of the people in this country can get pregnant and the other half really love and care about somebody who can get pregnant. This is something that impacts all of us. And he just won’t talk about it and won’t address it. And that feels the most frustrating for me because talking about it is free. It doesn’t require any executive order. It doesn’t require a budget. It’s literally free. And he won’t do it.
Brian Beutler: So I, I sort of take the bigger point connecting these two questions, like what could elected Democrats do to sort of monopolize the abortion conversation as it plays out in media and what could. Policymakers due to sort of max out on what their existing authority is or what rhetoric they use, that these two things feed on each other insofar as the it’s like connecting hardware that if you want people to come to Congress and tell their story, they will want to feel like on the on the other side of the equation that that is generating results—
Renee Bracey Sherman: They did something. [laughs]
Brian Beutler: Right. Right.
Renee Bracey Sherman: Yeah, it was for something. Yes.
Brian Beutler: So these are these are, you know, two puzzle pieces that fit together. If we assume that there will be people willing to do their part as activists, as victims, as wherever they fit in the story for them, what does a Democratic Party that is maximizing the mobilizing power of Dobbs look like? What are they doing ahead of, like the next election that would be commensurate to the sort of sacrifices we’d be expecting of people who are the victims of the Dobbs decision?
Renee Bracey Sherman: Yeah, I think what needs to be happening in between election cycles is that pro-choice politicians, which is not always Democrats but or was which is always Democrats, but not all Democrats are pro-choice, but pro-choice politicians need to keep their promises in between the election cycles. New Yorkers right now are very upset with Governor Kathy Hochul because she is out there stumping for a chief justice on the New York Supreme Court, who’s anti-abortion. And, you know, House Leader Hakeem Jeffries is out there with her. And so I think people are feeling a little frustrated that they shared their stories. They went out and voted. They they did all the things to keep her in power, that she could be governor. And she said she wanted to make New York a bastion of abortion access. And then she turns around and uses her political capital for this. And that upsets people. And so I think what Democrats, what pro-choice politicians can do is actually keep their promises. They need to be pushing legislation and ideas and policies and conversations that are really radical and and ensure that. Pregnancy is cared for and safe in their state, even if they can’t control what’s happening in states where abortion is criminalized. Right. They, as I said, they should be put in for a pregnancy Bill of Rights that no one is prosecuted for the outcomes of their pregnancies, that people can get abortion care, all three trimesters in their states. Right. That people don’t have to go to these panels of random doctors that they’ve never met to be able to get an approval. They need to get rid of the judicial bypass. That means that young people who are under 18 and for whatever reason cannot turn to a parent or guardian for approval for their abortion. Those are in a number of states, quote unquote, “pro-choice states” are states with fewer abortion restrictions. Those still exist. Illinois finally got rid of theirs. Shout out to my home state. But like it was there for a long time. And I think, you know, Governor Pritzker has been doing some really great work, but it actually isn’t him. It is the organizers that are on the ground at the Chicago Abortion Fund, the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health and all of the organizers that are on the ground that are proposing these visionary bills and ideas. And then the governor is saying, yes, let me be a vessel for that. And so I hope that pro-choice politicians in all of those states can continue to just propose really exciting ideas. I want to see every single pro-choice state have no limits on when providers can provide abortions. They should be pushing to make abortion pills available to everyone in health clinics everywhere. I know New York City is doing that. The downside is, is that Mayor Adams is allowing police and anti-abortion protesters to harass people outside of abortion clinics. So that’s a bit of a mess over there. But that is what we should be doing, making it as accessible as possible for people both in their state and out of state.
Brian Beutler: Renee Bracey Sherman, thank you for spending so much of your time with us today.
Renee Bracey Sherman: Thank you so much. It was an honor. [music plays]
Brian Beutler: If you’re not a first or second time listener, you probably already know this. But before the election, for months actually, it was like my singular mission to get the Democratic Party leadership on board with a plan to turn the whole midterm election into a referendum on Roe versus Wade. The idea was to make voters a simple promise. Give us two more senators and let us keep the House, and we’ll codify Roe in January of 2023. Gratifyingly, Joe Biden made the promise a few times even. Less gratifyingly the election didn’t actually give Democrats 52 senators or the House. But part of me still thinks it could have. Biden got on board with the referendum and Nancy Pelosi got on board with it. But the Senate was really pretty absent. It was just like they didn’t really see themselves as a critical ingredient or a critical part of a grand project. And I still wonder what would have happened if in the week or two before the election, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer had orchestrated House and Senate votes to show a federal abortion right can clear a Democratic House, even a very narrow one. And changing the filibuster rules to codify Roe has 48 votes in the Senate. So we just need two more and we’ll have everything we need. And I still wonder what would have happened if in the week or two before the election, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer had orchestrated House and Senate votes to show a federal abortion right can clear a Democratic House, even a very narrow one. And changing the filibuster rules to codify Roe currently has 48 votes. So mathematically, just give us two more and we’ll have everything we need to give back to the people what Republicans took away. And having clarified that promise. The news would have covered it and the story before the election would have been. If the election goes the Democrats way. The right to abortion will be restored. We’ll never know how that would’ve worked out. But I think that’s the kind of clarity Renee was talking about. And I think it works on two fronts. First, to assure committed activists that there’s a plan in place and that it’s a top priority for the Democratic Party. And second, it’s to clarify the stakes of the election for normal voters. It doesn’t get much simpler than you give us this. We give you that. But the pieces of the bargain and how they all come together have to be clear to voters across the country, including ones who don’t vote regularly or who sometimes vote Republican, but are disgusted by the Dobbs ruling. My hope is that having lived through 2022, when the things that moved voters most were democracy and abortion, Democrats, particularly Senate Democrats, will be a little less gun shy about the issue ahead of 2024. They’ll tee up a national referendum on the issue and abortion will be legal again in every state this time two years from now. [music plays] Quick heads up, Positively Dreadful will be dark next week for a Crooked Media company retreat. So we’ll catch you the second week of February. Positively Dreadful is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is Michael Martinez. Our producer, is Olivia Martinez and our associate producer is Emma Illick-Frank. Evans Sutton mixes and edits the show each week and our theme music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos.