When our columnist began writing her history on the frontline fight to protect abortion back in 2018, even she couldn't predict the horrific landscape for reproductive rights in 2022—and how much more necessary her book would be.
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“Your book is coming out at the perfect time,” a man said to me. “Did you plan it like this?”
It was October 2021, and I was speaking at a conference for independent booksellers about my then yet-to-be-released book Bodies on the Line: At the Front Lines of the Fight to Protect Abortion in America, a new history of clinic escorting and the frontline fight to protect abortion clinics. The Supreme Court had just refused to intervene in Texas, allowing the state’s six-week abortion ban and vigilante enforcement mechanism to go into effect.
“No,” I muttered with a forced laugh. “I definitely didn’t plan any of this.”
It was the first time I was asked that question. It wouldn’t be the last.
I began thinking about this book and the story I wanted to tell in the summer of 2018, before Brett Kavanaugh replaced Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court, before Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and was replaced by Amy Coney Barrett, before Texas enacted that draconian six-week abortion ban. I knew then how dire the situation had become for abortion access across large swaths of the United States. At the start of that decade, a wave of anti-abortion legislation unlike anything seen in my lifetime had forced the closure of scores of clinics and made accessing an abortion even more difficult than it had already been. I knew that anti-abortion protesters were emboldened by Trump’s presidency, and I knew that clinic escorts like me were seeing that increase in vitriol, aggression, and outright violence firsthand. I also knew that the Supreme Court teetered on the brink of a conservative majority that could make it even worse, a fear that is being borne out as I write this.
But at the time, I had no idea what was coming down the pike. I just knew that the story of clinic escorts and our commitment to supporting abortion patients in the face of hostility and hatred was one that needed to be told.
Over the next two years, I spoke with every clinic escort, past and present, I could possibly find. I conducted interviews with well over 100 clinic escorts, clinic staff, activists, and experts, and I pored over archival resources and old newspaper articles. The process of stitching together a narrative out of so many disparate, unique experiences was daunting, but a thread continued to emerge: Everyday people have power, and they can find a way to mitigate suffering if they’re willing to act.
That’s the story I tried to tell, all while the future of Roe v. Wade and legal abortion looked more and more tenuous. Amy Coney Barrett’s ascension to the Supreme Court in October 2020 cemented conservative dominance on the Court for years to come. By the time I spoke at the bookseller conference in October 2021, Texas had banned most abortions in the state, and the Supreme Court had let them do it. On December 1, 2021, after the final copy of my book had already gone to press, I listened to the oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court case centered on Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban, and the writing was on the wall: Roe’s days were numbered.
I watched the weeks and months tick by, hoping that the reporting I had done in the book would hold up as accurate by the time the book came out. Already, so much has changed for so many of the activists with whom I spoke. Several of the clinic escort groups I profiled in my book are now facing an entirely different landscape than they were just two or three years ago. In the summer of 2019, when I first spoke with Derenda Hancock, a member of the Pinkhouse Defenders who volunteer at Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the last abortion clinic in Mississippi, she detailed the myriad struggles that patients already face in a state that has been hostile to abortion rights for years. Now, her clinic is at the center of a Supreme Court case that may be the death knell for Roe v. Wade. After Kentucky lawmakers overrode Governor Andy Beshear’s veto of an abortion ban, members of Louisville Clinic Escorts, who volunteer at EMW Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville, KY, don’t have any patients to escort right now. Instead, they’re supporting the Kentucky Health Justice Network as they help fund abortions out of state for Kentuckians.
The landscape for abortion access continues to shift, and it was on that tenuous terrain that my book came into the world. Bodies on the Line, this project that, for years, felt like a pipe dream, was released on April 5, 2022. That morning, I woke up, filled with so many feelings: excitement, anxiety, fear. How would it be received? Would anyone care? Would people buy this thing? Would they ever read it? And the most potent, lingering anxiety––would the inspiring people I profiled in the book feel like I had done their stories justice?
That somewhat selfish line of thinking evaporated quickly. Within a few hours of my book’s release into the world, I got a news alert. Oklahoma lawmakers unexpectedly passed a total abortion ban, making performing an abortion in the state a felony punishable by up to ten years in prison. The bans have kept on coming, in Kentucky and Florida, for example, and they’re unlikely to stop. As the country waits to hear if the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade in its imminent ruling in Dobbs, states dominated by Republican state legislators keep passing bans, knowing that they will likely be allowed to go into effect. If you care about the right to safe and legal abortion, this can feel overwhelmingly disheartening.
But that’s what I hope my book and the incredible people featured in it can offer—a sense that, while we can’t fix the Supreme Court tomorrow, we can do something tangible and real today that can make accessing an abortion a little bit easier for someone. Even saying, “I support you, and I am here for you” is meaningful. Walking a patient past someone screaming that they are an evil murderer, using your body to absorb the worst of that verbal blow, is impactful. Giving even $10 to an abortion fund could make all the difference to someone who needs that care and can’t afford it otherwise.
So no, I didn’t plan the timing. I can’t do anything about that, and I can’t stop the Supreme Court from overturning Roe v. Wade. But that’s never what Bodies on the Line or clinic escorting was about. Now, more than ever, we need that spirit of “I can do what I can do.” That isn’t everything, but it is something. That’s possibility. That’s power.
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