Renee Bracey Sherman, Founder and Executive Director of We Testify. Shala W. Graham/Shutterstock
With an administration that has failed to protect abortion access, activists—most of them people of color, including a handful of Congress members—are left to lead the way.
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In a historic first, abortion storyteller Renee Bracey Sherman detailed the World Health Organization’s protocols for self-managed abortion with medication in her testimony before Congress last Tuesday, on July 19. Hours later, Capitol police arrested nearly three dozen protesters, including 17 members of Congress—most of them women of color, including Representatives who have publicly shared their own abortion stories—for blocking traffic during a rally for abortion rights and access.
I do not think it’s overstatement to call these acts of bravery in a time when strong leadership on abortion is otherwise lacking, especially from an ostensibly pro-choice President Biden and high-ranking—largely white, often male—Democrats.
Bracey Sherman, a biracial Black woman who is the founder and executive director of We Testify, a storytelling and leadership organization by and for people who have abortions, told me: “Biden has said, ‘I can’t do anything.’ But you know what’s free? Talking about abortion.”
Which is precisely what she did before Congress—taking on a remote but not unimaginable legal risk in a climate where sharing information about self-managed abortion could be construed as a criminal act—“aiding and abetting.” So too, many of the members of Congress arrested at the Capitol who put themselves on the line, even as politicians well-positioned to leverage their power and privilege, did so as survivors of a violent insurrection.
“It is not a light decision for folks of color, particularly women of color, to put their bodies on the line and risk arrest,” said Bracey Sherman. “Especially women of color who are survivors of sexual assault, who are survivors of an attempted government coup, who regularly face harassment from the very people in uniform who are arresting them.”
The leadership of Black, Indigenous, and women and people of color is so often both demanded and devalued. And still the people who have shown the boldest leadership in the past few months have been those with the most to lose, even as their calls for support have gone unanswered and even been derided by some of the most powerful people in the country.
Two weeks after a Trump-packed Supreme Court overturned Roe and two months after a leaked SCOTUS decision presaged the final decision, Biden finally proposed his first tentative steps toward defending what abortion access is left in the United States. He also accused abortion-access activists like Bracey Sherman, who led the charge to get the president to merely say the word “abortion,” of being “out of step.” But it’s clear now that Biden is the one who fails to understand just how angry and scared the people who elected him are. Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets since Politico leaked the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision; articles about how to support abortion access post-Roe have practically become their own subgenre of service journalism.
“What can I do to support abortion access?” is the question I see in my DMs more than any other these days as we struggle to navigate our post-Roe landscape. I have no wholly satisfying response. There is no solution that corrects immediately for the women and trans and gender-nonconforming people facing—or currently experiencing—forced pregnancy. But when I offer an answer, it is invariably this: Follow the leadership of people who have had abortions, who are on the front lines of the fight, and who are putting the most on the line.
These are terrifying, despairing times, made worse by the confusion deliberately engineered by the (mostly) Republican anti-abortion politicians and lobbyists who trade in fear and intimidation and, above all else, the control of millions of people’s bodily autonomy. Abortion access varies wildly by state; clinics able to offer legal care are overwhelmed. Independent clinics in states with abortion bans struggle to stay open to provide gender-affirming care, miscarriage management, and contraception, while some of the best-resourced providers, such as Planned Parenthood, have pulled out of offering abortion services citing legal risks. Meanwhile, proponents of safe self-managed abortion are putting their lives, families, and freedom on the line to support those who cannot travel for clinical care, and pregnant people themselves are facing criminalization for ending their own pregnancies or experiencing pregnancy loss, even when those prosecutions are patently unlawful.
Of course it would be wonderful if an executive order could do the bare minimum and return us to a Roe-era status quo, but there is no quick fix for America’s abortion-access crisis. And still I tire of the refrain that our only recourse is to vote harder, or that in the absence of an overnight solution that suddenly restores access everywhere, there is nothing else meaningful that Biden or the federal government can do. There is something to be done, by anyone with a modicum of privilege or power—literally anything, if it means vocally supporting abortion access, and importantly, being willing to be seen fighting and losing and getting right back up again.
Biden’s biggest failure on abortion is not that he doesn’t hold the magic abortion wand; no one expects him to. It’s that his cowardly approach to even speaking about abortion— which has set the tone for the Democratic Party in general—has meant a failure to embrace and encourage the power of political messaging, specifically of rhetoric and political performance that denies bigots and misogynists ownership of the issue. Biden has largely relied on Vice President Harris to take the lead on the administration’s abortion policy and messaging efforts — she met with Texas abortion providers after the state passed its ban last fall, met with Indiana lawmakers this week, and has taken the messaging on the road. It’s a lot to put on one person, even and perhaps especially the first-ever woman of color Vice President, though Harris is clearly up to the task. Anti-abortion politicians have long been willing to take hits and hype up even the piddliest wins as major victories; their rhetorical dominance on abortion has, until the last few years, been wildly outsized in comparison to their success in enacting abortion restrictions, until it extremely wasn’t.
And yet the arrests of Congress members at the Capitol abortion rally has been written off by detractors on both the Right and the Left as mere theatrical performance, and Congressional hearings on abortion access poo-pooed as political grandstanding, unlikely to make meaningful inroads on abortion access. But in the absence of an option to do anything else, political performance—yes, theatrics—is a vitally important means of staking out turf, asserting core principles, and simply letting people know we aren’t alone in our despair and outrage.
“Politics, a lot of it is theater, and people are uncomfortable with that,” said Bracey Sherman. While efforts to protect abortion access have mostly failed on Capitol Hill, there’s still something essential about letting people know they’re not losing their minds if they are afraid and angry—even if it’s not a policy proposal that changes the landscape overnight.
“I can’t describe to you what it’s like to be pregnant when you don’t want to be, the toll that that takes on your mind, your body, and your health,” said Bracey Sherman, whose Congressional testimony on self-managed abortion with medication included a personal account, which she’s rarely shared previously, about her own attempts to end a pregnancy before she accessed clinical care. “Because someone can’t afford it, can’t travel, so how do I speak to them and say, ‘I get it, I’ve been there, I know what you might try, and I wish I had known that this was an option, so I’m just giving you the information.”
And impactful political performance needn’t only happen on the national stage—showing unapologetic enthusiasm for abortion access, especially enthusiasm that centers the people most impacted, matters even in the smallest and most private of venues.
This is something that abortion activists of color have long held close as a first organizing principle—and tried, repeatedly, to persuade mainstream and national reproductive health and rights leaders to prioritize, to varying and often disappointing degrees of success, though things are improving, albeit slowly.
Laurie Bertram-Roberts, who co-founded and is the executive director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, had barely picked up the phone late one weeknight for an interview about supporting abortion access before spelling it out plain: “Listen to Black women.”
“It’s Black, Indigenous, people of color who are out here doing the shit, doing the real broad reproductive justice work,” Bertram-Roberts, whose Twitter bio celebrates their “Openly Black-Queer-NB-Feminist-Mama-Doula-Storyteller-ProAbortion Mom of the Year®-ED @fundMSabortions-‘angry Black bitch’” identities, told me. They’re also disabled and chronically ill, and flagged the leadership of folks like them who live in the intersections of multiple identities as key to making change: “We’ve had to build our own shit to be in the movement and be heard.”
Biden and other moderate Democrats may never genuinely champion abortion, even in the most dire circumstances and under pressure. What has become very clear, in the absence of that leadership, is that we needn’t settle for grudging tolerance of abortion in order to envision and eventually shape a new future, if we are willing to rebuke the politics of appeasement and embrace the politics of freedom. We may be a long way from restoring the protections of Roe, but we needn’t wait for the election cycle to bear fruit. We can talk about, champion, and celebrate reproductive freedom today—because it’s important that people who are finding their way on the issue, and even those who feel they have little new to learn but who have not centered the leadership of BIPOC abortion advocates—hear firsthand perspectives about why abortion access is essential, whether that’s through watching Congressional testimony or a friend or loved one’s social media posts.
When Renee Bracey Sherman was thinking about her testimony, she says she wasn’t calculating a grand plan—she just knew that talking to and about people who have abortions was her calling.
“Every platform I’m ever given, the people I’m speaking to are people who have abortions, and that does not change when it comes to Congress,” she said. “I am here to make sure that people who have abortions know they’re loved.”
And it’s one of the reasons Bertram-Roberts engages with anti-abortion posters on their social accounts – not to change an anti-abortion troll’s mind, but to give others the tools to share their own views and experiences: “This is for the lurkers … I know someone else is going to have this same conversation with a real person.”
Those who support reproductive freedom will wait forever if we wait to be appreciated and protected in advance by supposed political allies who are reticent to even use the word “abortion.” But we have a broad spectrum of options, from being vocal pro-abortion advocates who direct money to independent clinics and abortion funds, to sharing our abortion stories with our loved ones, to more legally risky decisions to engage in active civil disobedience like ordering abortion pills online and letting our communities know they’re available—while ensuring we’re careful about security protections.
“What should people do? Figure out where your line of risk is, and step up to it, and maybe consider stepping over it,” said Renee Bracey Sherman. “People will see in this moment that we’re all going to take risks, and you have to figure out what your risk is.”
Laurie Bertram-Roberts had a similar take: “I personally am a huge fan and adherent to the belief in the power of civil disobedience. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that unjust laws must be broken … How you resist is up to you, and everyone has their own level of comfort in the movement and in risk-taking, but that doesn’t mean you sit on your hands and comply in advance.” (And there are resources available for folks with questions about self-managed abortion and the law—the Repro Legal Helpline and Repro Legal Defense Fund are excellent places to start.)
Each of us has to determine for ourselves what our risk levels are, and whatever we choose to do, we can start where we live, within our own communities.
“You don’t have to start an underground abortion railroad—please, white ladies, don’t do that,” said Bertram-Roberts, who is exhausted by “poverty safaris” that treat states like Mississippi as charity cases and discount the work of advocates like them who work tirelessly to support abortion access against the odds: “People of privilege, there are people in your own community who lack abortion access for various reasons; go help them.” For folks in abortion-friendly geographies, they said, “Let your friends and family know you have a room available. That’s gonna be 100 times more useful, if everyone is taking care of their circle of people, just that little bit of taking pressure off of people having to travel.”
There is no pink pussy hat coming in the mail with a hashtag-resistance guide that guarantees both safety and results, and it is the height of white saviorism to believe that there’s an easy, across-the-board answer to our current crisis. The people we elected to protect us may not do so, even when they activate their best efforts. People who thought they were immune from abortion bans will discover that they are not. We can rally and organize and even then, some and too many of us, will face arrests and prosecutions and incarceration, and we still may not come out stronger or unscathed. The coming months and years are going to be hard and dangerous, but the only way through is together.
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