Building an Uncompromising Movement for Abortion Access

One year after the Dobbs decision, Shout Your Abortion’s Co-founder and Executive Director Amelia Bonow shares how we can build an uncompromising movement for abortion access. 

Written by: Amelia Bonow

Date: June 22, 2023

A year out from the Dobbs decision, journalists and researchers and pundits everywhere are attempting to quantify the damage. Some 14 states have banned abortion, leaving tens of millions of people of reproductive age and capacity without legal access to abortion.  


A new study from #WeCount estimates that 34,000 people in restricted states were unable to overcome the logistical, financial, and legal barriers in order to obtain a wanted abortion. That means the state forced at least 34,000 people to continue unwanted pregnancies, and I didn’t say the state forced 34,000 people to have babies, because some of these people and babies didn’t make it. We will never know the exact number, because people don’t fill out surveys en route to this sort of death. There will be suicides and accidents and overdoses, involuntary commitments and slow slides into states of undoing that will eventually become fatal. Countless people will not make it through. 


Roe v. Wade ensured abortion rights for just shy of 50 years. Abortion rights are supported by upwards of 70% of Americans. One in four women has an abortion, at least half of them have several. As far as I know, we aren’t sure how many men have participated in sex that leads to abortion; that lack of knowing says a lot about what we ask of men. If we include “miscarriage management” in abortion statistics, and we include those who wanted to become parents but had a non-viable pregnancy, that number is much larger; it would probably be closer to half.  


The point is, abortion is politically popular, and is a common occurrence even amongst those who claim to oppose it. The right to abortion should have been impossible to lose. How did this happen? The answer to that question isn’t just the key to understanding Roe post-mortem, it’s the key to surviving post-Dobbs. 

We Can’t Afford To Compromise 

Institutions have failed us, among them: the Democratic party, ostensibly liberal foundations, large NGOs and non-profits with budgets in the tens of millions, and pro-choice PACs. The parameters of the pro-choice position and political strategy was staked out largely by NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the two largest voices and budgets on our side of the fight.  


A recent New Yorker piece titled The Problem with Planned Parenthood detailed some of the impacts of PPFA’s outsized influence, coupled with its inclinations as a large business primarily concerned with sustaining itself as opposed to an equitable landscape, for both patients and providers. To be clear, there’s no need to single out PPFA which employs many wonderful people and provides a lot of incredible healthcare. The problem with Planned Parenthood is in many ways, the problem with everything: capitalism, white supremacy, and the genocidal tendencies of these two forces in tandem. PPFA is one of many institutions in the space who failed to see or prioritize Reproductive Justice.  


Ultimately, we rallied behind a movement which celebrated victories that didn’t include poor folks, primarily Black and brown folks, a movement which allowed the public to believe that we’d won while the Hyde Amendment still sat on the books. We fought from the defense for decades, struggling to articulate a clear, values-based demand for abortion access as a fundamental matter of justice and a non-negotiable human right.  


Don’t get me wrong: even the mainstream movement players were trying to do the right thing, and many, many good people on our side fought tirelessly. The opposition is craven and mercenary. But they fought uncompromisingly, and we didn’t, so we lost.  


It’s time for us to stop waiting for politicians to save us. They are not going to and never were, and our investment in the idea that that they would has blinded us to the work we must do to save ourselves.

The Way Forward 

Obviously, we must continue fighting for abortion rights; criminalization is racist and classist and forcing people to break laws in order to end pregnancy is dehumanizing. But tens of thousands of people will need to break laws in order to have safe abortions, and we need to stop conflating legality and safety so that people know that they don’t need permission from any court in order to have an abortion, and that there are people and organizations ready to help them circumvent abortion laws while mitigating legal risk.  


Obviously, everyone deserves to have access to abortion care in a medical context if that’s what they prefer, but early abortion in the United States is profoundly overmedicalized; there is no medical reason why people should feel safer going to a doctor’s office and paying $600 for pills they could receive discreetly by mail, while receiving medical support from organizations like the Miscarriage and Abortion Hotline.  


It is time for us to stop thinking about abortion as something we must pass through legal systems and medical establishments to access and begin thinking of access more in the context of mutual aid: abortion belongs to the people, currently and indefinitely, but access is on us to facilitate. Abortion access is a community responsibility, and the number of people who survive in post-Dobbs America is directly proportionate to the number of people who find a way to plug in.  


The failure of funders and philanthropists to think beyond legal and political solutions has allowed the opposition to run the table, without even pretending to play by the rules. There is no greater example of this than large institutions pulling out of Texas in the wake of SB8, instead of supporting those who would have dared to challenge an utterly lawless law. We cannot meet this moment by funding political solutions and enormous national organizations who are afraid to get their hands dirty. Funders must support those who are building power in communities, those who are contributing to access, and those willing to work in defiance of unjust laws, That’s what it’s going to take to build an uncompromising mass movement that creates abortion access in the absence of rights, a movement which will eventually win these rights back, and a movement which wouldn’t dare declare victory until nobody—not a single community, not a single human being—is left behind.  


Amelia Bonow is the Co-founder and Executive Director of Shout Your Abortion, a movement dedicated to normalizing abortion and elevating safe paths to access, regardless of legality.