‘We Have to Shift the Table of Power’: A Q&A With Reproductive Rights and Justice Leaders
The results of the November election shook many reproductive health, rights, and justice advocates to their cores. We’re left with questions about what happened, and how to defend and expand our issues in the face of a likely regressive administration. Abortion restrictions continue to pile up, and criminalization of pregnancy outcomes is escalating at the same time that the president-elect has nominated anti-choice and racist candidates to his cabinet while promising to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Rewire talked with three leaders fighting for reproductive rights and justice via phone to reflect on the election and discuss future directions: Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds; Monica Raye Simpson, executive director of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective; and Jill Adams, chief strategist for the Self-Induced Abortion (SIA) Legal Team. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversations.
Rewire: What was your initial reaction when you knew the results of the election?
Yamani Hernandez: Shock, for sure. I can’t say that I didn’t think it was possible. I just never understood how the Trump campaign kept advancing under so much scandal, hate, and discriminatory ideas; the fact that it kept advancing kind of gave me the impression that it was possible. But I still was completely shocked and also devastated. We were on this train that had all this [progressive] momentum that was moving in a certain direction, and it seemed to be almost immediately derailed.
Jill Adams: For me, it was the most profound sense of dread. I grew up in the Midwest, in tornado country. It felt like standing at a glass door and watching a tornado coming toward me, my family, my community, my people, and feeling like there was nothing I could do. Knowing we couldn’t outrun it, we couldn’t overpower it, there was nothing we could do to stop it.
I had such a profound sense of grief, but I didn’t have a choice but to keep functioning, to keep showing up as a leader. I didn’t have a choice but to keep doing my work. There was some part of me that knowingly chose numbness in order to keep functioning because the only other option was complete shutdown.
Monica Simpson: It was utter disbelief, and then it slid into extreme panic. There was always a piece of me that thought [a Trump presidency] was a possibility, of course, but I really tried to hang on to a glimmer of hope. I had to, for my own sanity, for my own safety. It went from disbelief to anxiety to now a spirit of just preparedness and readiness to be able to stand on guard and do the work that’s important for me, my family, my community.
There was a moment of anger and rage. I don’t want to wash over that emotion that I sat with for quite a few days, that really had me paralyzed in my work. The disbelief, shock, and anxiety that came from just the result was one thing; but as we got the reports of who voted for whom, how this happened, and what it really looked like across the country, there was an extreme spirit of anger and rage that I sat with. You think that you’re making shifts happen, right? This just felt like a huge slap in the face for a very long time. It was very hard.
Rewire: As many of us sit in that place of pain and anger, or try to emerge from it, how do we move forward to advance reproductive rights and justice?
MS: I think that we have to really get to the root of these issues. What we do very well is create opportunities to have conversations about the issues. What this election has made very clear to me is that it isn’t solely about the issues; it’s about the very real roots of all of this, which is this system of white supremacy. Until we actually address how that system affects all of us (not just people of color), but how it also affects white people who interact with the system, then I don’t think that we’re ever going to be able to talk about the issues or ever really get to a place where we can see the changes that we want to see happen. We keep putting a Band-Aid on the deeper roots.
This system of white supremacy is a very, very scary system because what it shows is that it doesn’t care about anybody but white men. People of color know this, and we’re always the ones affected the most. But white women vote out of fear, not out of the issues. I think that they are just as scared of the system of white supremacy as we are, because they know that white supremacy is inherently masculine. Patriarchy is implicit in white supremacy. White women, out of fear, continue to buy into this system that is inherently harmful to them. Until we unearth that, dig that thing out, and really heal, we could talk about the issues all day and it’s not going to work.
YH: The last year, we at the National Network of Abortion Funds have been engaged in the D.C. Fight for $15 and looking to expand through All* Above All and the Strong Families coalition of Forward Together.
We’re looking to expand that work because we don’t just want to see people have abortions because they don’t have any other options. We want folks to be able to afford the families that they want, and if that means having more children and being able to afford to have more children, then we want that to be able to happen. If people don’t want to parent and want to terminate a pregnancy, then we think that people should be insured and able to afford whatever their co-pays or payments are around abortion.
Rewire: What kind of specific anti-reproductive rights and justice policies do you see coming down the pike in the immediate future?
YH: We’re already seeing the 20-week bans being another tactic that states are using. We just saw in Texas the fetal remains bill that was passed, which requires fetal tissue to be buried or cremated. We don’t have to forecast too far to see anything; I think it’s going to be a continuation of all of the things that we’ve been seeing. We’ve heard from the administration that they want to make abortion illegal, and I don’t know how they’re going to go about that. There’s a lot of questions and waiting and watching to see what nonsense is coming down the pike.
JA: My concerns are many and multilayered. I’m concerned about what the Trump administration will do politically, culturally, legally. I’m concerned about actions that the Trump administration could take through executive order. I’m concerned about how it will direct the Department of Justice and other agencies. I’m concerned that the White House won’t function as a stopgap to any extreme measures that come through Congress. I’m very concerned about appointments to the Supreme Court made by the Trump administration and the multigenerational impact that will have.
A lot of attention has been focused on Roe v. Wade, which has been eviscerated since it was decided. And for growing swaths of the population, the abortion rights enshrined in Roe are becoming ever-more empty rhetoric that just sits in a book but doesn’t have meaning in people’s lives because of a whole host of obstacles. For increasing masses of the population, self-induced abortion is becoming the only accessible or acceptable method of abortion care, and I expect that trend to increase under this incoming administration.
Rewire: How does the presidential election’s outcome shift the landscape not just for safe and legal abortion access but for reproductive rights and justice as a whole, for every aspect of a pregnant or parenting person’s life?
MS: I think this election has made it possible for reproductive justice to actually be centered. For a long time, reproductive justice has kind of been on the periphery; it’s cited and people get drawn to a more intersectional framework. But it honestly hadn’t really taken center stage in the way we talk about reproductive health and rights. Now, because of what the Trump administration means for us, and what we know is going to start to come down the pike, there’s no way we can do this work in the same way we have for the past 40 years.
We know that overwhelmingly, the policies that his administration is going to push through will affect communities of color more than anybody else. So there’s no way we can do this work from a single-issue lens. We cannot just focus on abortion and make sure that it is lifted up the highest. We have to think about the fullness of folks’ lives. This is a time for reproductive justice to be centered. It’s the only way our communities are going to make it.
YH: In terms of safe and legal abortion access, it shifts the landscape in a couple ways. One is in terms of policy. The federal policy landscape will be very different, virtually impossible [for abortion rights]. On the state and local levels, there seems to be more opportunity. Even when there has been no question about legality of abortion, there has still been speculation from everyday people who aren’t a part of our movement. All of a sudden, [they] find themselves pregnant, not wanting to be pregnant, and not sure of what the laws are, whether it’s legal, whether it’s not legal, and then how to go about accessing it. With multiple cases of criminalization of miscarriage and abortion in the last year or so, I think there’s also fear around what the consequences are for abortion. This election heightens all of that.
Rewire: With the onslaught of restrictive legislation and policy that we anticipate, how can we move forward right now? What can we do?
YH: Right now, representing abortion funds, my advice to folks has been to get involved. If you haven’t been involved before, this is the time to get involved. We need folks locally, we need folks mobilized.
Besides the political barriers, there are some significant cultural barriers around abortion and stigma. We had blatantly false information being stated in the debates about “nine-month abortions.” It’s going to take a lot of re-education of people, and that’s not all large-scale media campaigns. That happens at the individual level: people talking to each other, people relating and educating each other.
The abortion funds need volunteers. At the national level, we need more board members, and I don’t think we have all of the answers yet about which way to go, but I know that we need more people and we need to be organized. That is the advice that I’ve been giving people: Get involved with the structures that already exist and get in formation.
MS: What we have to realize is that the tables that have been set, the tables of power set for this movement work that we do, they have to completely shift. There needs to be new faces. There have to be new voices. There have to be people we’ve never worked with before, people who have been working at the grassroots level, who are directly in the communities that we want to serve. These are people who are not going to talk the movement language. They’re not going to know the jargon and the history. They don’t care about that because they have been in these communities working since the beginning. These folks, their expertise, needs to start to be centered.
We have to make seats for women of color leadership. It’s time to trust the expertise and the leadership of women of color, and it’s time for us to trust and accept the leadership of young people, of community organizers.
We have to completely shift what this table of power looks like in these movements. It has to look completely different. We have to make room. Some people have to quiet down a little bit. Who’s going to step back so there’s room at the table for new leadership, new expertise, new and creative ways of thinking about how we do this work? We have to think completely outside of the box because we are in such a defensive position that we don’t have the luxury to do things the same way anymore.
JA: We must be faithful to our dreams, but we must shift to be realistic about what we can achieve. Yes, we need to modify our plans, redirect resources, adjust our timelines. But we cannot assume a defeated posture. We cannot let go of the illuminated vision that we hold, that motivates us to keep doing this work. There is a future that we’ve all been working toward, and it is better. It does include greater equity, protections, and justice. We must continue to hold that vision in mind as we adapt to the current reality. We cannot let that go and if we do, that is the ultimate defeat.
If we let what happened in November extinguish our inner fire that illuminates this vision of a progressive and just future, then that’s worse than anything we lost at the polls in terms of votes or anything coming down the pike in the next four years. Effecting change takes a long time. We were already in this for the long haul.
Lauren Rankin is a freelance writer and reproductive rights activist. Her work has appeared at publications such as Rolling Stone, Cosmopolitan, Salon, and others. She has a Master of Arts in Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. Follow her on twitter at @laurenarankin.
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