Planned Parenthood CEO’s Post-Roe Fight For Abortion Access

WWhen the Supreme Court published its overturning decision, Roe v. WadeAlexis McGill Johnson had been ready on June 24. As president and CEO of Planned Parenthood, she had been warning of this outcome long before a leaked draft of the Court’s opinion was published in May. For years, the pro-life movement was trying to block this. McGill Johnson, however, still finds it devastating.

Access to abortion quickly changed in about half the country, as providers, patients, lawyers, activists, and state officials scrambled to interpret confusing, overlapping laws–some of which hadn’t been in effect for decades or were written a century ago. In an attempt to prevent abortion restrictions from being blocked, advocates filed suits in numerous states over the last few weeks. Although the Biden administration took some measures to ensure access to medical abortion, and abortions in life-saving circumstances, federal authorities are limited in its ability to do so.

It is mostly at state and local level that the new battle over abortion takes place. And that’s where much of McGill Johnson’s focus is trained. Planned Parenthood works to assist people to travel across states to have abortions and to move resources to areas where it is legal. Along with other groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood is fighting in state courts to stop or repeal as many anti-abortion legislations as possible. The organization is trying to get voters to pay attention to local and state elections that will determine the future direction of abortion policy.

But ultimately, this is a “generational fight,” and winning back a national right to abortion will be a long-term project, McGill Johnson says. This was just months after the Supreme Court’s decision. RoeMcGill Johnson (49) has spent her entire life supporting the right to abort. McGill Johnson, 49, spent many years working as a social activist and a political scientist. She was also on the Planned Parenthood Board and running the Perception Institute. This research group, which she founded to examine racial discrimination and bias, when Planned Parenthood asked her to become its new leader after the departure of the former leader. The organization made her permanent head of both Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the nonprofit that is the nation’s largest abortion provider, and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, its political arm, in 2020, just in time for a fresh round of high stakes political fights.

TIME spoke to her recently about the wide array of anti-abortion legislation in the US, how she’d like President Biden to do more to ensure access to abortion, as well as the economic consequences of having these laws repealed. Roe.

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For clarity and conciseness, the interview has been edited.

It’s been three weeks since the Supreme Court overturned Roe. Each state now has its own laws and policies regarding abortion. It seems that things are constantly changing. What does this rapidly shifting landscape mean for Planned Parenthood’s clinics and staff around the country?

This moment was devastating. It is complicated. It’s complicated. Twelve states have already moved to ban or prohibit abortion in the past few weeks. As states open their legislative periods, we anticipate more will follow suit. On the ground, people are calling health centers to determine if and how they can access the necessary abortion care in their state. There are restrictions in place that may make it more difficult to provide care in certain states, even those that are legal for abortion.

I’ve traveled to North Carolina, South Carolina and Michigan. I’m headed to Indiana in a little bit. It’s been heartbreaking to be on the ground and talking to providers at our affiliates, who are either overwhelmed with the increased volume in their health centers because they are doing everything they can to meet the patient needs. It is particularly difficult for people who travel out of the state to have their patients seen in a short time. And it’s also overwhelming for the providers who have the ability to provide care–but no longer legally–who are just being denied the opportunity to treat their patients. This is without doubt the beginning of a massive public health care crisis.

Abortion clinics have been closed in certain places. But in other places, they’ve changed their operations out of fear of violating these laws. For example, Planned Parenthood of Montana stopped providing abortion pills to some out-of-state patients because it said it was worried about neighboring states’ abortion bans. Consider the risks when you evaluate which services are available under new laws.

Because each affiliate is an independent member of Planned Parenthood, they can make their own decisions regarding their risk tolerance. What you’re seeing are additional restrictions. These include the prohibition of abortion and the criminalization over-state of medical abortion. Also, civil lawsuits that comply with Texas bounty hunter provisions (SB 8). So each affiliate, every health center is looking for ways to safeguard their patients, their providers, the workforce, so they can provide the best care possible in the state.

It is very difficult to assess the risks when the Texas AG sues the HHS Secretary to force them to offer abortion care for the sake of protecting the life and health of the mother. And I think that’s the hardest part about this period, is the unknowable risks, and making sure that providers and our affiliates get the clearest guidance not only from us as an organization, but also from the Administration about where they will put the weight of and power of the Department of Justice and HHS and enforcing the right to access care up where they can.

Texas was the topic you brought up. The state recently sued the Biden administration’s Health and Human Services Department over guidance it issued telling hospitals they must provide abortions in emergency situations. What was your reaction to seeing Texas’ suit?

One Texas woman had an abortion plan that wasn’t viable. The hospital administrators and insurance companies refused to offer her the care she required, so she started developing signs of sepsis. So I believe the Secretary here, and what she is saying is underscoring Texas’s impact on healthcare and the lives of Texas patients. The Secretary is right to say that I agree. [Texas]AG’s agenda is to ban abortion, at the cost of other lives in the state.

In addition to the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, there’s been an influx of conservative justices onto the federal courts over the last several years. Are you worried that similar efforts to preserve abortion access might lead to lawsuits which would be heard by conservative judges, who could make more restrictive decisions about access?

We have to explore every single avenue to fight back and that means litigation even when the courts aren’t favorable, it means mobilization even when the seats have been gerrymandered in many states. I think the point here isn’t to worry about which court will take it. The point is to demonstrate to the general public (which supports abortion access) that the lawmakers and judiciary don’t understand the needs of the citizens of many states.

I think it’s just important at every turn to demonstrate who is fighting for freedom, who is trying to protect access to health care, who is trying to protect the very fabric of trust that is the currency of a relationship between a provider and a patient, and who is trying to scare people and shame people and stigmatize people from getting the care that they’re asking for. And so yes, I’m very concerned about the limited pathways, but I’m also very concerned that we try everything that we possibly can in order to demonstrate that we are not going back.

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How do you view the Biden administration’s response to overturning Roe so far?

This administration must do all they can to ensure that access to abortion is protected and to provide other health care services for women in the country. Their first steps regarding access to medication abortion are very important. I also think they’ve taken the necessary steps with the Reproductive Right Task Force, which is looking into how the Department of Justice can monitor the implementation of some of the rights to travel laws.

The administration could do more to support travel, declare a public emergency and strengthen information about medication abortion. Therefore, our conversations with the administration have been focused on patient experiences and the stories of providers sharing their worries about being targeted in providing care in specific ways. These stories should be used to inform policy development and any additional administrative work.

It was in Ohio that a man was accused of raping 10-year-old girl. I asked about this situation because the provider of abortion has come under intense scrutiny even though abortion is legal in Indiana. Do you have concerns about the demands for an investigation of the doctor?

It’s just another example of how extreme anti-abortion politicians are. They created this abortion access crisis and they’re so hell-bent on their agenda to make it inaccessible, that they’re actively putting people’s health and lives at risk. Fox News has exposed the name, photo and opinion of this doctor. A National Right to Life official stated that the 10 year-old girl should have been forced to deliver. This shows that providers and patients will be put to shame.

So, to return to the Biden Administration, these are the issues that we must ensure the administration knows and addresses. Finding ways to protect and support people traveling across state boundaries, as well as ensuring providers don’t face terroristic threats about their licenses or fear for their safety. But it’s an example of how extreme the politicians have been in trying to use their power and control to control our bodies.

Some Democrats were discouraged by the fact that their party is in charge of federal policy at the federal level. RoeHe was overturned. How do you think about Planned Parenthood’s political strategy and motivating people to vote in November?

The Democrats are acting, I believe. We’ve seen [multiple] votes on the Women’s Health Protection Act, legislation that would protect people’s right to access abortion. We’ve seen the House pass that legislation and we have a very divided Senate.

Motive: We have used the Supreme Court for support over the past 49 years to uphold this constitutional right. What voters should understand is the importance of state and local election, state supreme court, governor protections, and how vital they are to access. And that maps on to our Action Fund’s electoral strategy. We need to ensure that governors are protected, that the U.S. Senate has a majority, and that key state legislatures are occupied to preserve access to healthcare.

Everyone I speak with has been quite motivated, despite the negative stereotypes. Abortion is polling at the highest levels in terms of of motivation and enthusiasm for turnout, and so I think that’s going to continue because the impact is being felt immediately and will continue to be felt over the next few months. And I think that’s probably why you’re seeing a lot of folks who oppose access to abortion, many GOP candidates, who aren’t talking about it because they know they don’t have the answers.

The impact of these changes are already having an effect, as you mentioned. How can you ensure Planned Parenthood, and all other reproductive rights movements feel supported as they close abortion clinics and those who worked there become uncertain about their futures?

Planned Parenthood has been around for over 100 years. Its origins are rooted in opposition and the desire to offer the highest quality sexual and reproductive healthcare. It will not stop. Access to contraception, STI testing and breast cancer screening is possible through Planned Parenthood. Because we are a crucial part of the health infrastructure, this work will become more vital, particularly for those who have lost access.

This has long been the belief of the movement. It’s been a long fight to hold and sustain what we have had under RoeRecognize the reality that RoeThis was inadequate. Now, I believe that the world we live in is one we can no longer defend. RoeWe have the opportunity to imagine and rebuild something new. That is what I believe is driving the movement to full focus on the possibilities of creating and settling in. It will take a long time to restore rights and get back into Constitution. To continue providing the most complete and comprehensive sexual and reproductive healthcare possible.

The Supreme Court decision has also been a topic of discussion for businesses. How should companies think about this when deciding how to respond to the new abortion landscape?

I think they have to be looking at it through the lens of their workforce, I think they have to be looking at it through the lens of their consumers and stakeholders, as well as the communities and states they’re operating in, because it’s incredibly important for them to be providing the benefits. A company and no legislator should hold residents hostage in the state they are located. Residents should be allowed to travel across state lines to obtain care.

They can also choose to live in ban states, but I feel they must use their voices and speak up about the consequences of denying access to abortion to their local communities as well as their employees. I believe the Institute for Women’s Policy Research has found that the impact to the economy is upwards of $105 billion [per year]. It is important to consider what it means for companies to operate in countries that do not have health care. This will also impact the morale of their workers and affect their accountability to their communities. Last, I’d say that companies play a very big role in our political system. They often give donations to both sides of houses and to consider whether or not funding some of these incredibly extreme lawmakers is the best way to demonstrate their support to their workforce or the communities that they’re serving.

It took nearly 50 years for conservatives to reverse the decision. Roe, and now you’re in some ways starting this new era, how far in the future are you looking as you try to restore access to abortion going forward?

The fundamental question that our movement needs to answer right now, I believe is: Who are we going be now? Roe? This is a generational fight, and the work that we are doing right now, not only to rebuild and strengthen an infrastructure to provide abortion in the states where we can, is important, but we have to acknowledge that we shouldn’t be looking to the future state being one in which you constantly have to travel for access to abortion care. This means that we must fight state by state. This means connecting and coordinating with other movements who are experiencing similar losses. The 14th Amendment provides the necessary guarantees. This means working together and being systematic when building power between the states. In most of these states, the overwhelming majority support abortion care. We are only here because those in power have gerrymandered their way to power. And it’s our job to unpack them and to leverage direct democracy to fight back—and that will take a while.

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