How to Ensure Equal Access to Abortion, and How We Failed Women

The Women’s March on Washington

I think pro-choice folks need to start by admitting that our efforts to ensure equal access to abortion through the courts has been a failure. We underestimated the lengths that Republicans (and their religious allies) would go to to restrict the right to an abortion.

Instead of trying to persuade people on the topic, we assumed that a strategy of litigation and Supreme Court precedent would deliver the desired outcome. We dismissed opponents’ deeply-held (if wrong) beliefs and hoped they would change over time. We assumed that many of the laws of gravity governing social progress would apply to this issue as well — the “long arc of justice” argument.

Of course, this has proven to be a huge miscalculation.

The progressive wing of American politics has been mostly content with fighting for justice in the courts, instead of doing the hard, grassroots work necessary to delivery victories “in the trenches”. Whether at the state, local or federal level, most of our progressive failures could be easily resolved by legislation. But because we’ve been super afraid of losing swing voters (a false economy if there ever was one), we have given our politicians countless passes and focused our investment on the courts.

For example, these issues could have easily been resolved by federal legislation at any of the times in the past 30 years that Democrats controlled Congress and the Presidency:

Voting Rights (holiday, timing, access, etc)
Abortion Rights
Gay Rights (including employment non-discrimination)
Police Brutality
Immigration Inequity

Just to name a few. I can’t count how many times in the past generation my friends and I have anxiously awaited a court decision we hoped would bring some progress (and sanity) to the United States. In contrast, I don’t ever recall us being similarly engaged with a legislative session. This was a huge mistake.

So now, we have a mess. Three states have effectively banned abortion, setting up a conflict where the Supreme Court may overturn Roe v Wade and roll-back the right of women to safe, legal abortion. Never mind that this right has been chipped away over decades. We are about to lose the “air cover” in our war for reproductive rights.

What to do now?

Firstly, we need to concede that our approach has failed. We must conduct a full accounting of what went wrong and develop a new strategy.

This new strategy must be legislative, not legal. The great weakness of the conservative movement is that its general legal framework is to remove the courts’ oversight over the economy. This by definition empowers the legislative branch, and is the best way for us moving forward.

We also need to let these states fail at their experiments. The idea that we should be riding in to rescue stupid people from themselves is one of the greatest weaknesses of the progressive movement today. Some balance between individual responsibility and the great society are necessary, and no more so than situations where people have consistently voted against their own interests.

I know we need to protect the rights of those without a voice, but we must empower them to fight back rather than fight their battles for them. Though it’s a bumpy comparison, we will never engender regime change in North Korea from the outside. Our only hope is to empower internal actors to take power from their rulers. The same basic premise should apply to those parts of the United States that are today’s underperforming, regressive backwaters.

That is to say, the women of Georgia must lead the charge to reform their state, and the best thing for us to do is to empower them. This can take the form of funding, training, tools, federal legislation, etc.

As it relates specifically to the current state of affairs in reproductive health, I think our best option is to ensure a safety valve for women in those affected states. We need to invest in border-town abortion clinics in safe states and provide transportation assistance for women to get to those clinics for treatment. We can also fly people around the country if needed. Frankly, this would also shift the economics and health outcomes of the discussion in a positive way.

In 2015, there were 700,000 abortions performed in the United States. Assuming 20% of these happen in states with extensive restrictions, that’s approximately 140,000 procedures. At $1000 each, including transportation, it’s $140Mm.

In 2016, Hillary Raised $1.2Bn for her election campaign. I think we can find the money to deliver these services.

So let’s setup an “abortion railroad” and get women around the country the health services they need regardless of their state of residence. And at the same time, let’s work on resetting our strategy nationally.

We need to come out swinging. Instead of trying to appeal to the center with soft language (“pro choice”), let’s be unabashedly, loudly and proudly pro-abortion. Let’s energize and empower political movements inside the states to shift the tide. And let’s focus on winning races at the local, county, state and Federal levels to set a legislative agenda that will drive this country forward.

We can stop this tide, but we must admit failure, change course and build a movement to do it.

Author and Public Speaker on Gamification, The 4th Industrial Revolution, the Future of Work and Failure. More about me:

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