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Going Beyond the Law

What the movement for abortion rights can learn from international feminists—and the anti-choice right

In January 1993, on the twentieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Dr. David Gunn[*] commemorated the ruling by playing Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” outside one of the southern medical centers where he provided abortions. Less than two months later, Gunn was dead. Anti-abortion protesters had been circulating posters with his phone number and home address on them and staged protests outside the clinics where he worked. One morning, in March of 1993, an anti-abortion fanatic showed up to a demonstration outside a clinic in Pensacola, Florida, with a gun. He reportedly shouted, “Don’t kill any more babies!” before shooting Gunn three times in the back. The other protesters seemed unfazed. “It looked like they were just happy,” one eyewitness said at the time.

The decades leading up to Gunn’s murder had been marked by rampant anti-abortion violence. Pro-life activists bombed and set fire to more than a hundred reproductive health clinics and vandalized countless others. They stalked doctors like Gunn and other clinic staffers. Gunn’s murder was the first time the movement’s violence escalated to fatal force, but it wouldn’t be the last. Yet last month, just hours after the Supreme Court ruled to overturn Roe, president Joe Biden urged those who were “frustrated and disillusioned” by the court’s decision to protest peacefully. He had no such admonishments for the anti-abortion right, whose institutional organizing had been supplemented by a fringe, violent paramilitary wing for decades—and whose violence was instrumental to their victory. That afternoon, police in Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Greenville, South Carolina, assaulted and tear gassed peaceful pro-abortion protesters. Nothing was gained by turning the other cheek.

Relying on politicians and national reproductive rights organizations to save us has led nowhere.

In the face of defeat, national Democrats responded with their usual fecklessness. The Senate Judiciary Committee tweeted that it would “hold a hearing next month to explore the grim reality of a post-Roe America,” illustrating a stunning lack of urgency and revealing that they had spent the month since the Dobbs v. Jackson draft opinion leak doing absolutely nothing. Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent out a fundraising email begging for $15 donations “so we can WIN these midterms and finally codify reproductive rights into law,” which only emphasized that there had been no attempt to do so previously. Meanwhile, anti-choice politicians and advocates sprang into action. Not content with existing trigger laws that would go into effect soon or immediately after Roe’s reversal, these true believers announced they would go after medication abortions and abortion providers next. “The work,” the president of Americans United For Life said, “has truly just begun.”

Institutional actors’ utter failure to preempt or prevent Roe’s demise is disappointing if not surprising; it’s also an opportunity. Their negligence makes it clearer than ever that relying on politicians and national reproductive rights organizations to save us has led nowhere. The mainstream pro-abortion movement should become more militant, not less. It’s time to look to—and support—those who have been preparing for this moment for years: pro-abortion feminists in Latin America and Europe, and the abortion underground in the United States.

In small ways, the shift has already begun. Protesters in the United States have adopted the bright green of the Latin American “Marea Verde” (green wave) movement, whose adherents fought to decriminalize or legalize abortion in Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico—and won. The Latin American feminists who secured abortion rights in their countries weren’t afraid to get violent: they made headlines for protesting by the thousands, throwing Molotov cocktails at police, and stripping them of their riot shields. Crucially, these were not random outbursts of frustration or rage; the actions were the result of tireless organizing, only one part of a multi-pronged strategy that also included persuasion at the interpersonal level, intervention through the courts, and getting legislation passed.

“We have never left the streets,” Verónica Cruz, an abortion activist in Mexico with the organization Las Libres, recently told The Nation’s Amy Littlefield. While mainstream feminists in the United States grew complacent, showing up to the occasional reproductive rights protest and donating to Planned Parenthood every now and then, their counterparts in Latin America were not only hitting the streets but also “doing this arduous stuff in the shadows, behind the scenes,” global health and legal scholar Alicia Yamin said. Even after they won, they were still fighting. Decriminalizing abortion is the first step. Destigmatizing abortion and expanding access are the end goal. In Chile, where abortion was decriminalized under a narrow set of circumstances—in cases of rape, when the pregnant person’s life is at risk, or when the fetus won’t survive the pregnancy—in 2017, the right to the “voluntary termination of pregnancy” may soon be enshrined in the constitution. Chileans will vote on the draft constitution, which will replace the one that has been in place since the Pinochet dictatorship, in September.

Expanding the right to abortion is a long-term project. In the interim, it’s crucial to find and exploit loopholes within existing abortion restrictions. In Poland, where abortion is almost entirely illegal, feminist organizers not only staged multi-day protests in the wake of the announced abortion ban that came into effect in January 2021, they also found ways to connect women in need with abortion services. Abortion Without Borders, a group of pro-abortion activists across Europe, have helped women in Poland obtain abortion pills or travel to other countries for abortion services—and they say their strategy could provide a model for post-Roe America. The key to their success is their willingness to break, or at the very least dance around, the law. “There is a certain paradoxical aspect—that when you go beyond the law . . . then you start to think not from these limitations but from how it should be,” Kinga Jelińska, a Polish activist, recently told The New Yorker. When your framework emphasizes what’s just over what’s legal, she added, “then the law becomes irrelevant.”

If pro-abortion activists like Cruz and Jelińska have any U.S. analogue, it’s not Democratic politicians or the leaders of groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America. It’s the feminists who lead workshops on self-managed abortion, distribute abortion pills, help women who require surgical abortions out-of-state with the funds and resources they need, and who do so with little if any institutional support from mainstream reproductive rights groups.

Militancy is about more than violence; it’s ultimately about being willing to break unjust laws in the name of the greater good, or at least about exploiting loopholes and gray areas in these laws. Taking their cues from the Jane Collective, an underground feminist group that connected people to abortion providers in the pre-Roe days—and who eventually learned how to perform abortions themselves—members of today’s grassroots feminist organizations like SASS (Self-Managed Abortion; Safe and Supported) have taken matters into their own hands, educating people on how to acquire and, if necessary, take abortion pills, even in states where doing so is or may soon be illegal.

Going forward, the question isn’t how grassroots groups can join forces with organizations like Planned Parenthood, but rather how large nonprofits can provide support or redirect their massive resources to small groups that are more equipped to meet the needs of the moment. The easiest measure is requesting that ordinary individuals give to small, local abortion funds instead. A friend who previously worked in fundraising for a national reproductive rights nonprofit had an even more effective idea: privately encouraging major donors to funnel cash to groups like SASS or Just the Pill, whose initiative Abortion Delivered plans on stationing mobile abortion vans just outside the borders of states with strict bans.

Closer to home, the pro-abortion left should also look to the anti-abortion right as a model, at least with regards to organizing, coalition-building, and messaging. After an anti-abortion protester killed Dr. Gunn in 1993, major anti-abortion organizations refused to condemn the shooting outright, instead shifting the conversation to the lives of the so-called “unborn.” “While Gunn’s death is unfortunate, it’s true that quite a number of babies’ lives will be saved,” the head of Rescue America said in the wake of Gunn’s murder. A group of more than two dozen religious leaders took it a step further, claiming the shooter’s “use of lethal force was justifiable provided it was carried out for the purpose of defending the lives of unborn children.” The conservative religious magazine First Things even convened a “symposium” of theologians and thinkers to discuss Gunn’s murder that amounted to little more than a pro-life version of the trolley problem: If you have to kill one abortion doctor to save countless unborn lives, do you do it? The answer, for many of them, was a resounding yes.

Militancy is about more than violence; it’s ultimately about being willing to break unjust laws in the name of the greater good.

In spite of their decades of violence against abortion doctors and reproductive health clinics, anti-abortion advocates managed to posture as victims—and still do. The week before the Dobbs decision, a coalition of anti-abortion groups sent a letter to the attorney general urging the Department of Justice to investigate “pro-abortion terrorism and intimidation.” Since the Dobbs leak, they wrote, there had been a wave of violence against crisis pregnancy centers—organizations that often front as reproductive clinics but discourage people from seeking abortions and other forms of health care—by shadowy groups with names like Jane’s Revenge and Ruth Sent Us. These so-called attacks have mostly come in the form of vandalism and light property damage—hardly equivalent to the violence the anti-abortion movement has relied on for half a century—but that didn’t stop mainstream reproductive groups from defending crisis pregnancy centers. “We strongly condemn violence in all of its forms,” Sarah Stoesz, the CEO of Planned Parenthood North Central States, said after a CPC in Iowa was vandalized. “That is not to say that we agree with the mission of crisis pregnancy centers. We absolutely do not, but responding to them with violence is unacceptable.”

Instead of condemning minor acts of vandalism, reproductive rights groups could stand to take a page from the pro-life playbook: they could shift the focus to the lives that their opponents have and will claim, and they would be right to do so.

There are some early signs that institutional actors are heading in the right direction. Prosecutors from dozens of states—including some that have banned most abortions or will soon do so—and Washington, D.C., have pledged not to prosecute people for seeking out or performing abortions. But even with these promises, many doctors who provide abortions are hesitant to break the law and risk losing their licenses. Doctors in some states are already reluctant—or have outright refused—to provide care for women who are miscarrying, since the same procedures are often used for abortions. In light of these reports, the leaders of anti-abortion groups like Texas Right to Life have chosen to play dumb, claiming that the problem lies with medical providers’ interpretation of the law, “not the law itself.” But this preemptive chilling effect is the point of abortion bans. Anti-abortion activists and legislators seek to punish both people who seek out abortions and people who perform them, and a growing wing of the movement is lobbying for fetal personhood laws that will mean anyone who has or performs an abortion is charged with murder.

The anti-abortion movement understands what’s at stake. Its most zealous members believe they are fighting a holy war, one in which countless lives hang in the balance. It’s no wonder that some of them believe that the only proportional response to the rampant loss of life is to take lives in return. The pro-abortion left can learn from this model. Instead of shying away from militance and flinching at light property violence, mainstream abortion advocates should frame them as proportional, even restrained, responses to a group of people who want them dead.

[*] Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Dr. David Gunn as “Dr. Michael Gunn.”