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“Abortion Pills Forever” Misses the Point

As nine unelected judges are poised to effectively overturn Roe v. Wade, some feminists’ rallying cry is “abortion pills forever.” But that slogan isn’t a call to fight, it’s a call to surrender.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

December 6, 2021
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Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Update: As of today, the FDA approved access to abortion pills without seeing a doctor in person. That means that people can be mailed abortion pills to access abortion up to 10 weeks. This is a positive development, but it is still no substitute for the demand for free, safe and legal abortions on demand.

As it seems likely that Roe v. Wade will be effectively overturned by the unelected Judges of the Supreme Court, there has been a great deal of discussion about how to respond to this latest attack. One of those responses has been the trending hashtag and slogan “abortion pills forever.” 

People should have access to free, safe abortion pills whenever they want. In this sense, I agree with the Shout Your Abortion activists who stood in front of the Supreme Court on Wednesday. These activists enrage the far Right, taking an abortion pill without shame or stigma: “You will never stop us. We are taking abortion pills forever.”

Abortion should not be source of secret or shame, these activists clearly state. And they are right. Abortion is healthcare. Abortion is part of our right to our own body and abortion pills are a good and accessible option for many people. In fact, we should fight for abortion pills to be more accessible.

But as the Supreme Court seems poised to strike down Roe v. Wade, “abortion pills forever” is the wrong slogan for this political moment. It isn’t a call to fight, but a call to surrender.

Overturning Roe v. Wade? 

The Supreme Court heard arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health on December 1, and for defenders of abortion, prospects look bleak. The case challenges a 2018 Mississippi law banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregancy, and comes on the heels of the Court allowing an outrageous anti-abortion law to go into effect in Texas. The justices’ comments on Wednesday were very friendly to the idea of rolling back the national right to an abortion.

This comes after decades of erosion of abortion rights, from adding very long waiting periods and parental consent laws, to the bipartisan Hyde Amendment which bars low-income people from using Medicaid to fund abortions.

And even more demoralizing, as the Supreme Court decided on the biggest attack against the abortion rights movement in 50 years, the streets were essentially empty. In 2017, when Trump was inaugurated, over a million people flooded the streets in the “Women’s March.” They held another huge march in 2018 calling for the power of the movement to go “to the polls,” resulting in big Democratic Party victories in the midterms. But now, this movement is nowhere to be seen. This why we call the Democrats the graveyard of social movements: the right to an abortion is poised to be overturned under the Biden administration, and there is essentially no protest. When Democrats are in office, their non-profit allies refuse to mobilize.

You may be interested in Nine Unelected Judges are Poised to Take Away Your Right to an Abortion. Get Angry and Take Action

The Mississippi law is a clear violation of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which upheld the right to an abortion before 24 weeks of pregnancy. Now the Supreme Court seems sure to allow the Mississippi law to stand and the real question is whether the court will explicitly overturn Roe or de-facto overturn Roe. This would be a huge blow to everyone who can get pregnant, as people may need to travel an average of 200 miles to get an abortion.

Although this is an attack on anyone who can get pregnant, working-class people and people of color will be most affected — they are already disproportionately harmed by current restrictions. Those with better and steadier jobs may have the resources and the time off to travel for an abortion — although no one should have to do that. 

“Abortion Pills Forever” Is Not the Slogan for Right Now 

In this context, two wings have emerged, and both are resigned to the idea that Roe v. Wade will be upended. On one hand, those aligned with the Demoratic Party are calling on people to “vote blue” to defend abortion rights. The Democrats are sure to campaign on this in the midterms. It’s a cynical ploy to get votes after 50 years of refusing to pass a defense of abortion at the federal level and even in some states, including when the Democrats were in control of Congress and the presidency.

But the reliance on the Democrats is a dead end. 

Other groups seem more combative, giving a middle finger to everyone who wants to limit abortion rights. At the Supreme Court, Shout Your Abortion, an organization that fights to destigmatize abortion, stood strong and unashamed. The group’s strategy is centered on expanding access and information about mail-order abortion pills. This approach was echoed in twitter hashtags and shared widely among the feminist movement and sectors of the left. While this approach is important, it’s very limited.

Pregnant people can be mailed two pills — mifepristone and misoprostol — that induce a miscarriage within the first trimester. Websites like Aid Access provide self-managed abortions for less than $150. In the context of expensive abortion procedures, long travel distances to clinics, and laws that make abortion illegal within the first trimester, this is a good option for many people. 

Activists from Shout Your Abortion said, “You will never stop us. We are taking abortion pills forever. We are helping each other have safe abortions forever. They might be lining up checkmate on legal abortion, but we’re getting a new method of service delivery dialed in at the exact right time” 

But “abortion pills forever” misses the point, and even weakens the movement right now. That is because the Supreme Court is about to effectively overturn Roe v. Wade, taking away the last federal protection for abortion access. That is the fight we are in right now, the fight to defend Roe v. Wade, and to go even further: for free, safe, and legal abortion in every state.

“Abortion pills forever” takes as a given that Roe will be overturned and there is nothing we can do about it, and that we should shift our focus to living with this new post-Roe world. It’s not a call to fight, but a call to surrender and survive at the margins. This lets the capitalist state off the hook. The message,  “we don’t need them, we can make sure we get what we need” is a concession to the state. Some people are saying this explicitly. Francine Coeytaux, co-founder of Plan C, a group which works to provide information about and access to abortion pills, said, “If you come along and say, ‘Maybe your problems of access have just been solved, because you don’t have to travel, you don’t have to pay that much,’ that undermines the ‘Oh my God, this is really terrible.”

But the Texas law, the abortion restrictions and the erosion of Roe v. Wade really are terrible. And these restrictions really are going to stop some people from accessing an abortion. Abortion pills provided by non-profits aren’t a substitute for the demand for free, safe and legal abortion provided by the state –including abortion pills and abortions in clinics. 

You may be interested in Free, Safe, Legal Abortions Will be Won in the Streets

If the movement is not yet strong enough to defend abortion rights, it’s because the Democrats, with the bureaucrats of the unions and social justice groups, have held back the type of organizing that it would take to win abortion rights. Instead of organizing mass demonstrations and workplace strike actions to defend Roe V. Wade, the Democrats and the union and social justice bureaucracies are funneling all of that energy into elections. 

Instead of resigning ourselves to defeat and accepting the limitations of abortion rights handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court, we should confront those limitations in the streets and our workplaces. Failing to do otherwise simply codifies the sexist and backward ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court and the “authority” they have over our lives.

Abortion Pills Aren’t the Panacea

According to a new Atlantic/Leger poll, only 5 percent of Americans have heard of Aid Access, a non-profit that provides abortion pills by mail, and 13 percent have heard of Plan C. And those who know likely have the most access to information, the most free time, and the most money. It’s the most precarious sectors of the working class — people of color, undocumented people, people who lack reliable internet access — who do not have this information. 

Internet information about abortion pills is great, but it is vital that people be able to consult with a medical professional for free about their healthcare decisions. Access to comprehensive healthcare services is our right, and we must fight for it. 

Further, as Angelique Saavedra, a healthcare worker that provides medical abortions says: 

Research shows that abortion pills can be effective up to 11 weeks of pregnancy. After that people should get surgical abortions. The effectiveness of medication abortion can depend on the gestational age of pregnancy. There is always a small chance that abortion pills won’t work. So if someone who had a medication abortion at 10 weeks gestation returns for their follow up visit and the medication abortion pills didn’t work, then they will have to get a surgical procedure. Abortion pills should be an option, but surgical procedures need to be free and accessible as well. 

And it is clear that the same right-wing forces that are now challenging Roe v. Wade will soon come for abortion pills. Randy O’Bannon, the director of research at the anti-abortion organization National Right to Life, said, “Those entities illegally importing and selling those unauthorized drugs should be prosecuted for those violations.” Four states criminalize managing one’s own abortion, and about two dozen people have been prosecuted since 2000. 

Our horizon can’t and shouldn’t be limited to abortion pills we pay for. Whatever happened to free and legal abortions? No one should have to pay to exercise basic bodily autonomy.

Caitlin Cruz wrote a spectacular article about this in Jezebel, saying, 

People in Texas, like people everywhere, deserve safe and legal abortion methods. Medication abortion is a good option for some patients, but it should not be used as a bargaining chip to call an abortion ban not that bad, when those bans often include the very method that’s supposed to give pregnant people an out. It’s silly to hold up clandestine care as the only kind worthwhile or worth fighting for.

A Mass Movement for Free, Safe and Legal Abortions

We need a mass movement to defend Roe v. Wade and to go further: for free, safe and legal abortions, which includes but is not limited to abortion pills. Building this kind of movement is the only way to actually have abortion pills forever, as you can bet that abortion pills will be barred by legislation soon as well. 

This is precisely what feminists activists did in Argentina. Abortion was illegal and unsafe and illegal abortions led to hundreds of deaths a year. A massive feminist movement emerged demanding that the right to an abortion be enshrined in law —“Que sea ley!” (Make it a law!). And that means making it safe and legal for everyone: from the student feminist in Buenos Aires to the teenager in a rural community with little access to internet. 

Millions of people mobilized, taking the streets and watching the congress vote on abortion rights. It was these mass mobiliations that forced Argentina to legalize abortion; es ley (it’s the law).

We should not promote the fallacy that abortion pills are a solution to this dramatic attack on our basic rights. We should name the attack for what it is, and we should fight it. 

Time is running out, but it is not too late. If hundreds of thousands, even millions of people — those who mobilized in Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March, and a fraction of the 60 percent who support Roe v. Wade — take the streets, we can defend abortion rights.

And we can use that momentum to go for more. We want free, legal abortion in a free, public healthcare system. If we mobilize, we have the strength to win this, but only if we organize against the courts and the state that wants to curtail our right to bodily autonomy and make a profit from basic healthcare.

Free abortion on demand without apology — that should be the rallying cry of our movement.

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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