Written by Elizabeth Dias and Lisa Lerer
The pin was small, and rusted on the back. Sharon Wood had packed it away in 1973 as a relic of a battle fought and won: the image of a black coat hanger, slashed out by a red line.
Then this spring, her home state, Georgia, joined a cascade of states outlawing abortion at the earliest stages of pregnancy. Wood did what she never imagined she would need to do again. She dug it out and pinned it on.
“Don’t ask me how it all happened,” Wood, 70, a retired social worker northeast of Atlanta, said. “I know so many people who said they woke up when Trump was elected. Well, they shouldn’t have been asleep.”
For years, abortion rights supporters like Wood believed the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling had delivered their ultimate goal, the right to reproductive choice. Now they are grappling with a new reality: Nationwide access to abortion is more vulnerable than it has been in decades.
In a six-month period this year, states across the South and Midwest passed 58 abortion restrictions. Alabama banned the procedure almost entirely. Lawmakers in Ohio introduced a similar bill shortly before Thanksgiving. And in March, the Supreme Court will hear its first major abortion case since President Donald Trump added two conservative justices and shifted the court to the right; how it rules could reshape the constitutional principles governing abortion rights.
For opponents of abortion, this moment of ascendancy was years in the making. Set back on their heels when President Barack Obama took office, they focused on delivering state legislatures and gerrymandered districts into Republican control. They passed abortion restrictions in red states and pushed for conservative judges to protect them.
And then Trump won the White House. Ending legal abortion appeared within their reach.
Interviews with more than 50 reproductive rights leaders, clinic directors, political strategists and activists over the last three months reveal a fragmented movement on the left facing long-standing divisions — cultural, financial and political. Many said that abortion rights advocates and leading reproductive rights groups had made several crucial miscalculations that have put them on the defensive.
Local activists in states like Alabama, Georgia, North Dakota and Missouri where abortion was under siege said national leaders lost touch with the ways that access to abortion was eroding in Republican strongholds.
Discord at Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest and most influential abortion provider, exacerbated the problem. In July the group’s new president, Dr. Leana Wen, was forced out in a messy departure highlighting deep internal division over her management style and how much emphasis to place on the political fight for abortion rights.
Planned Parenthood’s acting head, Alexis McGill Johnson, said that Trump’s election, new abortion restrictions and Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court provided a wake-up call to many national leaders that forced them to confront the entrenched challenges of class dividing their movement.
“A lot of us are awakening to the fact that if you are wealthy, if you live in the New York ZIP code or California ZIP code or Illinois ZIP code, your ability to access reproductive health care is not in jeopardy in the same way that it is in other states,” McGill Johnson said.
The right is pouncing on this moment of tumult, threatening to wield abortion politics to its favor in the 2020 presidential race. A leading anti-abortion political group, the Susan B. Anthony List, has more than doubled its campaign budget, from $18 million in 2016 to $41 million this cycle. Its goal is to reach 4 million voters, up from 1.2 million in 2016. The group said surveys it has conducted in swing states like Arizona and North Carolina show that portraying Democrats as supporters of infanticide — an allegation the left said is patently false — can win neutral voters to their side.
Amid the high political maneuvering, there are fundamental internal divisions that the abortion rights movement has not resolved, especially between Planned Parenthood and the independent clinics that perform most abortion procedures.
This summer, for instance, after Alabama passed its near-total abortion ban, celebrities and liberal donors opened their checkbooks en masse to support Planned Parenthood. The founder of Tumblr gave $1 million. Pop star Ariana Grande held a benefit concert.
At the same time, Gloria Gray, who heads the West Alabama Women’s Center in Tuscaloosa, said she couldn’t afford to give her staff raises or pay for a $20,000 fence to keep the daily protesters off the property. Her crowdfunding effort produced about $4,000.
Gray’s clinic performed about 3,300 abortions last year, more than half of all the procedures in Alabama. Planned Parenthood’s two clinics performed none.
Independent clinics like Gray’s — unaffiliated with Planned Parenthood — perform about 60% of the country’s abortion procedures, according to groups that track the data. Those clinics have essentially no lobbying or political power.
Few state activists want to question Planned Parenthood or its strategy publicly, especially when they are allies in court and some receive financial support from the national organization. Planned Parenthood affiliates, with counsel like the American Civil Liberties Union, have sued to block restrictions this year in eight states, offering legal muscle many independent clinics cannot provide for themselves.
Ilyse Hogue, president of the abortion rights organization NARAL Pro-Choice America, said that independent clinics “absolutely” needed to be better funded but that ultimately protecting the clinics depended on bigger changes.
“I don’t think they will be able to continue to operate at all if you don’t shift the culture and politics,” she said.
Others worry that Planned Parenthood and other national groups have overly prioritized politics and power instead of patients and providers.
But Pamela Merritt, who co-founded a reproductive rights group called Reproaction in 2015, believes “the movement needs independent providers that provide most abortions to be loud and out front.”
Fragmentation in the movement has persisted. In Alabama, that was evident in the growing popularity of the Yellowhammer Fund, a nonprofit started in 2017 that covers medical, travel and other costs for low-income abortion patients. After Alabama’s ban was enacted, prominent national groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL, as well Democratic presidential candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders, rushed to support the group.
The Yellowhammer Fund raised $4 million in 10 weeks, and its director, Amanda Reyes, said about $500,000 was budgeted to cover abortion procedures. Gray and the two other independent clinic directors in the state had hoped more resources would be directed to meet their needs. But Reyes has put forth a different vision.
Yellowhammer is planning to support other aspects of reproductive rights, like doula care, Reyes said.
The efforts are a sign that the left knows it needs new strategies but also of the wide disagreement over what they should be.
In recent years, Planned Parenthood has become one of the biggest sources of volunteer power for Democratic campaigns. In 2018, the group’s political arm gave more than $1.1 million to Democrats and $5,735 to Republicans, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Democratic Party has rejected the message that drove its politics since President Bill Clinton’s administration — that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare” — and embraced abortion rights with few stipulations. Every leading Democratic presidential candidate has fallen in line.
But Americans’ views on abortion have remained relatively consistent since 1975. A majority of Americans believe the procedure should be legal — but only in certain cases, according to Gallup’s long-running tracking poll.
Some abortion rights supporters worry that establishing abortion rights as a Democratic litmus test is too inflexible for Americans conflicted over abortion. They fear that it could hurt the party in rural areas and the more moderate, suburban districts that may hold the key to regaining the White House, and where many of the remaining vulnerable abortion clinics are.
Appealing to the middle prioritizes the views of white moderates at the expense of the health care needs of women of color, Merritt of Reproaction said.
“You have to change the structures,” she said.