What Happens to the Pro-Choice Movement Now?

Listen to this episode

S1: As you watch the Senate rush to confirm Amy Connie Barrett to the Supreme Court this week, I want you to meet someone else. Her name is Laurie Bertram Roberts. I’ve started to think about Laurie as a through the looking glass version of Judge Barrett. Like the judge, Laurie goes by three names, four years. She lived in Judge Barrett’s home state of Indiana. And Laurie, she also has a sizable American family. I wonder if you can tell me what it’s like to have seven kids? Because I have two, and I think it’s hard.

S2: Yeah. What is it like to have seven kids? It is a daily struggle and there’s a lot of joy. But it’s also it’s a lot there are parts of my parenting journey that I don’t remember very well because it’s just a blur.

S1: Is it true that they start raising each other after a little bit of time?

S2: That is very true. I mean, this is this is a true story that by the time we got I got to my third and fourth kids, I did not have to potty train my girls anymore. They potty trained each other.

S3: Amazing. And so, like, I think that’s one of the big joys of having a lot of kids.

S1: Unlike the judge, Laurie’s black. She’s also spent much of her life straddling the poverty line as a working mom.

S2: The thing that’s not so joyous is like figuring out how to feed them or figure out where to put all of them.

S3: But things that worked for me was, you know, getting to know my produce guy at the grocery store and so I could find out when he was marking down produce so that I could buy all his markdown bananas. No joke.

S1: There is one more big difference between Laurie Bertram Roberts and Amy CONI Barrett. Laurie is pro-choice, like really pro-choice, although she actually would not use that word to describe herself.

S2: I mean, I use the label when it’s useful, but I’m a reproductive justice activist. I’m moving a whole different way. What’s the difference? So when I think of reproductive justice versus pro-choice, pro-choice is very focused on abortion and just abortion. But reproductive justice is focused on the human right to have a child, not have a child, be able to raise your families and safe, secure surroundings with your basic needs. Met is a reproductive issue that you’re not making fifteen dollars an hour at work for a minimum wage as a reproductive justice issue. If you know you can’t adopt like Amy coni Barrett because you’re gay or because you’re a single parent or because you’re low income, or because when your family members get put into the foster care system, you’re told you’re too poor, your house is too small, you’re not good enough for someone like Amy. Connie Barrett can get those kids.

S1: Right now, Laurie is splitting her time between Mississippi and Alabama, where she’s running to separate reproductive freedom funds, organizations that offer no strings attached cash to women who need help getting an abortion or diapers for their kids or contraception. If you think about the ongoing debate over abortion in this country as a kind of war, Laurie is out there on the battlefield. I called her to get a dispatch from the front, both to figure out how he got here and ask what Lori’s strategy is now. Do you feel like the pro-choice movement has been defeated?

S3: I mean, I think the pro-choice movement. Has never been realistic about. Countering anti choiceless.

S2: I think that they have done a lot of sitting in academic towers and a lot of moving around in policy spaces, but not in very offensive ways, always moving in defense.

S4: How soon do you think women in the United States should start worrying about their right to have an abortion? 20 years ago and I’m serious, like we should have been worrying in the 90s.

S5: Today on the show, if you are feeling frustrated about the path ahead when it comes to abortion, Lori has got a roadmap to avoiding complacency. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: I think of you as someone who’s seen, like all sides of the abortion debate and kind of lived all sides of the abortion debate. You’re raised as a fundamentalist and you’re anti-abortion and you had this evolution in your thinking. You’ve you’ve been someone who thinks a lot about policy. But now you’re doing this work where someone running an abortion fund, you’re doing like real grassroots, like just giving people money to get abortions. So kind of on the ground. And then also thousand feet. I wonder where you would start your story all the way back in childhood.

S3: Probably like just sitting in church questioning what the heck they were talking about. Like, I mean, yes, I believe most of the stuff I was taught as a fundamentalist, but I also.

S1: You liked being a fundamentalist, right? In the moment.

S3: In the moment when I was really small. Yeah. Like, I loved I loved being able to go with my grandmother to go witnessing. I love talking to people.

S1: You started having kids really young. Was that partially because of your faith?

S3: Oh, no. That was because I became a heathen and. Well, what happened what happened in the wake of me getting pregnant absolutely had a lot to do with my faith and my husband’s faith. You know, we were both brought up in really religious households. I really feel like we trauma bonded over those experiences. And, you know, when I found out I was pregnant with the twins, we automatically were like, we’re getting married at 19 and 16. And I don’t feel like that’s an automatic reaction for every 16 and 19 year old. But it is for 16 and 19 year olds who are brought up to think that the only reaction to being pregnant is to get married.

S1: Hmm. How did your views on abortion begin to evolve?

S3: I needed an abortion. Huh? So the first thing let me rewind first. The thing that happened was I had a miscarriage at our biggest hospital in the area, which was a Catholic hospital. This is in Indiana. This is in Indiana. It’s called St. Anthony’s. And when I went in there the first time, I just had some light pink discharge and they said, well, you’re not bleeding yet. If you start bleeding, this chance that you’ll be OK. If you start bleeding, come back and we’ll do an ultrasound. But right now, you’re not miscarrying. Go home. And I didn’t have insurance, so I wasn’t really keen on going to the E.R. a bunch of times. But within a few hours I was bleeding and I was bleeding pretty heavily. So I came back and they did an ultrasound and they found a heartbeat. But it was a weak heartbeat. And they said, well, you’re miscarrying. There’s nothing we can do for you because there’s a heartbeat.

S1: Go home because it’s a Catholic hospital and they weren’t allowed to do an abortion.

S3: A DNC? Yeah. Was this an abortion? And I fully understand that at the time. But I do remember my husband saying to me, they won’t help you because they’re Catholic. And I didn’t fully understand what he was saying at the time. And I went home and within a few hours I was hemorrhaging and I didn’t want to go back because I didn’t think they were going to help me. And I ended up almost bleeding to death. Like by the time I went back, I was in shock. They had to call an ambulance like I had passed out on my mom’s kitchen floor. The EMT that picked me up was like our neighbor. And he wasn’t making conversation with me. He was just looking really serious. And I knew then I was in real trouble. They were having trouble getting a second IV in my arm because my veins were collapsing.

S1: Was that the beginning of you thinking differently about abortion?

S3: Oh, yes, because I realized, like in my mind, I realized that they literally let me almost die over their beliefs about abortion. So time goes forward and my ex and I break up and we’re separated. I got pregnant shortly after we got separated. We have just had a baby, my daughter Sarah. She’s amazing. And I found myself pregnant. And my doctor had already told me, don’t have another baby, at least for two years. I could kill you because I had complications with all my pregnancies. And I really I had decided I was going to have an abortion. I went for my first appointment. I had made the appointment for the procedure.

S1: That must have felt like a big step for you.

S3: It was like I did a lot of praying and crying.

S1: I mean, a lot choosing abortion was a huge decision for Lori. But in the end, she didn’t end up getting an abortion. She didn’t have the money for it. There’s a term for this in Lori’s field.

S3: I was a turn away patient. They had to I mean, I remember crying at the clinic going, don’t you guys have any help for people who don’t have enough money? And they didn’t there wasn’t anyone to help me and I didn’t have the money to go out of state. My options were Chicago or Ohio, and I didn’t have the money for either.

S1: Lori was 18 years old, trying to start college. She was recently separated. She had three kids at home. She was about to have her fourth, even though her doctor said that was not advisable.

S6: So more praying, more crying, you know. I mean, and I love my child.

S3: They know this story, they understand, but I kept the story to myself for years because I felt so guilty, like, how dare I not want my child? What does that say about me? But I know I’m not the only person with a story turn away. Patients happen all the time. And the trauma that it causes for you. Right. Like my family and I ended up homeless that next year babies cost money. Excuse me. You’ve got to stop working. I stopped going to school.

S1: That’s such a visceral experience of, like, the abortion experience, you know what I mean? That’s just such a it feels so divorced from the way we talk about abortion in this sort of high level Supreme Court, Washington, DC way.

S3: Yeah. And I think when we talk about abortion, we always talk about people who get their abortions. Right. We don’t really talk about what happens when people don’t get their abortions because people aren’t willing to tell those stories because like me, they feel like if they tell their story, it means that they didn’t love their kid.

S1: But that’s not true, you know, eventually Laurie moved down south. She started working with a local chapter of Now the National Organization for Women. She started as the secretary, eventually became president of the Mississippi chapter, and she’d go to the big national board meetings in D.C. or Baltimore, meet fellow activists from all over the country and the head honchos of the organization. She often felt out of place, but she was a former fundamentalist Baptist kid. She was used to that feeling and she was used to speaking up about it.

S3: Yeah, we would meet up and we’d have these like long three day meetings. And there’s like this huge, huge table because there’s a ton of us from all over the country. Very few of us are women of color. But I spent a lot of time on my board going on the board going, oh, excuse me, you know, did you raise your hand to get on the stack to get to speak? And then I’d be like, excuse me. Well, that’s not really true for women in Mississippi. Well, excuse me. That’s not really true for rural women. Excuse me. Well, you know, that’s not true for people who are low income. Excuse me. That’s I mean, like that was pretty much what I did at every meeting was just reminding them that there were people other than them in the world.

S1: So it was very coastal and very white.

S3: Yeah, it was a lot of like older white women who were of a certain income bracket.

S7: Who had big blind spots when it came to race and class, and then there was a small segment of us who were not that I wonder if you look back, you know, there’s been so much hand-wringing about how did the pro-choice movement reach this place where we are, you know, one Supreme Court appointment away from Roe versus Wade falling. I wonder if you look back at your time on the board of an organization like now. And you see the problems, the reason why we reached this point, because the folks who are doing the sort of Washington strategic work weren’t necessarily talking.

S6: To folks like you, I mean, I wouldn’t even say that it wasn’t that they weren’t talking to people like me, is that they weren’t listening.

S3: So people like me were at the tables and have been at the tables for years. And then people like me walk away from the tables because people aren’t listening. And honestly, it goes back even before this like this goes all the way back to like this women’s suffrage and like, you know, like white women coopting feminism and being like, oh, we’re running this. We’re set, we set what the agenda is, what the agenda for all women means, what all women means. Right. Like who all women are. And this was a conversation that we had. And now I remember having a whole event like the whole weekend was. A group of us going when they said, well, these are the issues that we feel like are the biggest for all women, and we were like, well, how are we defining all women? Because this doesn’t resonate. This won’t resonate with our people where I live. What were they leaving out? I mean, they were leaving out like. Medicaid expansion, right, like Medicaid expansion is a major thing in states that don’t have it. It impacts maternal health. It impacts, you know, senior health. It impacts general health of the community like you need to be like they could have worked those talking points and ship them out to chapters. Easy. No problem. Like there’s ways to be a national policy organization with a local bent, but a lot of national organizations are not doing that.

S1: Lori wanted to start connecting national pro-choice attention with local needs, and soon it became pretty clear how she was going to do that.

S7: So how did you start raising money for abortions on Facebook?

S8: More after the break.

S1: Laurie Bertram Roberts started paying for abortions one woman at a time. It began with her work as a clinic escort around 2013. She and her daughters were working at the Pink House, the one remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi. It was a pretty typical shift. But then there was a near miss, a woman they nearly had to turn away.

S3: We had a person that came in. She was crying. She was like fifty dollars short. And we were all like digging in our pockets, trying to find the money. And she ended up getting her procedure anyways.

S1: But this was like literally you were escorting a woman into the clinic and she was like, I just don’t have the 50 bucks. And everyone’s like, OK, let me look under my couch cushions.

S3: Right? Exactly. And we were just like, we cannot have that be a thing. We’ve got to do something. And I was like, you know what? I think I could just make it a line item on the now, but like, why not? OK, I’m just going to do it. How did you pitch it on Facebook? I just literally made a post and was like, hey, we have someone who needs an abortion. They need X amount of dollars. Like this is how it would happen. As we would find out someone needed it and we would just go, hey, this person needs X amount of dollars. Here’s the link to our PayPal, you know, and I would just like the people. I would update it when we when we had enough money. And that’s what we would do. And we pretty much funded like one person a month for that year. I think we brought in like three thousand dollars.

S1: Eventually, Laurie decided to step down from now and pour herself into the ad hoc abortion fund she and her friends had created. They called it the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund. It had an ask for forgiveness, not permission vibe to it.

S3: When we first started funding Plan D, like everybody’s funding plan B now, like everybody’s giving it away like chick lit when we started to feel like it’s the thing now. But when we started giving away Plan B in 2013, it was still behind the counter. With the age restriction, we would have to actually go into the pharmacy for girls who were under 17 and purchase it for them. We didn’t even know if that was legal. We just didn’t care.

S7: I feel like I should lay out more what an abortion fund like the ones you’ve worked at does, because it’s not just that you fund the procedures for women. Sometimes you’re driving them across state lines. You called yourself an abortion concierge. Kind of like dealing with all of the details of getting something done, especially in a state where there are so many restrictions. Do you want to just explain exactly what a fund like yours does?

S9: Yeah. So you call us or you text us, because sometimes we do stuff by text, especially for like DV, because I can give one good example like we had to do because it took us three weeks to get her stuff set up because she could only text us on the sly when her abuser wasn’t paying attention.

S7: Oh, domestic violence. That’s what you meant.

S3: Yeah. Domestic violence. I’m sorry. I need to stop talking and talking. Thanks for reminding me. Yes. Domestic violence victims.

S9: And sometimes we have that with people who are in very controlling families to where they can only, like, text us on the sly when no one’s around.

S3: But yeah, so when you when someone calls us, we kind of like find out how far along they are, if we can assist them. Are you from Mississippi? You know, where do you live. What what exactly do you need? How much money do you need. You need surgery, procedure. Do you need travel money. If they’re really early, sometimes we’ll see if they have a couple of pay periods that they can wait, that they can put together some more money. So we’re really strategizing with them on all of these things right now. If they have to travel, there’s another fund called Frigged Alliance that will book their travel with them if they are later term. If they are earlier, we’ll book their travel like, say, if they’re coming to Jackson and they need a hotel room, we book their hotel, we make sure to pay for their incidentals online already so they don’t have to put a credit card. Sometimes we’re booking Goober’s for people. Sometimes we’re picking people up lately because of covid, we’re not picking people up. Sometimes we’re flying out of state with people. We’ve flown to places with people. Sometimes we’re doing long distance abortion, Dualla services, a lot of times, especially for people who are over 20 weeks, we’re in constant contact with them.

S9: Someone is on call for them. Twenty four hours a day. From the time that they leave the state to the time they come home, there’s someone specifically assigned to them to be on call.

S1: In every profile I’ve read of you, there’s this moment where the reporter talks about the breadth of the work that you do because we’re talking about funding abortions. But that’s not all of the work that you do like. It talks about how after an abortion, you’ll take a woman to Red Lobster to have something to eat or you’ll get a stroller for the woman down the street who’s worried that Child Protective Services is going to come to an inspection of her house or you have a diaper bank for people who need that kind of help.

S7: I wonder, do you think a lot about why it is that supporting parents? Is seen as like so divorced from everything else about sex, like abortion. Do you think about that a lot like why everyone who’s ever talked to you seems to make this like this is something they get stuck on a little bit?

S3: I mean, yeah, I think about it a lot and I think about how absurd it is. Right.

S9: I don’t think they’re separate issues. I think it’s all connected, especially considering most of the people who call us are already parents. So I don’t think you can talk about abortion without talking about parenting, especially since parenting is one of the options that they have. People a lot of people who are pro-choice think that if we talk about parenting in the same context as abortion, then somehow we’re ceding some kind of ground to the anti choice laws. Like if we talk about adoption, if we talk about parenting, then somehow we’re like we’re giving up something to the to the the anti choice side. I don’t feel that way. I don’t want anyone to ever have an abortion. They don’t want I don’t want anyone to have to parent if they don’t want to. And I don’t want anyone to ever go into an adoption that they’ll regret.

S6: So, like when we talk about people having all of their options on the table, we want all of those options to be without stigma and without coercion. Right. And I don’t feel like there are unequal options. That’s the other thing, as I think people think of parenting still, even people who say they’re on our side as somehow like the good option in abortion is like somehow this other option. Right. And that they’re divorced from each other. But a lot of our parents are coming to have an abortion because they’re good parents, because they see having another child as something that’s not going to be beneficial to their family.

S7: You you wrote this really tender essay about your daughter and her decision to have an abortion. As a teenager. And I wonder if we can talk about it just a little bit, because I think in that essay you confront some of these feelings in yourself. Where, you know, you realize that as a parent, there’s so much emotion wrapped up in how you feel about your child that.

S1: It can be hard to just, like, do the work you’re talking about, which is just empower your kid to make their own decision. Just lay out really straight like you have the option of parenting, putting your child up for adoption or abortion and just letting them go. And I wonder what you what you took from that experience now that you have a little time between then and now?

S9: Yeah, sometimes I go back and read that and it’s still tender. Oddly, like it’s hard to read, I wouldn’t say it’s hard to read, it’s very I mean, none of it is false. It’s all very honest. I’m so proud of my daughter, Kayla. She’s amazing. She’s an activist in her own right. She’s an abortion storyteller now. And she was our first teen abortion doula. She’s helped so many teenagers through their abortion process and she’s helped so many teenagers who have chosen to parent. She’s just amazing. I can’t say enough good things about her. That said, the thing I didn’t put in that essay is that when I first heard her say the words that she was pregnant.

S3: My first instinct was just to hug her and tell her it’s fine, everything will be fine. Have the baby, everything will be great. Hmm, right. Like I initially just wanted to go into, like, grandma mode.

S6: And like, be like my mom was with me. Like for my mom, who was anti-abortion. When I was pregnant, a 16 abortion wasn’t even something she brought up to me, I knew for a fact it was not an option. Right, like it wasn’t an option my mother would have respected at that time, it wasn’t an option that like my boyfriend, whatever, like it just wasn’t an option. My option was parenting and marriage.

S1: OK, and I just didn’t want that for my daughter and so my opinion didn’t matter, but it’s still hard to shrug off all that ingrained stuff.

S6: It took me everything. To hold it in when we were sitting, it was just me, her, the clinic staff and I was telling her is going to be OK, it’s going to be OK.

S9: Just go get your ultrasound. And then she left the room and I was, like, screaming that you were upset with her or you are upset because you didn’t know what her choice would be.

S3: I was upset because how could she be so stupid? You know, that feeling that you get as a parent, like, how could you not listen to me? How could how could my kid, my kid, my kid who’s trained as a peer educator, my kid who has condoms in the bowl, in the front room, my kid who who I did the best to make sure that she knows. But also on the flip side, my kid, who’s a sexual assault survivor. Right. My kid who I need to have space and grace and an empathy for. So, like, I can have all that little tantrum about making it like I did something, because really all of that is about me, right? All of that is really about me feeling like I failed as a parent.

S6: And I need to let that shit go.

S1: Laurie is the executive director of a different abortion fund now called the Yellow Hammer Fund. It serves people in Alabama. And earlier this year, it bought a local abortion clinic, the West Alabama Women’s Center. Owning a clinic is one way these direct services organizations are trying to position themselves for a post-racial America, a world in which the right to abortion isn’t recognized.

S7: Do you think about the day after Roe ends and what happens then?

S3: Only for the last eight years.

S1: I mean, I guess we should be pretty clear about the implications. My understanding is that in Mississippi where you were, there’s a trigger law. So in Alabama, too. Yeah. So if Roe is overturned, that means like full stop on abortion right away.

S3: Yep. And one of the reasons it’s important to own a clinic like West Alabama Women’s Center is and to expand the services is so that when or really if a trigger ban happens, they can still be open and sustained doing, you know, full reproductive care. So like contraception, contraception, ob gyn appointments, trans health care.

S7: That makes sense. So buying a clinic, it’s like a hedge in some ways. But, you know, we’re making a commitment that this will not be shut down because we’re going to find other ways to serve the community.

S3: That’s our hope. We’ve been thinking about how do we address these things? How do we talk about self managed abortion in responsible ways? How do we start working on making sure people aren’t going to be criminalized if they’re engaging in self managed abortion?

S1: I mean, you’ve said that people should, like, consider hoarding misoprostol. Yeah, I wasn’t joking. That’s the drug for chemical abortions that that is used for other purposes. So it’s not like you couldn’t get your hands on it.

S3: You only need 12. Just throwing that out there. You only need 12.

S1: You said people need to prepare for a future outside of clinics, too. What else are you talking about?

S3: Yeah, I’m just talking about, like midwifery centered care, midwifery centered model that is more inclusive of people who cannot easily come to clinics. Right.

S9: People like me who have severe fibromyalgia and can’t always make it to a clinic. People like people in the undocumented community who are not always safe coming to clinics due to stuff like roadblocks or lack of accessibility to driver’s license. Just the fact that we have people and I’m not even talking about abortion care per say. Right. I’m hoping that we get to a place where telemed for abortion care is accessible to people. And to get to that place on the state levels, we’re going to need to shift statehouses and governorships. And that’s going to take a minute.

S6: But in the meantime. We need to be talking about what does autonomous public health care look like in a community setting? What does?

S9: You know, teaching people about birth control look like in the community setting so that they’re prepared to go to their doctor and they don’t settle for being offered three options when there’s really a plethora of options which is happening to poor women every day.

S7: It’s funny listening to you talk about this kind of evolution of, you know, women centered care and midwifery, it almost sounds like going back in time, because my understanding is that in the hundreds, many women manage their pregnancies with midwives and midwives were doing abortions. And we started talking about whether abortions were OK, mostly because doctors came in and said, hey, we should be doing this procedure. And, you know, 100 plus years later, we are where we are.

S3: And there’s actually no medical reason why midwives can’t perform abortions if we’re being honest. Right. I mean, midwives already do miscarriage management. So see where I’m going here? Mm hmm. So there’s no reason why a midwife could not handle a first term abortion. There’s no reason why that is the only reason that that access is cut off in primary care. Doctors are not handling medical abortions in office is because of laws on the books, like if you provide more than 10 abortions a year, you’re an abortion clinic. We have a loud. Abortion to be sectioned off away from the rest of health care, we’ve made it this stigmatized, sectioned off, ostracized part of health care.

S1: Laurie, thank you so much for chatting with me. You’re welcome. Pleasure to be here. Laurie Bertram Roberts is the executive director of the Yellow Hammer Fund and the former head of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, and that’s the show. Quick suggestion before we go. If you like what we’re up to here, we’ve got an idea. Consider setting up for Slate. Plus, it is the best way to support what next? And you will get ad free versions of all of Slate’s podcasts.

S5: Go to Slate Dotcom Slash Plus to sign up right now. The show is produced by Jason de Leon, Daniel Hewitt, Elena Schwartz and Mary Wilson. We get help each and every day from Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery.

S1: And I’m Mary Harris. Thanks for listening. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.