Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley: SCOTUS had the chance to call SB-8 for what it is, a blatant violation of the constitutional rights of nearly seven million Texans, but from voting rights to housing rights, to reproductive freedom, it is clear that the courts are not on the people's side, but this congress is. Congress has a responsibility to act. This is our moment to make this pro-choice democratic majority house Senate and White House be more than a talking point.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That was Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, chair of the Pro-Choice Caucus's Abortion Rights and Access Task Force. She was speaking last week about the Women's Health Protection Act, which passed in the House of Representatives. The bill would make abortion access a federal right and override the growing number of abortion bans that have been passed at the state level, including SB-8 in Texas. As with many key components of the Democrat-controlled houses agenda, the Women's Health Protection Act has almost no chance of getting enough votes to pass in the Senate, which means that the most meaningful fights against anti-abortion legislation will be happening outside the halls of Congress.
I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and today on The Takeaway, we start with a look at the nationwide strategy for abortion rights advocates. Alexis McGill Johnson is the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. I spoke with her about the passage of the Women's Health Protection Act.
Alexis McGill-Johnson: This was an absolutely historic vote. Actually, I thank the House for passing Women's Health Protection Act, it is such an important step to protect access to safe illegal abortion across this country. It would help guard against the crazy abortion bans that we've seen other medically unnecessary restrictions, like the ones passed in Texas and across the country. It's one of many steps that we need to see to truly protect and advance abortion access.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, of course, any of us who are paying attention to the world or Washington DC know that no matter what is happening in the House, the likelihood of almost anything but especially this, passing through the Senate seems highly unlikely. Does that in any way deter its relevance?
Alexis McGill-Johnson: The reality is, the majority of Americans actually support access to safe and legal abortion. There's no state in the nation where banning abortion is popular. We have seen 600 restrictions introduced in 2021 alone, 90 of them have been enacted. I recognize the fact that the momentum is on our side. We saw this historic vote and there are a number of champions in the Senate like the bill sponsors like Senator Blumenthal, Senator Baldwin, Senator Murray, they are talking to their colleagues and we are going to be marching in the streets.
As you know, on October 2nd, thousands of people across the country are coming together to rally for abortion justice. We will make our voices heard to senators and we will send them a clear message that people want their elected officials to allow them the freedom to make their own healthcare decisions. When you look at the overreach in Texas on an unconstitutional ban, extreme ban at that, it is really galvanizing a lot of people and they will be on the record. These senators will be on the record voting, so they need to do it within this period of where their elected constituencies are.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When you make this point about the October 2nd rally, this public demonstration of what has long been understood as the public opinion, that a majority of Americans support access to abortion care and support legal and safe abortion care, talk to me then about strategy. You've got the House representatives passing legislative action, even if it can't get to the Senate. You've got a movement into the movement politics onto the streets in early October. Watching what is happening in conversation with the national players, what in the world is the strategy?
Alexis McGill-Johnson: Look, first of all, we have SB-8 in Texas, which is this blatantly unconstitutional 6-week ban with those bounty hunter provision, we have the Supreme Court taking up a case in Mississippi, which a is also unconstitutional 15-week ban, which goes to the essence of Roe. You essentially have a de facto strategy where we could see a set of copycat laws out of Texas and about 25 other states over the next cycle of state legislative sessions and then you also have the Supreme Court case.
The strategy, the movement strategy is to help people understand that this is not just about Texas or Mississippi, this is about the impact that banning abortion could happen at our doorsteps. That we need to be fighting in all of these states to waken people to what we have been saying for at least the last decade in earnest, but really, for the last 50 years almost since Roe was decided that the end game is to ban abortion. We will be able to sustain this conversation starting now through the oral arguments, through many state legislative session, and through the decision day.
That is going to drive a conversation about acts to abortion all the way through the election. We are in education mobilization phase. There will be an accountability phase as well. That's why I think it's really important for the Senate to be taking up Weber because there will be accountability in those votes and people will need to understand why their elected made a decision to not stand with the nearly 25 million women who will lose access to a provider in their state.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Help folks to understand why it seems to make so little difference who controls the House or who controls the White House to the actual restriction of reproductive access. It's always so surprising to me to look at those Guttmacher charts and see the ways that, even with a Democratic president, even with a Democratic House and Senate, you see so many new abortion restrictions. In fact, sometimes even faster under Democratic federal leadership. What in the world is going on with that?
Alexis McGill-Johnson: A, we don't have laws like Weber in place to federal legislation that would help codify Roe and stop these bans from happening. What we really have is a long-term power grab at the state level that really in earnest took hold in 2010, the 2010 Congress and the census redistricting that swept a lot of the statehouses. You have, as I said earlier, there's no state in the union where banning abortion is popular and yet in state after state, particularly in the South and the Midwest, you have state legislatures that are dominated by a vocal minority. They have the levers of power.
When I look at my involvement in this work, I came into the board 2010 and I feel like we're at halftime. That part of our work is around power building in the states and recognizing the fact that we won't be able to pursue many freedoms, not just access to abortion. These are the same states that are restricting access to voting rights, they're the same states that are restricting trans rights. It really is, even in spite of having essentially Congress and the White House, we still have these restrictions on the state level because these lawmakers are protected and out of touch with their constituents.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Alexis, I want to transition certainly still within this conversation, but I do want to ask you a little bit about your own professional history around this and just see if I could figure out a few things. The first is that you have been really clear that in your leadership of planned parenthood, part of what you are up to, one of the things you are hoping to do with the organization, not like y'all don't have plenty enough else to do, is to expand and diversify in a very forward-facing way the way that planned parenthood understands its own relationship, its own history with communities of color and others.
Can you talk to me a little bit about why that matters in the context of this fight? Why does it matter to go back and really think about the ways that race, the ways that economic disadvantage, and interestingly enough the ways that even the potential narrowness of the definition woman, or those capable of reproduction, who need reproductive care, how does all of that fit into this existential battle that planned parenthood finds itself in right now?
Alexis McGill-Johnson: Thank you for the question, Melissa. It is, I think, the most critical thing I can be focused on in this moment, recognizing the fact that planned parenthood, at 105 years old almost, is a critical part of the public health infrastructure, is a critical part of the healthcare system. We know that our patients, many of them BIPOC, low income, deserve an incredible nonjudgmental quality of care.
In order for us to do that, it means that we not only need to ensure that we are doing everything we can to reduce bias and racial anxiety and things like that inside of their healthcare provision, but also that as our patients come to us for things like gender-affirming care, or family planning, or access to abortion, we know that when they leave, they are subject to any number of injustices when they walk out of our doors. Really standing with our patients and centering them really calls us to do work and show up differently so that we are also standing inside of the movement differently centering different voices, as well as standing with a broader set of partners so that we can ensure protection of our patients beyond sexual reproductive healthcare.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Not everyone may know this, but you have a little bit of a hip-hop background too, [laughs] and some of your work within organizing and movement leading was in part about engaging communities at the time were young. We've aged now, but younger communities in addressing questions of the capacity to vote and to turn out and have your voices heard. I've always thought part of what was so interesting about that moment was bringing in voices that were unexpected and simply in their unexpectedness, drawing some attention.
I'm wondering if you're thinking about that relative to this fight as well. Are there some unexpected voices we need to be hearing from like, where is country music? Where is hip-hop on advocating for abortion access? Where are the young and the elderly? Have you been thinking about those kinds of voices?
Alexis McGill-Johnson: Absolutely. I think that part of our charge this year as a movement and as a leader in that conversation is to first center the voices of the patient, center the voices of the people who are being most disproportionately impacted by these bans, people who could be disproportionately impacted if Roe is overturned. I do think that artists and celebrities and folks like that that I've worked with over the decades are both privately outraged and also grappling with what the public outcry might be. I think that has been the strategy of those folks who are anti-abortion. The strategy of the antis has been to shame anyone who fights for a freedom to make a decision about one's own body.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Alexis McGill-Johnson is the president of Planned Parenthood. Thanks so much for joining us.
Alexis McGill-Johnson: Thanks for having me, Melissa.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.