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The Abortion Fight Has Entered a New Phase, and We Need New Tactics

The right means business. It’s high time we did too.

Police arrest abortion rights activists outside Los Angeles City Hall
Police arrest abortion rights activists outside Los Angeles City Hall in July.

It is obvious that, despite right-wing “save the children” rhetoric, the various forces on the right—the rich who prioritize seizing the wealth of the nation, the religious patriarchs trying to seize our minds, and their proxy elected officials—do not care about “children.” Forcing childbirth as they do guarantees lower levels of education, less economic advancement, and less autonomy and power for the 58 million American women currently of childbearing age and their offspring. But we who believe in women’s autonomy are responding with rhetoric and resistance tactics about abortion that are outdated. Desperation creates an opportunity for bold new approaches to resistance, and allowing for creative exchange of ideas, even outrageous ones, can only help us in the face of emergency. Here are five bold suggestions.

Abortion is a collective experience. In the past, women who had abortions were hung out to dry through the tactic of public confession, in which each person bravely, tearfully, or defiantly stood alone and told her truth. While this was initially effective, pre-Roe, in making women’s experiences visible, decades of repetition have dulled this approach. We have missed the opportunity to convey that along with the one in four American women who have had abortions, the people in their lives and extended communities have also benefited. Abortion is actually a collective experience of autonomy that is good for both individuals and for society. The man involved benefits, the parents of the woman exercising her natural right benefit, her friends benefit, and so do her other children. The collective “we” needs to be brought back into the picture. “We had an abortion” is the appropriate response accompanying an image of the multigenerational, multigender group surrounding each abortion. Especially men. Men who impregnated women who got abortions also had an abortion, and they need to say so. Places where men gather, from sports teams to gay apps to boardrooms, need to become arenas of support for abortion rights by people who have relied on that right. If men had gotten on board for abortion the first time around, women would not be here now.

Celebrity can be our friend. Because today everyone lives in an information silo, it is very hard to get a message out in the way a movement could when there were three TV networks. But there are still some people who have the ear of the public. Sports professionals proved this when they took a stand against racist police violence. Also, while we may have distaste for the shallow constructions of fame, the fact is that actors, pop stars, and other public figures who transcend marketing boxes have the public’s ear. Recently Lizzo spoke out at South by Southwest, calling Texas’s near-total ban on abortion “atrocious.” There needs to be a lot more of that. Especially if the individuals involved are Christian. Celebrities have to pause and shift gears because this is an emergency. As strange as it sounds, the banal falsities of fame must be transformed into statements of personal reality.

The private sector has a role to play. My politics have always envisioned the ultimate diminishment of the power of the private sector, yet the truth is that today it has all the money. The U.S. government is practically the dusty rear sub-basement of global capital. The Supreme Court is rogue and the Democratic Party is only marginally functional. So the private sector must rise to the occasion. MacKenzie Scott and other well-being superdonors are currently limited by contributing only to preexisting organizations. We need new systems—inspired by local initiatives like Texas’s Lilith Fund—with national reach, where any woman who wants an abortion can call a number and secure travel to a haven state, accommodation, and procedure, all for free. The liberal oligarchs have the power and indeed the responsibility to mitigate the contemporary crisis. I know this money was gained by exploiting labor, avoiding taxes, and eliminating competition, but they own the wealth now, and pregnant women need to access it.

Entertainment is part of the problem. Once and for all, the corporate culture of the arts and entertainment sectors must be made accountable. I have been a novelist and playwright for almost 40 years, and I also work in television and film. I can tell you from personal experience that there is very little representation of women in American media, arts, and entertainment that is realistic, authentic, and accurate. Flaubert said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” and he was right. Men have had almost exclusive control of how women are represented since forever, and today women creators and gatekeepers consciously or unconsciously replicate those distortions in order to stay in the game. The obstacle is that in the U.S. we confuse familiarity with quality, and so when writers try to bring in truly complex work from women’s point of view, the newness of the material creates anxieties in producers, publishers, and other gatekeepers, which they may not even understand themselves. Whereas repetition of tried-and-true distortions feels comfortable and “right,” American cultural production has been a big contributor to this current crisis because the truth about women’s lives is simply unrepresentable without enormous financial and social risk. And the loss of abortion rights is one of the most severe consequences.

Restrictions on speech raise the stakes. Laws prohibiting speech that helps pregnant women obtain clinical abortions or access to medical abortions in states that still offer access are on the rise. These punitive measures are rapidly evolving in the context of “Don’t Say Gay” laws; restrictions on criticizing Israel; book bans in libraries and classrooms; and repression of Black history, the role of American racism, the truth of queer life, and the fact of trans existence. Increasingly the state is being used to stop truth-telling. These terrifying acts of overt repression have broad chilling effects. In fearful anticipation of being silenced, denied publication, or fired from jobs, some people will repress their own ideas. It is much harder to force the authorities to stop us from speaking and may feel safer to stop ourselves preemptively.  

But appeasement is not safe, because authoritarianism is a ravenous monster that is never satisfied. As my Hunter College professor Audre Lorde warned us, “Your silence will not protect you.” What does give us a chance to slow givebacks, build resistance movements, and turn the tide is our own American history of civil disobedience: workers fighting for unions, Black people seeking rights and power, women insisting on self-determination, and people with AIDS confronting the state until death if necessary. ‌If fighting for abortion rights, or other basic rights, means breaking the law, so be it. And acceptance of this is as essential to our generations as it was to all our predecessors who defied unjust laws. As many resistors said before us, it is a time for “no business as usual.” And in moments of crisis, that is how positive change gets made.‌