I literally was just walking down the street and saw a billboard that I now know was run by [Life Always]. It had a little Black girl’s face on it, and she just was cute. [Laughs.] And so I got closer, and I saw the words underneath that said, “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.” I’m from New Jersey. My family had moved to Georgia. And so I would travel on holidays and see billboards like that and would totally write that off as being, you know, something that happened in really conservative states. And when I saw it in New York City — it was in SoHo — I just was shocked, like, What is going on here?
Then I happened to be at a dinner party with [then-Planned Parenthood CEO] Cecile Richards. We were introduced to each other, and I just kept telling her: “This is horrible. You’re the head of Planned Parenthood. You need to do something about this.” And she said, “No, you need to do something about this.” A few weeks later, I got a note with an invitation to lunch with Cecile. It was there that I just dug in and started to understand how complicated and critical the work is.
For many people, “abortion” is the first word that comes to mind when they hear the name Planned Parenthood. How does that sit with you?
I think abortion is health care. And so, if the first thing they think about is health care when they think about Planned Parenthood, I think that’s fine. Planned Parenthood proudly serves all forms of sexual and reproductive health care, including abortion, and I think when we try to exclude it, we’re excluding a critical part of and a critical option for health care.
But it is a very small part of all the things Planned Parenthood does, right?
Overall, certainly. But it is still a critically important part of what we do. So I think when we say, “It’s a small part of what we do,” what we’re doing is actually stigmatizing it. Like: It’s really not a big deal that Planned Parenthood does this. We are a proud abortion provider. We believe that abortion is health care, and we believe, fundamentally, that self-determination begins with being able to control your own body and freedom begins with being able to control your own body. So I don’t like to marginalize it in that way.
It’s obviously a divisive issue. When you meet people and tell them what you do, do you have that moment where you sort of size up the person and what their reaction’s going to be?
First of all, I would say it is not as divisive a position as I think folks think. I mean, 77 percent of Americans support [Roe v. Wade]as being the law of the land. What I find, oftentimes, is that when I share what I do, it almost inevitably elicits a story. Whether it’s their personal story or their mom’s story.
I had a conversation with a woman who told me the story that her mom told her, that when she was in college, she got pregnant. She was afraid to tell her parents. Her brother was a flight attendant, and he said to her, “I’m going to take you where we take all the gals” and flew her to Kansas. It was a back-alley situation and horrifying and traumatizing for her mom. This was in the mid-’60s. And so I brace myself more for the story and less for the “I can’t believe you do that.”
Have you had conversations with folks in the antiabortion movement? Do you reach across those lines?
I certainly have had conversations with people who disagree. And where I find that people are most willing to engage is in understanding, when you make the choice plain, whose decision should it really be? You know, should it be yours with your partner and your pastor, or just yours alone? Or should it be Sam Joe legislator down the street, who has no idea about your reality or situation? I really wish we had more of those kinds of conversations. I think that’s really an opportunity to bridge, and it’s important to make this less of a partisan issue.
I also think that there’s a lot of disinformation on the other side. And it’s kind of hard to have a conversation with someone who is antiabortion who is leveraging public dollars through crisis pregnancy centers to derail and impact someone who’s made a decision to access abortion. So I’m open to having a conversation. I am not open to not allowing people the freedom they need to make their own decisions.
Of the appointment battle for Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court and its move to a conservative majority, you’ve said, “Every generation has their fight, and this is ours.” Of course, that fight was not won. What does that do to the outlook and the strategy of Planned Parenthood?
In some ways, the strategy is the same, right? We know that Roe has been what many reproductive justice colleagues call “the floor,” because there are many places where there is not a provider or easy access to a provider. I think with a Judge Barrett and with 18 cases that are really a step away from the Supreme Court, it certainly accelerates that reality for almost 25 million women of reproductive age. And so the strategy is also accelerating, in some ways, to create fast access, to figure out how to facilitate that access, temporarily. Like what we saw during covid, getting people from Texas to Colorado. Getting people to Illinois, to New York, to California, to places where we know Roe has been codified in some way. But that it is a temporary strategy, right? Like, flying people across the country to get access to basic health care shouldn’t be a future state. And so a lot our work is really to understand the state landscape, to understand what our legislative options are. And to build power, both federally and in key states.
I think that the progress that conservatives have made over the last 10 years, in terms of capturing courts, state legislatures on a bunch of issues that are really not in line with where the majority of the populations are even in their own state, have a lot to do with their understanding of how to change the world to maximize power. And while we’ve been very issue-focused and very ideologically focused, it hasn’t always matched the kind of power-building structural focus. And that’s where I think the shift will happen.
Do you have a scenario in your mind: If Roe falls, then what?
As I said before, Roe is already the floor. And we’ve seen and understand what it looks like when you don’t have access to a provider in your area or state, and you don’t have access to resources to get out of state, right? What it means is that in some states you may get to decide if it’s time for you to start your family or not, and for other states you will have to be forced into pregnancy if you don’t have the resources to get out.
I think what’s really important about an if-Roe-falls scenario is that it is not going to mean that people will stop seeking access to abortion. That’s obviously the lesson before Roe. It is a lesson during Roe. It’s a lesson during covid. And it will be the lesson should one of these 18 cases render Roe a right in name only. What it doesn’t mean is that we need to expect a future in which 25 million women will live in states without a provider — like, that just does not make sense. It’s a reason to continue organizing. It’s a reason to continue to build power and make sure that we are doing all we can to defend access.
KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kkOttesen. This interview has been edited and condensed.