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“No one can be neutral’ says Planned Parenthood’s chief of abortion rights

Interview

Alexis McGill Johnson, the president and CEO of the US’s largest abortion provider, outlines the three goals she has to get women the access they need

In the time after the US supreme court rescinded the constitutional right to abortion in America and thereby allowed nearly a dozen states to outlaw the procedure, the president and CEO of the US’s largest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood, has worked feverishly with three goals in mind.

Alexis McGill Johnson wants to get women where they need to be to access abortion, whether that means helping patients cross state lines or flying doctors to states where abortion remains legal.

‘People want me dead’: abortion providers fear violence after Roe overturnedRead more

Then, she wants to win in state courts. Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have filed 11 lawsuits seeking to delay abortion bans or, perhaps optimistically, strike them down entirely.

“What we can see, essentially, is just a lot of chaos, a lot of confusion and a lot of concern for patients on the ground being able to get the care they need,” McGill Johnson told The Guardian. “What we’ve also seen is a significant amount of rage.”

That will power her third goal – to win at the ballot box.

“Our work right now is to maximize the care that we can in the states that we can, and also take this moment as an opportunity to maximize mobilization.”

Abortion is already either illegal or largely inaccessible in half a dozen states, as bans and ensuing court battles play out. And all of this will get harder as many more states join their ranks in the coming days, weeks and months, until an expected 26 states ban abortion altogether.

As abortion is suddenly out of reach for more and more women, and there will be more and more pressure on the resources that remain, likely delaying appointments even in states where abortion is protected.

“The reality is there’s no world in which 24 states can absorb the nation’s abortion care,” said McGill Johnson. “The intent … of the opposition has been to end access to abortion.”

To combat this, Planned Parenthood is fortifying “logistics centers” and “provider corps” of doctors, so there is capacity at “surge sites” to take care of patients in states that protect abortion. Patient “navigators” will connect women to charities to help pay for both abortions and the costs of a long journey: gas, airfare and hotel stays. McGill Johnson’s hope is, eventually, to help build out a kind of online travel agency to access abortion.

To sustain this, Planned Parenthood also plans to combat the next expected line of attack on abortion access: the right to travel out of state. Organizations hostile to abortion have already suggested state lawmakers ban patients from crossing state lines to obtain abortions, and perhaps extradite providers.

Even with the vast logistical operation McGill Johnson has in mind, she acknowledges tens of thousands of women a year will never reach these resources, and be forced to bear unwanted children.

“Every day a clinic can stay open changes lives,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of CRR, said in a press call with McGill Johnson on Friday. They have succeeded in delaying bans in Florida, Kentucky and Utah.

However, it’s the third leg of this stool that shows the long-term and sweeping effects of the supreme court’s decision. Even though about 85% of Americans believe abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances, more than half of states will probably ban it.

“The reason we are here is because many of the statehouses … where we’re seeing these restrictions have been so extremely gerrymandered that we are at a structural disadvantage in shaping the policy fights there,” McGill Johnson said.

In effect, partisan redistricting or “gerrymandering” has made elections less responsive to voters’ will. Following the supreme court’s decision, and short of congressional action, the only way to restore legal abortion is through the state ballot box. That reality is reflected by Planned Parenthood’s plan to spend $150m up and down the ballot.

Even so, restoring legal abortion in deep red states like Texas or Arizona where 13.5 million women of reproductive age live, presently looks like a distant future.

“Our job now is making sure all of these politicians who are completely out of step – that people understand where every single state [representative] stands on this issue so they can start to build power in the state,” she said. “We’re going to make every candidate – whether they’re applying for school board or state supreme court, or governor – reflect on where they are on this decision”.

Outside of legislatures, direct democracy will make up new battlegrounds. An anti-abortion referendum in Kansas will ask voters to affirm there is no right to abortion in the state constitution.

But crucially, voters in Vermont, California and purple Michigan will cast ballots on whether to affirm a right to abortion alongside other reproductive rights, such as contraception.

“No one can be neutral in this moment.”

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