BONUS: The Future of Abortion Rights With Alexis McGill Johnson
Part of a Series
In this bonus episode, Daniella sits down with Planned Parenthood President and CEO Alexis McGill Johnson. They discuss new state abortion laws; federal policies that can help protect abortion rights; and how providers, patients, and the public are responding to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Learn more about the podcast here.
Daniella Gibbs Léger: Hi, everyone. Welcome back to “The Tent,” your place for politics, policy, and progress. I’m Daniella Gibbs Léger. Today, we have a special bonus episode for you with Alexis McGill Johnson of Planned Parenthood. Alexis is here to help us make sense of the confusing landscape of abortion laws following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, and what the future looks like for abortion rights. We’ll be back next week with our regularly scheduled news. But for now, here’s our interview with Alexis.
Gibbs Léger: Alexis McGill Johnson is the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. She has been involved in leadership at Planned Parenthood for more than a decade and also co-founded the Perception Institute, a research consortium dedicated to reducing bias and discrimination and driving equity and belonging. Alexis, thanks so much for joining us on “The Tent.”
Alexis McGill Johnson: Daniella, it’s such a great honor to be with you today.
Gibbs Léger: So, it’s been a few weeks since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and we are already seeing the fallout across the country, but primarily in red states. And yet, the landscape has gotten even more confusing, with some state courts and city governments pushing back against abortion bans. So, I’d love to ask you to start out, you know, what does abortion access look like in red states right now? And what measures are blue states taking in response to, you know, protect abortion rights both for their own residents and for individuals from out of state seeking abortion care?
McGill Johnson: Well, look. I mean, there’s no question that the overturning of Roe v. Wade some three weeks ago has been devastating. It has been complicating. It has been confusing. There are patients who are waking up in states who are pregnant, and they don’t know what their options are fully because they don’t know—you know, it’s changing in real time state by state. You know, as of today, as of this recording, you know, since Roe was overturned, at least 12 states have banned abortion. We are expecting more to do so in the coming days and weeks. And that’s really, you know, the horror. I mean, we are full-on moving into a nationwide public health crisis.
In respect to what’s happening in blue states, you know, obviously, many states who protect access to abortion saw this coming, right? I mean, not just during the leaked opinion, when many Americans woke up to recognize the fact that Roe was in as much jeopardy as it was. There were states that were planning for this to happen and preparing themselves. So, we saw it in states like Maryland and New Jersey, the governors passing acts around protecting access to abortion, expanding who could provide care. You know, Governor [Phil] Murphy (D) in New Jersey, and in Maryland, the state legislature overriding the governor to ensure that the state would be able to protect access. We also saw in states like California, you know, expanding really, I think, a gold standard of care, not just expanding access to abortion but coverage under California’s Medi-Cal program. You know, in New York, where I reside, Governor [Kathy] Hochul (D) has, you know, also allocated new resources to providing abortion care to help subsidize and pay for people seeking access to abortion. And I think those are, you know, important steps to take as we move into what will look like a very much divided country, where we expect 26 states overall to ban, in some form, access to abortion and another 24 to have to absorb the health care needs, with respect to abortion, for the entire country.
Gibbs Léger: President [Joe] Biden signed an executive order last week that will expand access to emergency contraception, legally protect against states seeking to ban early abortion medication, and protect the privacy of patients seeking all types of reproductive care. This is a good start, but obviously, we need more action from lawmakers. And I know we’ve seen some moves from Congress as well in recent weeks. What other policy solutions are available to us in the short term, and what should we be fighting for in the long term?
McGill Johnson: So, you’ve seen the kind of restrictions on abortion that have come in these 12 states so far. Some of them are outright bans. Some of them are six weeks. Some of them are, you know, continue to be enforced by these bounty hunting provisions that we saw in Texas with S.B. 8. Additionally, we are seeing the introduction of legislation around right to travel, whether or not people who are seeking access to care are allowed to go outside of their state to seek care, which I think is incredibly alarming, the idea that a state would put into law—to criminalize—the ability of someone to cross state boundaries to get health care. The fact that a state would essentially, you know, trap somebody in state, I don’t know, hold them hostage in their state because they make a decision that is out of step with where the state lawmakers are is just so reprehensible and objectionable. So, we’re seeing Congress take action or, you know, introducing bills to address right to travel.
We are also seeing the Department of Justice—they formed a task force around reproductive rights just this week—to also take on this issue around right to travel. We are seeing, you know, concerns, as one would expect, around the right to privacy. You know, I think we continue to ask this question: How will these laws be enforced? Are states going to investigate every miscarriage? What does that mean around the kind of health care information that is being collected? Is it violating HIPAA standards? All these things that, you know, I think have become the bedrock for what we understand to be the currency of health care, which is trust and privacy. And so, lawmakers in Congress and, you know, the administration are all taking a look at what they can do best to protect the privacy of folks who are seeking access to care as well.
And I guess the last thing I would say is just, you know, very much concern around, you know, providers, around providers’ safety. You saw what happened to Dr. Caitlin Bernard after, you know, she tended to a 10-year-old patient, and, you know, her name, her photo, being blasted all over the news in ways that, you know, create increasing harm for her—being challenged on her credibility, kind of threats around her licensure. You know, these are the things that abortion providers are also facing in trying to provide care in legal ways in some of these states.
Gibbs Léger: Yeah. That story was so horrific on so many levels. The way the sort of right-wing media ecosystem just immediately said it was false, and then, like, basically doxed her and challenged her, and then have nothing to say when, you know, a suspect is arrested just is really beyond the pale. And I worry, you know, that we’re going to see more instances like this.
And, you know, I want to talk about Texas a little bit where, you know, their attorney general just challenged, you know, a lot of the moves the Biden administration just made, particularly around requiring abortions for medical emergencies, i.e., for the life of the mother. You know, in the Texas complaint, they say it’s “a matter for Congress, not federal agencies” and then went on to cite the same principles that the Supreme Court used to overturn: you know, the Clean Air Act in West Virginia v. the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. So, how concerned are you that other red states are going to try to follow the same path to further gut abortion access?
McGill Johnson: Incredibly concerned, Daniella. I mean, look: I have been sitting with a story that I heard from a Texas provider when I visited this spring to, you know, inquire about the how they were grappling, you know, in the aftermath of S.B. 8. And we talk, obviously, about what’s happening inside of, you know, our health centers and clinics and the experiences of our providers and patients, but one of our chief medical officers was also in a, you know, leadership role at a university and indicated that at the university hospital, there was a patient who had a pregnancy that was intended—a wanted pregnancy—and it was no longer viable. And the doctors at the hospital told her they couldn’t provide the abortion care that she needed, that if she wanted to wait, essentially, until she got sepsis, she could come back and then perhaps maybe they could treat her, right, under, you know, the law we’re referencing right now.
I mean, think about what that means—right?—for health care. Think about what that means for a patient who’s already going through an incredibly traumatic experience with her family. Think about what it does to erode the trusted relationship that she should have with her doctor. Think about the travel that she had to embark upon out of state to get the care because, obviously, she didn’t want to wait. And she was rightly concerned that if she waited, something else could happen to her, and she couldn’t necessarily guarantee that she would be able to advocate for herself in the state to get the abortion care. So that’s what it looks like in practice, you know. I think that they are making arguments about what their abilities are under the Clean Air Act. I mean, for Christ’s sake, we’re talking about a patient right here, right now, that is experiencing those concerns. And so, I think it’s really important to see actions being taken by U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, who is a strong advocate for abortion rights, who understands the implication, not just on access to abortion care, but on health care writ large. And I think it’s really important that medical providers who want to be able to provide the care that people need recognize that they have the backing of the administration in order to make the decisions in real time that they need to serve their patients.
Gibbs Léger: Well, I wanted to ask a little bit more about, you know, how these clinicians are faring. You know, how are they doing nationwide, both in states that have banned and restricted abortion and in states where it remains legal? You know, how are you all providing support to folks on the ground? You know, all types of supports because I imagined that the emotional toll that this is taking on people who work in clinics is something that’s tremendous, but you know, perhaps doesn’t get talked about a lot.
McGill Johnson: Thank you so much for asking about that. I mean, I salute our providers and our health center staff and my affiliate colleagues across the country who, you know, as you rightly point out, are all grappling with this, but in different ways. You know, the folks who are in what we would call “surge states,” states that are seeing an increased volume of abortion appointments, are doing everything they can to see every patient they possibly can, in some cases, before their own states’ legislative sessions begin, because they know that making it easy for even one more patient will make all the difference in that patient’s life. And so, they are overwhelmed. They’re under siege. They, you know, are having a hard time taking a break, right, because they want to make sure that they see every single patient they possibly can. And that is stressful, right? It is. It’s stressful to kind of air traffic control patients who are traveling in, who only have a very limited window to be able to travel in. You know, when you have someone who is leaving a day shift or night shift, getting in a car, and driving several hundred miles, you want to be there and make sure that the person can be seen quickly, efficiently, you know, and supported to get back home with as minimal disruption.
And so, you know, I feel for those providers. I think for the providers who are in states who no longer can provide, you know, their offices have been turned into patient navigation centers. Believe it or not, there are people who still don’t know that Roe has been overturned or understand exactly what that means for them in their state. And so, there are patients who are coming in who don’t know what the laws are in their state, who haven’t heard about the decision, who don’t understand that this means in real time that they cannot get the access to abortion care. And so, it’s up to the doctors, right, it’s up to the health center staff, the clinicians, to help them understand the reality of what they are facing, that they may have thought they were making an appointment to come in to see their provider and now they’ve got to make a plan to travel those several hundred—upward of 1,000—miles to get to, you know, the nearest appointment or the nearest health center. They have to think about the resources that they’re going to need to do that. They’re going to, you know—what child care do they need, because most people who seek access to abortion are already parents. These are the ways in which, you know, our providers who are trained and in facilities and able to provide the care they need are being denied the opportunity to actually practice their service, you know, in service to many of these patients. So, it is overwhelming. It is devastating. I’ve spent enough, you know, a number of days traveling over the last few weeks into health centers and sitting with clinic staff, and, you know, and just seeing how hard and emotional, in addition to the physiological wear and tear that I know they’re also experiencing.
Gibbs Léger: So, some MAGA extremists have openly declared their intentions to go after other rights now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, and this includes their right to contraception and the rights to gay marriage and intimacy. So, I’d love to ask you, you know, how are you preparing for this potential legal fight around these and other rights that impact your work? And how worried should we be about these attacks?
McGill Johnson: I mean, in what world? In what world are we living where—I mean, Roe being overturned is devastating. And now they are like, “We think Griswold was wrongly decided. It should be up to states to decide whether or not you should ask your partner if you can go on the pill.” Like, I don’t, I don’t understand what that means, right? Ninety-nine percent of women use birth control in some form. Like, what does that actually mean? So, you know, I think that’s the outrage, the idea that they’re introducing legislation to criminalize, you know, not just contraception like IUDs and emergency contraception, like Plan B, but also IVF [in vitro fertilization]. Right? It’s just bizarre.
I think that the outrage is there. It is palpable. I think that we have done a lot of work as a community—and certainly as a progressive community over the last few years—connecting the dots between abortion rights, trans rights, you know, LGBTQ[I+] rights, to voting rights, to economic rights, to, you know, to ensuring that we can teach the right history in our school systems. And so, I think right now, where I feel hopeful, actually, is how so many leaders of other movements have stepped in and locked arms around the overturning of Roe because they believe that not only are our fates linked, are our issues linked; they understand at the very core of all of our movements is a fight for freedom, right? It is a fight, and you cannot have a fight for freedom without a fight for bodily autonomy. And they are prepared to be in lockstep with us as we move forward. And I think it’s because they have, you know—if you saw, Justice [Clarence] Thomas’s very clear opinion that he thought all of these other rights were subject to being overturned and attacked. And I think that has emboldened legislators and lawmakers to introduce those bills to do such. And at the same time, we’ve seen a very powerful response from movement leaders who understand that our very identities and our very democracy are at stake because of this.
Gibbs Léger: So, let’s continue this positive feeling, and let’s end on a positive note. For the people who are, you know, just everyday Americans waking up and being very angry about this, how can people get involved in the fight to protect abortion rights? What can they do?
McGill Johnson: Oh, my goodness, well, hope. You know, I’m with you, 100 percent. Like, we have to end on hope and hope certainly comes from doing. And we’ve seen it, right? What I have seen over the last few weeks is actually incredible courage. And I think that that has been unbelievably contagious. We’ve seen it in, you know, we saw 600 marches over the span, after decision day, pop up. We’ve seen millions of people pour out into the streets. We’ve seen direct action and civil disobedience in D.C. and other places. We have seen, you know, a spate of litigation happening with our partners fighting back in every state where they’re introducing these bans, and, you know, we’ve seen corporations start to step up and stand with their employees and their workforce. We saw a walkout just yesterday of folks saying that we will not allow these bans on our bodies. We want them off. And, you know, we won’t back down.
So, I think, across the board, if you are interested in getting engaged in the work, going to bansoff.org is a place where you can find the most information on what’s happening in your local area. And I think that if Roe being overturned is indicative of anything, it is the fact that all politics is local. It is grounded in the states, and we need to make sure that we are fighting right there in order to ensure that people get access to the care that they need.
Gibbs Léger: Well, Alexis McGill Johnson, I want to thank you for joining us on “The Tent” and thank you for all the work that you and your organization do to fight for abortion rights for every American. Thank you so much for joining us.
McGill Johnson: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Gibbs Léger: All right. That’s it for this bonus episode. An extra episode, of course, also means an extra opportunity to remind you that we are still in a pandemic. Because so many of us are vaccinated, COVID is not so COVID-y, but it is very much spreading, so please mask up out there. Thanks for tuning in, and we’ll catch you next week.
“The Tent” is a podcast from the Center for American Progress Action Fund. It’s hosted by me, Daniella Gibbs Léger. Erin Phillips is our lead producer. Kelly McCoy is our supervising producer. Tricia Woodcome is our booking producer, and Sam Signorelli is our digital producer. You can find us on Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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Politics. Policy. Progress. All under one big tent. Produced by CAP Action, “The Tent” is a news and politics podcast hosted by Daniella Gibbs Léger. Listen each Thursday for episodes exploring topics that progressives are focused on.