‘Dream bigger’: How weekend marches keep advocates’ fight for Roe v. Wade alive on 50th anniversary

Written by on January 20, 2023

Each year since 1973, abortion rights activists have gathered on Jan. 22 for Roe v. Wade Day to celebrate the Supreme Court decision that granted a constitutional right to abortion.

But now, 50 years after the decision, Roe v. Wade Day will be different: Sunday will also mark the first anniversary of Roe since the ruling was overturned.

As protesters once again gather nationwide in support of reproductive rights, abortion access advocates say that instead of celebration, there will likely be a mix of more painful emotions: anger, fear, uncertainty, mourning. Still, galvanized by a surge in organizing energy after last year’s ruling, they said the day marks a new year of possibility for reproductive rights and an opportunity to reimagine abortion access from the ground up in a post-Roe world.

“Reproductive freedom has always been bigger than Roe,” said Rachel O’Leary Carmona, executive director of the Women’s March, organizer of the nationwide march in support of abortion access, dubbed “Bigger Than Roe.”

She added: “Now we need to dream bigger.”

For many, that vision involves efforts in state courts and legislatures, as well as grassroots aid like abortion funds.

Meanwhile, anti-abortion protesters will gather Friday at the annual March for Life days before the 50th anniversary of Roe with the theme “Next Steps: Marching in a Post-Roe America.”

Newly emboldened anti-abortion demonstrators also plan to protest at pharmacies next month, expressing their objection to the FDA allowing the sale of abortion pills at these retailers – in states where they are legal. Abortion rights activists have denounced such protests as an egregious breach of customers’ and pharmacists’ safety.

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‘It’s infuriating’

Danika Severino Wynn, a midwife and vice president of abortion access at Planned Parenthood, called last year’s Roe v. Wade Day “a bittersweet anniversary,” adding advocates were “already in prep mode because we had a strong feeling of what was to come.”

“The fear that we’d never make it to Roe’s 50th anniversary was very real,” she said.

The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision devastated abortion access in large swaths of the country. Abortion clinics in restrictive states began to shutter almost immediately. People seeking abortion care were forced to travel across state lines. And in states where abortion remains legal, providers were quickly overwhelmed by patients.

“It’s infuriating that Roe did not make it to its 50th anniversary, that we didn’t get that chance to celebrate in the way we have in years past,” Severino said. “But we will be commemorating it regardless as a sign of our plan to keep marching forward and fighting for what was taken away.”

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A surge in organizing on both sides of abortion debate

Despite the Dobbs decision, advocates said recent wins for increased abortion access, including the FDA green light for pharmacies to provide abortion pills, a Justice Department decision to allow the United States Postal Service to deliver the pills and challenges to state abortion bans, offer hope.

State ballot measures in California, Michigan, Vermont, Kansas, Kentucky and Montana last year also either codified abortion rights or rejected measures that would have eroded abortion access. The aftermath of the Dobbs ruling also became a galvanizing moment for reproductive rights, advocates said.

Nikki Madsen, executive director of the Abortion Care Network, the national association for independent abortion providers, said abortion access organizations have seen “an outpouring of support since the overturning of Roe,” leading her to feel “a mix of grief and possibility” as its 50th anniversary approaches. She said the decision sparked a public conversation about abortion access “in a way I’ve never seen before.”

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For anti-abortion activists, the Dobbs decision was also a galvanizing moment and “an enormous milestone and the achievement of a seminal goal of the March for Life from the beginning,” said Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life. She said Jan. 22 marks a new era in the abortion debate.

“I’m grateful that Roe was overturned but very aware that the work to build a culture of life is not yet done,” she said. “We are in a new season where the people enjoy more freedom to enact laws to protect life, so our work to change hearts and minds is all the more important.”

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Roe v. Wade was ‘the floor, not the ceiling’

Alison Dreith, director of strategic partnerships at the abortion fund Midwest Access Coalition, said the federal protections once offered by Roe were always not enough.

The ruling never guaranteed abortion access, especially for marginalized communities, she said. It also “allowed states to chip away at abortion access” by having gestational limits on abortions, limiting public funding and insurance coverage for abortion care, restricting medication abortion, and requiring counseling and waiting periods before an abortion.

“Roe v. Wade in and of itself was really the floor to begin with and not the ceiling. And as that monumental decision has been eroded, leaving so many people without access, it’s an opportunity for us to reimagine the future,” Dreith said, adding that this is the most excited she has ever felt for Roe v. Wade Day.

For instance, she said, there’s a new push to undo effects of the Hyde amendment, which limits the use of federal Medicaid funds for abortion and other restrictions on funding and insurance coverage for abortion care. This was once unthinkable and rarely considered by legacy abortion access organizations, Dreith said.

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The Dobbs decision showed the public that the abortion debate is not immovable for either side, said Mary Ziegler, law professor at the University of California, Davis, School of Law.

“This debate has been thrown into this state of tremendous flux,” she said. “But it’s also been a moment for people to see those possibilities when they realize that it’s never been as much of a stalemate as we may have thought in past decades.”

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Reimagining the future of abortion access

The debate over abortion access has shifted to state courts and legislatures, ballot initiatives, abortion funds and grassroots aid. Many advocates also suggest better supporting independent abortion clinics and expanding telehealth services.

Medication abortion also has emerged as a major focus for both sides of the debate and is at the center of multiple lawsuits. Dozens of other lawsuits are using state constitutions and statutes to challenge abortion bans.

“This anniversary has always been a time of honoring the long battles of generations before us,” said Melissa Fowler, chief program officer at the National Abortion Federation, the professional association of abortion providers. “Now, it’s a focus on the work ahead. As we settle into this new reality, we do so knowing this is a long fight. And we have hope we can not only restore abortion rights but create a world where there’s more access than there ever was under Roe.”

Also on the 50th anniversary, more than 20 reproductive justice organizations from around the country will gather at a summit in Atlanta to honor Roe and its legacy, mourn its loss and “start of dreaming up the legacy of the next 50 years and beyond,” said Monica Simpson, executive director of SisterSong, a multiracial reproductive justice organization that helped organize the summit.

“We have an opportunity now to build a future that serves and centers BIPOC people and all of those historically forced to the margins,” she said.

Hugh Brown, vice president of the American Life League, a Catholic group that opposes all abortions and exemptions to abortion restrictions, wants to see an entirely different shift. His mother became an anti-abortion activist after Roe v. Wade in 1973.

“My mother would certainly say there’s still a lot of work to be done,” he said.

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Since 2020, a Harvard University research library has been planning an exhibition for Roe’s 50th anniversary, said Ziegler, also a curator of the exhibition. When the decision was overruled last June, plans shifted. The exhibition’s narration was edited to reflect the new reality of abortion access, and the result was titled “The Age of Roe: The Past, Present, and Future of Abortion in America.”

But as abortion rights supporters gather again Sunday, Ziegler said it’s clear Roe is not only a Supreme Court ruling in history books but also a cultural symbol in a movement that continues.

“It’s completely unsurprising to me that the memory and legacy of Roe still lives on and still motivates people,” she said. “Roe in many ways has become a cultural symbol that motivates people and makes them think about what’s next.”

Contact Christine Fernando at cfernando@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter at @christinetfern.

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