Image Credit: Evie S. on unsplash

On June 24, 2022, when the Supreme Court of the United States officially overturned Roe v. Wade, millions of people in the United States and around the world took to the streets to mourn and fight the decision and what it meant: Overnight, it seemed, rights that generations had lived and died for—and which many of us took for granted—could suddenly disappear at the hands of a few unelected and unaccountable judges.

A new report from Groundswell Fund, a leading funder of women of color-led organizing in the US, discusses what grassroots reproductive justice (RJ) and birth justice organizers and their funders have done—and can do—to fight back.

Founded in 2003, Groundswell Fund aims “to mobilize a stronger, more effective movement for reproductive justice in the United States led by low-income women, women of color, and transgender people.” The fund does this through several grantmaking vehicles—the Catalyst Fund for Reproductive Justice, the Rapid Response Fund, the Birth Justice Fund, the Liberation Fund, and a newer Black Trans Fund—and capacity-building work that includes an Integrated Voter Engagement program, a Grassroots Organizing Institute, and funder organizing.

The fund’s 2021 Impact Evaluation Report, Meeting Today’s Needs, Changing Tomorrow’s Laws: Organizing for Reproductive & Birth Justice, provides a vibrant snapshot of the past year of reproductive and birth justice organizing. It evaluates the work of 80 organizations led by women, gender expansive, and transgender people of color—all of which are supported by Groundswell or one of its grantmaking partners—across 49 of 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. The report reflects on the progress these organizations made in 2021 and the challenges they faced.

The title of the report—Meeting Today’s Needs, Changing Tomorrow’s Laws—captures a significant duality in the work of most RJ organizations today: The pressing need to meet the reproductive and sexual health care needs of the communities they serve while changing the laws that severely curtail access to that care—especially for the millions of low-income women, nonbinary, gender-expansive, and trans people of color and immigrants who are disproportionately impacted by restrictive state laws and the end of Roe.

The day before the Supreme Court’s decision, Groundswell Fund gathered reproductive justice organizers to launch the report with a community discussion of the movement’s impact. The Power and Strategy: 2021 RJ Evaluation webinar featured several of the fund’s grantees, including organizers from The Afiya Center, COLOR (Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Justice), TAKE, and the Miami Workers’ Center.


The End of Roe

In 2021, RJ activists were already preparing for the end of Roe as state legislators enacted a record number of abortion restrictions.

This year, concerns about the end of Roe intensified following months of speculation and a leaked draft of a court opinion siding with Mississippi’s State Health Officer in the case under consideration, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

Dobbs centered on the constitutionality of a 2018 Mississippi state law banning abortions after 15 weeks. When the court ruled this June that the US constitution does not guarantee the right to an abortion, it upended decades of precedent: from Roe, which ruled that the constitutional right to privacy protects the right to an abortion, to Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which prevented states from banning abortion before fetal viability (that is, within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy).

Though it wasn’t a surprise, the decision’s cruelty hurt.

In a statement on the decision, Groundswell said, “Even though we knew this decision was coming, it’s hard not to feel defeated, angry, or frustrated today. Yet, we want to wholeheartedly affirm our belief in our grantee partners and our movements.”

Of the importance of movement-building, one of the fund’s peers, the National Network of Abortion Funds, said, “We don’t have the option of being shocked into inaction by the cruelty of this decision. This moment is about abortion, and it’s about so much more—the systems of white supremacy and economic oppression are working exactly as they are meant to, using our laws and institutions to control our bodies, families, and futures.”


“The Time Is Now”: Funding and Organizing After Dobbs

The Dobbs decision was a long time coming.

Abortion access and the right to bodily autonomy have been under systematic attack for decades—ever since Roe became legal precedent in 1973. As recently discussed at NPQ, women of color created the reproductive justice framework in response to the limitations of the mainstream women’s and reproductive rights movements. These women organized in their communities—but without the resources needed to expand and scale their efforts.

In the meantime, the anti-abortion movement became entrenched in every state. The  sustained efforts of anti-choice activists eventually paid off: According to the Guttmacher Institute, “A total of 1,338 abortion restrictions have been enacted since Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973—44% of these in the past decade alone.” Since 2010, states have enacted over 500 laws to restrict abortion—and nearly 300 of these laws were passed in the last five years alone.

During the report’s launch, Groundswell clarified the stakes of mobilizing before and after Roe. “For our communities who have been raising the alarm and organizing on behalf of reproductive justice for decades, Roe has always been a floor, rather than a ceiling,” said Meenakshi Menon, one of the fund’s two interim co-directors.

Sheena Hampton-Johnson, also an interim co-director, built on this point while discussing Groundswell’s new pledge with a coalition of funders to protect abortion access and reproductive justice. She highlighted the need to support long-term infrastructure led by Black and Indigenous communities and other communities of color.

The RJ movement needs more than “bust and boom funding,” Hampton-Johnson emphasized. Noting that “the time is now” to fund the movement at scale, she quoted the Black radical poet, June Jordan: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

She continued: “I want to encourage our peer funders and donors to show up in this moment, not only by signing the pledge … but also [by] making bold and very transparent and clear funding commitments supportive of abortion access and full-spectrum reproductive health care that leaves no one behind.”

Menon underscored the point: “Fund us like you want us to win.”


Immediate Needs and Untapped Potential

Meeting Today’s Needs highlights how reproductive and birth justice organizers continue to address the immediate needs of communities in crisis while organizing to change systems, policies, and laws. According to the report, the movement’s impact in 2021 included mobilizing over 800,000 people, providing 469,290 people with some form of care, and securing 193 legislative wins by passing pro-RJ laws and policies or blocking harmful ones.

The report also notes that 64 percent of participating organizations said that their organizing would be more powerful with increased resources.

This last data point illustrates one of Groundswell’s key findings: Despite its successes, the RJ movement has “untapped potential” that requires for its realization a larger investment of resources. As the fund’s impact report notes, “There are immediate, and currently unfunded, opportunities to extend the impact that groups have or simply to enable planned work to feel more sustainable.”

The report also states, “We can see the impact of reproductive and birth justice organizing in both the numbers and stories of change from 2021.”

Of the 83 stories shared, two-thirds were directly connected to equitable access: 41% were related to changes in laws and policies, and another 26% were related to changes in access to resources or care. While legislative and direct-service provision formed the bulk of these impact stories, organizers also described their research and communications-based efforts to shift social norms and narratives, and educational programs designed to increase providers’ skills and knowledge.


Bright Spots in a Bleak Legal Landscape

Even as organizers continued to fight an onslaught of anti-abortion state laws while awaiting the court’s decision on Dobbs, there were some bright spots in the movement last year. Groundswell’s impact evaluation microsite presents a few of these stories in detail to illustrate and celebrate RJ organizing successes. These bright spots included:

  • Advancing Birth Justice: In 2021, Colorado passed the most comprehensive birth equity laws in the country, thanks to the efforts of Groundswell grantee partners Elephant Circle and COLOR, and their partner, Soul 2 Soul Sisters, which supported three Black state legislators to advance and eventually pass three reproductive justice-related bills.
  • Building Power with Black and Brown Women Workers: Organizing with an intersectional framework means recognizing that “reproductive justice is housing justice is workers’ justice.” Led by working-class women of color in the care economy, the Miami Workers’ Center drafted Tenant Bill of Rights Legislation and won a $300,000 budget line item for a municipal office to protect the rights of renters and their families.
  • Getting Rid of Hyde: For the first time, Congress passed a federal spending bill without the harmful Hyde Amendment that banned federal funding for abortion for over 45 years. The amendment emerged only three years after Roe became law and greatly reduced the ability of low-income people—and especially, women, transmen, and gender-expansive and nonbinary people of color—to access vital reproductive care.
  • Partnering with Indigenous Communities: Groundswell and their partners’ grantees organized with over 50 Indigenous communities (mostly Pueblos), including the Apache, Dine’, Jemez, Nambe, Ohkay Owingeh, Picuris, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, Santa Domingo, Taos, Tesuque, Ute, and Wichita Nations. Organizations like Bold Futures New Mexico (formerly known as Young Women United) are collaborating to address reproductive justice issues that impact queer and Indigenous communities. These collaborations include a new partnership with the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women (CSVANM) and support for a state-level Indian Family Protection Act under consideration this year, amid recent legal challenges threatening federal protections and the sovereignty of tribal nations.


Looking Ahead: A Future Beyond Roe and Dobbs

Community-based reproductive justice organizations are on the frontlines of today’s battles around abortion access and care. The report makes this clear—and it concludes with perspectives from three different regions of the US: the Southwest, Midwest, and South.

Based in Albuquerque and Las Cruces, Bold Futures New Mexico highlighted the importance of collaboration in their work with queer and Indigenous communities across the state: “These collaborations, in addition to our continuing work, are critical to our sustainability as a small organization led by and for women and people of color. If the last two years have taught us anything, it is that we must rely on our collective strengths to overcome our struggles. Only together can we effectively make the changes our communities deserve.”

Amid attacks on access to safe, legal abortion on a national level, Bold Futures was part of Respect New Mexico Women, which describes itself as “a movement of women, families, faith leaders, medical providers, and community-based organizations united in support of New Mexico women and their reproductive health decisions.” Thanks to their efforts, which included pushing state legislators to repeal a 1969 ban (via SB 10/HB 7: The Respect NM Women and Families Act), abortion remains legal in New Mexico after Dobbs.

And in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, the Asian American Organizing Project, which focused in 2021 on expanding access to culturally relevant sexual health and wellness resources, will start to canvass for reproductive justice this year. They note, “The stigma around abortion in APIDA (Asian Pacific Islander Desi American) communities is still heavily ingrained in our cultural upbringings. We hope to address these cultural dynamics and work to shift perspectives on reproductive justice by empowering our youth and young people.”


The Fight for Care Continues

The picture is less rosy in the mid-South, and especially in Tennessee, where lawmakers passed a six-week abortion ban in 2020. Two months earlier, the CHOICES Memphis Center for Reproductive Health became the first nonprofit health organization in the country to provide abortion and birthing services in the same building, with midwives and abortion doulas serving as primary caregivers. The move was part of the center’s ongoing efforts to destigmatize abortion by presenting it as part of a comprehensive approach to reproductive care.

But now, a pop-up on the CHOICES website announces, “As of June 28th, abortion is legal in Tennessee up to approximately six weeks of pregnancy as dated from your last menstrual period. In compliance with Tenn. S.B. 2196, our facility cannot provide abortions to patients with detectible embryonic or fetal cardiac activity, which typically starts around 6 weeks gestation. Please call us to discuss your options.”

As an abortion services provider, CHOICES recognized that the Dobbs decision was a threat to their work and that they would have to pivot to continue serving their community. In a statement last month, they noted that the other health care CHOICES provides “will be more important than ever before.” The center continues to provide STI testing and treatment, gender-affirming care, and prenatal care and birth support.

But this doesn’t mean stepping away from abortion care. The organization plans to protect abortion access for patients in the South by expanding access in neighboring areas, saying, “The opportunity to continue to serve patients with all essential reproductive and sexual health services, including abortion care, remains paramount. CHOICES will engage supporters and movement partners in order to fund our work and to ensure patients’ access to care in spite of all probable legal barriers.”