Content warning: this mentions r*pe, but only in the context of the abortion ban, not in any graphic detail. If you are uncomfortable with any mentions of r*pe, do not read the sixth point.
On May 17, the New York Times reported that this year alone, eight states have passed legislation limiting or banning abortion. As cries go unheard that “women’s bodies are being regulated” and “governments are treating women like this is The Handmaid’s Tale” and the ACLU takes Alabama to court, Donald Trump sits watching from his high horse and not-so-silently condoning, if not encouraging, all of these laws.
That is obviously terrifying. That we have a president who doesn’t respect people’s rights over their own bodies is at once unsurprising and utterly heartbreaking. I am worried, though, that we are getting caught up in the droves of social media activism: students convinced that, as long as they don’t live in Alabama, all they can do is post on Instagram and Snapchat stories so their friends know they support the right to abortion.
We need to go deeper. We need to take action to recognize that problems exist within our communities. This isn’t as simple as women being disenfranchised. Good activists hold one another accountable for understanding the nuances of every issue — so I will be the first to admit I am not a professional. I do not know everything; sometimes I mess up. Learning, however, is the bedrock of productive activism. We can only ever grow as a community if we listen to one another and amplify each other’s voices.
I have a few thoughts. It is no one’s responsibility to endure the emotional labor — especially if you are someone who has had an abortion or is seriously impacted by these laws — of reliving trauma in order to educate others. That being said, I hope this is educational, and I hope, if you are able, you can share what you know so that we can grow and learn together.
Firstly, include trans and non-binary people in your activism.
I understand for some of you this is new, and that’s okay — as long as you make an effort. Realize that explaining solely how this law hurts “women” excludes people who do not identify as female, yet still have uteruses and vaginas. We are at a point as a society where we should be doing work — and particularly, people who are not transgender or non-binary — should be doing work to understand that we must move past the language of the gender/sex binary. We cannot keep counting on people who fall into gender minorities to correct us; at some point, we need to take responsibility and do the labor ourselves.
Secondly, understand that the law is rooted in misogyny.
This law was, we must remember, created by people who likely do not believe being non-binary or transgender is legitimate. Thus, from their perspective, it is grounded in the ability to control the woman’s body. From a deontological perspective we then must realize that activists are right when they say this is about wanting to control the woman’s body. However, that misogyny must be considered in the context of the fact that not everyone who has a uterus is a woman and thus, not everyone who needs an abortion is a woman. Having the deontological conversation as one detached from the consequentialist one is dehumanizing, though, because it says that because lawmakers don’t think transgender people matter, they don’t have a responsibility to think about the impact of their legislation on those bodies. Having it as one conversation is simple: the laws are misogynistic and rooted in a hate for women, but also rooted in such a transphobia that lawmakers (and even progressive activists) fail to realize that more than just women are impacted by these laws.
Thirdly, center advocacy particularly around people of color.
Principally, we know that the justice system cracks down on bodies of color and criminalizes those communities. Consequently, laws which criminalize abortion uniquely present a danger to people of color in a couple of ways. First off, laws are just enforced more harshly against people of color, meaning that the majority of the people going to prison and being punished for abortions aren’t wealthy white women, but people of color and gender non-conforming people who get abortions. Secondly though, there is also the fact that cycles of racism create cycles of poverty which then breed geographic, political, and economic inequality. This manifests itself through the fact that it will always be harder for black folks who live further away from, for example, one of few abortion clinics in the country, indigenous people for whom flying out of state isn’t a financial option, Latinx people who have been disenfranchised from voting, and any number of people who have lost power over their bodies because of a government which fails to consider their voices. We must also remember that the language which refers to these new laws as a regression to the past — re-traumatization from a time before Roe v. Wade — ignores the fact that this has been happening to people of color all along. Indigenous people have had their children taken away from them, black folks giving birth have significantly higher fetal and parental mortality rates that white people, and Latinx parents have had hysterectomies without their consent for decades. Talking about this like it’s a brand new issue isn’t demonstrative of the fact that you just started paying attention, but of the fact that you don’t mind disenfranchising people with uteruses when they are black and brown people, it just bothers you when they’re white.
Fourthly, realize activism isn’t about popularity or being a good person but about tangible change.
Liberal men who don’t have vaginas or uteri amaze me. They post on Instagram all day, but when we ask them to do something like call their senators, all of the sudden that’s too much to ask. Posting on Instagram is cool and all, but if your activism is about getting your followers to see that you care about women, I hate to break it to you, that’s not what caring about people who have vaginas is. Caring about people with uteruses, not just women, is more than social media and is more than performative feminism. Social media is a great way to share activism — and I recognize that for some people, that is all they are able to engage in — but at least use it as a platform to have productive discussion, share the dates of protests and rallies, educate people, and give people things to do to make change. The abortion ban is horrific, but posting something just saying “the abortion ban is terrible” isn’t changing anything. If you want to be involved in real activism, not just internet activism, you need to do the work. It’s not about getting a cookie or a pat on the back, it’s about saving actual people’s lives.
Fifthly, use language which does not entrench a gender binary.
Along with talking about the people this impacts, we must talk about the people putting the laws in place. We have a tendency to share photos of male-presenting law makers and say “it’s all men making these laws.” Yes, it is true that in states like Alabama, many of the people passing these laws are men who were assigned male at birth and are perfectly comfortable in the privilege of being a male without ever having the experience of what it means to have female reproductive organs. At the same time, saying “men are controlling women’s bodies” entrenches the idea that people who have penises are men, and people who have vaginas are women. It also really ignores the nuance to the fact that a white woman, with a uterus, signed the Alabama law into place. Cisgender white women are often pro-life. We should be doing more to hold people accountable.
Sixthly, stop talking about abortion in terms of rape and incest.
I am the first person to admit that it’s horrific there is no exception to Alabama laws for rape or incest, absolutely. Yet, talking solely about that detracts from the right of pregnant people to choose to have abortions without justifying it. Abortions are as legitimate in cases of incest as they are in cases where a parent knows they are not going to be able to take care of a baby. They are not “baby murder” if they happen because the person was raped or because the person wanted to finish high school without the distraction of a child. So yes, it is frightening that there are no exceptions in the Alabama law, but that does not mean we should focus our activism on those cases and perpetuate the idea that we have a say in why people can get abortions.
Finally, be open to learning and growth.
The point of this is in zero way to shame anyone who doesn’t yet practice any or all of the things above. I’m sure there are plenty of things I am doing wrong in my activism, too. The point is that now you know this information — in fact, any time you learn new information — it is your responsibility as a compassionate and engaged human being to correct mistakes you have made. If you know you have hurt someone directly or posted something problematic, apologize to that person or post something commenting that you have learned. You never know, in sharing your journey with learning, maybe you could teach someone else. As activists, if we are unwilling to grow, we cannot expect people who don’t agree with us to ever change their views. When you learn that language you are using is in any way harmful, be open about it. You shouldn’t be ashamed of the fact that you are growing as a change-maker; that is something to be proud of and to demonstrate to other people.