Janine Jackson interviewed URGE’s Kimberly Inez McGuire about abortion realities for the January 29, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: A recent study out of UC San Francisco showed that depictions of abortion in TV and movies don’t square with reality—in part because, in the last year anyway, only one character was parenting at the time of their abortion, while in real life, the majority of women getting abortions have children.
News media on abortion can be distorted too, to the extent that the focus is overwhelmingly on Roe v. Wade and the Supreme Court. As important as it is to fight for Roe, it’s more important to understand that for many women, overturning that ruling would not suddenly shut down access to abortion—simply because many women already lack that access that makes a right a reality, even with Roe in place. And recognizing that reproductive rights are not equally afforded is itself just a step toward an expansive understanding of reproductive justice that goes beyond abortion.
How do we get to that at once bolder and more grounded conversation? Joining us now is Kimberly Inez McGuire, executive director of the group URGE: Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity. She joins us by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Kimberly Inez McGuire.
Kimberly Inez McGuire: Thank you so much for having me.
JJ: We’ve had a public conversation about whether women should have the legal right to abortion. As of 2019, public support for legal abortion remains steady and high, at around 61%; that’s according to Pew. So to keep hosting a debate about whether abortion should be legal is already kind of regressive. It’s also no friend to real women looking for real options, the women who call the hotlines every day. It’s not that Roe doesn’t matter to them, but there are just layers and layers, aren’t there, between what the court says women can legally do and what they can actually do?
KIM: Absolutely. The gulf between the theoretical legality of abortion in this country and the lived experience of people trying to get an abortion is wide and getting wider. And so much of the restrictions on abortion are rendered invisible, because they only appear based on who you are, where you live and, frankly, how much money you have in the bank.
So when we look at the layers upon layers, we go back to the Hyde Amendment, which is older than I am, and it’s a federal policy that prevents Medicaid from covering abortion. And it was passed in short order after the Roe v. Wade decision. And so what happened was the Supreme Court said abortion’s legal, folks rejoiced, right? This was a big deal. And almost immediately thereafter, the door was closed on any low-income woman who gets her insurance through Medicaid. And so for decades, if you are using Medicaid as your insurance, abortion access is not real to you.
We then have seen, since 2010, this newer tsunami of abortion restrictions, literally hundreds and hundreds of new abortion laws passed in almost every state in the country; there’s a handful of states that have held the line. But all over the country, we are seeing restrictions on who can get an abortion, where they can get an abortion, restrictions designed to shut down clinics, restrictions targeting young people, right? And this has created a labyrinth for anyone who’s just trying to navigate getting basic healthcare.
And so, again, we have this sort of legal fiction of Roe that says abortion is legal, but if you can’t afford it, if you are young and can’t get your parents to sign off on your decision, if there’s not a clinic in your neighborhood, if the clinic in your neighborhood has been shut down by a state legislature that was targeting them—all of these things can become insurmountable barriers in the real-life experience of trying to end a pregnancy.
JJ: Roe v. Wad e passed in 1973, and there was the Hyde Amendment in 1976. And it’s important, I think, to remember that Henry Hyde, the Republican congressman from Illinois, and the supporters of the amendment were very clear that they wanted to make abortion unavailable for all women, but it was only women receiving Medicaid that they had power over. Getting rid of the Hyde Amendment— it’s not permanent law; it can be eliminated. That’s one concrete action that President Biden could take right now. It seems like, as we record on the 28th, we’ve just had a statement, and no mention of Hyde.
KIM: You know, we are hopeful but cautious. As many folks know, President Biden has had a somewhat public evolution on the Hyde Amendment, where after, frankly, the nationwide outcries during the campaign, he then made clear that he would be committed to ending the Hyde Amendment. So we’re grateful that he took that position publicly, but we also are really clear that accountability is going to be necessary to make sure that that promise is kept.
And we have seen a few statements from the administration so far around the topic of abortion; they frankly have not gone far enough. The Biden administration statement on the Roe anniversary—in addition to not actually using the word “abortion,” which is concerning in and of itself—did not make clear a commitment to ending the racist Hyde Amendment, which, as you pointed to, with the pro–abortion rights majority in the House and the Senate, with the White House, there is no reason that Hyde, or any coverage ban, should appear in the next round of federal budgets. So now is the time for the lawmakers, the president and those in Congress who have said that they oppose Hyde, well, they’ve got the power now, and people across the country are watching to see how they use that power.
JJ: I just want to add that Hart just did some research: significant majority, 62% of voters, favor Medicaid coverage of abortion services, as against 38% opposed; there’s majority support among men, women, all age groups, all education levels.
Well, words are powerful. It does matter that Biden didn’t use the word “abortion” in his statement on the Roe anniversary. And framing is powerful, which is why I appreciate the way that you at URGE and others describe legal abortion as “the floor, not the ceiling,” as part of that expansive understanding of reproductive justice. Can you talk a little bit about how we talk about abortion, and why it matters? What are you trying to do with that “floor, not the ceiling” phrase?
KIM: Absolutely. So I think there’s a few key pieces here. One is about how we show respect to people who have had abortions. And first and foremost, those who have had abortions deserve the dignity of recognition. We need to use the word “abortion.” We need to talk about abortion as necessary healthcare and as a social good. Anything less, honestly, disregards and disrespects the one-in-four women in this country who have sought out this healthcare. So that’s the first piece, is just saying the word “abortion.” It’s not a bad word. It’s a word that’s saved people’s lives and helped shape better futures.
The other piece around “the floor, not the ceiling” is: for people with economic resources, what is a legal right on paper has so much more meaning than for people who are blocked because of economic barriers, because of racial barriers. So we look at something like abortion access: Even before Roe v. Wade, when abortion was illegal across large swaths of the country, the reality is that women of means have always been able to get abortions; that has always been the reality for people with money.
The vision for reproductive justice is not just: You have a theoretical right to abortion if you can fight your way through all of the muck and the restrictions. Reproductive justice means that if you’ve decided to end a pregnancy, you can do so safely, with dignity, without upending your family’s economic security, and without being subjected to, frankly, misogynist hate speech and stigma.
JJ: When media say there are “economic” issues like the minimum wage, and then there are “cultural” issues like abortion, I want to scream.
KIM: Me too!
JJ: And then also, in terms of media, I just want to say the pretend healthcare concerns that get credulously entertained for why it’s OK to, for example, force women to see a provider in person to get a medical abortion—even in a pandemic, I think that’s equal to the years of credulous parroting of bogus claims of voter fraud. I mean, media know these restrictions don’t protect women.
JJ: The Supreme Court case on mifepristone is called FDA v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, for Pete’s sake. But they include these defenses of these things as some sort of— “Well, a politician said ’em, so scribble scribble.” And then also, somehow women’s human rights have to be “balanced” against those who think they shouldn’t have them…but I digress.
KIM: I must say, I think the medication abortion example is such a salient one right now, because this is where we see the pre-existing crisis of abortion access, that was created by Hyde, was made worse by all of these state laws that have been passed over the last 10 years. But then you have the pandemic, right, which is both creating a public health crisis that can make it dangerous for someone to try to get to a clinic, particularly if they have to take the bus, particularly if they don’t have someone to watch their kids, and an economic crisis, where more and more women and families are being pushed into unemployment, pushed into homelessness, do not have the funds to pay for an abortion, particularly if it’s not covered by Medicaid.
And so, in a time when there have been bright moments of innovation in using telemedicine for a whole range of healthcare—I think about everybody I know who’s been in therapy who used to go to offices, and everybody’s on video therapy, right? My parents have done video visits with their doctors for a whole range of health needs. And, thankfully, there was a window of time in which these onerous restrictions, saying that somehow you have to go to a clinic to have a conversation and be handed a pill, those restrictions were lifted, which made all the sense in the world, especially in a pandemic, because if all I need is a conversation and a pill, well, that can be a video call and a package in the mail, right? There’s no reason for me to go to a clinic.
And, unfortunately, because of aggressive anti-abortion actions by the Trump administration, that’s now gone. And the Biden administration needs to take action to address that. This is an emergency public health measure. We have got to get this done now. And yes, we need—in the nearer term—we need to look at how these restrictions are harmful year round and all the time. But right now, we have got to stop forcing people to go to a clinic when they don’t have to, just to get an abortion pill and have a conversation with a provider that could easily happen over telemedicine.
JJ: Finally, after the setback of Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation, URGE put out a statement saying young people were “undaunted,” and that there’s a “rising wave” of young people ready to fight on this set of issues, and it’s in fact growing. So let’s end on that energy and that looking forward. There’s no use pretending these aren’t really rough times, but you do see real reasons for hope out there.
KIM: Absolutely. And there’s so many places we could look, but I’ll point us in one direction: It was young Black women and young Black people in Georgia who sent a pro-choice Black preacher to the U.S. Senate, and completely turned the tide for U.S. policy and power for the next couple of years. That speaks to the current power and ultimate transformative potential of young people—in particular, young Black and brown people—who care about abortion, who care about racial justice, who care about economic justice (and, by the way, don’t see these as separate issues), and not only created the outcomes of the 2020 elections, but also are ready and willing to hold those elected officials accountable. Because it’s not enough just to make a promise; those promises need to be kept. And it’s not enough even to get back to a pre-Trump status quo. We know we deserve more, and young people are speaking out and making their voices heard. And that gives me hope every single day.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Kimberly Inez McGuire, executive director of URGE: Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity. You can follow their work online at URGE.org. Kimberly Inez McGuire, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.
KIM: Thank you so much; have a great day.