“The Emergency Is Not Yet Here, but the Work Is”: Mobilizing Community for the Patchwork of Abortion Access after Roe
From the Series: After Roe
From the Series: After Roe
A week after the Supreme Court released the Dobbs decision, thirty-three of us packed into a small library in our rural college town’s new queer-friendly safe space for an “action-oriented community response meeting.” A facilitator began the session by asking representatives from the local abortion fund (a grassroots organization that offers support to people seeking abortions): “What sustaining actions can we, as a community, take to defend abortion after Roe?”
Instead of taking that up, the lead activist responded by reframing the collective project: “I’d actually like to answer a different question, because we’re not in an emergency, yet. Moving beyond the urgency of now, I’d like to push us to think about building the world we want to be part of.”
Virginia is, in many ways, a border state. Often credited with pioneering Targeted Restrictions on Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws that have proliferated since 2010, Virginia is also one of few states that expanded abortion access in 2020, although Republicans have urged rollbacks if they overcome their one-vote deficit in the state senate. While abortion in Virginia remains currently unchanged by the Dobbs decision, it is now a destination for people traveling from abortion-hostile states; there is increased demand for appointments and other already scarce resources.
A focus on legality tells only a partial story, and a key point the activists raised is that access remains precarious and patchwork. In our rural community, the nearest abortion clinic is a sixty-minute drive away with no public transportation between cities. It was this context—not the most recent Supreme Court case—that activists wanted us to consider: “Access is already not here, but what kinds of other accesses can we open up?”
Since 1993, the National Network of Abortion Funds has pushed the mainstream abortion rights movement to address gaps in people’s ability to access their legal rights, through direct funding and political organizing. Grassroots activists locate their work within broader transformative justice movements where abortion itself is just one immediate need. For example, our local fund has expanded its support to cover transportation, lodging, food, and childcare as well as the cost of medical procedures. Abortion access in this sense is positioned within an expansive movement for reproductive justice using solidarity practices of mutual aid (Spade 2020).
In reframing the conversation from protesting a legal decision to building something new, activists pushed the group to consider what it meant to contribute when “the emergency isn’t yet here, but the work is.” As conversation swirled around the logistical infrastructures that make up practical support (for example, organizing volunteer drivers across the western edge of the state) and the technical procedures of telehealth medication abortion, I kept returning to the question of what it meant to transform community members into a community of activists. What does it mean to build the world that does not yet exist through distributed care practices, especially in a moment when personal rights are under attack?
Working with abortion access organizers over the years leading up to the Dobbs decision has shown me how they’ve prepared for this moment by building a movement to think beyond Roe, while also keeping the destructive ramifications of its sudden absence in view. They’ve built a movement that acknowledges that formal politics are important for creating a context for transformative community politics while placing the latter at the center of their organizing. Using slogans like “abortion care is community care,” advocates reframe care for individuals into a more expansive vision of collective mutualism. Linking this infrastructure of care to a broader politics, they echo the work of Mexican feminists Las Fuertes en Red (see Singer 2019), who model “abortion accompaniment” as a praxis of support that extends from the emotional-affective to the communicational-relational to the sociopolitical: meeting care needs by aligning individual and societal transformation and reconfiguring “individual and collective processes of citizenship” (175). Asking the group of concerned community members to reimagine our role in abortion politics as one of not just defending the rights covered by the Roe decision but as participating as a community cared for and caring for abortion, activists reframed the role of citizen engagement amid a feeling of not-yet-emergency urgency.
As the evening at the library wore on, conversation among this group of mostly strangers shifted from the political landscape to the immediately practical: How could we contribute to greater access in our region? Money was the obvious answer. But some objected, giving money alone often does not feel like doing enough, especially for people with limited funds. As the session wound down, the facilitator returned to tangible, realizable steps, and the group decided to organize a community fundraising event, develop an education group, and coordinate a logistical framework to get our region hooked into a practical support transportation organization. Would this defend Roe? No, but it was a start in linking community members into an infrastructure of sustained activism.
In an era of virtual and distributed networks, what does this meeting tell us about the kinds of communities that are built through mutual aid and the role of grassroots activists in shaping community action? My answer extends Faye Ginsburg’s (1998) analysis of abortion activists as enacting gendered care work to consider how infrastructures of community care are built through funds, clinics, and pills—but also by drivers, sandwich makers, and storytellers. The meeting offers a window into the patchwork—yet mobilizing—nature of community participation around reproductive health and how feelings of urgency can be transformed into sustained collective engagement. It also points to the instability of this transformation. Following Mariame Kaba’s (2021) oft-quoted reminder that “hope is a discipline,” anthropology’s interest in precarity can attune us to how communities build care infrastructures amid future uncertainty along with the daily, banal, consistent work of negotiating a patchwork of access.
 Some researchers estimate that the cost of meeting the needs of people directly affected by the Dobbs decision would require approximately $100 million to be disbursed annually via abortion funds.
Ginsburg, Faye D. 1998. Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kaba, Mariame. 2021. We Do This ’til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Singer, Elyse Ona. 2019. “Realizing Abortion Rights at the Margins of Legality in Mexico.” Medical Anthropology 38, no. 2: 167–81.
Spade, Dean. 2020. Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity during this Crisis (and the Next). New York: Verso Books.