NARAL President Ilyse Hogue Tells Us Everything We Need to Know About Abortion Rights

It’s been a devastating few weeks for anyone with a uterus. Our reproductive rights are under attack, and women across the country—as well as anyone else capable of getting pregnant—are infuriated, terrified, and unsure of what to do. A day after galvanizing the country with the #StopTheBans rallies, NARAL President Ilyse Hogue made time to talk with us about the recent wave of restrictive abortion bans that have rolled across the country, and what concerned Americans and allies can do to fight them. 

In order to gain some clarity into what, exactly, is happening, the broader significance of how these bills are dismantling reproductive rights nationwide, and how we can fight back, The Riveter Founder and CEO Amy Nelson spoke with NARAL Pro-Choice President Ilyse Hogue.

Amy Nelson: Can you break down for us what’s happening, and why it’s happening now?

Ilyse Hogue: We are seeing a wave of demeaning and dangerous legislation sweep through the country. We’ve seen a lot of anti-choice bills in every legislative session, probably since the late ‘90s on. So the volume actually isn’t that significantly different—but what is different is how radical the actual legislation is, and that includes everything from abortion bans from before people even know they’re pregnant, to no exceptions for rape or incest, to this actual punitive component where bills are contemplating jail time for doctors and sometimes women.

Why I think it’s happening now is because there has been a decades long strategy by the anti-choice movement to end up at a place where they outlaw and criminalize abortion across the country. The Kavanaugh confirmation was the final piece of the puzzle for them. It’s a really interesting moment because they know they’re on the wrong side of history and politics, because most people in this country support legal access to abortion, don’t believe in politicians meddling in these personal decisions, and don’t want to sit in judgment of their friends and neighbors. So they know they’re on the wrong side of the issues, and they faced backlash in 2018 and expect more backlash in 2020, so they’re moving really, really, really quick, while they believe they have the White House and the courts with them and so many state legislators. 

What’s fascinating about the legislation right now that’s really indicative of this moment we live in are two things: One, they’re not even pretending that they’re not going for Roe. And if you recall, during the fight against Kavanaugh, we were called “hysterical” for even suggesting Roe was at threat. Everyone from Mitch McConnell to the Federalist Society was like, “That’s settled law, these are just hysterical women.” Ben Sass said that we had screamed that women are going to die every year for forty years, because they forget women have died and did die. But here we are seven months later and all of these state legislators are acknowledging that these bills are designed to actually gut Roe and criminalize abortion—and they’re doing that now because they don’t know if they’ll have the White House in 2020, and they need to move fast.

The other thing that’s really interesting about this bill, and I think it’s very Trumpian… is that as they have undermined our fundamental freedoms, they’ve been very careful in their public communications about women—if they talk about women at all. They try not to talk about us at all, right? It’s all about the fetus, it’s all about the unborn children. They don’t talk about the women’s lives that are impacted. But if they’re forced to talk about us, they talk about us as victims. We’re victims of misinformation, we’re victims of the abortion industry. All of this stuff. But not anymore. What you see with these new laws is that women are perpetrators, and that is a radical shift from what they’ve kept their message for decades. And it’s kind of part and parcel of the deep, deep misogyny we’ve seen run through President Trump himself, but also a lot of these supporters that he’s brought into the political fold—like the men’s rights advocates, who were not politically active before they thought they found a champion in Trump.  

So it’s a really, really fascinating moment right now, to watch the evolution of theirmovement, and their overreach has even caused some national Republicans to go, “Woah, woah, woah.” Not actually because they disagree with the actual ideology, but because they’re acutely aware of the political fallout from having now allowed this radical fringe to take over their entire party.

“Why I think it’s happening now is because there has been a decades long strategy by the anti-choice movement to end up at a place where they outlaw and criminalize abortion across the country. The Kavanaugh confirmation was the final piece of the puzzle for them. “

AN: Wow, that was really insightful. I knew Kavanaugh was a moment, but it’s just spiraled so fast, right?

IH: I talk about Kavanaugh as a moment where women across the country were experiencing collective gaslighting. We’re so familiar with it in our personal lives, but this was a moment where literally, people in the highest orders of power in this country, were collectively gaslighting millions of women… But what we saw [from recent protests against these new abortion laws] was a massive outpouring of energy. That didn’t start because of last week. That was a movement that has been gaining steam since Kavanaugh, and powered us through the 2018 election, where we elected the most diverse class of women in the country’s history. And it’s not going to be stopped now, and we’re certainly not going to allow our fundamental freedoms to be stripped without a fight.

AN: This is maybe a basic question, but an important one. Why is choice absolutely integral to women’s economic and individual freedom?

IH: I think that [this question is] sometimes indicative of how we can be blind to those with less privilege, quite honestly. Because women of color, rural women, women with no money in their bank accounts, they know viscerally how trying not to get pregnant or facing an unintended pregnancy affects every single thing about their existence today, tomorrow, and in the future. An unplanned pregnancy can, and often does, force women to drop out of school; take unpaid time off where they have to choose between rent, food for their baby, diapers. Women can lose their jobs, lose the opportunity for advancement. It’s a visceral feeling of losing control of your life when you can’t control when and how and with whom you have families.

The idea that there is a divide between reproductive freedom, choice, abortion rights, and economic security is a device designed mostly by men and people with money—pretending the most fundamental decisions don’t impact everything in your life. The more we hear from those who are most affected, the more that the picture becomes crystal clear that being able to have children that we know we are capable of caring for, with partners that are supporting us, is the most crucial thing in our lives to make sure that we can provide for us and our families. And that’s why, honestly, the choice movement is not really the choice movement anymore—which was very specifically about this question of abortion, which is so central—but it’s really about reproductive freedom and justice, which is why organizations like [NARAL] advocate for everything from universal access to contraception all the way through paid parental leave. Because it’s all one system that has to support us when we’re trying not to get pregnant or facing an unintended pregnancy—and when we really, really want to parent, but our country doesn’t offer us adequate support systems to do so.

The same people that fight to criminalize abortion fight against policies that actually support and assist working moms and working families. They are truly committed to a system of patriarchy, and they’ve known forever that the best way to control women and keep them from power that is disproportionately, if not exclusively, enjoyed by men, for ages, is to control us through our reproduction.

The restrictions that they’ve been passing for a long time at state level amount to an all-out ban for women with no resources. In my home state of Texas, the restrictions on waiting time and the closing down of clinics just requires an insurmountable amount of resources for women who live far away, who don’t have money. We have to remember the majority of women seeking access to abortion are already mothers trying to take care of the families that they have. So you have to think about childcare, transportation, taking unpaid time off your job. What they’ve effectively done for poor women is put abortion out of reach for years and years and years.

What these new laws are doing is showing what their agenda has been the whole time, but they were not emboldened enough to say—which is to deny women any autonomy over our own reproductive decision making.

AN: Especially in times like these, we’re all urged to donate to groups like NARAL and other grassroots efforts on the ground in critical states. Why is this so important? What is the direct impact of our donations?

IH: It’s going to take a long time and a lot of different strategies to get us out of the situation that we’re in, and will continue to be in if they get their way. So, donating to organizations that actually provide direct funding for women to access abortion, like the Abortion Funds, is really important; donating to organizations who do the support work on the ground for these communities is really important; and donating to organizations like NARAL that have a long-term strategy to move legislation in the States, centralizing the well-being of women and families in our country [is important]. It’s going to take all of that to make this reality different than the one it is today.

AN: What role can companies play in all of this?

IH: More and more, both consumers and employees are expecting companies to take a stand on fundamental issues of human rights. We saw really important fights on LGBTQ issues and Civil Rights fights, and I think this fight is no exception. We just completed research that shows that in this moment, with everything going on, that employees and consumers want the companies that they buy from and work for to take a position on fundamental issues of reproductive freedom, includingabortion rights. The research shows this is true. It reinforces what we know: The support for Roe and access to abortion is a mainstream issue and 7 in 10 Americans believe in it, whether or not they think they themselves would do it. So, companies are going to come under more and more pressure to take a stand. And you could take a stand by making sure that your benefits package for your employees are the gold standard for reproductive health care and abortion care, [or] it can mean making sure that your message and values are conveyed to your consumer base.

AN: A broad question, but what can we all do, aside from donating—today, tomorrow, and longer term?

IH: There are three things that people can do. One is just have honest conversations with people you know about this stuff. Part of the way that we’ve gotten into this situation is that there is a radical minority that have bullied and intimidated the majority of people in this country into silence on these issues that we actually mostly agree on. So, speaking up. It sounds simple, but it’s actually so important. And you don’t have to have had an abortion to speak up, you can just talk about why it’s an issue of personal liberty, or having known someone who’s facing the decision, that you support it. More and more men are speaking up, and all of that is important.

The second thing to do is to know what’s going on, both in your state and federal legislature, and when they try to move this radical legislation, make your voices heard. Especially at the state level, because state legislators almost never have anyone paying attention to what they’re doing, and that’s how they get away with this stuff. So call your representatives.

And the final thing is, absolutely vote, but make clear why you’re voting. We have more and more people voting because they’re terrified of the Draconian laws that are affecting women. And  if we all raise our voices and say we’re voting forreproductive freedom, and against the oppression of women and the damaging consequences to their families, then I think we can change the political debate in this country. These issues were not partisan when we started talking about them – the first three states to legalize abortion pre-Roe were under Republican governors. That was due to issues of human rights and lack of government intervention in our personal decisions. It’s really a relatively recent phenomenon that these have become partisan issues, and the sooner that we get back to a place where anybody from any party understands that self determination, freedom to make our own decisions, and lack of government and political interference in our personal lives are commonly held American values—the sooner we will find justice.

This interview has been edited and condensed.