On the day Roe v Wade was overturned, longtime reproductive justice activist Renee Bracey Sherman joined thousands of demonstrators in front of the supreme court as they processed the news.
The mood was one of profound sadness, shock and disbelief, she said. Even though pro-choice activists had known this day was coming, it marked a stunning moment of loss for organizers who had spent decades fighting for abortion rights.
The day before the decision, Bracey Sherman, the founder of We Testify, an organization that shares stories of abortion, argued in a column in The Nation that police and law enforcement have long hampered the abortion rights movement – and that they would have a dramatically expanded role in a post-Roe world where abortion is widely criminalized.
Citing police abuse of abortion rights demonstrators at rallies, officers failing to stop the harassment of patients by anti-abortion activists, instances of mistreatment of pregnant people in custody and the surveillance and prosecutions of people who have experienced pregnancy loss, she wrote: “Where abortion is a crime, state officials will be responsible for enforcing the law, and that duty will fall primarily to the police – the very police who now support and foster anti-abortion harassment of patients.”
The Guardian spoke to Bracey Sherman on Monday about the protests, and why she believes “you can’t support Roe v Wade and then turn around and say we need to give the police more money”. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You wrote in The Nation about the chaos at anti-abortion protests in New York earlier this month. What was it like at the supreme court on Friday?
People were upset and angry. They were crying. It did feel beautiful to be around so many people who care. It felt like this swirling of grief and sadness, but also love from being with our people, and hope seeing people rise up. But it was scary.
One anti-abortion protester followed me around and filmed me. There were a lot of young white men, anti-abortion protesters, harassing and taunting us. One man saw my “I had an abortion” shirt and told his young son, “She’s a murderer.” When I told the son, “Your dad’s a white supremacist,” the dad said, “Did you see how she ratcheted this up? Do you see how they respond? Did you see how angry they get?” As I walked away, he taunted me more. It was a reminder of how much hate, violence and denigration of Black and brown people is taught from a father to a son.
Then there were the police who came out with their riot gear in full force. It was violent and intimidating. You look up and there were snipers at the top of the supreme court with guns pointed at us. The police were not standing between us and the anti-abortion protesters who were taunting us, and they weren’t making sure the counterprotesters weren’t harming us. Police were standing with their backs to the court, because they were there to protect the court.
Of course, then came the videos about police arresting and beating protesters over the weekend. I’m Black, this is nothing new to me. I’m used to police going from zero to sixty. At these protests, every little thing you do can be misconstrued or used as an excuse to incite violence toward you as a protester. Seeing those videos made me think, “This is the history of abortion.”
Can you tell me more about what you mean when you say “this is the history of abortion”?
When abortion is a crime, police and prosecutors investigate people. In the 1920s, 30s and 40s, when authorities were doing a lot of clinic raids, they had people who had abortions on their deathbeds in the hospitals and said “You’re dying. I need you to tell me what happened. Tell me who this was.” Prosecutors basically held threats of jail against them if they didn’t testify against their providers. Our nation has also always allowed incarcerated people to be shackled while giving birth. That feels really symbolic about what’s next. That police will be at the bedside, not of everyone, but of the people who are most marginalized.
The anti-abortion movement today claims it is only targeting providers. They say, “We never want to prosecute the women who have abortions.” But it’s bullshit. People have been prosecuted for years. Just in April, a woman was arrested in Texas and charged with murder for an abortion – even though that murder statute did not allow it. People have been arrested for allegations and self-managing their abortions back in 2014 and 2015. Don’t forget, we are the providers when we self-manage our abortions.
With Roe overturned, how will we see law enforcement’s reach expanding?
I’m really worried for people who may suffer some sort of stillbirth, miscarriage or self-manage their abortion. They go to the hospital. The clinician, nurse, counselor, whoever’s taking care of them, asks, “What did you take?” The patients will answer, trying to just be honest with their doctor, because they think it’s covered by the provider-patient confidentiality. Well, then, maybe that provider turns around and decides to tell a police officer because they don’t believe in abortion.
We have horrific maternal health outcomes in this country, particularly for Black and brown people, and pregnancies can go wrong at any moment. Let’s say someone is at the hospital and is internalizing the stigma or grief and says, “This is my fault.” It will be police’s job to be suspicious and investigate. Is that really a miscarriage? And now you’re facing murder charges.
You’ve also made the argument that because of the history of police and prosecutors in criminalizing abortion, abortion rights advocates today should break up with the police. Can you explain that?
There’ve been times when large national reproductive rights organizations have welcomed police at their events, thanking them for protecting them. There have been large national reproductive rights organizations that have opened new clinics near to the offices of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice), hoping to reach more undocumented folks and Black and brown folks that way.
Such decisions tell me that those organizations don’t understand how violent police and the military can be towards Black and brown or undocumented people. For years, Ice used to hang outside of free family planning clinics, because they knew that’s where undocumented people would go to get birth control, pap smears and wellness checkups. And so they were hanging out there, hoping that they could round people up.
At the same time, I know some clinics have chosen to work with police to protect their staff. And I don’t pretend to know what it is like to go work inside of a clinic and be an abortion provider, with threats on your life every single day. But it makes me wonder how we create a health care system where people who need abortions, and who may have been stopped or harassed by a police officer the day before, don’t have to see what might be an off duty police officer when they walk up to the clinic.
You’ve argued for a link between your battle for abortion rights and the ideas of the defund the police movement.
Yes, for all of those reasons, I think that the reality is we shouldn’t trust the police to “keep us safe”.
There are a lot of people within the pro-choice movement that turn away when the Democratic party continues to give untold sums of money to police. When Joe Biden in his State of the Union did not say the word “abortion” but did say “fund the police” three times, he sent a message. You can’t say you believe in Roe v Wade and then turn around and say we need to give the police more money. We could take money from police budgets and invest it in schools, sex education, clinics, healthcare, abortion funds – and also free baby formula, diapers, free lunches, housing for children, all of these basic needs that should be a “pro-life” priority.
White liberals love to argue what a bad slogan “defund the police” is, but I wish they’d stop complaining about the words that we use, and actually focus on the thing that we’re telling you is happening. Do those people understand that with Roe overturned, the police – the ones that you have given tanks to, that you have given more rifles to, that you have given free rein to beat people – will be the ones who arrest and surveil people for their pregnancies?
White women in the reproductive rights movement have fantasized about heading to The Handmaid’s Tale land and Gilead for so long, that they’ve forgotten that in the story, there were white women at the helm who helped and supported the increased militarization because it wasn’t happening to them. White women have looked away as more and more money was given to police to surveil and corral Black and brown communities. People really have to take a hard look in the mirror about where our society is going. Stop fantasizing about The Handmaid’s Tale, and actually look around to what is happening to your neighbors, and to the people on the other side of your communities.
The anti-abortion movement is just the political arm of the white supremacist movement – it grew out of the backlash to the civil rights movement. A congresswoman this week said the overturning of Roe was a “victory for white life”. White supremacist groups openly marched at the anti-abortion March for Life. It’s just going to get worse from here. In the National Right to Life’s model legislation, they want to criminalize people who explain how to get an abortion. They want people prosecuted for crossing state lines to get an abortion. And some are calling for a national ban on abortion.