Perhaps no topic has hung heavier over progressives’ minds during this year’s Netroots Nation than access to abortion.
I chose to spend some time on Thursday at a panel titled Dobbs and Roe: Queer, Gender-Expansive Visions for Abortion Care, featuring an all LGBTQAI+ panel, where they discussed the broader impacts of abortion access through the lens of queerness and disability.
Jessica Semler, activist, former Public Defense Director at Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, and first openly LGBTQ member of the Etna Borough Council in 2020, moderated the panel. The panel also featured Cori Fraser, a disabled, nonbinary social worker and co-founder of the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, and La’Tasha D. Mayes, former president and CEO of New Voices for Reproductive Justice, an organization centering on women, femmes, and gender-expansive folks, and current Democratic nominee for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives District 24.
The panel was quick to name the perils posed by the Dobbs decision, and noted that these perils existed long before Roe or Casey.
Mayes pointed out that marginalized folks have long had to rely on systems “that were never meant to protect Black or gender-expansive people.” This, she says, has led to an over-reliance on constitutional rights and laws to save us, when we need to be putting our focus on human rights. And the “right to reproductive justice, the right to control bodies, gender, and the right to form families” are very much some of the human rights Mayes’ organization centers.
“We saw Roe was coming to an end,” she said, speaking of those who work in human rights-rooted reproductive justice work. “But none of us were prepared for that moment. It sent shockwaves through the nation.”
She also brought attention to the ways language uplifts and damages the movement. In the light of conservative furor over using terminology such as “people who can become pregnant” as opposed to “women,” her points are timely and welcome.
“When we say ‘a woman’s right to choose,’” she says, “not every woman is an abortion seeker, and not every woman has a choice.”
Fraser drew the connection between abortion access and queer healthcare. In Pennsylvania, they said, many of the abortion care providers are also transgender care providers.
“Lots of trans folks are not able to access hormones since there’s an increased demand from folks in less abortion-friendly states coming [to Pennsylvania] needing care,” they said.
They went on to talk about those “attacking abortion rights through the lens of disability.” An example they used was the controversy surrounding a patient’s decision to terminate a pregnancy if the fetus was identified to have Down’s syndrome.
“And what I say to that,” they said, “is that we have to protect the abortion rights of women with Down’s syndrome. If we limit abortion there, we are limiting the rights of those with disabilities who can become pregnant.”
They also identified the ways in which abortion care is inextricable from queer rights, particularly for trans people.
Abortion access, they said, “is part of a larger puzzle, of an attack on bodily autonomy.”
“This is coming at the same time as attacks on trans rights,” they continued, citing the recent flurry of Republican-sponsored bills limiting access to puberty suppressors and gender-affirming care.
“There’s abortion and there’s trans care, and there’s LGBTQ marital rights, and rights to chosen family. All are part of a bigger strategy to create a very controlled, carceral world,” they said. “We don’t live single-issue lives. We have to address them all simultaneously.”
Semler turned the panel towards a discussion about the common call from Democrats in the wake of the Dobbs decision, which have amounted to more calls to vote. She said that this messaging has been disillusioning to young and marginalized voters who have been voting, often diligently, yet are still not getting their needs met by state and federal level officials.
Mayes responded by saying that voting is neither the first nor last step, but a strategy that must be “integrated with community organizing.” We can’t be asking people to organize or volunteer, she continued, if they “don’t have food to eat or a place to live.”
Fraser concurs, adding: “As we’re organizing, we’re trying to get people in the center, we’re trying to get them to value human lives and…they don’t.”
Semler then pivoted the panel to discuss the pitfalls of the common Democratic response following the Dobbs decision, which were increased calls to vote. This, she said, can be disillusioning to young, marginalized voters who have been voting, often in sizeable numbers, yet are still not having their needs met by state officials.
Mayes said that voting is neither the first nor last step, but one strategy that must be “integrated with community organizing.” She goes on to say that we can’t ask people to organize if they have nothing to eat and nowhere to live.
She calls advocates to ask: “How are we supporting our abortion funds? How are we making sure we’re volunteering to get people where they need to be?”
Fraser mentioned that one of their areas of focuses is mutual aid. There was a popular meme going around social media of folks offering to take their friends “camping,” but this, they said, isn’t enough.
“We have to build systems where we support each other outside of the government,” they said.
They offered an example of a recent workshop in the greater Pittsburgh area showing people how to do things such as accessing plan B.
“Having a plan that is not ‘the Dems are going to save us…’ if we could all just do that, things would be so much better.”
Mayes laid out several points Democrats could be advocating for in order to help bring abortion access to those who need it the most.
“We need to be training more healthcare providers to provide abortions,” she said. She called out Medicaid for not covering abortions, saying that there needs to be a way to get taxpayer dollars to support abortion care, trans care, and health care in general.
And there needs to be more support from white people.
“The face of the reproductive rights movement is white women. But it’s black women who have supported your right to control your body,” Mayes explained. She encouraged white solidarity, so that “Black and brown folks can take a breath, take a rest. It would be nice to take a rest. But we don’t get that.”
The session wrapped up with a brief Q&A, where an audience member asked the panelists how they respond during coalition-building when it comes to those who allow abortion to be “pushed aside” as a necessary value to come under “the big tent.”
“That’s why Roe was overturned,” Mayes said. “We weren’t willing to fight for it as our core issue on all levels.
Fraser agreed. “Good coalition-building starts with values,” they said. “If abortion isn’t on that list of values, what are you doing?”
The energy of the conversation was focused, passionate, and urgent. It is clear that the Republican party is relentless in their efforts to rob people of their inalienable human rights. Abortion access isn’t an issue that can wait–people need help now. But it cannot move forward without centering those that need abortions the most.
“I don’t know anybody talking to disabled people,” Fraser, at one point in the discussion, said. “[There are] Autistic adults, many of whom need reproductive care, and they’re not getting care. Why?”
“Let’s find the people nobody thinks are white enough, straight enough, cis enough, because we’re here.”