We have nothing if we don’t have solidarity

What the abortion rights movement can teach us about killing zombies

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Archival New York Times clip

Religious leaders aren’t typically the heroes of abortion stories, but in 1967 a group of mostly Protestant ministers and Jewish rabbis formed the Clergymen’s Consultation Service on Abortion (CCS) to help people receive legal abortions in the days before Roe v. Wade. These remarkable clergymen “turned religious spaces into sanctuaries for abortion,” according to scholar Gillian Frank, and helped some 250,000 women safely access abortion care in the face of Catholic leaders’ demonization of the procedure. 

I had the opportunity to hear Frank present on Tuesday in Cambridge, Mass., at ComstockCon, a remarkable day-long conference about abortion held at Harvard Law School that brought together academics, activists and journalists to discuss the dire threats to abortion access. The event’s name references the Comstock Act of 1873, named for Anthony Comstock, a late 19th century United States Postal Inspector and anti-vice crusader hellbent on preventing anything he considered “obscene” to be sent via mail—including medication that could be used for an abortion. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions rendered it unenforceable with regard to abortifacients, basically making it a zombie law. 

The problem, however, with antiquated, draconian laws is that they are still laws. And that means if newer Supreme Court decisions can be applied, rules drawn up by long-dead politicians can still be used to enforce a modern-day agenda. That’s exactly what some Republicans have set out to do with Comstock since Roe was overturned in 2022. Soon, this zombie may rise. 

“Given that Comstock is still on the books, however, a future anti-abortion presidential administration could use it to effectively put an end to abortion and miscarriage management nationwide,” the nonprofit groups Healthcare Across Borders, Take Back the Court Action Fund, UltraViolet Action wrote in a memo to Congress on Tuesday, “because if abortion providers cannot use the mail or express services to obtain pills, equipment, and supplies, clinics and abortion provision would become practically impossible.”

The point of ComstockCon wasn’t to scare us into fighting for abortion rights, or even to formulate a plan to overturn the Comstock Act (though the wheels are already in motion for that.) What emerged from the day was further confirmation that abortion does not exist in a vacuum, because no struggle does. Multiple speakers referenced the protests against genocide in Gaza and Harvard’s student encampment a few minutes away; anti-blackness and racism undergirded every panel; and numerous links were made to trans liberation and health care. And by the end of the day, one thing was clear: The most powerful tool for protecting and expanding abortion rights—and all human rights—is through solidarity. 

Renee Bracey Sherman and an actor playing the ghost of Comstock

The Clergymen’s Consultation Service on Abortion’s spokesperson was Rev. Howard R. Moody, pastor at Judson Memorial Baptist Church, which still exists today. The church bordering Washington Square Park in Manhattan is just two short blocks from NYU’s Gould Plaza, the site of the school’s recent anti-genocide protests where cops violently arrested student and faculty protesters.

Jamil Dakwar, an adjunct professor at NYU and human rights lawyer who witnessed the scene, described cops arresting an old man with a dog who just happened to be walking by the protest. Learning about Rev. Moody and covering these weeks of student protests, I now imagine him walking down the block for an evening stroll and encountering the protest. Would he see in the protesters the shared fight for freedom? Would he join their fight, too?

The 21 clergymen who comprised the original CCS didn’t need abortions. That struggle was not their struggle: rather, they chose to make it their struggle because they understood the power they wielded not just in their communities, but in the eyes of the government. Were the cops really gonna go after a nice, white Christian man? Even if he was helping a woman obtain a procedure that was in many cases illegal?

ComstockCon laid bare how abortion access has always been conditional for many people, and that we finally have all eyes on this crisis because the effects of overturning Roe reached the one group who didn’t have to worry much about it before: white women. The fall of Roe “democratized the criminalization and policing of sex, sexuality and reproduction,” Berkeley Law Professor Khiara M. Bridges said in her remarks at the conference, and is raising alarm because now “white women are being criminalized.” 

Abortion storyteller and activist Renee Bracey Sherman shared similar sentiments, pointing out how President Biden is only elevating one very specific type of abortion story: white, married women with a wanted pregnancy who need an abortion because of a medical exception. It’s the type of story highlighted in his recent campaign ad, “Willow’s Box.”

Isolating married white women with exceptions as the prime victims of anti-abortion laws is quite the opposite of solidarity, the conference speakers agreed: It elevates them above the poor and Black and Brown and queer and disabled and immigrant women who faced barriers to terminating pregnancies well before Roe fell.

They’re also the people who’ve been doing the bulk of the work on the ground, very often with shoestring budgets. And they’re the ones who will be primarily hurt if the Comstock Act comes back to life. As multiple conference speakers emphasized, Comstock himself disproportionately went after immigrants and Jews for indecency, and this go-round by Christian Nationalists is unlikely to be much different.

Old ads for black market abortifacients

After the post-conference reception wrapped up on Tuesday, I tried to catch the last glimpses of daylight setting on Harvard Yard. (For all I’ve talked about the undue focus on Harvard these past few months, even I can admit that it really is a beautiful place to visit.) But as I approached the main gates, I saw a security checkpoint with campus police checking IDs for entry. I was forced to admire it from the outside while a small group of students milled about nearby. They’d been part of the university’s anti-genocide encampment and just that day had reached an agreement with the administration to disband. One student told me they’d spent the last few hours outside the gates celebrating. 

Stumbling upon this scene didn’t jolt me out of the day-long focus on abortion, but rather felt like a natural extension. The adult professionals at the conference and the kids at the encampment were all dreaming of a better world and actively working to make it possible. I though of what writer and panelist Andrea Grimes asked a few hours earlier during her discussion with historian Jules Gill-Peterson: “How do you break out of the mindset that compliance is more fulfilling than solidarity?” I walked away from the day feeling even more steadfast in my belief that linking arms, and not retreating to our corners, is the path forward.

On Wednesday, students at the University of California Irvine weren’t lucky enough to get a peaceful resolution to their protest. According to the LA Times, “In another dramatic campus showdown, hundreds of police officers in riot gear descended on a pro-Palestinian encampment at UC Irvine in an hours-long siege that led to dozens of arrests.”

As I searched across social media for footage from the violent scene, I found a video of a white man in a covid mask and keffiyeh who was handcuffed and being dragged away by police. He identified himself as a member of the UAW 4811 union to the TV reporter questioning him, and was identified by some on social media as a faculty member.

“You felt like it was important to the demonstration to get arrested yourself?” the reporter asks him. “Yes, sir,” he replies. “Why’s that?” the reporter follows up. After a moment he replies” “We have nothing if we don’t have solidarity.”

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