By Anna Coughlan, Advocacy and Communications Intern, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia
It’s Monday, 10:05 a.m. I am standing in a huge crowd at the Supreme Court, waiting for the ruling that could arrive any minute on Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.
Suddenly, a few young women near me start cheering and hugging each other. The excitement ripples outward from them like a wave, as more people lean over their phones and break out in celebration. I run over and ask one woman what has happened.
“We won!” she yells back, grinning. “They ruled 5 to 3! We won!”
On the morning of June 27, 2016, victory was announced for Whole Woman’s Health, an abortion provider in Texas and the plaintiff in this monumental, landmark case. This case was the biggest challenge to abortion access in 25 years. The Supreme Court ruled with a 5 to 3 majority to strike down restrictive Texas laws against abortion access. This ruling sets precedent against “TRAP” (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) across the United States. TRAP laws and restrictions exist in 24 states (including, yes, Virginia) and aim to shut down abortion clinics using sham regulations that force these clinics to convert into ambulatory surgical centers (i.e. mini hospitals, with all the costly amenities) and in many states doctors who provide abortions also need local hospital admitting privileges. In some states, including Texas and Virginia, even clinics that only administer a pill for a medical, non-surgical abortion need to meet hospital construction standards. These regulations have no basis in medical evidence or fact, and were designed solely to target and shut down abortion providers. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg addressed it best in her concurring opinion with the morning’s ruling: “Many medical procedures, including childbirth, are far more dangerous to patients, yet are not subject to ambulatory surgical-center or hospital admitting-privileges requirements…Given those realities, it is beyond rational belief that H.B. 2 could genuinely protect the health of women, and certain that the law ‘would simply make it more difficult for them to obtain abortions.’”
TRAP caused the number of clinics in Texas to drop from 41 abortion clinics to only 18 to serve 5.4 million women of reproductive age (Had H.B.2 gone into full effect, the number would have dropped even more to 10 abortion clinics). Now that the court has ruled against TRAP, clinics in Texas that closed down because of these regulations will be able to re-open. The ruling also sets precedent across the United States, and will be hugely helpful to pro-choice activists who will continue working to dissemble TRAP and similar regulations in other states. While the change of regulations will not occur overnight, it sends a powerful message that it is unconstitutional to use sham restrictions in order to bar women from accessing their legal right to obtain an abortion.
I was proud to be one of the hundreds of Americans who rallied, danced, cheered, and celebrated at the Supreme Court on the morning this decision was handed down. It was an amazing experience to witness, on a day that will be remembered throughout history.
The rally in front of the Supreme Court was already huge by the time I arrived at 8 a.m. this Monday, June 27th. A huge number of activists from Planned Parenthood, Whole Woman’s Health, and NARAL (America, Virginia, and Maryland offices) were present, as well as individuals unaffiliated with these organizations who are passionate about reproductive justice. Activists held signs in the air and cheered “When women’s rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up! Fight back!” The vast majority of those at the rally were there to support Whole Woman’s Health, with a small anti-choice group huddled to the side clutching black and white signs. Many of the demonstrators were young women like myself, but throughout the crowd a range of age, ethnicity, and gender was represented.
The rally’s music was audible from blocks away, and the pro-choice crowd danced and sang along to every upbeat jam from “The Cupid Shuffle” to “Flawless.” Anti-choice protestors tried to yell their chants between songs, but were quickly drowned out by the next feminist power-ballad. But at no point during the morning was music more powerful than once we achieved victory, and the 5-3 ruling was announced. Realizing they had lost, the anti-choice crowd cobbled together a hasty chant, shouting “Women lost today” at the rejoicing crowd. But the music started again at full volume— “We Are The Champions” by Queen. Before this day, I had always considered the song to be pretty silly. But today, it felt powerful. I was standing among champions for reproductive rights, women who have fought long and hard, who have seen setback after setback, and kept on going. Women who have been insulted with sham restrictions targeting their right to access, who have been called “baby killers” by shrieking crowds, who have climbed uphill through a system entrenched in sexism. And, on this day, we were victorious.
Is the fight over? Not in the slightest. There’s still so much work to do to make abortion truly safe, legal, and accessible throughout the U.S. And even though most clinics that closed in Texas will be legally allowed to re-open, the immense cost and labor involved in re-opening a clinic means it will likely be a while until Texas recovers from H.B.2. But, in this moment, we got to celebrate a huge victory that will have ramifications for years to come, giving us more power than ever to stand up for what we know is right. The crowd sang loudly and I sang along, giddy with excitement, the vibration of the song thrumming in my lungs.
The celebration reignited a few minutes later, as Whole Woman’s Health founder and CEO Amy Hagstrom Miller emerged from the Supreme Court building and appeared at the top of the steps. She descended toward the crowd, waving and grinning broadly, and was met with a resounding cheer—“Amy! Amy! Amy!”
She arrived at the press podium, accompanied by Nancy Northup, the President and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which provided legal representation for Whole Woman’s Health during the case. Nancy spoke with passion, calling this day’s victory a “reinvigoration and reaffirmation of the promise of Roe v. Wade for future generations.” Amy matched her passion, saying she was “beyond elated,” but reminding her listeners that “a win doesn’t mean the struggle is over” and urging for the passage of proactive state-level laws to protect abortion access.
As these women concluded their speeches, the rally began to wind down. Small groups of activists and friends began walking home, pressed near each other and chatting giddily about the excitement and promise of the day’s victory. On our way to the Metro, my own small cluster, noticeable in our matching purple NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia shirts and toting signs, were stopped a few times by passers-by on the street who asked what had happened at the Court that morning. As tired, sunburnt, and sore as we were from the day, we were all too happy to stop and explain the morning’s victory. Those who we talked to congratulated us, asked to take our pictures, and matched our enthusiasm for this vindication of reproductive rights.
There’s still more to do. I’m back in the office the day after this ruling, working with the NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia staff to continue addressing the myriad barriers to reproductive health access that still remain in Virginia. But when the world of activism can seem like an uphill battle, victories like this remind me why I hope to commit my life to fighting for social change. Because days like this prove that thousands of activist are changing the face of history every day, and the work they do has an impact felt across the nation. To be able to witness this impact just for a few hours was an experience I’ll never forget.