Kansas-based Elise Higgins is a state policy expert and reproductive rights and justice movement leader. In conversation with Convergence’s Maikiko James, she highlights the critical need for state-level organizing; movement models for community care; and the centrality of reproductive justice.
Maikiko James: Let’s jump in and talk about the reproductive rights landscape and the work ahead. Where should we focus our organizing, given the current context?
Elise Higgins: To start, we should not abandon states and localities as places of organizing. We get seduced by the celebrity of Congress and the White House, but as long as the filibuster exists there is no compelling reason to sink resources into most DC fights when there’s enormous room to change culture at state and local levels. In the last decade and with the establishment of the Tea Party, we saw state legislatures become conservative super-majorities, which ushered in the first wave of anti-abortion policies, even in purple states, and we didn’t invest there in state legislative or electoral fights. As a result, terrible policies spread across the Midwest and South, chipping away at the right to abortion week by week, caveat by caveat, waiting period by waiting period.
MJ: What kind of framework shift do we need to go along with this shift in focus?
EH: People organizing on abortion rights in divested-from places now often operate with a scarcity mindset. Many of these reproductive rights organizations, particularly Planned Parenthood affiliates, are white-led and have made the mistake of an extreme narrowness of scope, focusing on defense, abortion, and contraception above all else.
That’s been the case with mainstream reproductive rights organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL for decades; massive, well resourced, white-led, federally focused, and utterly disconnected from the reproductive justice framework until recently–and only then because the Black and Brown women leading reproductive justice organizations dragged them into a more righteous and comprehensive analysis. Here we are now: Roe has fallen, and we’re learning lessons in some ways right on time, but in some ways a half-century too late. Black women and Black trans folk have been trying to teach us about reproductive justice models for a very long time. We finally have an opportunity to build a better movement with more radical goals.
Reproductive justice is also a deeply socialist framework rooted in multinational human rights values, not just US values. It’s about a vision of a state that supports people however they want to have and create a family and however they want to engage with their bodies and sexualities. There are deep intersections between trans rights and reproductive justice – bodily autonomy, pleasure, self-determination – and our enemies are the same, with one white Christian nationalist agenda.
MJ: How has the Right been winning in the culture war on this issue?
EH: One way the Right is winning is they’re co-opting being pro-family and pro-baby. The professional Left has for decades failed to name the racism in anti-family policies aimed at poor Black and brown people. The movement did not show up to the Supreme Court battle over welfare family caps, did not show up to the Supreme Court battle over Medicaid funding for abortion. WOC led organizations have been showing up, but we, the Left, have not had a loud race-forward lens on family formation, on policies that separate families. The Right, using the tools of white supremacy, claim the moral high ground. When in fact, they use every possible win to make it more difficult to have a family if you are not white, middle class, able bodied, etc.
This Congress, because of conservatives, won’t give us a single day of paid family leave, but because the feminist left has not brought as much power to bear on that issue, living wages, Medicare for all, assistive reproductive technologies, or family caps on welfare for example, we find ourselves unable to mount a convincing counter case.
Another way the Right has won culturally is that they pretend that being religious means you have to oppose abortion and queer and trans rights. That couldn’t be further from the truth, and in fact the coalescence of evangelical Christian and Catholic church leadership around abortion and queer and trans rights is a relatively new political phenomenon begun in the 1980s to ensure conservative political dominance and provide an issue that was seen as more acceptable to talk about than integration.
It’s been fantastic to see Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and other religious leaders speak out about the necessity of abortion rights. That’s far more historically accurate than what the Right presents as an unbroken line of misogyny; the Clergy Consultation Network, which is now the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, ensured that people who needed abortions pre-Roe in the U.S. could travel to receive one.
MJ: What can we learn from Left movements about building on-the-ground infrastructure to support people?
EH: We have very good models from Left movements of the 1960s and ‘70s about how to build community-based infrastructure, about how to build with resources from the state but not become completely reliant on the state. Particularly gay men were able to construct health centers dealing with sexual health issues in LA and Boston and other major cities, which eventually got absorbed in national infrastructure, but this was all occurring prior to the AIDS pandemic.
Similarly, lesbians were getting people access to reproductive technology and helping people have babies; they were sperm runners in San Francisco, genuinely delivering sperm via bike! They established the Northern California Sperm Bank, which was deeply inclusive from its founding and had no restrictions around gender or race.
The Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement taught us not only about community-provided primary health care but all kinds of provisions of social goods like food and safety, and the National Network of Abortion Funds draws on some of those lessons about practical support.
MJ: How is this reflected today?
EH: Each state has at least one abortion fund that operates on some version of a mutual aid model and ensures access for people in that state; there are also practical support organizations that supplement funds by arranging transit, childcare, and housing. Organizations are different based on state and capacity, and we’re going to need foundations to put much more money into these organizations and movements.
Here’s an important note though: not everybody will be able to get transit to abortion care in another state. Working-class Black, Latinx, and Native folks, incarcerated people, minors-those folks are where we need to focus, because they are the most likely to be stranded in their states and forced to continue pregnancies they can’t or don’t want to continue. That has unacceptable consequences; one is that we know that maternal mortality, particularly among Black folks, will increase.
From 2019 until very recently, I was VP of the Kansas Abortion Fund, a good organization doing pretty basic abortion funding that’s just moved to giving the Kansas abortion clinics with whom we partner a monthly block grant. We used to focus on individual patients, but now because clinics are so inundated with Texas and Oklahoma patients, clinic staff understandably don’t have the capacity to clear every patient with us one at a time, and we trust them to ensure folks who need assistance receive it.
Speaking of access in Kansas, there have been times in the past year when at least one Kansas clinic was seeing so many Texans that they had to refer Kansans and Missourians to Southern Illinois and other locations. We are volunteer-run, and there’s a lot of room to envision its role if we had funding for staff – we could be providing more practical support, there’s room for the creation of a hotline where folks could get accurate info about abortion. I’m excited to see what the possibilities are there.
There are still going to be self-managed abortions using Misoprostol and Mifepristone—that’s usually just called “Self-Managed Abortion”—and people who won’t know if their self-managed abortion has been effective. We know Misoprostol and Mifepristone are extremely effective and unlikely to present complications, but sometimes people will need access to health care around them, and as we’ve seen in the case of Lizelle Herrera, it can be extremely dangerous to present at any medical institution and talk about what’s going on in your body particularly if you are Black or brown or poor.
We’re going to need infrastructure on the ground where abortion has become illegal to address things like miscarriage management and medication abortion follow up. We’ll increasingly need to turn to cities as locations where we build out access. Austin has built out a lot and the state of Texas has attempted to punish them and curtail their capacity, but we’ve seen what’s possible at the city level. We’ve also seen local ordinances attempting to restrict access to abortion in a number of states like Ohio , where some cities are passing ordinances emulating Texas policies.
We need funding locally to organizations that are multiracial, led by Black and Brown folks. One of the reasons we’ve failed is that we’ve focused almost exclusively on the ability to end a pregnancy, and not the other two tenets of reproductive justice, the ability to get pregnant and to parent children in a safe and healthy environment. Those rights have also been decimated, but the Right has co-opted being pro-child and pro-family.
MJ: Where is the Left missing? Or where are we showing up and could be adding more support?
EH: The Indian Child Welfare Act is one example of how we can show up better. In the 1960s and ‘70s there was not only a scourge of sterilization for Indigenous people, there was racist paternalistic policy specifically around the mass removal of Native children to be adopted by non-Native families. Congress passed the ICWA 41 years ago, and it said basically we have to exhaust all other resources before placing Native children in a non-Native household.
Since then, the Right has worked really hard to depict Native parents as irresponsible, as savages, old, old harmful stereotypes, and has succeeded in bringing a case before the Supreme Court called Brackeen v. Haaland. It is going to challenge the inherent right of tribes to be involved in child welfare issues surrounding their children, and tribes’ right keep Native children with Native families.
It also deals with an issue that we haven’t addressed on the Left, which is that Native nations have sovereignty and their own governing systems. We have to understand and respect those systems. This is all part of the reproductive justice movement. We know that the Right wants to see the growth of more homogeneous white, middle class, Christian families, they don’t want to see more indigenous, Black, and Brown working class families, and so we need to show up around supreme court cases, do education, do culture change work, and pressure the court to the extent that that’s possible.
The broader Left also needs to embrace reproductive justice as a mass movement issue that folks can and do and will get activated on, like union rights, like abolition. In fact, the issues are inextricable. There is no economic justice without the right to determine whether, when, and how you parent. There is no abolition if health care providers can refer patients to cops for arrest because they self-managed their own abortion or had a miscarriage or used drugs during pregnancy. We’ve talked a lot about nonprofit movement work, and that has a role and can be done effectively, but only mass movement for liberation that’s accessible, inspiring, and not controlled by any one organization, will rip out the roots of oppression and create a better world.
I wanted to note an organization from the ‘70s, the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (CARASA), who really exemplified a lot of left ideals for RJ—they adopted parts of the Young Lords’ platforms and actively opposed the Hyde amendment. They looked at gender oppression as both connected to and separate from racial and class-based oppression, and they really centered folks who were at the margins. If we can genuinely do that, that is the way forward. If we can keep that in mind, and not just do what’s expedient, that’s how we will win.
MJ: And that is the contradiction, right, because of the perceived urgency, there is an impulse towards “expedient” right now—but these issues have always been urgent in this way.
EH: Growing our ability to move with our contradictions is important. And I’m still working on holding urgency while not letting my behavior or thinking be dominated by it. Kansas is in a fight around a constitutional amendment, our state supreme court is moderate to liberal for the most part, six to one, and affirmed the right to abortion in our constitution. The Right put forward an amendment that there is no constitutional right to abortion that’s getting voted on in the upcoming primary election Aug. 2.
If we lose, and the Legislature acts as we suspect it will, abortion will become illegal in Kansas. If we win, we’ll be one of very few states in our region where the right to abortion is still protected. The fight is going to be close because of voter suppression and spending by the Kansas Conference of Catholic Bishops, and it is in fact very urgent, even as reproductive justice writ large is incredibly urgent as well.
MJ: Where can we learn more about the amendment?