jessica pielko and robin marty

The Rumpus Interview with Jessica Mason Pieklo and Robin Marty

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This summer, the ever-roiling storm that is the American clash over abortion rights touched down in Texas. An omnibus anti-abortion bill that threatened most of the mammoth state’s abortion clinics was met with a challenge, a populist demonstration nicknamed the “feminist army” and an epic filibuster that went viral as 180,000 people tuned in to watch it on livestream. We all stood, hollered, or tweeted, with State Senator Wendy Davis.

But Texas is not the only state where this same kind of assault on women’s rights—and energized grassroots response—has occurred. Ohio passed a budget that decimated abortion access. At the same time, Texas Republicans cooly reintroduced and passed the very bill that had been filibustered by Davis, over the cries of the reassembled throng. And in North Carolina, a new bill restricting abortion was tucked into a motorcycle safety law of all things. One by one, underhanded and draconian proposals—many of which would effectively ban abortion for large swaths of each state’s population—inspired their own populist protests before they got rammed through anyway. “It’s a pretty dramatic thing that’s happening to American women right now,” said Rachel Maddow on her broadcast last week, clearly appalled at the way abortion rights are falling like dominoes.

So what’s the reasoning behind all the uterus-focused bills? And why, even when they get struck down by the courts, as Wisconsin’s recently did, is that okay with their proponents? “These attacks are designed to do two things,” says feminist journalist Jessica Mason Pieklo. “One, prompt a challenge to Roe v. Wade. And two, while working on repealing Roe, regulate abortion out of existence.”

Pieklo and Robin Marty, who both write for RH Reality Check, among other places, have been covering this alarming pattern on the legal, social, and political front. They pooled their knowledge to write a book on exactly what we’re witnessing now. Crow After Roe, whose title is a pointed, provocative analogy to the Jim Crow era, dissects the whys, hows, and the what-should-we-do’s of this state-by-state rollback. “The result here is a two-tiered system of delivering health care that is separate and unequal,” says Pieklo. “Like other forms of institutionalized discrimination, this impacts certain communities the worst: poor women, women of color, and rural women.”

Jessica, Robin, and I all tore ourselves away from following the latest votes and protests in these battleground states to talk about the doggedness of anti-choice political forces, why outraged citizens are finally speaking out so vigorously this summer, and why two writers/moms decided to devote so much time to creating a book defending legalized abortion.

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The Rumpus: I feel like most of us in the feminist community have written the same article about twenty million times since the rise of the Tea Party. The headline is always something like “Dangerous New Abortion Bill Passes State House”—whether it’s a proposal to shut down clinics by regulating them to death, ban later abortions due to alleged “fetal pain” concerns, or hurt family planning by defunding providers. How and why do these bills keep coming down the pipeline so rapidly in so many states?

Robin Marty: These bills are model bills, created and shaped for specific states for specific reasons, then replicated. It’s the McDonald’s of anti-choice legislation. Once it works somewhere, they franchise it. The first “fetal pain” ban was drafted by National Right to Life Committee. Americans United for Life has become known for their model bills, but now more political groups and even fringe groups are getting their game on. For instance, the Susan B. Anthony List says their mission is to elect “pro-life women,” but they also write “defund Planned Parenthood” model bills. And the latest “heartbeat” six-week abortion ban—that means no abortions after six weeks of pregnancy—was drafted and submitted by Operation Rescue, your favorite group of clinic protesters and abortion doctor-killer supporters.

Jessica Mason Pieklo: They know these bills will get challenged in court. So they ask: can they get the federal courts to disagree on how to interpret the law? If so, it can compel the Supreme Court to take the case for review. We’re seeing that now with SCOTUS considering whether it will enter the mandatory ultrasound debate next term.

Rumpus: So now that the Texas GOP has jammed these restrictions through a second special session, what can we learn from other state examples? Will clinics stay open or closed as legal challenges go through?

crowafterroe_smallPieklo: We can expect legal challenges to either some or all of the new restrictions. Federal courts in other states like Mississippi and Alabama have blocked similar restrictions designed to close clinics, and clinics in those states have been able to stay open while the legal challenges play out. But the federal courts in Texas are very conservative, and one reason why supporters of the restrictions likely pushed so hard to get these restrictions passed this year is their hope that they will be challenged as one more avenue to ultimately try and undo Roe v. Wade.

Marty: This will literally be a battle fought on the steps of the clinics and the homes of those who provide. I think it’s like the crescendo of fireworks in the finale of a show, a last act from a group that knows they can’t replicate these sort of shenanigans and continue to be reelected. While the legal battle plays out, they will target each clinic and each provider one by one, harassing patients in the guise of “counseling” and harassing doctors at their homes, their other places of employment, and taking their own activism out of the legislative arena and back to the streets. I think it’s going to be a very different time going forward, and one that could be just as scary.

Rumpus: When anti-choice bills like Texas’s get passed, what is the particular danger posed for low-income patients, and those from other communities who are most at-risk ?

Pieklo: The danger for low-income women and other communities is immediate. Accessing affordable, quality reproductive health care is already a challenge. Closing clinics makes it an impossibility. For people who need abortions this means they may be pushed into later, more expensive, and high-risk procedures, if they can access it at all. Or, as we’re starting to see with reports of Texans traveling to Mexico or purchasing medicines at flea markets, people will be driven into the black market.

Marty: My biggest fear is that unlike before Roe, when the biggest danger to a woman was harming herself trying to access an illegal abortion, this go-around she may find herself in jail instead. Our means of performing self-abortion have changed since the ’50s and ’60s, especially via drugs, and in order to stop that from occurring, states are going to have to be willing to prosecute them for their attempts. The case of Jennie Linn McCormack, arrested for a medical self-abortion, was a warning shot to all women who will go to their own desperate lengths.

Rumpus: So what makes these anti-choice forces so formidably organized? The overarching strategy you detail in Crow After Roe seems very crafty, doesn’t it?

Marty: I prefer wily. Sort of like the coyote, since he always ends up failing at the end.

Pieklo: They can get a lot more money now thanks to Citizens United—it has basically allowed the Catholic Church to start spending freely.

Marty: They are much better organized than we are, but they’ve been at it much longer. They were organizing to overturn legal abortion before Roe was decided. Many of the original Right to Life state and city committees were developed and supported by their local Catholic Church. In some ways, a lot of them really are just the non-robed face of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops [a conservative church body], even today.

Texas Lege Photo 1

Pieklo: In terms of the judiciary, conservatives have been working on bringing the federal court to the right for decades. That’s how we can have a series of decisions eroding basic constitutional rights that look—to us—like victories. Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which upheld Roe but also opened the floodgates for abortion restrictions, is a perfect example. The appellate case SCOTUS reviewed in that decision came from now-Justice Sam Alito, who voted enthusiastically to support a spousal notification law. Imagine him getting his hands on Roe next term!

Marty: If some activist groups have their way, he’ll get to weigh in. We’ve seen National Pro-Life Alliance send out questionnaires to candidates asking if they would support spousal consent if elected.

Rumpus: Spousal consent, meaning that men have to sign off on their partner’s abortion. Just to be clear, you discovered in your research that this actually remains a big idea in the anti-choice toolbox?

Marty: Yes. Just imagine getting permission from a partner if you want to end a pregnancy! I had one lawmaker tell me the only reason he didn’t propose it was because women could always bring in “some guy” and lie and say he’s the dad.

Rumpus: You both tangle with the most dedicated anti-choicers online on a regular basis. What are some of the worst things they’ve called you?

Marty: Oh man, what did National Right to Life call me?

Pieklo: The “true-true, hardcore pro-abort”? That was awesome.

Marty: True-true, hardcore pro-abortion militant.

Rumpus: It’s true. You are so militant Robin, with all the pictures I see you posting on the Internet of homemade cheese and your adorable children.

Marty: Don’t out me. Every time one of them learns I have three kids, they try to convert me.

Rumpus: I do want to know, though, since you’re both moms: how does motherhood feed into your life as hardcore, militant, pro-abort writers?

Marty: I’m way more “pro-abortion” since I’ve had babies. And not because I don’t love my children, thanks!

Texas Lege Photo 2Pieklo: Well, I was pro-choice before, even “radically,” but during delivery of my first child we had an emergency and it didn’t look good for a while. That experience crystallized and re-radicalized me. Me, my family, we needed to be in charge of those decisions and we were. It is a fact I’ll never take for granted again.

Marty: Between having fertility issues, having miscarriages, and having a “surprise,” I feel like I’ve run the gamut reproduction-wise. Each experience taught me that the choices I made were the right ones for me, and that the children I have and I love are here because of those choices.

Shorter answer: pregnancy is hard even when you want it, and hard when you don’t. I can’t decide that for another and I never will allow that decision to be taken away.

Rumpus: How about that Wendy Davis—and Leticia Van de Putte and Team Texas Filibuster? Why do you think, after so many activists have fought so many anti-choice bills around the country, this is the movement and the series of events that really went viral?

Marty: It’s Texas. Texas is the symbolism in a lot of ways of what this fight is really about—a small group of people in power making vast and unyielding decisions on the majority’s personal life and autonomy simply because hey, they are in power.

Pieklo: There’s a sense that keeping the legislature in session simply to attack reproductive rights is egregious, even by “conservatives in Texas” standards.

Marty: And sadly, right now, that’s a feeling that a lot of people in this country can identify with, and not just when it comes to reproductive rights.

Rumpus: It’s pretty thrilling to see the tools of direct action—putting bodies on the line—being utilized to protect bodily autonomy. What do you make of the similarities to Occupy and the Wisconsin protests that we’re seeing in Texas and North Carolina?

Marty: There’s a reason [Texas GOP Lt. Gov. David] Dewhurst called it an “Occupy-like mob.”

Pieklo: And a reason conservatives hear that as a smear…

Marty: They are afraid of the people. They should be. When you are doing their will, you aren’t afraid.

Pieklo: They only like direct-action democracy when they can wave a gun around. And that’s the quote that will get me all the hate mail.

Rumpus: Do you think the Texas drama and its aftermath will make us feminists more belligerent?

Pieklo: I hope so. I think we’ve given the other side far too much credit for far too long.

Marty: I do like that we have a “she-ro” in Wendy Davis. It was getting a little tiresome feeling alone. We needed someone to rally around.

Pieklo: It’s not just that she’s a woman, it’s that she’s been attacked—her office was firebombed—and she didn’t back down. In fact, she doubled down.

Rumpus: How did you guys collaborate on writing Crow After Roe? Did you have some sort of system for dividing the writing and editing? Or was it mushier?

Pieklo: Robin and I are lucky that we don’t really cover the same things while at the same time covering exactly the same thing. I’m a law nerd. She’d cover the legislative end of things and I’d explain how that worked from the court’s perspective. I call Robin my walking Guttmacher Institute because she knows state legislation like nobody else.

Marty: And Jess is my Center for Reproductive Rights.

Rumpus: You guys have nonprofit pro-choice organization-based nicknames for each other? That is pretty amazing.

Marty: I think all partners in life should have nonprofit pet names. Just not PETA.

Rumpus: So say your book has interested a young person who is very outraged by what’s happening, and wants to do something about it all. What do you recommend as a good outlet for activist inclinations?

Pieklo: Run for local office. Donate to your local abortion fund. Call, write, tweet, let your elected officials know this is an issue that matters.

Marty: Seriously: run, run, run. You know, women are far more likely to think that they don’t have the experience to run for office, compared to male counterparts who jump right in.

Texas Lege Photo 3Pieklo: They are more likely to look at a less-than-spotless background as a barrier. But c’mon, look at how many second acts American politics has afforded the guys!

Marty: It’s important to have women spearheading the fight against these bills, because as we see in every state, they use women sponsors as a means of pushing an anti-woman agenda.

Rumpus: What’s the relationship between your passion and anger and your writing process? How do you channel or calm your feelings and push yourselves to do something creative in the face of all this injustice?

Pieklo: The law is in so many ways an exercise of winning hearts and minds, so for me, being able to write about complicated legal arguments and strategies in a way that as many people as possible can understand is an important act of advocacy.

Marty: Anger when describing inequality and injustice drives people away. When writing the book, I tried to remain in the narrative. If you present the story of how a bill passed and why it passed, as well as testimony from the witnesses or the subject of the chapter, I feel like it should, on its own, make people angry without my needed to add anything to it. Anger does have one place in my writing: it makes me keep writing, even when five states introduce the same bills in one week. Anger keeps me from throwing up my hands and saying, “No, it’s just too much.”

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Featured image of Jessica Mason Pieklo and Robin Marty © by Melissa Floyd Photography.

First and second images © by Dru Blood.

Third image © by Marjorie Kamys Cotera.


Sarah Marian Seltzer is a journalist and fiction writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, The LA Review of Books, The Washington Post, The Hairpin, and the Forward, among other places. Find her at www.sarahmseltzer.com and tweeting too much at @sarahmseltzer. More from this author →