New York women may not feel the direct impact of the recent wave of state laws restricting access to abortions. But they are responding forcefully, and they are eager to stop an attempt to overturn landmark laws.
Framed by the towering pillars of the New York County Supreme Court and the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse, the Resistance Revival Chorus opened the Stop the Bans Rally co-hosted by Planned Parenthood last week in Manhattan’s Foley Square. Hundreds of New Yorkers were in attendance, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, both of whom spoke in support of reproductive freedom.
The chorus, women dressed in white and many wearing gold cursive necklaces spelling “resist,” stomped their feet and belted “Rich Man’s House.”
I went to the statehouse
And I took back what they stole from me
Took back my dignity
Took back my body.
Earlier this month, Planned Parenthood of New York City announced a merger with four affiliates across New York state to create the Planned Parenthood of Greater New York. The action is an effort to expand accessibility to their services in the wake of restrictive laws signed in Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, Mississippi and Kentucky. The merger prepares for all future possibilities, including acting as a sanctuary to those in states with limited abortion access.
“With any kind of ban like this, whether it’s an assault on Title X, an assault on the Affordable Care Act, an assault on abortion rights, it disproportionately impacts women of color, lower-income communities,” said Laura McQuade, the president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of New York City.
When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed New York’s Reproductive Health Act into law in January, he explicitly said he intended to “protect against” efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade.
As the debate over federal rulings protecting abortion rights resurfaces, activists are making a conscious effort to echo history. The Resistance Revival Chorus wore white to mirror the suffragists of the early 1900s. The chorus has a gospel spirit, but “Rich Man’s House” links back to a traditional labor movement song. Ginny Suss, a producer for Women’s March, recruited Munira Ahmed to join the protesting chorus after learning that a photo of her wearing a hijab with the American flag-inspired posters carried by thousands in the Women’s Marches.
“I’m here because I feel that we are still, unfortunately, we’re going backward in so many ways,” Ms. Ahmed said. “Every time we go forward, we take steps back.”
She added, “That’s ultimately what their goal is: It’s to reverse, take it all the way to the Supreme Court and then reverse for the entire nation what was already one of our legal rights.”
The Alabama abortion ban is widely seen as a direct challenge to the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. The author behind the bill, Eric Johnston, president of the Alabama Pro-Life Coalition, expects to be sued, and has made it clear that he hopes that the lawsuit will make its way through the appellate court system. Like other protesters, Ms. Ahmed and Ms. McQuade say that the bill unjustly targets women of color and marginalized women.
The American Journal of Public Health has documented that women of color and women of lower socioeconomic status have higher abortion rates than white women and women of higher socioeconomic status. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the nationwide abortion rate for black women at 23 percent and for Hispanic women at 11.2 percent, in comparison with 6.4 percent for white women.
Chivona Newsome, the director of operations at Black Lives Matter Greater New York, also sees an intersection between reproductive rights and the rights of marginalized women.
“They’re not shutting down abortion clinics, but they’re shutting down our reproductive rights,” she said. For “women in low-income areas, whether black, white or brown, women in rural areas,” Planned Parenthood is “the only place where they can actually get free health care, free reproductive rights, birth control pills,” she said, “so this is an attack on black people and on low-income people.”
Clad in a pale pink Black Lives Matter T-shirt, Ms. Newsome spoke, too, about her personal experience. She has never been pregnant, she said, but she has gone to a drugstore knowing “full well” what she would do if a pregnancy test came back positive. Near the front of the crowd of hundreds, a protester held a plain white poster scrawled with black Sharpie that read “Everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion.”
Miriam Yu, a 36-year-old freelance consultant who lives in Manhattan, felt similarly.
“There isn’t a single person who doesn’t know dozens of women who have had an abortion,” she said. “Whether you know it or not, you know women who have had abortions. And the fact that you don’t know about it probably says a lot, because it’s not something that we talk about.”
Ms. Yu originally hails from Ohio, the third state to enact the so-called fetal heartbeat bill this year, after Kentucky and Mississippi and before Georgia and Missouri. Bills like those prohibit abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually after about six weeks of pregnancy, often before a woman knows she is pregnant.
“We’re here to fight the ban: It is completely outrageous that they’re trying to ban something so scientific,” said Paulina Perera-Riveroll, a 45-year-old Upper West Side resident. “They can’t use morals. They can’t use religion. It is a scientific procedure, and that’s what it is: It’s medical, health care.”
Ms. Perera-Riveroll came to the rally with her older sister, Guadalupe Perera-Riveroll, a Queens resident. The pair are from Mexico and they grew up in a border town, and they believe that reproductive rights are inextricably linked with the rights of women of color.
Paulina Perera-Riveroll asked rhetorically of the recent legislation, “Who are the people that cannot leave the state, who cannot leave their tiny town?”