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Opinion | Where the Pro-Choice Movement Went Wrong

An exception to this disregard for the Hyde Amendment was Faye Wattleton, who in 1978 became the first Black woman to lead Planned Parenthood. She announced at the time that restoring Medicaid funding of abortion would be one of her top priorities.

“I felt that if we didn’t secure the right to abortion for the most vulnerable women with the immediate reversal of Hyde, the ability of all women to exercise their reproductive decisions, including abortion, would be put in jeopardy,” Ms. Wattleton wrote in her memoir, “Life on the Line.” She soon faced an uprising from within the ranks of her own organization’s affiliates. Democrats and abortion-rights groups willing to trade poor women’s access for other priorities allowed the ban on federal funding of abortion to become a routine part of the budget process for years to come.

This would not be the last time that the largely white-led movement would ignore warning signs that came in the form of Black women’s suffering. In her book “Policing the Womb: Invisible Women and the Criminalization of Motherhood,” Professor Goodwin documents how, beginning decades ago, the arrests of Black women for using drugs during pregnancy were a harbinger of efforts to advance an agenda of “fetal personhood” that now targets abortion access.

“Black women were simply the canaries in the coal mine,” Ms. Goodwin said.

The national movement’s strategy of relying on the courts as a firewall meant that advocates were often playing Whac-a-Mole against the growing onslaught of anti-abortion laws coming out of the states. After Roe, a predictable loop came to characterize the fight: State legislatures would pass a slew of bills that made it harder to get an abortion, but that were so technical-sounding that few individual pieces of legislation caught the public’s attention. When abortion-rights groups challenged these laws in court, they tended to win. But they couldn’t challenge all of them. There were just too many.

In 2013, when Texas passed an anti-abortion law that gained national attention thanks to an 11-hour filibuster by a state senator, Wendy Davis, the Center for Reproductive Rights challenged provisions in the law that related to building standards and hospital admitting privileges,  provisions that forced half of the state’s clinics to close. But the organization left untouched the section of the law that banned abortion 20 weeks after fertilization.

Stephanie Toti, who argued for the Center for Reproductive Rights before the Supreme Court, said that this seemed like the right move at the time. It was possible, during the Obama era, to imagine that the court could become more favorable to abortion rights in the years ahead — in which case, why risk losing a challenge to a 20-week abortion ban?

What Ms. Toti and many other advocates failed to see coming was the election of Donald Trump. By now, more than a third of states have instituted some form of a 20-week ban. While abortions at that point are rare, those seeking them tend to be disproportionately young and poor. Not only have these bans been normalized, but abortion opponents have been emboldened to “bait” pro-choice groups with more extreme laws, like the 15-week Mississippi ban now before the Supreme Court.

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