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13 September 2022

“This is the big battle”: Jan Schakowsky on abortion in America

The US congresswoman explains how the threat to reproductive rights comes from the same place as the Republicans’ dismissal of democracy.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON DC – “I wished I had been a fly on the wall when the votes came in,” said Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat congresswoman. She’s referring to the August referendum in Kansas that, if passed, would have removed the right to abortion from the state’s constitution. But voters rejected it.

“I think they [anti-abortion figures] thought the state constitution would be overturned,” she said. Kansas, after all, is “ruby red” Republican, as Schakowsky put it. Yet the referendum failed; nearly 60 per cent voted against it. The result, the congresswoman from Illinois said, is “indicative of where the country is”. Abortion is “definitely on the ballot”, she said – not just on referendums like the one in Kansas, or the one that will be held in Michigan in November, but in the midterm elections.

Traditionally, whichever party holds the White House does badly in the midterm elections, which has prompted many to predict the Democrats will haemorrhage seats in the November vote. But in June, the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs Wade, the 1973 decision that had federally guaranteed the right to an abortion in the US. A slew of restrictive, anti-choice measures have since gone into effect in states across the country, even though a majority of Americans support abortion rights. The new decisions have left many wondering whether the fight over abortion could drive people to the polls in support of pro-choice politicians. Even in Texas, a state that passed a restrictive anti-abortion law last year, only 11 per cent support a total ban on abortion; six in ten voters believe it should be available in “all or most” situations. A recent poll indicated that a majority of voters consider abortion to be the single issue that makes them more likely to vote in November.

Speaking over Zoom from her home in Evanston, Illinois, Schakowsky said, “I don’t think there’s any Democrat running for office that’s not talking about abortion rights.”

[See also: Joe Biden’s speech: Trump and “Maga Republicans” are a threat to democracy]

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Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Schakowsky, 78, has represented her district in Illinois since 1999. Abortion is legal until “foetal viability” in her state, which is normally around 25 weeks. She told me she has worked on issues related to reproductive access for decades, during her time in Washington and before. In the Illinois state legislature, where she served before being elected to Congress, she pushed to end a law that required minors to notify their parents in order to get an abortion (that law was finally overturned last year).

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But “not everyone can travel to my state”, she said. And the “horror stories” of people who are not able to get an abortion “are going to keep going”. The recent stories that have made headlines have indeed been horrible: there was the ten-year-old rape victim who had to cross state lines to get an abortion; there was a woman in Louisiana who was refused one even after her foetus was diagnosed with a fatal condition. And there is nothing to suggest that there won’t be more headlines as the summer turns into autumn. Schakowsky reiterated this in our conversation – the stories are going to continue, and they are going to get worse.

Schakowsky has spent the summer fighting for something different and better. In July, she was arrested for obstructing a street while protesting the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe (she was one of more than a dozen Democratic members arrested and, she told me, “the first to be carried off” by a police officer; Schakowsky was released and made a video statement later that day).

Civil disobedience, she said, is a powerful tool in the fight for reproductive rights. She quoted her friend, the late John Lewis, a Civil Rights-era activist turned congressman, who spoke of getting into “good trouble”. “I just want to encourage the continuation of protests, demonstrations and pressure that we’ve put on all elected officials,” she said.

She has also turned her attention not just to the courts, but to companies. On 31 August, as chair of the House of Representatives’ consumer protection and commerce subcommittee, she co-wrote a letter to the CEO of Meta (formerly and better-known as Facebook), Mark Zuckerberg, about concerns regarding his platforms’ handling of private data, and requesting more information about what Zuckerberg and company plan to do if asked for users’ data related to abortion. As she wrote: “In light of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v Wade and the constitutional right to abortion, your company will increasingly be asked to turn over data to law enforcement for the purpose of criminalizing those who seek abortion services.”

[See also: US midterm elections 2022: everything you need to know]

“I’m just always concerned about the role that they’re playing,” she said of Big Tech. Those concerns are not unwarranted; in June, before Roe was overturned, Meta gave messages exchanged between a Nebraska teenager and her mother about getting abortion pills to the police. Schakowsky noted, too, the importance of making sure misinformation on abortion and abortion access doesn’t spread across social media. 

Last month, she led a group of Congress members that urged federal government agencies to ensure that countries across the world understand what the exceptions are to the US ban on foreign assistance for abortions. At the moment that aid is withheld under the Helms amendment, which ensures that American government money can’t be used to fund them, and was passed in the wake of Roe in 1973 (it was named after Senator Jesse Helms, who opposed civil rights, women’s rights and LGBTQ rights). Those exceptions to the amendment include how foreign aid can be used for terminations in cases of rape, incest and where the pregnant person’s life is at risk. Schakowsky had introduced legislation in 2021 that would do away with the Helms amendment entirely. According to the reproductive rights group, the Guttmacher Institute, if the amendment was repealed there would be 19 million fewer unsafe abortions worldwide each year, and 12 million fewer women would suffer from abortion-related complications requiring medical treatment.

Such US legislation “has not been helpful for women around the world”, Schakowsky said. Abortion access is under attack in America – but as US aid is used around the world, that attack’s impact will not only be felt by women in America.

I asked Schakowsky about President Joe Biden’s speech on 1 September, in which he warned about threats to democracy. In an address in Philadelphia, Biden spoke about a segment of the Republican Party that wants to enforce extreme, minority rule – through political violence, if necessary. Like me, Schakowsky is Jewish. She has spoken out against anti-Semitism, and along with the Democratic congresswoman Ilhan Omar, pushed for the establishment of a special envoy for Islamophobia in the State Department (there is already an equivalent position for anti-Semitism). I asked her if she saw the threat to reproductive rights as related to rising white supremacy, which threatens to engulf American democracy.

“It’s all one piece,” she said. “No question about it.”

“What do we mean by democracy?” she asked. According to her, it doesn’t exist without equal rights. “You can’t take away the whole panoply of rights that we have long fought for.” That is what the Supreme Court decision did, she said. (She also dismissed the religious defence of the attack on abortion. “I don’t want to hear about religion,” she said. After all, in Judaism, abortion is, in some cases, required. Religion “is not uniform” where abortion is concerned, she noted.)

That is what the fight for abortion is about: whether rights are protected or stripped. “I think people thought it was over” when it came to Roe, she said. “I think a lot of women thought it was over.” That was a mistake, she added. Conservative politicians ran on attacking abortion; state after state signed laws restricting access. But now pro-choice politicians are realising they can win. Their voters and constituents are scared, and more than that they are angry. An issue that some politicians once considered finished has returned to the fore.

“The more we can get this issue on the ballot, the better,” said Schakowsky. Every election this autumn, she insisted, is an opportunity. “This is it,” the congresswoman declared. “This is the big battle.”

[See also: Why the Kansas abortion referendum bid backfired]