PProponents of abortion access have endured four difficult years in the United States. Since 2016, Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed hundreds of laws restrict abortionthe coronavirus pandemic has led at least 11 states to temporarily suspend abortion servicesand 41 independent abortion clinics were forced to close their doors in the past two years alone.
Looking back on how her first full year at the helm of Planned Parenthood went, Alexis McGill Johnson can’t help but laugh in disbelief. “There’s a lot on our plate,” she says. But rather than looking exhausted, she seems full of energy.
McGill Johnson, who was officially named president and CEO of Planned Parenthood and its political arm this summer after becoming interim president and CEO in 2019, following the abrupt departure of Dr Leana Wen, has said that after years of setbacks for abortion rights, Joe Biden’s election lays the groundwork for progress. But, she says, she is also preparing for other battles to come. Progressive groups are already fighting for the new administration’s attention, and she plans to push not only to overturn the Trump administration’s limits on abortion and other reproductive health services, but also to expand the protections for access to abortion.
Earlier this year, Planned Parenthood and more than 90 other organizations focused on reproductive health, rights and justice released a political agenda of “top priorities” who presented immediate demands for a new administration, including an executive order and a presidential budget that reflects a commitment to reproductive health. The budget was a key issue for reproductive justice has been advocating for years, due to provisions such as the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for an abortion, except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother, and the Helms Amendment, which similarly prohibits assistance programs from funding most abortion services. The movement to get rid of these amendments has accelerated in recent years. President-elect Joe Biden announced in 2019 that he was changing his position – he now supports eliminating the Hyde Amendment – and a House Appropriations subcommittee held a hearing this month on the impact of the amendment on the poor and communities of color.
On a recent Thursday, TIME sat down with McGill Johnson to discuss how Biden can reverse many of Trump’s health policies on his own, what this year’s race reckoning has revealed about American health care, and how how Planned Parenthood plans to advance its agenda with a moderate Democrat in the White House.
The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What are your main priorities for the new administration?
We have been working for some time with our coalition partners in sexual and reproductive health, rights and justice to deliver what we call the Breeding Plan Top Priorities. And chief among them is day one, an executive order that will demonstrate the administration’s commitment to sexual and reproductive health care. So this order [would aim] to eliminate the global gag rule, to facilitate access to medical abortion during the pandemic, to begin the process of removing harmful policies like the Title X domestic gag rule, Trump’s birth control rules that allow employers to essentially force their personal beliefs on employees.
We are also working with coalition partners and with congressional partners to consider what it means to have a budget that reflects this commitment to sexual and reproductive health care. A budget that will eliminate the Hyde and Helms amendments and pave the way for us to repeal Hyde.
Could the elimination of the Hyde Amendment actually happen under this administration?
Yeah, absolutely. Our reproductive justice partners, like All* Above All and others, have led [calling out] the discriminatory character of Hyde. And so it’s their leadership that we’re following to make sure we’re in tune with that. The ratings this week have been incredible. Representing [Rosa] DeLauro is such a strong champion.
Biden won the election, but Democrats didn’t do as well as expected in the House. How do you interpret this year’s results?
Biden has been given a very strong mandate. Over 7 million more Americans voted for Biden/Harris, and it was delivered by a coalition of young people, people of color, women, black women, who have very strong insights into the various intersectional issues facing face their communities – our communities. And so I think the progressive coalition and understanding their lived experience should be what informs the Biden administration, the future DNC, as well as people who might be concerned about that, because I think that’s actually where to stay.
I also think what we’re seeing with respect to the appointments that have already been made is a realization that this administration needs staff who also reflect those intersectional values. The idea that Biden named a COVID Equity Czar is so powerful because it truly speaks to the recognition that racism is a public health crisis.
What do you think of Biden’s choice of Xavier Becerra to lead the Department of Health and Human Services?
I think it’s extremely exciting. Becerra is an ardent champion of sexual and reproductive health. He understands how urgent it is for us to address inequities in our health care system. He helped lead the passage of [the Affordable Care Act], which we worked on with the Obama administration to ensure it helped expand sexual and reproductive health care. He is one of the people who fought back as [California’s attorney general] around the household gag rule and Trump’s attempts to limit access to birth control. So I think he’s proven enough that he’s a champion. The Administration is making it clear that sexual and reproductive health care is health care.
With Trump appointing Judge Amy Coney Barrett, there is now a solid conservative majority on the Supreme Court. How does this affect the future of reproductive rights?
Look, ever since I’ve been involved in this part of the movement, and at Planned Parenthood, we’ve relied on the courts as a safety net to protect our health and our rights. Over the past 10 years, especially given the number of restrictive prohibitions we have seen, our courts have been an important means for us to end this wrongdoing. We now know that we are long past the point where we can rely on the courts as a safety net. There are about 18 cases that are literally one step away from [Supreme] Court that could further threaten access or overthrow Roe if not simply oust him irrevocably.
So we will continue to work with our partners to elect champions at the top and bottom of the polls, because we know that at the federal level, there is work to be done, but that a lot of fighting will take place in the states over the next few years.
During the presidential primaries, Senator Kamala Harris proposed legislation, modeled after the Voting Rights Act, that would protect the right to abortion nationwide. With Harris as vice president, is this kind of legislation something Planned Parenthood would pursue?
Even with Roe in place, access to abortion is still limited. As our reproductive justice colleagues always say, Roe is the floor, not the ceiling. We need to engage with our congressional champions, as well as the administration, and think about how to move beyond Roe to deliver on the promise of safe and legal abortion for all. I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all political solution. This is not just a congressional or regulatory solution. You know, it’s about rights, but also about access.
Harris has also highlighted other women’s health issues during her presidential campaign. What will be the impact of his arrival at the White House on your work?
I really appreciate her leadership on issues like maternal mortality, which is part of sexual and reproductive health care. The Momnibus invoice that she led are ways to talk about the full spectrum of sexual and reproductive health and what’s going on in communities and communities of color and black communities in particular. With all of these appointments and conversations, I think it gives us a lot of hope for how this administration is using the power of staff appointments to demonstrate and signal the direction of policy that is unclear. We don’t just live in a neat agency. All these agencies impact us. And I think it’s really exciting that they’re thinking about how we all present ourselves to all of these agencies.
How does Planned Parenthood view its own work in the context of health equity and racial justice?
Top notch work every health care provider should be doing right now [is] to ensure that they provide the best care possible, free from bias and racial anxiety in particular. We also do a lot of equity and belonging work across the federation, to ensure that our own staff and internal strategies reflect our values and opportunities for growth to ensure that we can better serve the community. Planned Parenthood is a 104 year old organization. The calculation also struck us. And I think it’s been very powerful to lean into the work and think, with the patient at the center of everything we do, about how we develop a stronger intersectional claim that allows us to provide care with the values we espouse.
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