Why Kamala Harris Feels ‘Optimistic’ About The Future Of Abortion Rights

Photo: John Sommers/UPI/Bloomberg/Getty Images.
It wasn’t hard to see the symbolism in the torrential rains that preceded US Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit to Indianapolis, IN, on July 25. One month and a day after the overturning of Roe v. Wade, with folks feeling the severe effects of abortion bans across the country, the mood among Indiana Democrats and abortion activists felt stormy and unsettled, as the state became the first to convene a special session of lawmakers to consider a proposal that would ban nearly all abortions, which activists and experts say will have devastating consequences
Harris addressed a roundtable of lawmakers at the Indiana State Library to talk about the proposed ban and the fight to protect reproductive rights, and to show the administration’s support for lawmakers advocating against bans. Before she even wrapped up her visit, abortion rights activists gathered outside, chanting “my body, my choice,” and “vote them out.” All this came two weeks after an executive order from the Biden Administration, which supports protecting access to medication abortion and contraception, and guarantees the right to emergency medical interventions and services. But many have said the order doesn’t do enough to tangibly help people on the ground in states with abortion bans.
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This is a growing list of states — and Indiana could be on it as soon as September 1 if the proposed legislation, Senate Bill 1, passes. S.B. 1 bans all abortions with few exceptions and is one of a growing number of bans that are limiting nearly all abortions (though self-managed abortion is still an option, even where bans are in place).
“Maybe some people need to actually learn how a woman’s body works,” Harris said pointedly to a high-ceilinged room full of lawmakers and media. “But when you understand how a woman’s body works, you’ll understand that the parameters that are being proposed mean that for the vast majority of women, by the time she realises she is pregnant, she will effectively be prohibited from having access to reproductive healthcare that would allow her to choose what happens to her body.” 
Indiana had already been receiving national attention after a report that a 10-year-old rape survivor was forced to travel to Indiana for care due to Ohio’s strict abortion laws; abortion in the state is banned after about six weeks, with no exceptions for rape or incest. This case was brought up during Harris’ roundtable. “She is a baby,” said Rep. Cherrish Pryor, the Indiana House Democratic Floor Leader. “Why should we force babies to have babies?”
Harris touched on this too, and said it went to show what the Supreme Court decision meant “to real people, including children.” She also reiterated what many have been saying for months: that the decision could have implications on future access to birth control, and the ability of people to marry whomever they love. 
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Meanwhile, inside the library after the roundtable, Refinery29 was able to catch up with Vice President Harris to chat about abortion, the healthcare crisis it’s leading to, maternal mortality rates, and, well, what we all should do if we’re feeling extremely frustrated about the way things are going right now. 
Refinery29: It's been just over one month since the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade. How has it felt seeing how all these abortion bans are impacting the American people from your vantage point?  
Vice President Kamala Harris: “I'll tell you, I'm here in Indiana today, where their state house is about to be the first state in the country to convene a special session to further restrict access to abortion care. And while I've been here, I've met with state legislators who are prompted to defend a woman's right to make decisions about her own body, but also young leaders. And when I meet the young leaders who are in their 20s, who are fighting on this issue, and they're out there marching right now… It gives me a lot of hope and optimism — but only because I know that they're prepared to do the hard work, which we should all be prepared to do. And that's about speaking up. It's about organising folks and understanding… that people should have the freedom and the liberty to make decisions about their own body and their own life, and the government should not be making that decision for them. 
“And we need to do what we know we can do in the next 160 days to get people to vote, because your local prosecutor might be a prosecutor who's in a state that is criminalising healthcare providers. You want to make sure that that local prosecutor reflects your values. It should not be a crime for a healthcare provider to provide healthcare. Who is your governor? [It] matters when a state legislature is passing laws that restrict rights — you want a governor like there are in some states who’ll say: ‘I'm not going to stand for that. I'll veto it.’
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“Who your state legislators are matters because they're the ones sending those bills up. Who is in Congress matters. Our President Joe Biden is prepared to sign off on legislation to codify — which means to put in law — the protections that Roe used to offer, but we need two more senators in the United States Senate. So those elections matter. 
“So, this is part of the work that we know we have in front of us. But I feel optimistic because I think everyone understands that each of us as individuals has a power to weigh in on this, to participate in this, and to let our neighbours and our family and our friends understand what this means to us and what we have at stake.” 
And for those young people that you just mentioned, some of them might be feeling frustrated about what’s happening in the country right now — what would you want them to know? 
“You know, I have a 17-year-old goddaughter, who is now entering her senior year in high school, and she's starting to apply and look at colleges. And she and her friends are now assessing — not only what school they'd like to go to based on the academics or the sports program — but what state it's in, and whether or not [there’s] going to be a restriction on her ability to make decisions about her own life and body.
“We have a 23-year-old daughter whose friends are making decisions about where they're going to work. Whereas before it might have been determined by where the company [they want to work at is located] they're looking at literally, what state is it? And what laws are being passed in that state? So it's a very real issue.
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“And I just want to encourage everybody to stay active, stay involved, because this is a very specific moment where rights have been taken from people, and we need to reclaim those rights.”

When I meet the young leaders who are in their 20s, who are fighting on this issue, and they're out there marching right now… It gives me a lot of hope and optimism.

Vice PResdient Kamala Harris
You've done a lot of work on maternal mortality. In Indiana where we are today, the rates of maternal mortality are the third highest in the nation. Abortion access folds into this issue because some people will have no option but to give birth in a system that often fails them. How do you plan to continue working on this issue so that rates don’t spike in the face of lessened abortion access? 
“Maternal mortality is something I've worked on for years. In the United States, we have one of the highest rates of maternal mortality among so-called developed countries in the world. How can that be? When you look at how it affects specific groups of women —Black women are three times more likely to die. Native American women twice as likely to die. Women who live in rural America? One-and-a-half more times likely to die.
And so, part of the work that I've been doing is to elevate this to an issue that we talked about at the White House. And the president has been a great leader on this. And we are talking about what we need to do… to extend care for women, before, during, and after childbirth. We need to do what is necessary to, for example, deal with racial bias in the system, which is very real. And to train healthcare providers on that issue. And then we need to do things like what we've been doing, which is to say that Medicaid coverage postpartum should not just be two months, but should be [extended to cover a person for] 12 months [after giving birth], and we have a lot of states that are doing what we're asking them to do, which is to extend Medicaid coverage for postpartum care.”
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I’m glad you brought up Medicaid. Will the Biden-Harris Administration take additional steps to help those in states where abortion’s banned, beyond the recent executive order, like using Medicaid resources to fund travel for people who need to go across state lines?
“So we're taking a look at what kind of federal funding assistance we can give in particular to women and folks who are impacted in these states that are passing these extreme laws. One of the issues and the challenge is there's this thing called the Hyde Amendment. And the Hyde Amendment basically says that you can't use federal funds to pay for an abortion. And so what we are looking at is whether we can support… the sanctuary states, right, which are in the middle of states that are passing restrictions… We're taking a look at what options there are, what we can do [that’s] legally feasible. Because we don't want to do something and raise expectations, and then the courts throw it out in a couple of days. And that'll just deflate everybody in terms of how they're feeling, to your point about this whole issue and what it means. So we're taking a look at that. But the Hyde Amendment, we need to get rid of the Hyde Amendment. And we've been clear about that. But until we do, it's a restriction that we have to get around.” 
What do you see as your role specifically when it comes to making change on the abortion issue going forward in the next month, and then the next two years? And do you think the people who got you elected — women, young people, Black women, many others — will see that you’re doing this work? What do you want them to know?
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“Well, I want us to be doing this work together. All of us. Because this is really critical work. And there are so many lives that are being directly impacted. So I see myself as being a leader among many leaders who are doing extraordinary work to make sure that we stand for a woman's right to make decisions about her own body and her healthcare.”
This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
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