How A Group Of Black Lawmakers In Georgia Fought For Abortion Rights

Earlier this month, as wave after wave of draconian and unconstitutional abortion bans crashed over the US, a friend shared on Facebook about how overwhelmed and paralysed she felt. It's a sentiment most of us who care about the world can understand. Sometimes, it just feels like you are too small, and the problems we face are too vast and awful and intractable. So I gave her the advice I always give (and try to follow) in those moments: When you don't know what to do, find someone who does and follow them. And if you're not sure who to follow, follow the advice of U.S. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, who famously insists, “The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”
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When it comes to fighting abortion restrictions, which disproportionately affect women of colour, that means the folks we should be following are often Black women. Georgia state representatives Dar'shun Kendrick, Park Cannon, Renitta Shannon, Sandra Scott, and Erica Thomas are five such women, and they spent much of the spring leading their state’s efforts to beat back Republican-led attempts to control minds and women’s bodies.
These women didn’t just make polite speeches, either. Kendrick, who serves in leadership as the Minority Caucus Chief Deputy Whip, drafted and introduced a “Testicular Bill of Rights,” which would criminalise vasectomies and require men to obtain permission from a sexual partner before they could access viagra. Cannon got personal and shared (powerfully) her own experience of needing an abortion after she was sexually assaulted. And although filibusters are not allowed in the Georgia House, Shannon attempted one anyhow. In an effort to block the final vote on Georgia’s unconscionable abortion bill, she refused to cede the floor after her allotted time was up, speaking about how the near-total abortion restriction would harm her constituents, until House leadership had her physically removed.
So when I got the chance to talk with Kendrick, Cannon and Shannon by video just days after Georgia’s controversially elected governor, Brian Kemp, signed the state’s new abortion restriction into law, I expected to find them depleted, demoralised, and downright depressed from laying it all on the line and then suffering such a major loss. Instead, they were the opposite of defeated: they each spoke with great precision and energy about the ways forward, built on each other’s ideas, and generally embodied optimism. Yet another reason they’re just the leaders we need to follow right now.
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Here’s what they want you to know:
They are not a new trend.
Recently, there’s been a great focus on women, especially women of colour, who've stormed the halls of electoral power in the wake of Trump's election. But Kendrick, Cannon and Shannon all ran before Trump’s election, and have served a collective 14 years so far. That experience has practical benefits — like Kendrick’s leadership position — and less measurable ones as well, such as the relationships they’ve built over the years and their deep knowledge of how the levers of power operate in Georgia.
They never stopped to wonder if leadership could look like them. They just led.
When I asked them if they ever hesitated to run because they are not what legislators have traditionally looked like in Georgia (or anywhere in the U.S.), I heard not a single doubt.
“I made it really clear in our campaign who we were,” Cannon says. “That I was raised in a household with domestic violence, that I was openly part of the queer community, that I wasn’t afraid to be pro choice and to shout my abortion story, and that I also knew that the district was so diverse that it could handle [my openness].
Shannon concurred, “I told my campaign manager from day one: ‘You will never have a scandal on me. Because I will always tell the truth. You will never blackmail me, because I’ll just tell you about me, so if you ask me if I had an abortion, absolutely. If you ask me am I straight, no. If you ask me am I religious, no.’ I’m going to be me, and they can take it or leave it, and that’s it.”
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They made real progress this spring that you probably didn't hear about.
While their abortion fight rightly made headlines, they quietly found opportunities for progress elsewhere, notably by helping to pass a bill that created the House Study Committee on Maternal Mortality. It specifically contains a groundbreaking mandate that at least two members of the committee specifically be “African American female legislators.”
“As much as they saw us using all of our resources [on the abortion fight], we were still able to talk to them about [reproductive justice] from another angle that they knew that they knew nothing about. They knew that they had to listen to us, so we’ll see how that goes,” says Cannon.
But they know the limits of civility.
Shannon was particularly clear on this point. “You cannot come for my bodily autonomy and then expect me to tell you good morning and drink coffee with you. There are people in the legislature who honestly may have questions and they may want to discuss something because they really are trying to learn… but once I understand that you really are hard in [your opposition to reproductive justice], I feel like we’re in a war. And having coffee with people who are trying to oppress you is not my top priority. So I don’t smile. I’m not doing all the friendsy, hey you passed a bill I don't like but we can still be cool. No. We cannot.”
They're unafraid, because they are prepared and because they understand their own power.
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Former Ga. state representative Jason Spencer once threatened a Black female attorney (and former legislator) in the state with physical violence because she was campaigning for the removal of Confederate monuments. So you might guess that other Black female lawmakers in Georgia would approach their work with a certain amount of trepidation. But for the most part, they do not see fear as an option, though they do see it as an opportunity.
“Do I see their faces trembling with frustration?” Cannon asks rhetorically. “Do I see their supremacist mentalities coming forward? And does that bring back some memories of other times in which people have tried to make me afraid, or to hold me down, or to keep me quiet? Yeah. But it’s more important for us to stay firm. And to stay clear with our message: If they’re going to do this to us — equally elected individuals who are in the same chamber with the same powers —what will they do to the women in the halls [who are their constituents], who come and speak to them? What will they do to the people in their districts who muster up the courage to go to that town hall and to say, ‘I disagree with you?’ What will they do to families who are in need of care? We have to be there to hold that space in the room that says, you will not make me afraid of you.”
Kendrick shares that it’s the Republicans who are scared — of their own leadership. “You heard the whispers in the hall, my district doesn’t want [these abortion restrictions], my wife told me not to do it, all these things. Then they sit in the chamber and still vote for it. Why? Because you have somebody coming around to your desk, pointing at you, telling you you have to vote for something? At some point you have to look at the bigger picture.”
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Most importantly, they’re not giving up their fight to protect abortion rights, and they need you to follow their lead.
Here’s how they want you to fight:
1.) Spread the word that abortion is still legal in all 50 states. Post-Roe, U.S. courts have never allowed a first-trimester abortion ban to go into effect, and that’s still true today, as all of the recently-passed first-trimester restrictions are either already facing or are expected to face powerful legal challenges. In the meantime, the new laws can’t go into effect. If they are found unconstitutional, they never will be. “It’s confusing to many,” says Cannon. “So we’re trying to keep up the fight and to also remind everyone that if they need to access abortion in the state of Ga., the clinic’s doors are still open and no one can stop them from receiving services.”
2.) Get proactive. Shannon advises, “Shore up reproductive rights now. Do not say, oh well if it comes to our state we’ll just fight it. Or, my state is so liberal I’m sure we’ll be fine. No. Shore up rights now. In fact, do more than shore it up. Add [abortion protection] to your constitution. That way, they will have a tougher time undoing our rights if power ever shifts. If we had had stronger protections in our constitution, the bill would not have been able to move through as it did.”
3.) Get local. Shannon observes, “The one good thing that did happen in this fight is that many people who were on autopilot with the Ga. legislature now are not. They’re like, OMG I watched a committee meeting today, I can’t believe that’s how people talk, I couldn’t believe that person is in charge, did you just hear what he said about women, did you just hear? And I’m begging them to stay engaged because this is not the only bad bill that we had this session. We’re only in session for 40 days out of the year. It is not too much to ask that you stay engaged for 40 days. And get local candidates on the record before you vote for them. Don't let them just walk through your community and kiss babies and shake hands. Get commitments from them, and get some proof of it. Too many times we’re finding that once people are in the seat, that’s when you find out they’re kind of squishy on stuff that you care about. Voters have to get way more engaged.”
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Adds Kendrick, “If you have a candidate [or a local elected official] that supports your values, make sure you support them. Dollars go a long, long way. As well as volunteer time and stuff like that. If you’re an average citizen, in addition to making sure that your voice is heard, make sure you support the candidates [in practical ways], because we can only do so much unless we are re-elected.”
4.) Keep an eye on the courts, and don’t just leave the arguments to the lawyers. According to Kendrick, “As [the new abortion law] goes through the court of appeals process, there should be a way for organisations and individuals to file amicus briefs to support the argument. Get with these organisations and see how you can add your voice to them. Because what I’ve found is sometimes lawyers get so tunnel vision on the legal aspect of it that we miss the more creative counter arguments. So for example, somebody on Facebook was talking about how if we’re codifying [an embryo as] a person in these early stages, what does that do for our immigration policy? And I never really thought about it because I was thinking about it from a legal standpoint. People who are not legally minded can create such creative counter arguments, and really help the case.”
Photo: Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP Photo.
And above all, trust Black women.
Before we hang up, Shannon has one more thing she wants to make sure everyone knows. “The groups who are articulating the [abortion rights] messages that people are now hearing have been the groups that focus on Black women’s reproductive justice, such as Sister Song and Spark Reproductive Justice. So people need to also support those groups. Planned Parenthood gets a lot of donations because they’re well known. So is the ACLU. But there are groups that have been talking about how [banning abortion] intersects with criminal justice issues, how it intersects with maternal mortality… there are so many issues. So I would say to people, please, support these groups too. Nothing against Planned Parenthood at all. Love them, love the ACLU. But there’s other work that’s being done that is specific to certain communities, and they’re the ones who are waving the red flag first. So trust Black women.”
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