We’ve Never Felt Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Absence More


These past two weeks, the stories I’ve heard from Texas have broken my heart. A woman with COVID-19 whose mandated quarantine will put her pregnancy past the state’s new six-week abortion ban. A doctor who had to go against every instinct and deny care to half his patients the first day the ban took effect. A mother with three kids at home, with no one to care for them so she can travel hundreds of miles to get an abortion. As always, when laws create barriers to health care, the people who are most affected can least afford to bear the cost.

To many who don’t live and breathe reproductive health like we do at Planned Parenthood, Texas’s blatantly unconstitutional S.B. 8, which bans abortion at about six weeks of pregnancy—just two weeks after most people’s missed period—seemed to come out of nowhere.

But we didn’t get here overnight. Politicians who want to make abortion illegal have been using state laws to erode the right to abortion for decades, through anti-democratic strategies that allow the minority to control state houses and access to the ballot box, and to our own bodies. Planned Parenthood and our partners have been fighting in court year in and year out to stop these laws, even taking cases for patients all the way to the Supreme Court when necessary. But what’s different this year is that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg isn’t on the highest court in the land.

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A makeshift memorial for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on September 19, 2020, in Washington, D.C.


One year ago, Ginsburg’s death left a vacancy that threatened to topple so many of the rights she fought to secure during her career. Despite a valiant fight, her seat on the Supreme Court was filled by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, through a rushed process by then-President Donald Trump and then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in the final days before the 2020 election and after millions of people had already cast their ballots. Justice Barrett, along with two other Trump nominees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, has a record hostile to abortion and reproductive rights. They, along with Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, refused to grant an emergency injunction to block S.B. 8 from going into effect while it was challenged in court, as all other six-week abortion bans have been. This 5-4 decision had an immediate effect on the lives and rights of seven million women in Texas.

Texas prides itself on its “go it alone” spirit, but this law could be copied in 25 other states run by people hostile to abortion rights.

Anyone in Texas who is pregnant and does not want to be must find out within two weeks of their missed period, and most must go to two separate appointments 24 hours apart, mandated by the state. There is no exception for rape or incest. If they don’t make it in time, they must travel hundreds, or in some cases thousands, of miles to access abortion in a neighboring state, taking on the cost of lost wages, travel, and childcare.

For now, this is happening in Texas, but we know it won’t stop there. Texas prides itself on its “go it alone” spirit, but this law could be copied in 25 other states run by people hostile to abortion rights. The Supreme Court failed the people of Texas, turning its back on nearly 50 years of precedent—and the impact of that failure will be felt across the country.

This is the most acutely we have felt Justice Ginsburg’s absence on the court, but it will not be the last time, or, I fear, the worst. This fall, the court will hear arguments in the case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the first case directly challenging Roe v. Wade since all three of Trump’s justices joined the court. The case revolves around Mississippi’s ban on abortion 15 weeks into pregnancy, and Jackson Women’s Health, the last abortion provider in the state, is fighting it tooth and nail alongside reproductive justice organizations and other partners. No ban on abortion at this point in pregnancy has been allowed to stand. But as we saw in the Texas case, our rights are at risk.

Next year, Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established the right to abortion, could be overturned or made meaningless by the court’s decision in Jackson Women’s Health. But Roe has always been the floor of what we deserve when it comes to controlling our bodies and our futures. It established the right, but it does not protect access to abortion. For 50 years, politicians have chipped away at Roe, passing layers of restrictions to make abortion harder to access. And the people hurt most are those whose rights are always violated when they become political footballs—people with low incomes, Black and brown people, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, and people who live in rural areas. Our partners in the reproductive justice movement have been telling us this for years, and now the truth is laid bare in Texas.

Roe has always been the floor of what we deserve when it comes to controlling our bodies and our futures. It established the right, but it does not protect access to abortion.

Pundits and court watchers can—and will—read the tea leaves of the shadow docket and the political implications of the court’s decisions. But I care a lot more about the mother of three in Texas. I’m focused on how we make a world where what she wants for her own body is the final word—not the words of four men and one woman thousands of miles away.

Those who want to ban abortion are banking on those five votes and have spent the year since Justice Ginsburg’s death working to get them. Every one of the nearly 600 state laws introduced to restrict access to abortion this year is an attempt to dismantle not just Roe, but Justice Ginsburg’s legacy. They’re trying, with renewed fervor, to make it as if she never sat on the court, never fought for the court to acknowledge the equal humanity and dignity of women, of LGBTQ+ people, of immigrants, of people of color. But I believe, with my whole heart, that they cannot win.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg during her testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee during a confirmation hearing over her appointment to the Supreme Court, Washington, D.C., July 1993.

PhotoQuestGetty Images

In February of last year, I got to meet Justice Ginsburg. I remember two things vividly: first, that she carried a bedazzled bag with her image and the words “Notorious RBG.” She knew that she had a place in pop culture, and I think she would be thrilled by the number of people wearing face masks printed with images of her signature collar or sporting “Notorious RBG” bags.

But more important is the second thing I remember: she shared this quote, “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.” The lace collar is not her legacy. We are. And our humanity and dignity do not live in Supreme Court decisions. We affirm them every day, in the way we live, in the people we love, in the plans we make for our future, and the rights we expect our government to acknowledge and protect. For generations, we have built our lives on a foundation Justice Ginsburg laid. I built my own life and career—as a researcher, an activist, a mother—on the rights she affirmed with every majority opinion, every blistering dissent, every nuanced exploration of our great American experiment.

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Alexis McGill Johnson speaking at a rally against white supremacy, Washington, D.C., August 2019.

The Washington PostGetty Images

We came to expect that we owned our own bodies and lives and that no one could take that from us. Today, those who want to control our bodies are closer to their goal than they have been for half a century. They can tear down what we’ve built, but we will rebuild it, brick by brick. Planned Parenthood’s 17 million supporters, the 80 percent of people in the U.S. who believe abortion should be legal, and the 1 in 4 women who will have an abortion in their lifetime will build a future where we have true freedom to live our lives without judgment and with dignity.

The last year taught us to fight harder than we have in a generation. People across the country fought for our families and lives during COVID, they fought for democracy during the 2020 election, and they fought for Black lives in the streets. You’ve done this before. Now, we need you to do it again. Donate to abortion funds, support people who need abortions or have had abortions, educate yourselves and your loved ones and your communities about what is at stake.

We are called to fight not by history, but by the future. To fight not for Justice Ginsburg, but for my daughters, your sons, your communities. This moment is dark. But movements exist because of darkness and pain. They exist because we can imagine the light, even when it isn’t visible. Our job is to turn pain into purpose; pain into promise; pain into power. We were built for this moment.

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