The Real Question Isn’t How to Save Abortion Rights, but How to Prepare for Their Absence

The most valuable thing Robin Marty's Handbook for a Post-Roe America offers may be the simple reassurance that you can do something.

[Photo: Young black woman sitting down, holding book entitled 'Handbook for a Post-Roe America.']
Handbook for a Post-Roe America might be obsolete before long, but today it is an indispensable response to a looming threat, offering everything from model legislation to instructions on protecting your privacy in the event of an extralegal abortion. Seven Stories Press

I had just gotten home from a protest outside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center when I found out about Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement last June. Like many others, I greeted this news with anger and despair. One more Trump-appointed justice would inevitably tip the scales on many issues, but my immediate fear was for Roe v. Wade and the constitutional right to an abortion.

Many of my friends were panicking. People posted on Twitter about stockpiling massive quantities of birth control and emergency contraception. That’s it, was the prevailing sentiment. So much for reproductive rights. I was terrified, less for myself than for my daughter, envisioning all kinds of Atwoodesque dystopias that might come about by her adolescence. I probably cried, as I did regularly in 2018.

While I was freaking out, journalist Robin Marty was organizing her thoughts into a Twitter thread. Having written about abortion rights and their opponents since the mid-2000s, including for Rewire.News, Marty was quick to dispense with hand-wringing over the future of Roe; as she sees it, an overturn is now inevitable.

Kennedy’s retirement “was essentially a signal saying Roe v. Wade was up for grabs,” she told me over the phone. The question has become, she says, not how to save abortion rights nationwide, but how to prepare for their absence.

Marty’s thread quickly garnered enough attention that she turned it into a HuffPost article, and then a book proposal, and then a book. After a breakneck round of drafting and editing, Handbook for a Post-Roe America will be available January 15. When I spoke to Marty, her publisher had just sent her photos of the finished product, but she hadn’t yet seen a hard copy in person.

“If you’re talking about abortion, everything changes every month,” Marty said of the frantic timelines. Her first book, 2013’s Crow After Roe: How “Separate But Equal” Has Become the New Standard In Women’s Health and How We Can Change That , was co-written with Rewire.News VP of Law and the Courts Jessica Mason Pieklo in a two-month sprint and published only four months later; it is being updated and released in a new edition later this year, with additional chapters on developments under the Trump administration.

Handbook for a Post-Roe America might be obsolete before long, but today it is an indispensable response to a looming threat, offering everything from model legislation to instructions on protecting your privacy in the event of an extralegal abortion.

Much of what Marty discusses will not be new to those already involved in pro-choice organizing, but for people who have never considered the possibility of a world without Roe, her analysis is accessible without oversimplifying. She separates the feasible from the counterproductive: “Yes, buying a bunch of [emergency contraception] feels like a really proactive way to stick it to Trump and the rest of the anti-abortion politicians. But remember, most EC has a shelf life of three to four years, and in some cases the clock may already be ticking.” Throughout the book, Marty also points out the ways in which racism, poverty, and other oppressions restrict access to abortion beyond what is specified in the law. She highlights the importance of a reproductive justice framework that “goes far beyond just reproductive health and rights to highlight the intersections of race, class, gender, socioeconomic status, immigration status, religion, and the other intersections of women and people’s lives.”

Handbook assumes the reader is coming from a pro-choice position and doesn’t waste much time arguing the validity of abortion rights. It can be hard to remember that belief in the right to an abortion is so mainstream, given how consistently and effectively it is threatened, but in fact most people in the United States support Roe. Attacks on the autonomy of pregnant people are the result of a vocal and tenacious minority who, unfortunately, have enormous influence in the White House and many state legislatures.  In her years covering abortion, Marty said she’s found that “even people who say they’re ‘pro-life,’ if you give them a specific example of someone wanting an abortion—say, a mother who just went back to work after having her fifth child, trying to get back on her feet—they’ll say yes, she should have access.” Solving this nationwide cognitive dissonance, however, is not Handbook’s mission. It simply aims to put as many tools as possible in the hands of advocates, or those ready to become them.

As reproductive rights organizers have insisted for generations, Handbook points out that making abortion illegal “does not stop people from seeking it, it only divides them into those who have the resources to find a safe abortion where it is legal, and those who attempt illegal abortions with a variety of success.” And despite the specter of wire coat-hangers and “back-alley” abortions hanging over any debate about reproductive rights, Marty acknowledges that self-managed abortions, particularly medication abortions, are a safer and more viable option today than in decades past.

Handbook is cautious about emphasizing that it does not offer medical advice, but merely reproduces information that is available elsewhere. “I definitely talked to some lawyers,” Marty told me with a laugh. Nonetheless, Marty does offer detailed explanations of various approaches to self-managed abortion, including reprinting a diagram explaining how to make a vacuum aspirator to perform the early abortion procedure called menstrual extraction.

The overall focus of the book, however, is less about preventing or ending unwanted pregnancies than it is about maintaining abortion access wherever possible. For those who don’t want abortion rights to disappear but don’t have the time or inclination to be front-line activists, Handbook offers plenty of ways to contribute, from supporting businesses near abortion clinics to donating airline miles for people who must travel for a procedure. Marty also suggests realistic political goals depending on one’s state of residence, listing which states have “trigger laws” that will immediately ban abortion if Roe is overturned and where the procedure will likely still be available.

Handbook for a Post-Roe America also includes a state-by-state listing of resources, from clinics to abortion funds to activist groups, which is more than 100 pages of the barely 300-page book. Although a guide like that can’t remain comprehensive for long, it reminds those of us just joining this struggle that we are not starting from nothing. The war has been waged since before we were born. None of us can win it alone, but all of us can find ways to help.

Indeed, as crucial as the practical advice is, the most valuable thing Handbook offers may be the simple reassurance that you can do something. At a time when proponents of abortion rights feel frightened and overwhelmed, Marty reminds readers that this struggle is not new, and precedents for facing it exist.

“While this moment may feel like a crisis point,” writes Marty in the introduction to Handbook, “the truth is that for many communities this fight has been going on for decades, even centuries.”