When Alexis McGill Johnson was officially named president of Planned Parenthood this June, the 48-year-old social justice advocate had her work cut out for her. Abortion access was already imperiled in the U.S. before the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; now, with hearings for anti-choice nominee Amy Coney Barrett beginning on Monday, the fight is more urgent than ever.
“These are incredibly turbulent times, and it has been exhausting,” McGill Johnson told Vogue via phone last week. “But it’s also been incredibly hopeful to see our supporters’ response in this moment.”
Coney Barrett’s record on reproductive rights has been troubling to many, and she’s expected to face tough questions on it during her confirmation hearings this week. Now, Planned Parenthood has begun a new art series initiative to preserve “the people’s seat,” in honor of the late justice’s final wish to not confirm a successor until after the election. The “All Rise for Justice” art series, which collaborated with visual artists Tiffany Alfonseca, Julian Alexander, Deva Pardue, and Shepard Fairey to visually illustrate the potential danger of putting Barrett on the Supreme Court, was designed to make people engage with this fraught topic in a new way.
“We do so much work from a policy and electoral standpoint, or even a public opinion standpoint—because we know the majority of Americans support Roe v. Wade—but the power of culture in really tying those together is major,” said McGill Johnson on a recent call, quoting author Toni Cade Bambara in reference to the new initiative: “The goal of the revolutionary artist is to make revolution irresistible.” The art will roll out on Planned Parenthood’s Facebook and Instagram pages over the next week.
Below, McGill Johnson speaks to Vogue about the SCOTUS hearings, how to mobilize before the election, and the importance of optimism.
Vogue: We’ve seen so much about potential nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s beliefs on abortion. What do you think putting her on the Supreme Court would mean for reproductive rights?
Alexis McGill Johnson: I think it’s fairly easy to predict, actually; I think she is an active and vocal threat to reproductive health and rights. She’s already made it clear that she thinks Roe v. Wade is immoral, and part of our concern is that there are 17 cases that are one step away from the Supreme Court right now that could limit abortion access or lead to an outright ban. A good example of one of those is the 2019 Georgia ban of abortion after six weeks, which is before many people know they’re pregnant. It is clear [Coney Barrett] will be hostile toward reproductive rights, and she’s also been really critical of the Affordable Care Act, which will be heard in November; we’re literally sitting in the middle of a pandemic, and we know that if that act is overturned, 30 million Americans could lose their health insurance. It feels like, at a time when we are still vulnerable as a population, we shouldn’t be rushing through this confirmation.
Speaking of the pandemic, I’m wondering how COVID-19 has complicated reproductive-care access for people across the board. Is that something Planned Parenthood has seen?
Yes, it’s definitely complicated access. As you know, early on in the pandemic, there were a number of executive orders in states that said abortion was not a time-sensitive procedure, so we’ve kind of seen a little bit of what a post-Roe world could look like. We saw patients traveling from Texas to Colorado, driving 20 hours just to get access to medication abortions, putting their children and elderly parents in the car—because the majority of people who need abortions are actually already parents—and we just saw the toll it’s taken on our providers, who had to answer questions about whether or not they were able to offer the procedure. We saw that early on, but our health centers have continued to open up their doors and provide access; we’ve also seen increased telehealth, and we were able to get that up and running, so that’s been part of the stop-gap around sexual and reproductive health, but people have not been coming in as much because of the pandemic. It’s definitely taken a toll.
How can we help ensure access to reproductive rights and access across the country, beyond voting in November (or earlier)?
The first thing is, we have to continue to fight in the Senate, because we haven’t gone through the confirmation process yet; we have to make it clear that filling this seat is wrong, and hold our senators’ feet to the fire and demand that they are consistent with the precedent set by Mitch McConnell in 2016 around Merrick Garland’s confirmation. Particularly if you live in a state where your senators are Susan Collins, Cory Gardner, Thom Tillis, Mitt Romney, Joni Ernst, or Chuck Grassley, those are the places where we think we can get some leverage and momentum. It’s really important for those senators to hear that this confirmation should happen after the inauguration, which is what a majority of people polled say should happen. On a state level, we need to be ensuring that people understand what would happen in their state and where their federal protections would end.
This summer illustrated, for a lot of people, just how badly the medical profession is capable of discriminating against underserved populations. What are some of the greatest reproductive-care barriers that you see working against people of color and Black people, in particular?
Well, the Hyde Amendment, which is a provision that bars the use of federal funds for paying for abortion, disproportionately impacts women of color. Roe is, [speaking in terms of intersection], the floor—as I like to say, it’s the floor, not the ceiling, because for a lot of people, abortion access is already a right in name only—so I think that’s really important to consider. The number of state bans and laws targeting not just the providers, but now shaming and stigmatizing the people seeking abortions; I think those are the places where Roe being overturned would have more of an impact on people of color.
I can’t imagine how it feels to lead Planned Parenthood this close to such a divisive election. How are you getting by right now?
Honestly, I have to think about that [laughs]. Mostly, I’m getting by through the energy of the movement; I’m hopeful because I’ve never seen this kind of outside organizing across a variety of issues. We are as strong on the outside as the potential that we have inside, and a Biden/Harris victory could really help move an agenda that could improve people’s lives. That sustains me, for sure; everything is really crazy-making, but if you can keep your eye on the prize of what real freedom looks like and imagine a world where you have the right to self-determination and control over your body, that helps.