Vice President Harris’s Fight for Reproductive Freedom

Ben Jealous

By Ben Jealous

It matters deeply that America has a woman as our vice president. That has never been truer than at this moment.

Nothing makes this more clear than Vice President Kamala Harris’s courageous decision to champion reproductive freedom in the midst of a full-on assault on the right to choose.

Right now, Vice President Harris is traveling the country on an extensive Reproductive Freedom Tour.

As noted by the New York Times, “The vice president has been the administration’s most forceful voice for abortion rights in the year and a half since Roe v. Wade fell.”

Even among those of us without a uterus, the impact of the vice president’s courage affects many of us personally in our lives.

It affects me as a girl dad, as a member of this country, and because the person who shaped me most as an organizer is my grandmother, Mamie Todd, who started her career in social change at Planned Parenthood in Baltimore. Even though abortion was illegal then, the basic mission was the same: reproductive health and freedom. And while the work mainly focused on birth control, education, and some routine healthcare, it was not without its challenges – especially in a Catholic city in a Catholic state.

By the early 1940s when my grandmother was doing this work, things had come a long way since 1916 when Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was arrested for opening the nation’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. But the Comstock Act was still on the books and enforced. That law defined contraceptives as obscene and made it a federal crime to send them through the mail or transport them across state lines.

In the pre-Roe v. Wade era, when abortions were illegal in most parts of this country, many still depended on them. Some required them in order to extricate themselves from abusive relationships or avoid other dire consequences. Being illegal, the procedure was risky. Abortions, forced to be conducted in secret, frequently resulted in death or injuries that would leave women unable to bear children.

Adding to the risk back then was that many of the people who performed these abortions were terrible doctors … or not even doctors at all. Yes, there were abortion providers who displayed their own courage, taking great personal risks to ensure that women would not have to stay in dangerous situations. But the reality was the patients were desperate. And there was no system for review of, or accountability for, this type of medical care.

From 1973 until 2022, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, abortions were safe and legal. Now, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs case has created a flood of laws threatening to send us back to the dark ages. This goes for women who are attempting to sever ties with dangerous men and those in other horrific situations many of us can only imagine. And it is not stopping. Just this month, the Missouri state Senate voted down two amendments to the state’s medieval abortion laws that would have allowed exceptions for rape and incest.

That’s why Vice President Harris’s leadership is so important. It is easy to imagine that whoever was vice president in these times would be fighting these attacks … that a male with a similarly impressive resume as a litigator and advocate could too be a stalwart for this fundamental right. But the difference is evident when you watch Vice President Harris on the stump, speaking against these laws that would deny freedom to women who find themselves in the situation my mother was in back then. You cannot help but sense that she feels the urgency to help those women in her bones in a way that no man could.

Let me clear, however, about the responsibility that men have at this moment to be good allies. The matriarch of my family, my grandmother, set a powerful example with her fierce advocacy for equality and reproductive freedom. But my parents taught me an important lesson as well. Part of my parents’ bond has always been that my father understood men have a role to play in the fight against gender inequality and sexism. President Biden and Vice President Harris’s teamwork in pushing back against state-level assaults on the right to choose, to me, echoes that lesson.

It is time for all of us, regardless of our sex or gender, to stand together and push back against the callous disregard for the lives, health, and social equality of those of us for whom abortion must remain a fundamental right. The legions of lawmakers who received, and are now acting upon, the Supreme Court’s signal to eviscerate reproductive freedom will not stop unless we stop them. Thank God we have a courageous woman in the vice presidency fighting to do just that.

Ben Jealous is executive director of the Sierra Club and a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania.