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Protecting the Right to Abortion Post-Roe

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Photo of Zoraima Pelaez
Photo of Zoraima Pelaez

Zoraima Pelaez, a 2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Robyn Lipton and Bruce Kuhlik, recently spoke with us about using impact litigation, advocacy, and coalition building to protect the right to abortion.

What inspired you to pursue a career focused on protecting the right to abortion and ensuring meaningful access?

As someone who has had an abortion, I am deeply committed to dismantling abortion stigma and fighting for everyone’s right to decide whether, when, and how to parent. Before attending law school, I was a community organizer and abortion storyteller in Texas. My time as a community organizer deepened my knowledge of the harmful impact of abortion restrictions and the creative strategies for combating these attacks. It also introduced me to a community of bold and compassionate reproductive rights and justice advocates who have kept me grounded in hope, despite how hard the work can be. We always say that the courts won’t save us; we will save us. This spirit and the resilience of our community is what inspired me to join this movement and is what will keep me in it in the challenging years to come.

Abortion is currently unavailable in 14 states, and courts have temporarily blocked enforcement of bans in eight others. How are these state abortion bans impacting your work and what are some of the consequences you are seeing as a result of these restrictions? 

When the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturning Roe v. Wade, abortion access was decimated across large swaths of the country. Laws banning abortion are now in effect in more than a dozen states, denying more than 20 million people of reproductive age access to essential health care. While it’s true that the promise of Roe was never realized for many marginalized and under-resourced communities, the impact of its reversal has been devastating—especially for those who were already struggling to navigate the complex web of abortion restrictions that existed prior to Dobbs. As abortion bans went into effect across the country, the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project filed a dozen lawsuits keeping clinic doors in several states open to patients in need of care, including in Ohio, Arizona, Michigan, Indiana, and Utah. While reproductive rights litigation and advocacy are still evolving to respond to the post-Dobbs environment, we continue to hold the line, as well as advance innovative legal and advocacy strategies in federal and state courts to both protect and expand access to care.

With abortion restrictions mounting across the country, there have been conversations about digital privacy and security for those seeking abortion access. Is digital privacy protection one of the uphill battles that await abortion rights advocates?

 Digital privacy and security have become increasingly important in a post-Roe legal landscape. Many states seek to criminalize not only the provision of abortion care within their borders, but also to criminalize people who travel to obtain abortion in states where it is legal, as well as those who assist them—and the rise of the surveillance state has undoubtedly made access to the private information of abortion seekers, providers, and helpers possible. The ACLU, and other leading reproductive rights organizations, are addressing abortion criminalization and related issues by establishing the Abortion Defense Network (ADN) to assist providers, patients, and helpers access legal advice and representation. One of the components of the ADN is the Abortion Criminal Defense Initiative, housed at the ACLU, which works alongside a network of experienced criminal defense attorneys who are prepared to defend those facing prosecution related to abortion care. For more information on these initiatives visit: https://abortiondefensenetwork.org/ and https://www.aclu.org/news/topic/abortion-criminal-defense-initiative-reproductive-rights.

What are some other anticipated challenges that await abortion rights advocates in the courts in 2023?

We are currently awaiting a decision in a case out of Texas that could remove FDA approval for mifepristone—one of two medications used in the medication abortion regimen that currently accounts for over 50% of abortions in this country. The outcome of this case could effectively impose a nationwide ban on mifepristone, even in states where abortion is still legal. Unfortunately, this is far from the only threat on the horizon. We have seen bills proposing criminal penalties for assisting people who are seeking care out of state, fetal personhood measures, restrictions on contraception care, and more. The ACLU and our partners monitor these measures closely and will continue to fight threats to abortion and other essential reproductive healthcare in legislatures, at the ballot box, and in the courts.

During your Equal Justice Works Fellowship, you’ve been working to build and strengthen coalitions throughout the reproductive rights, health, and justice movements. Can you tell us more about these partnerships and these groups and advocates are working together to navigate barriers to abortion access?

I represent the ACLU in a multi-organization working group focused on identifying and addressing issues that youth face in accessing abortion care post-Dobbs. Specifically, I analyze issues that justice system-involved youth and immigrant youth may face in accessing abortion care—with a focus on youth in states where abortion has been banned. I also recently worked with local counsel, providers, and a reproductive justice organization in Guam to oppose the Attorney General (AG) of Guam’s Rule 60(b) motion. The motion seeks to lift an injunction on a decades-old abortion ban that was permanently enjoined after the ACLU brought litigation in 1990. If granted, the AG’s motion would revive a law that prohibits nearly all abortions in Guam and criminalizes patients seeking abortion care. This would have particularly severe consequences for people in Guam who would face a Hobson’s choice of either carrying a pregnancy to term and giving birth against their will; making a costly, 4,000 mile trip to obtain abortion outside of Guam and potentially risking criminalization upon their return home; or facing severe criminal charges for self-managing their abortion in their own community. It has been a privilege to work with the people in Guam to ensure this extreme abortion ban remains blocked.

Lastly, what has been the most exciting part of being an Equal Justice Works Fellow and what are you hoping to achieve in the first year of your Fellowship?

The most rewarding thing about being an Equal Justice Works Fellow is getting to work alongside providers, advocates, and communities that—despite being burdened with decades of abortion restrictions, and now bans—have refused to give up. In the first year of my Equal Fellowship, I plan to develop new legal strategies that can be leveraged not only to preserve access to other forms of reproductive health care, but also to create the foundation for a new, broader right to reproductive freedom that can one day encompass stronger protection for abortion access. I also plan to continue collaborating with coalition and local partners to reduce barriers to accessing and providing abortion across state borders, and challenging new threats to reproductive freedom that arise out of the 2023 legislative sessions.

To learn more about Zoraima’s Equal Justice Works Fellowship, visit her profile here.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow