Debbie Kitchen was 26 years old when she found herself pregnant. It was 1975, two years after the Supreme Court legalized abortion in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
And she was afraid.
As an adopted person who never met her biological mother, Kitchen didn’t know her genetic background or what could be passed onto her child.
“On top of that fear was the fact that I was a party girl. I was into drugs and partying and dating musicians,” Kitchen said. “I was not mature enough nor did I want to change that lifestyle at that time.”
So she got an abortion.
Nearly 50 years later, Kitchen was horrified when news broke that the Supreme Court was preparing to overturn Roe: “This is very, very, very much taking us backward. I don’t want to live in The Handmaid’s Tale.”
As the leader of the progressive group Indivisible St. Louis, Kitchen is one of the women born before the Supreme Court made Roe the law of the land who are now mobilizing to codify abortion into law. Prior to Roe, women only could get an abortion in a handful of states including Alaska, Hawaii, New York and Washington.
Spurred by the prospect that their daughters and granddaughters may not have the same rights as they had, these women are volunteering, marching and donating to candidates who support abortion rights. Some are running for office and training the next generation of female politicians, who they hope will keep the flame burning over reproductive rights and family planning.
They could be running out of time.
Tanya Washington Hicks, a law professor at Georgia State College of Law, is not surprised that conservatives are seemingly on the brink of overturning Roe.
“This has been a long time coming. Each of the cases following Roe has kind of limited, in many ways, the right that was recognized in Roe,” Washington Hicks said. “That right is dying a death of a thousand cuts, and I guess this will be the final cut if the actual decision mirrors what was expressed in that draft opinion.”
Associate Justice Samuel Alito draft opinion in Mississippi’s challenge to Roe v. Wade was leaked to Politico in early May, setting off a political firestorm.
“Roe was egregiously wrong from the start,” Alito wrote in the draft obtained by Politico.
Between 1973 and 2021, states enacted 1,336 restrictions on abortions, such as limiting public-funding for low-income women seeking an abortionand state-mandated counseling, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that studies and advances sexual and reproductive health rights.
In between that time, the high court’s 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision enabled states to ban most abortions once a fetus is able to survive outside the womb – normally after the first trimester. More recently, a Texas abortion law passed last year bans women from having the procedure after six weeks.
The court is expected to rule this month on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case that challenges Mississippi’s ban on most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. It’s this ruling that could be the fall of Roe.
Cathy Sigmon was 22 years old when Roe was decided. She was just embarking on adulthood after finishing college and was not politically minded. But she could feel the seismic changes that were happening.
“It was a time that women were undergoing a fundamental change in terms of empowerment and feeling like we were emerging from so many sort of constraints and restrictions,” Sigmon said.
That feeling of breaking through for women made her wonder if her stay-at-home mother was envious.
“I think she resented that,” Sigmon said. “She was sort of a prisoner of an earlier era.”
Sigmon got an abortion in 1977, five years after Roe was decided.
“I remember it being pretty easy,” she said, referring to access once abortion became legal. She said she doesn’t regret it.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers estimated that in 1972, 130,000 illegal abortions were performed. That fell to 63,000 in 1973 and 17,000 in 1974, one year after Roe was decided. They also estimated that the illegal abortion death-to-case rate in 1972 was 30 per 100,000—about eight times higher than legal abortion death rates.
Before Roe, deaths from illegal abortions accounted for the largest percent of abortion-related deaths. From 1940 to 1972, “more than 75 percent of abortion deaths were associated with criminal procedures,” the researchers wrote.
Janice Robinson, born in 1960, was a pregnant teenager in Anderson, South Carolina when her mom took her to get a ‘dark alley’ abortion.
“I was scared to death,” Robinson said of the experience. “Whatever that lady did to me was very uncomfortable.”
She came home from the abortion and “literally went through hell.” Robinson passed out, bled profusely and had to be nursed back to health by her mother.
“I tell people I’m lucky to be alive today,” Robinson concluded.
Washington Hicks, a family law expert, said the generations who came of age after 1973 have taken or granted Roe and the freedom it provided women.
“The Roe decision represented more than just a court ruling, it actually gave women full citizenship, which is complete with a whole host of rights and agency that they were denied prior to this decision,” she said.
Advocates throughout the nation fear that the loss of abortion rights could lead to the criminalization of pregnancy, with low-income women and women of color bearing the brunt.
In Louisiana, for example, a pending abortion bill includes a 10-year prison sentence for healthcare providers who perform the procedure. A previous bill would have allowed officials to charge women who received an abortion with homicide, but state Rep. Danny McCormick, the sponsor of the Abolition of Abortion in Louisiana Act of 2022, pulled the bill, after facing criticism from anti-abortion advocates for the murder charges.
Sigmon, a leader of Civic Engagement Beyond Voting, an Indivisible group, isn’t taking the possible loss of Roe quietly.
Given Arizona’s purple state status and the Republican control of the legislature, Sigmon’s number one priority is electing a different slate of state lawmakers.
“I mean it angered me, but it also made me want to do ten times more to help women candidates and to help change our state government,” she said.
The Arizona resident has donated to progressive women candidates, including Brandy Reese, a candidate for Arizona’s House, and Jeanne Casteen, a candidate for Arizona’s Senate, in the wake of the draft opinion leak.
These are “candidates who will exert their power at the state level, which is really where I focus a lot, rather than the national level,” Sigmon said.
If Roe is overturned and no federal law is passed, state legislatures will decide who has abortion access. At least 22 states are poised to immediately ban the procedure once an official ruling is issued. Four other states will also likely ban abortion as soon as possible.
All of the women advocating for abortion rights who spoke with USA TODAY stressed the importance of voting in this year’s midterm elections. The races in the fall will decide whether Democrats can keep hold of their slim control of Congress or if Republicans can take back the House or Senate and stymie President Joe Biden’s agenda.
Julie Womack, organizing director for Red, Wine and Blue, a grassroots group mobilizing suburban women, has hosted several “troublemaker” trainings to educate people on their rights regarding abortion and organize ahead of the midterms.
“I still think a lot of people don’t understand what’s going to happen in their own state,” Womack said.
The group is focusing on four states this election cycle where the legislature is controlled by Republicans: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Carolina. An Ohio resident, Womack is concerned people may not understand that if Roe is overturned Ohio could pass legislation that will ban abortion.
But Womack remains hopeful.
“I truly do believe that it will be a huge motivating factor for women to turn out” at the polls this November, she said.
More than a third (37%) of voters say that they would be more motivated to vote in the mid-term elections if the Supreme Court overturns the Roe, according to a new KFF tracking survey released Thursday.
Robinson, who had an abortion as a teenager, is now the North Carolina program director for Red, Wine and Blue. She trains North Carolinian women in friend-to-friend organizing and how to contact lawmakers about their support for abortion.
Part of her motivation is her anger at lawmakers’ attempts to limit personal autonomy.
“I let my anger drive me to do more,” she said. “More phone calls, reaching out to women, writing articles or whatever I need to do to make sure that my voice and the voices of women … particularly the voices of suburban women are heard in this nation.”
Cheryl Foster, reproductive rights group leader for Indivisible Texas Lege, has doorknocked for Texas Democratic gubernatorial nominee Beto O’Rourke. She’s also door knocked for Texas Democratic attorney general nominee Rochelle Garza, specifically for her pro-abortion stance.
“Rochelle seems to be upfront in your face. ‘I’m going to protect women. I’m going to protect women’s rights’,” Foster said, comparing her to GOP Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has helped drive the anti-abortion agenda in the Lone Star State.
Foster also advocates expanding the high court’s bench from nine justices to 13.
The post-Roe fight looks to be about “expanding the Supreme Court to match up with the federal court of appeals system,” said Foster. “We have 13 appeals courts; we should have 13 Supreme Court justices.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., threw cold water on expanding the high court last year, saying she would not bring a bill to the floor. However, in the wake of the draft opinion leak, more Democrats have reiterated the call to expand the number of justices on the Supreme Court.
Daniele Monroe-Moreno, an assemblywoman in Nevada’s Legislature, is still looking for her birth mother who gave her up for adoption when she was born in 1964.
Her mother was pregnant but not married.
“At the time, I don’t know if she would have had access to an abortion,” Monroe-Moreno said.
Years later, when Monroe-Moreno found herself pregnant with her first daughter and leaving an abusive marriage, she contemplated getting an abortion.
“I hid that [domestic violence] from my family for a long time because I was ashamed that I was in that situation and had to decide: Was it in my child’s best interest to come into that life?” Monroe-Moreno said.
Ultimately, she did not go through with the abortion. But Monroe-Moreno is adamant that every woman should have the right to make their own decisions.
“That is a right that I do not want taken away from my daughter, my granddaughters, or my future great-granddaughters, or even my grandson because a woman doesn’t get pregnant without a man being involved,” she said.
As a lawmaker in Nevada, Monroe-Moreno is working to pull forward another generation of women into politics who support abortion. She specifically has looked to hire younger Latinas and Black women to join her reelection bid.
Women of color face significant barriers when running for office due to lack of financial resources and party backing. And they are underrepresented in statewide offices across the nation and in Congress. Woman of color make up about 20% of the U.S. population according to 2020 Census estimates but they make up less than 10% of the current Congress, according to the Center for Women and Politics.
Monroe-Moreno is a graduate of Emerge, an organization that trains Democratic women to pursue political office; she hopes to start a training program for women of color in Nevada.
“I have a feeling of responsibility to pay it forward and have had that since I entered into politics to mentor the next generation of leaders,” she said.
Back in Debbie Kitchen’s day, women who got pregnant out of wedlock went away discreetly to get an abortion. Kitchen remembers a woman from her hometown in Cape Girardeau, Missouri who got a back street abortion.
The woman hemorrhaged and died.
“That’s something that sticks with you forever,” Kitchen said.
It’s part of the reason why she doesn’t regret getting an abortion.
Kitchen later married the man who got her pregnant, and they had a daughter when they were ready to become parents.
“We did the right thing,” Kitchen said. “We have a beautiful daughter to show for that. So this experience did not stop me from being a woman and wanting to reproduce.”