protest, Roe Overturned
This photo of protesters outside of the Supreme Court was taken minutes after the Dobbs decision was announced by the Court, overturning Roe v. Wade, June 24, 2022. Photo credit: Brett Davis / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED)

Felicia Kornbluh explores the future of reproductive rights post-Dobbs, the possible impact on the 2024 election, and the hurdles in broadening the fight.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast — marking the 51st anniversary of Roe v. Wade — I talk with Felicia Kornbluh, professor of history and gender studies at the University of Vermont. In our far-ranging conversation, we delve into significant shifts in the battle for reproductive rights following the Dobbs decision.

Kornbluh, drawing insights from her book, A Woman’s Life Is a Human Life, sheds light on the resurgence of effective activism in states like California, Ohio, and Kansas.

She explores how this wave of reproductive rights activism, ignited by Dobbs, is emerging as a key driver of political participation in 2024, potentially impacting the upcoming elections at local, state, and federal levels.

Kornbluh addresses concerns about the movement’s willingness to take on related initiatives — like a constitutional amendment to guarantee the rights of all Americans regardless of sex (ERA) — without becoming overextended and losing focus. The conversation points to a strategic shift towards greater grassroots activism on the local and state level and underscores the potential of the reproductive rights movement to inspire and guide future activism.

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Full Text Transcript:

(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. This week marks the 51st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and it’s been 18 months since the Dobbs decision dramatically altered its legacy at this crucial juncture where the threat of further erosion of American rights looms large. This is an opportune moment to reflect on the evolution of this fundamental right. Today, we’re going to delve into its inception, the loss it suffered, and the ongoing efforts to reclaim it, as it may very well serve as a beacon for the challenges ahead.

Joining me is Felicia Kornbluh, a distinguished professor of history and gender studies at the University of Vermont. She brings not just her academic expertise but a deeply personal connection to the topic. In her book, now out in paperback, A Woman’s Life Is a Human Life, she weaves a tapestry that connects historical narratives with the current struggle for reproductive rights. She illuminates the post-Roe landscape, reshaped and reignited by the Dobbs case. Her analysis extends beyond cataloging past achievements and challenges. It offers a blueprint for future advocacy.

She argues that in the ongoing debate, activism must transcend historical context, addressing the nuanced realities of reproductive justice today and the relentless fight for women’s fundamental rights. The debate is not just about revisiting our past. We’re also shaping our future in this dynamic and the ever-evolving battle for rights and dignity. It is my pleasure to welcome Felicia Kornbluh back to this program to talk about A Woman’s Life Is a Human Life: My Mother, Our Neighbor, and the Journey from Reproductive Rights to Reproductive Justice. Felicia, thanks so much for joining us once again here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Felicia Kornbluh: Thank you, and thank you for covering this important topic.

Jeff: Well, it is my pleasure. Thank you so much. And as we talk about this topic, as so much of the abortion battle moves from the courtroom and legal debate to really activism state by state as we’ve seen it take place over the past several months, is too much weight being placed on the movement? Are the expectations too high? When you look at not only the weight of the effort for abortion rights but also the political efforts that are being put on its back. Talk about that.

Felicia: Well, I think it might be too much to expect that grassroots activists can do everything. And yet, I don’t think that that emphasis is misplaced because if anything is going to change the equation, it’s going to be people working at the grassroots and it has been. We’ve seen enormous, enormous victories. And anti-abortion, I mean, I would call them often misogynist, anti-gender freedom forces are working overtime, right? So they’re trying to block some of these great victories.

But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that in Kansas, in Ohio, and certainly in states that are more friendly to abortion rights like California and New York and Vermont, there have been enormous, enormous victories since the Dobbs opinion in June of 2022. And if we’re going to see more of that, it’s going to come from momentum at the grassroots, both people doing protests and people doing very specific electoral kinds of organizing to pass state ballot measures and to elect the candidates who are going to preserve our rights.

Jeff: And as we’ve seen that activism is looked at not just to deal with reproductive rights, but it’s also been talked about as something that’s going to change the political landscape in terms of members of Congress that get elected or senators that get elected and even local officials that get elected. The real question is putting too much on it? Is the expectation too high? And could it have a potentially negative effect on the effort for reproductive rights?

Felicia: I don’t think it will have a negative effect. And it’s always hard to isolate one variable. But we did see not only in dedicated votes that were just about abortion rights, like the votes in Kansas and Ohio, but also in the November 2022 elections for the US Congress, we did see that the Republicans were expected to make much bigger gains than they really did make. And Democrats did better than they had expected because they were campaigning against the Dobbs opinion and against the Republicans that had enabled that opinion.

So no, I don’t think it’s too much to hope for or to expect. I think that the Democrats are waking up to the fact that people really care and that people will go to the polls. People are highly mobilized around this issue because it really matters and we can really see the difference that our votes make. And I think the movement has to continue to believe that it can make huge gains, and I think it will make huge gains.

Jeff: One of the things you talk about is that in a way the movement has come full circle, that it started out as a very activist movement. And you talk about the efforts in New York, and you talk about your mother’s efforts. And in fact, it went through a period where a lot of the battle took place in the courtroom, and now it’s back to activism again.

Felicia: One of the things I found is that the activism never entirely went away. Even after Roe v. Wade in 1973, which was considered to be such a huge victory, there are still more people in the field who are saying Roe is not enough because Roe did not legalize abortion throughout a pregnancy and Roe didn’t speak to some of the really persistent problems in our society like access to healthcare and the fact that we have a privatized healthcare system and a for-profit healthcare system. It didn’t speak to issues of race and class. So there were activists in the field all the way through, but of course, it wasn’t as huge a push as it had been before Roe v. Wade.

And since Dobbs in June 2022, we have seen a renaissance. And we’ve seen it, I think, in mainstream elections, get out the vote, voting for candidates for Congress in different ways and also in more militant activist demonstrations on the streets. And I see those things as complementary and as both making a huge difference. And then we also see lots of people who are doing outside-the-spotlight things to just help people get the services they need, helping people cross state lines, actually providing services, helping people access medication abortion, which of course is now coming before the United States Supreme Court. So I think all those things have made a difference.

And I would say everything that happens at the local level, everything that happens at the state level is absolutely essential. And we also need national action. Congress needs to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act or something comparable that would restore the rights that have been lost.

Jeff: Talk about the activism you see today and where you would like to see that activism focused. How broadly should it be focused? Because one of the things you talk about is not just reproductive rights but reproductive justice and a lot of issues that go along with that.

Felicia: Reproductive justice is a term and a movement that emerged in the 21st century, in this century. And it was a movement that was saying Roe is not enough and even securing access to abortion is not enough, because we’d still have these other inequities in our society. And so the essence of reproductive justice is the idea that if people are really going to have freedom in this area of their lives, they need to be able to choose not to have a child. So they need access to safe, affordable, accessible, reliable contraception and abortion care. That’s one side of the coin.

And then there’s another side of the coin, which is, are people really free to decide to have children when that is something that they, their partners, their families, really want to do? And when we started asking that question, then we realized that the agenda is really very broad. Then we’re talking about, do you have access to healthcare in general? Do you have access to safe and affordable housing in order to raise a family? Do you have access to a safe neighborhood?

One of the things I learned was even back in the ’70s, activists were saying, if your family, if your children are potentially subject to police violence, for example, like we’ve been talking about in Black Lives Matter, then you’re not really free to decide to raise a child if you’re always going to be afraid that you’re going to lose that child. And it’s such a tragic thing to think about, but I think putting it in the context of reproductive freedom or as we call it today reproductive justice, I think is really powerful. And I think we need to keep asking those questions, even when we’re fighting so hard just to secure people’s access to abortion care.

Jeff: And talk about how racial equality, racial inequality folds into this.

Felicia: It’s absolutely essential. So the other piece of reproductive justice, when we use that word justice, I think that should call to mind conversations we have about reparations and other matters of racial justice. And we should understand not only that starting from today, starting from 2024, people need to have both of those kinds of freedom, the freedom to choose not to have kids, the freedom to choose to have kids. So not only do we need that, but we also need to think about the histories. The very, very difficult histories that have brought us to this point and in which many people in our society, many subgroups in our society, racialized subgroups, have not in the past been free to bear and raise their own kids. So for example, we see for Black women in the South, in the post-World War II period, were subject to sterilization abuse.

Fannie Lou Hamer herself, the great activist, talked about it. She went into the hospital for one procedure and she came out and she had had a full hysterectomy, which prevented her from ever being able to have children after that point. I’ve written about women in Puerto Rico who had a similar experience. There was a governmental program at a time when abortion was illegal that said that sterilization was going to be the main form of contraception. It was going to be a normal form of contraception. So you see something like 35% of all women of reproductive age by the end of the 1960s having been sterilized as a matter of policy, as a leading policy.

And you see similar things in Native American reservations and among Mexican and Mexican American women in LA. So we have to do something to atone for or make allowance for, and understand those really difficult histories of actually depriving people of the right or the ability to have the kids that they may have wanted to have. And that’s another question, like what do we do as a society to make amends for that?

Jeff: Are you surprised at the degree of activism that has emerged in the post-Dobbs landscape and how successful it has been?

Felicia: Well, I think in the past few years I’ve seen a lot of people who are in this movement say that they were surprised to learn that their advocacy for abortion access or for reproductive rights was actually a majority opinion. In the United States, they were surprised to see that there were these huge majorities that were on their side. So I guess I was a little bit surprised, but maybe less surprised than some people. I knew that this was majority politics. I knew that the American people, and not just people who identify as women, but huge majorities of lots of subgroups, including people who think of themselves as men, have favored this for a long time.

It’s just that I think Democrats and liberals were not foregrounding it in their politics. So they didn’t know how much of a winner these issues were. So maybe I’ve been a little less surprised than some people by the activism and by the majority support. But some people in mainstream politics, I think, for sure have been surprised. And let’s hope that they’re going to use that surprise to continue foregrounding these issues.

Jeff: One of the things that’s so interesting about it is the degree to which it is a majority opinion even in states where the politics might lead to a different conclusion. When we look at places like Ohio and Kansas, there is a bit of disconnect between what seems to be the majority opinion on this issue versus the way the politics have played out in those states.

Felicia: That’s absolutely right. And I think that has come as an unwelcome surprise to the hard right conservatives who are on the United States Supreme Court, because for years, legal conservatives and anti-abortion people were hiding behind their supposed advocacy for democracy and saying like, “Oh, we have to turn this back to the states, to the ‘People.'” And not have nine people in black robes in Washington making the decision. So in Dobbs v. Jackson, that’s what they said. We’re going to turn it back to the states. And now it’s been turned back to the states.

And even though I’m opposed to that, what we’ve seen is when we allow people democratically to have their voices heard on this issue, they’re overwhelmingly in favor of abortion access or preserving the legal option. People may have different ideas about abortion itself, of course they do, but what people don’t want is their government telling them what to do in these intimate areas of our lives. And I think that we need to keep saying, people who care about these issues need to keep saying, this is democracy and we’re going to let democracy function.

Jeff: And is it possible that this really does become a model, a template, if you will, for other issues going forward where public opinion, majority opinion as you say, maybe counter to what the politics are at a particular place?

Felicia: Yes. Well, I think one thing that we’ve learned since Dobbs v. Jackson in 2022 is that there are a whole range of tactics and strategies that people can use. Not just to have their voices heard, but actually to change policy at the state level. And there are ways to get around a terrible Supreme Court or even a situation where there’s one house of Congress that’s in far right conservative hands, and so there’s deadlock. There are ways to move forward on things that we care about even when Washington is a hard right conservative or dysfunctional.

And also even in the states where anti-democratic conservatives are trying to gerrymander everything and control state legislatures, there are methods of direct democracy that people are using that I think are becoming and should be in the future, a template for how we do our politics. Like for example, statewide referendums where those are available to people, to organizers and voters, and rewriting state constitutions to preserve the rights that we really care about. And we’ve seen that in this area and I think that’s one way in which this is a leader not just on reproductive rights.

Jeff: How do you see this playing out in some place like Texas?

Felicia: Well, things are hard in Texas. It’s a place where the electorate is really mixed and there are people who are opposed to democracy, who have been gerrymandering the state legislature and statewide elections, and they’ve been intimidating Latino or Latin X voters and trying to keep them away from the polls. Texas could be a really blue state, but the way it’s being run right now, it’s not. Right now it’s a hard right state. And so they have a very restrictive abortion law on the books and that abortion law has an allowance for people whose lives and health are endangered.

They should be able to get abortion care. And even with that, the state government is not allowing people to get that care. And the state government refuses to specify what they mean when they say that somebody’s life or their health is at risk. And so we have this horrible situation where doctors don’t understand what they’re allowed to do and what they’re not allowed to do, and when they might be crossing the line and getting into criminal trouble. And we have patients whose problem pregnancies are emerging when the pregnancies are pretty well developed or pretty well on, and people are not able to get the care they need.

So we have Kate Cox. For example, this one individual whose pregnancy was non-viable and whose health was at risk. She had to leave her own home state. So what I see in the short term is a lot of inequality and a lot of negative outcomes. There’s litigation going on. They’re trying to get the courts to at least define what they mean by this stuff. But I think ultimately, even though I know there are progressives in Texas who are fighting really, really hard, I think for Texas there’s going to have to be a federal solution that’s going to trump the Texas level decision making because the politics are so hard.

So anti-democratic, so anti-woman, so anti-pregnant person and so hard. So I think we need to have some federal law that’s going to counter that.

Jeff: Talk about the anti-woman part of it, because that seems to be emerging as a stronger and stronger image out of someplace like Texas. And people are seeing that, I think, in a way they haven’t seen before.

Felicia: Yes, I think maybe it’s been a long time since people understood. I teach gender studies, and in a way this isn’t like a fancy point. It’s maybe not a cutting-edge point. It’s old-fashioned, but maybe we need to be reminded that our mainstream politics and our mainstream law really are imbalanced and have it in for women or people who are gender sexual minorities as we would say these days. And it’s pretty– I have to say I’m a woman and when I see it, it’s emotionally devastating. Are we full citizens or not? Do we count?

Would any of this stuff be happening if it had to do with some healthcare that was potentially lifesaving for men? It’s hard to believe that it would be like that. And so one of the things that we’ve seen is that there’s actually renewed interest and emphasis on unequal rights amendment, either at the federal level or at the state level. And I’m really interested in that. The ERA lost in the early 1980s. It was a great feminist failure. One of the great feminist failures in our history. And yet there’s been a real renaissance of interest in it. And I think it has a lot to do with this, not just with the abortion issue itself, but with what it represents, and people observing, not just women, but many of us observing and saying like, “Oh my God. Is this what our politics has come to? Is this what these guys really want to do to us?”

So I think that’s where it’s at. And I think we need to keep having that conversation. What’s the persistent sexism or misogyny, or whatever we want to call it, that’s at work here, and what are some tools that we can use against that?

Jeff: As you say, it’s hardly a cutting-edge issue, and even something like the ERA coming around again is the classic, everything old is new again, and maybe it will get a whole different approach this time around.

Felicia: Yes, maybe it will. There is a conversation at the national level. I don’t know how successful this is going to be, but to say essentially the ERA has already been certified by enough states, so we should just get the archivist of the United States to certify it and proceed from there. I don’t think that’s going to work. But I do think that there’s renewed conversation.

And one thing I’ve been watching is, for example, in New York state, and this is the only state I’m aware of where they’re doing this, they are doing a state-level vote on abortion access, but they’re not doing a vote around abortion by itself. What they’re calling for at the state level is a new ERA that would include women’s rights and sex-based equality, and would specify that reproductive access is part of that, is part of what they mean by sex or gender equality.

And then it also is about disability rights, and it’s about racial equality and a whole host of other forms of equality that I think we all care about. And I’m really interested in that as a model. I think in New York it’s going to be really successful. It’s going to help drive Democrats to the polls, and I think it’s probably going to be transformative legally. And maybe that’ll be a model for elsewhere in the country too.

Jeff: The downside of that though is to wonder if something as all-encompassing as that would’ve been as successful in Ohio or Kansas, for example.

Felicia: That’s a legitimate question. It’s a really legitimate question. And I think depending on where you are and what the strategic thinking is on the ground, there are legitimate debates to have about what’s the best way to start such a campaign. What’s the best way to start having a conversation with people in your state or your locality about what needs to be done? What’s the best next step? So for New York, I agree that seems like a great next step because they already have really strong support for reproductive rights in 2019.

Even before Dobbs, they passed a progressive reproductive health act at the state level. So there are particular places and Ohio may be different, and other more conservative states may be different. I think this also comes up– State level advocates debate about whether they should go for full abortion access. No matter what week of pregnancy you’re in, whether it’s the first trimester or third trimester.

And in some states that doesn’t fly because people have more concerns about what it might mean to allow people to have an abortion in the final weeks of a pregnancy. And I think those are questions that activists on the ground who know their communities have to sort out. And I don’t think we should have any kind of purity test about what’s an appropriate or an effective strategy. I think activists in their own states need to figure that out, knowing their populations.

Jeff: Talk about the complexity that the broader movement has to face, dealing with this basically in 50 different landscapes and the problems that are inherent in that.

Felicia: It’s very difficult, I think. And we’ve seen an enormous, enormous investment of time and volunteer effort, door knocking and petition getting– And an enormous investment of money. One thing I think about even in my home state of Vermont, which tends to be very liberal and very progressive, we had a state– And I’ll just use this as one example.

We had a statewide initiative to write reproductive liberty, as we call it, into our state constitution. And it went really well. We won in every single town in the state. But I just started thinking like, “What if we had used all that money and all that volunteer labor and all that energy and enthusiasm to move things forward? What’s the next stage that we really need to create a humane society and to create gender equality and other kinds of equality? What if we had really done universal healthcare which we tried to do some years ago and failed? What if we had really done an anti-poverty initiative that would be transformative and would really toll everybody out of poverty? What if we really went to unauthorized immigrants and created humane living situations for them?”

So I really started to think about that, what economists call the opportunity cost of spending all this time trying to defend what should be a baseline human right. And that, I have to say, makes me sad. I would like to see us move to the next stage and not have to keep refighting and re-litigating something that we should already have. I also think it’s good that it’s an opportunity for people to come together and for people to engage in direct politics.

Real democratic politics that maybe people have lost the taste for or some of us maybe had lost the taste for. So, okay, now we’re coming back because of this– Here’s this really, really important right that hits us at home and we have to fight for it. So that part of it I like, and I would like to see if we could win these battles and put them behind us and secure these rights at the national level and move on to the next stage. What do we really want to create in this society?

Jeff: Felicia Kornbluh, her book just out in paperback is A Woman’s Life Is a Human Life: My Mother, Our Neighbor, and the Journey from Reproductive Rights to Reproductive Justice. Felicia, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on WhoWhatWhy’s Podcast.

Felicia: Thank you.

Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy’s Podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy’s Podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to


  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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