This Q&A is part of Sarah Jaffe’s series Interviews for Resistance, in which she speaks with organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who are doing the hard work of fighting back against America’s corporate and political powers.
Today we bring you a conversation with Eesha Pandit, a Houston-based writer, activist and consultant for social justice organizations and co-founder and managing partner at the Center for Advancing Innovative Policy (CAIP). CAIP is a think tank that harnesses grass roots wisdom.
Feminism — and debates over what it means — have been central to the movement known broadly as “the resistance.” But around the country, attacks on abortion rights continue, in the states and in the federal government. Pandit has been part of new organizing that connects attacks on abortion to attacks on trans people’s rights to use the restroom; connects immigrants rights to LGBTQ rights and sees different communities showing up for one another. This interview has been lightly edited.
Sarah Jaffe: Since the election and inauguration of Donald Trump and the Women’s March, reproductive justice is on everyone’s mind. Can you talk a little bit about the particular framework of reproductive justice and why it is important?
Eesha Pandit: Reproductive justice is a framework that came about as an intervention to the reproductive rights arena of advocacy, which focuses on the legal right to an abortion. Women of color activists came together to say, “Yes, access to abortion is important,” and also that “It is not the only place where women’s reproductive health care and autonomy is relevant.” For example, reproductive justice advocates often include environmental justice in their purview, because living in environments where there are toxins is really dangerous for people who want to become pregnant, or people who are pregnant, or children. A lot of reproductive justice advocates also take on, for example, issues of criminalization and police brutality, because not feeling as though you can raise your children in safety is an issue of reproductive justice.
— Eesha Pandit
Those are just some examples of the way that the reproductive justice framework says, “Yes, access to abortion and the right to not have children and to not be pregnant when you don’t want to be is significant, as is the right to have children and parent them in safety and with dignity.” What that does is open up the idea of reproductive justice to include intersections of a bunch of other issues and a more holistic approach to wellness and reproductive health.
SJ: Vice President Mike Pence, who will not be alone in a room with a woman who is not his wife, recently made the tie-breaking Senate vote on funding for Title X. This is an ongoing fight that often gets framed as defunding Planned Parenthood. Can you talk a little bit about what is actually at stake when they talk about going after this regulation?
EP: On the face of it, it is relatively straightforward. They don’t actually think that women’s reproductive health care is health care that counts and should be resourced in any way meaningfully. That is what that fight is about. It is also a symbolic takedown of the organization that is the face of access to reproductive health care and abortion rights.
But Mike Pence is particularly interesting, because Mike Pence has been on a crusade in his own state to not just limit access to abortion, but to criminalize abortion, to make it a crime to get an abortion. In Mike Pence’s state of Indiana, the first women that we know of have been incarcerated for having abortions and, arguably, also for having an unplanned miscarriage. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the law that was used to criminalize Purvi Patel in 2013 to criminalize her … miscarriage [which one anti-choice doctor suggested could have resulted from an abortion attempt] was actually a law that was intended to protect pregnant women from violence, to criminalize violence against women. Under [Pence’s] leadership, that state used a “violence against women” law to incarcerate a pregnant woman who had had a miscarriage. His ideology on this issue knows no bounds. It is a really important piece of his political legacy in the state of Indiana that we just can’t forget.
SJ: We often talk about having to elect a Democrat president so that we can keep the Supreme Court in the hands of a pro-choice majority, but we miss these fights on the state level. We miss what was going on in Indiana when Mike Pence was governor. We miss what has been going on in Texas, where you live. I would love for you to talk about the recent anti-abortion bills in Texas and the organizing that is going on to fight those.
EP: There has been, from the right, an attack on access to reproductive health care and abortion access at the state level. In the George W. Bush era, there was an unprecedented spike in the numbers of state bills that were introduced to limit or eliminate access to abortion. That trend has continued pretty unabated since then. The numbers have been really, really huge — hundreds and hundreds of bills being introduced a year in state legislatures. There is no other way to describe it but as a concerted onslaught.
It is happening at the state level, and in some places reproductive rights coalitions are able to beat this back or stem the tide. But the general trend has been a piecemeal evisceration of the right to access to abortion in states all around the country. What that winds up doing is engaging those activists at that level in reactive positioning. That is where the movement has been for a long time. It is responding to this overwhelming legislative attack on reproductive rights that has been going on for well over a decade now.
At the federal level, that tide and that energy has been mirrored by federal legislators in introducing these bills that limit abortion, defund Planned Parenthood…. When we think about what is happening in states like Texas, it is of a piece with this broader goal of rendering Roe v. Wade relatively meaningless, because of the levels of restrictions placed on access to abortion. In Texas, there are laws that require people who are seeking abortions to make as many as four trips to the doctor … and that have waiting periods and that shut down clinics — what we call TRAP laws, which are targeted attacks against reproductive health care providers in the clinics. We are still experiencing the repercussions of those laws for the past many years even though we did have a victory in the Supreme Court last year, or two years ago, that beat back some of the more egregious provisions there.
That is continuing now. The Senate Bill 25 — which they are calling the “wrongful birth bill” — would protect physicians from any legal retribution in cases where the health care provider, the physician withholds information about fetal abnormality if they believe that disclosing that information would result in their patient considering an abortion and terminating the pregnancy. It is essentially cover for allowing doctors to lie to their patients.
Texas is [like a case study for] other states that are considering these really far-reaching restrictive problematic anti-choice bills…. It is a really myopic approach to health care at the macro level. Then, it is pretty obviously about getting rid of people’s abilities to access abortion, even if physicians and lawmakers have to do that coercively.
SJ: Also, I was just looking at the Iowa state House pushing this thing that would require someone to carry a dead fetus to term.
EP: Those kinds of laws have been introduced before. Just the level of disregard for people’s humanity is astounding — [they don’t care about] what it would mean for someone to be forced to give birth to a fetus that they know is not alive or that they know will not survive. It is really, really gruesome…. It would take a particularly craven kind of person to feel like that is a legitimate way to restrict access to abortion.
SJ: I keep thinking about this in the context of everybody making fun of Mike Pence saying he won’t be alone with a woman who is not his wife. “Oh, right. You really just don’t think that women are people.”
— Eesha Pandit
EP: Certainly not people who are capable of thinking about their bodies, of having agency over their bodies. It is so regressive at this point that it would be laughable if it weren’t just so horrifying and traumatic for so many people involved. There is this idea of abortion access as being about controlling fertility, and that is of course what it is about. It is also actually legitimately a health care issue. It is really important for people to be able to have abortions when it is a matter of their health and wellness. Of course, it should go without saying that abortion should be legal if it would save the life of a pregnant person, but that even isn’t a given with some of these laws, where we have seen particularly religious health care providers refuse to do abortion services, and people getting shuttled off to other hospitals, and the delay resulting in the loss of their life.
It is hard to overemphasize how dire it is to have politicians messing around with health care… It is just so stark at this point that we even have to keep saying, “This is actually a medical issue. You really should have nothing to say about this. You are not medical professionals. You should not be able to say what doctors can and cannot do.” But also, giving ideological medical professionals cover to lie to pregnant people is really pretty shocking.
SJ: In talking about the organizing around this, I also wanted to bring up the so-called “bathroom bill” in Texas and the way that these things connect. I wonder if you can talk about this in this framework. Especially when you see these coming out of the same legislatures and the same span of time, very quickly, and the organizing against it connecting up.
EP: Ideologically, these are questions of bodily autonomy and the ability to control your fertility, control your reproductive life and control your gender expression and determine what that is. I think the bathroom bills are really about trans people in public space. They are really an effort to make public spaces unsafe for trans people and unwelcoming to trans people. That seems to me to be pretty clearly at the root of it. If you think about what life would feel like if you left your home unable to know whether you would have access to a bathroom in which you would be safe, and what that would mean for your participation in public spaces and in public life, that is really what that bill is about. It is about criminalizing and persecuting trans identity.
Especially because — and I can’t believe we still have to keep saying this — there is no single case ever known of a trans person attacking anybody in a bathroom ever anywhere. That is just not a thing that has happened. And, also, it doesn’t need to be said, but there are also already laws against attacking people, be it in bathrooms, adjacent to bathrooms, or anywhere else. You actually just can’t assault people. It is a crime to assault people. It is a crime to do it in a bathroom. It just doesn’t make any sense unless you think about it as a set of laws that are designed specifically to remove trans bodies from public spaces, which is the only context in which it makes sense.
Bodily autonomy and integrity is a key tenet of a reproductive justice framework … it is the same legislators proposing these things and supporting these things. It is of a piece with their worldview of who should be allowed to control what happens to their body and in what context.
SJ: In Houston, where you are, and Texas as a whole, there has been some really interesting organizing going on in response to these bills and to this agenda as a whole. I would love for you to talk about that and how people can take lessons from that for wherever they are.
EP: Houston is a blue city in, well, I would say in a solidly purple state — [though] red courtesy of gerrymandering and making voting inaccessible to so many folks in Texas. But, that being said, Houston went pretty solidly blue and supportive of Hillary Clinton. We also had two really significant victories [in November] that were a result of actively, intentionally intersectional organizing in Houston. Those were the electoral defeats of Devon Anderson, our district attorney, and Sheriff Ron Hickman, who both are conservatives and who campaigned on a racist law-and-order message. They were replaced by Kim Ogg and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who both campaigned on progressive pro-immigrants’ rights and pro-criminal justice system reform.
The pressure for those victories was really a result of local organizing. This includes organizing by black and brown communities to come together to talk about Harris County’s jail system. On one side of the jail, it is where a disproportionality high number of black folks are incarcerated, and on the other side of the jail is where the largest number of deportations in the country happen. So our community organizers have come together to do some shared agenda setting and to show up and to mobilize together on these issues. It actually was a really significant victory for Houston that a very progressive set of candidates — who campaigned on immigrants’ rights and criminal justice reform — were elected. To have that happen at the same time as Donald Trump’s election, it was really a complicated set of things.
— Eesha Pandit
Those coalitions that came together to form those electoral victories are now working together in the resistance. One of the things that you will see is folks from the LGBT community and from the racial justice advocacy community showing up to lobby and to speak and to testify against the anti-immigrant bill and vice versa. It’s one of the most beautiful things that is happening in the Texas Legislature now, and it is really satisfying to see the shock on the legislators faces when they are like, “Wait, what are you doing here? You are not an undocumented immigrant. What are you doing here to talk about this?” and things like, “What are all these folks doing here to support reproductive justice?” It is really kind of amazing to see that happening.
By necessity, folks in red states have to organize intersectionally. That is just a truth that some of those organizers, in particular, know, because of critical mass and issues being connected and common enemies, etc. It is really amazing to see that resistance happening now in Texas and to see it happening intentionally and specifically, and to be actually building momentum…
SJ: One of the things that happens in this moment is that you see these think pieces about “Should we just let the South secede?” and stuff like that. I think it is really important to highlight the work that people are actually doing in these places that get written off so often.
EP: There are so many levels on which to call bullshit on that. I grew up in New York, and I have lived in Texas for a little over three years. My parents have lived here for the past 25 years. I have this long relationship with Texas. Houston is the most diverse city in the country, and it is also progressive. This odd dismissal that happens of the communities in Texas is problematically elitist and xenophobic. But then, the other truth is that the strategies that Southern organizers have been using for generations are actually the strategies that are influencing national movements right now. Communities in Texas that have had to do intersectional work by necessity are serving as models for folks that have been trying to do federal legislative work but can’t figure out how to move national policy because of the obstructionist executive branch, or they are coming up against congressional roadblocks. There is a ton of learning [about] how to work in hostile political environments that folks in blue states are [doing] right now, and those strategies originate in the South, in red states and more broadly from the Global South.
SJ: I want to wrap up by talking about single-payer health care, which you have been paying attention to for quite a long time. In the wake of the complete and utter failure of the Republicans’ attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, there is all of this renewed motion for single payer. I would love to hear your thoughts about that.
EP: My first thought is, “Oh my god! This is shocking that this is even a national conversation.” We were really banging the drums for people to understand what single payer was in 2007 and 2008 when federal health care reform was happening. There is a broad lack of health policy literacy across the country. People don’t really understand health policy. It is intentional that that information is kept from them. People didn’t even really know what single-payer universal health care was, what it could look like, and what models in other countries are where people are guaranteed health insurance. That this conversation is happening, and [that] more people now know that there are these models that exist to ensure access to health care is astounding and incredible.
I will say that it was very satisfying to see the Republicans crash and burn on this, because honestly, what have they been doing for seven years? At least seven years. And that political deceit is really kind of staggering. Then, there is a more complicated question, and I haven’t seen much really good reporting or commentary — this question for me comes from the place of having worked on the passage of the ACA from 2009 to 2011. Particularly, I was working on women’s health issues. The role of the health insurance industry in this conversation is one that I am really curious about. I am glad to see renewed interest in single-payer health care or new interest in it. What I am curious about is how folks are thinking about, or whether they are taking into account the insurance industry lobby and its role in preventing single-payer from being a viable solution when the ACA was being considered, and what we might do to weaken that lobby or consider the ramifications or to build momentum to challenge it…. If people are interested in public health care, how are we going to make that happen? How could we make that happen with the current political structure being skewed towards the health insurance industry and its lobbyists?
SJ: Any ideas from your organizing on how to do that?
EP: Keeping the conversation going, constantly driving that option back into the center of options…. It is going to take a tremendous amount of political will. Also, probably some lobbying reforms, which I don’t know how we are going to get, but those two pieces are going to be key for actually making single payer a viable option, a viable federal option.
But, it most likely wouldn’t happen at the federal level first. I feel as though this is going to be another place where progressive states will do some leading. We will see that their economies don’t collapse and that people move there to work, etc. That is my best guess as to the way momentum will be built.
SJ: How can people keep up with you and your work?
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.