Davos, Switzerland – Nearly 50 years after abortion was legalized in the United States, a wave of restrictions, bans and court cases have made the future of abortion access less certain than ever.
Wednesday marks the 47th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide. While attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Planned Parenthood acting president Alexis McGill Johnson spoke with CBS News in an exclusive interview about the state of abortion access in the United States.
"Here we are talking about the fourth industrial revolution and yet we are still talking about the impact of all of these onerous restrictions and bans on access to safe and legal abortion in the States," Johnson said on Wednesday morning. "I think there's a perfect illustration of this, is the idea that there's actually a tale of two cities right now, the idea that … in one state there's a girl who's literally opening up her imagination, her ability to think about her future in a totally different way, and in another state and city she's actually fighting just to get access to basic, basic health care."
This year could prove to be a landmark year for abortion access. In March, the Supreme Court will hear arguments for— the first time it will hear a case on abortion practices since the addition of the high court's two new conservative justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
"We're already living in a world where there are abortion deserts, where it's difficult to access. When you layer on this case, which, if it doesn't overturn Roe will have the impact of ... effectively gutting Roe, the work that we have to do is really push back," Johnson said."
At the center of June Medical Services v. Gee is Act 620, Louisiana's "Unsafe Abortion Protection Act," a 2014 state law not currently in effect. Similar to a Texas law that was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2016, Louisiana's law requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital no more than 30 miles away. If the law is allowed to be implemented, all of Louisiana's abortion clinics would close, as first reported by CBS News.
Last year, state legislatures introduced an unprecedented number of abortion restrictions and bans. State lawmakers introduced over 300 anti-abortion measures in 2019, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion rights research organization. Twelve states passed bans on the procedure, including a near-total ban on the procedure in Alabama. Though all have been blocked by federal judges, many other restrictions have gone into effect, including mandatory waiting periods and other measures designed to dissuade women from choosing an abortion.
In 2020, Johnson said to expect "more of the same."
"We expect to see more of the targeted restrictions against abortion providers, limiting their ability to provide access to services or we will see more intense scrutiny and burdens put, placed … on the person seeking the abortion," Johnson said.
This legislative session, lawmakers in South Carolina will look at a six-week ban on the procedure while politicians in Tennessee and Ohio are set to consider near-total bans on the procedure.
While at Davos, Johnson said she is discussing how these restrictions impact the workforce.
"We know that if we want women to succeed in business, if we want to increase the level of participation of women at the CEO level or the C-suite level, it's incredibly important for women to be able to control their reproductive health because we know that access to controlling and planning when … you will be pregnant, also impacts your ability to engage in the economy," Johnson said.
The following is the extended interview with Planned Parenthood acting president Alexis McGill Johnson and CBS News reporter Kate Smith. It has been lightly edited for clarity:
Kate Smith: What are you hoping to bring back from what you're learning here for Planned Parenthood?
Alexis McGill Johnson: Well you know it's so interesting. There are a number of tracks on healthcare systems and innovation within healthcare systems and I feel like that to me is this special unique place for Planned Parenthood.
The opportunity to both kind of think how we're going to engage in healthcare delivery for our health centers and our patients. And then also, make sure that we are engaging with our business community as well to talk to them about the impact of all of these restrictions on the workforce of the future.
So what do you want to bring back? Anything you've heard that's particularly interesting?
There have been a number of sessions on data, and ensuring that we are using the access to data in a way that's really helping us think about how we're solving for impact, how we are engaging across a number of platforms. The theme of the conference is the fourth industrial revolution and so all the ways in which technology is going to disrupt and engage and how we get in front of that disruption has been really exciting.
Today is the 47th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion nationwide in United States. What is the status of abortion and reproductive health in the United States today?
Well, here's the irony, right? I'm actually 47 years old, so I'm as old as Roe. And here we are talking about the fourth industrial revolution and yet we are still talking about the impact of all of these onerous restrictions and bans on access to safe and legal abortion in the States. I often talk about it in terms of healthcare shouldn't be dictated by our zip code, and I think there's a perfect illustration of that.
There's actually a tale of two cities right now in the United States.
Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles has actually just opened five health centers – five wellbeing centers inside of high schools where young girls are walking in and getting access to amazing information about their reproductive health, as well as access to contraception. They don't need parental consent and it's actually free because of MediCal.
In the state of Missouri, a young woman might be driving 200 miles to St. Louis to get access to abortion service and she might have to listen to a state-mandated script, and then come back to actually have the procedure and all the while there may be some person in the state health department who's actually tracking her menstrual cycle in an Excel file.
So the idea that in one state, there is a girl who's literally opening up her imagination, her ability to think about her future in a totally different way, and in another state and city she's actually fighting just to get access to basic, basic health care and I think that's the state of reproductive rights right now.
As an organization, how do you combat the idea that there's completely fragmented access to reproductive healthcare in the United States?
There is fragmented access in the sense that, again, state by state, people have different experiences accessing healthcare. We've had 300 [restrictions] just last year. We've had 180 judges who've been confirmed over the last few years.
So we are engaged in that fragmented access, but I do feel like we are more aligned in terms of our kind of relationship with our partners on the ground. We are really building out relationships in a very deliberate way with independent providers, with our reproductive justice communities and engaging in figuring out how our advocacy can be strengthened as a movement when we move forward together.
There's new data today from Kaiser that says that 49% of people support so-called "fetal heartbeat" bans, bans on abortion after six weeks, and 50% oppose them. It's about half and half. What do you make of that?
We also know that almost eight out of 10 Americans support Roe as the law of the land and there's no state in the United States where people feel as though it should be overturned.
I think that what's happened is that people, largely the conservative and the anti-abortion community, have been effective in trying to take this away from the choice that the woman should be making in concert with her partner, with her doctor, with her pastor, with her religious provider, whomever, and put it in the hands of the state legislator.
When you drill down deeply into that, when you talk about the stories that people are actually going through when they're making these decisions, you see people retrench back from that.
Even though Americans do support Roe v. Wade, many of them support many of the restrictions that could make Roe v. Wade effectively useless. I mean how do you combat that? How do you look at that?
We're already living in a world where there are abortion deserts, where it is difficult to access. When you layer on this case, which, if it doesn't overturn Roe, it will have the impact of effectively gutting Roe, the work that we have to do is to really push back to our states.
If Roe's overturned, that means it goes back to the states, and we need to make sure that state by state we are fighting for access in every state legislature. I think that's the long game. 2020, in November, whether or not we, get a pro-choice White House and a pro-choice Senate and hold our amazing pro-choice House, that will all be wonderful if that happens, that that trifecta happens.
If it doesn't, we will still continue to have to fight with all of these and contend with all these Supreme Court cases that are winding their way up that will have the impact of effectively limiting access.
For the Supreme Court case in March, are you worried?
Yes, absolutely, because the only reason they would take a case that was identical to Whole Women's Health is because the court makeup has changed. If you know we have Justice Kavanaugh on the bench – and we're very clear on where he is on this issue – that will really be concerning for us.
Our plan, Planned Parenthood, we're at our best when we were both kind of looking forward and pushing back at the same time. That's a kind of unique strength that we have. While we are here engaged at Davos, learning all we can about how to provide health care delivery to those who are in the most marginalized communities, we are also thinking about how we are going to transfer those skills in the U.S. and ensure that we are mapping out strategies that every person who desires access to abortion will be able to get one.
If the Supreme Court were to uphold the law at the center of the Louisiana case that we're going to see in March, what would be the impact?
I think what it will do is actually embolden state legislatures across the country to enact these similar bans and TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws around abortion providers that will then eventually impact our ability as abortion providers to provide access to abortion. If Roe is gutted or overturned to the point where access is banned in those states, we're talking about 25 million women of reproductive age who will be limited with their access.
Do these kinds of restrictions and regulations make Roe effectively useless?
Yes. I think it's very similar to what we saw with the Voting Rights Act. You have a federal enforcement of the federal protection of voting and yet, all of these limitations that are being put in, these voter ID laws, these limitations to actually accessing or exercising your right to vote, it's a very similar model and in fact it's one of the reasons why I've been so heartened to hear a few candidates really adopt strategies that look at things like pre-clearance, things that actually may make a difference on the federal level while we wait to see what the courts bring back to us.
What can people expect to see from Planned Parenthood moving into the 2020 election?
We've just announced a $45 million spend, which is unprecedented and historic for us to engage over five million voters, undecided voters. We will be out state by state engaging, turning out, educating and ensuring that they understand what's at stake in this election.
Planned Parenthood has received criticism for spending so much money in elections, especially when they receive taxpayer dollars for non-abortion services. How do you justify spending so much money on an election?
We are a healthcare provider, but we also have to defend access to the health care that we provide. The monies that we are raising are going into federal PAC dollars. These are not resources that would be going into any entity that would be engaged in providing health care.
Moving into 2020, what can we expect to see from a regulatory standpoint for state-level abortion restrictions.
I think we expect to see more of the same, we expect to see more of the targeted restrictions against abortion providers, limiting their ability to provide access to service or we will see more intense scrutiny and burdens placed on the person seeking the abortion.
Last year we saw an unprecedented number of abortion bans and restrictions. This year, you say we're going to see more of the same. Does it ever feel like Planned Parenthood is losing this battle?
This isn't about Planned Parenthood. This is about the millions of people that we serve and when you actually look at the the state of support for Roe, the 77% of Americans who actually believe that Roe should be the law of the land, you have to wonder why it's not translating.
To me, the case is that there's a vocal minority who control the levers of power and our work is to really shift those levers of power in 2020 to ensure that the will of the people actually remains the law of land.
One of the biggest themes of Davos is always corporate consciousness. How can companies tap into their stakeholders, not just their shareholders, and align their values better with the people that surround them. So, how can Planned Parenthood tap into that?
There's always been a conversation around gender equity. We know that if we want women to succeed in business, if we want to increase the level of participation of women at the CEO level or the C suite level, it's incredibly important for them to be able to control their reproductive health.
We know that access to controlling and planning when and where you will be pregnant also impacts your ability to to engage in the economy. We also know that the impact on the workforce, that the workforce of the future as women continue to gain ground in a number of these fields including technology, will be incredibly important for these conversations.
So the CEOs are not unaware of it. In fact, 180 of them signed a letter in July of last year, advocating for greater access to contraception, so I think they are aligned. It really is important for them to not just talk the talk but ensure that they are also walking the walk and continue to advocate for these policies to increase access across the board.
Is that something that we can expect more of as more of these bans and restrictions roll through?
I think, you know, the conversation here is around public-private partnership and it's also about engaging in relationships with with our various governments and states. I really do hope that CEOs will look at opportunities to engage more directly in these conversations and to be more vocal because their workforce is demanding that of them as well.