PITTSBURGH—"I can't wait to cancel out my dad's vote."
The theme of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund's membership summit was The Power of Pink, but Audrey Leonard had just articulated what I would come to understand as its unofficial, almost spiritual, motto.
Call it the anti-dad bloc, if by “dad” you mean a certain kind of conservative, often older, male voter. The same constituency that has, in a great many states in this country, defined whether and how women like Leonard can access basic health services.
The 18-year-old college student from Indiana was one of nearly 1,000 people, most of them under 30, who had traveled to Pittsburgh to spend an overcast weekend in May comparing notes on canvassing and discussing the implications of the 2020 U.S. Census on congressional districts.
It wasn’t fun, exactly. But neither was having two dozen states with anti-abortion Republicans controlling both the legislature and the governor’s office—a combination that has created something of a hermetic political seal against progressive efforts to expand access.
Which is why Leonard was in the Steel City, eating bland conference food and spending her afternoons troubleshooting strategies to get people on voter outreach lists to actually pick up their phones.
The event, the first of its kind for Planned Parenthood, was focused on the small stuff by design. The organization was building out its grassroots network in an effort to fight accelerating state-level attacks on access to abortion and, often, Planned Parenthood's very existence.
"We very quickly had to get our bearings and figure out what we needed to do in these states in order to fight back," Deirdre Schifeling, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, told me. "We are building our strength because we must. But we are 9 million strong, and the thousand people who are here today are the tip of that iceberg."
The weekend was also, even if unintentionally, grappling with many of the same questions being raised by the Bernie Sanders revolution among young voters: How do you translate the emotional stuff of popular support into an organized coalition that can actually get shit done?
Planned Parenthood was amassing an army to find out. This was boot camp.
It would be a mistake to think that the current political climate was a result of the secretly recorded videos of Planned Parenthood staff discussing fetal tissue recovery and donation, but they were a convenient accelerant to a long-burning fire.
In the nine months since “Planned Parenthood sells baby parts” became a thing—albeit a thing discredited by one investigation after another—congressional Republicans have launched five committees and passed a bill to deny the reproductive health provider funding. (President Obama vetoed the bill after it reached his desk in January.)
But the real story, for many years, has been playing out in the states. Since July of last year, 24 states have taken action to deny funding or otherwise restrict Planned Parenthood. And in the first three months of 2016 alone, states introduced more than 400 restrictions on access to abortion.
This wasn’t lost on the young women I spoke to in Pittsburgh. Many of them lived in these states, which have have served as laboratories for recent actions in Congress.
“No one even knows about [state] representatives, so you have to remind them,” Leonard, wearing glasses and a no-bullshit expression, told me during a breakout session on youth organizing. She had just finished mapping the logistics of a campus support group for pregnant students.
“They almost matter more to me than, like, Bernie Sanders does,” she continued. “They affect how I live in my town. And it's scary. Especially when they're all old white men.”
Her dad, she said, liked Donald Trump. So did 590,460 other Hoosiers, men and women who helped the businessman and reality television star win her state's Republican primary, cementing Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee.
She was focused on the presidential election, she said, but the consequences of state-level elections felt just as pressing.
Indiana was the first state in the country to try to strip Planned Parenthood of its funding. And earlier this year, the Republican-controlled legislature attempted to force women who terminate pregnancies to pay to cremate the fetal remains. That provision failed, but the sweeping anti-abortion bill it was attached to did not.
To date, Indiana has nine restrictions on access to abortion, including an 18-hour waiting period and a ban on using video conferencing to counsel patients taking medication to induce abortion, which expands access for women in rural parts of the state, far from a clinic. Republican Gov. Mike Pence has been a strong supporter of most, if not all, of this legislation.
Other women I met that weekend talked about similar trends in their own states:
Kentucky (six restrictions, including a 24-hour mandatory waiting period and a ban on having private insurance cover abortion except in certain cases); Arizona (six restrictions, including a 24-hour mandatory waiting period and a law that, while currently blocked pending a legal challenge, requires doctors to inform patients that abortion is “reversible”); Texas (six restrictions, including a ban on abortions after 20 weeks and a law requiring doctors to narrate ultrasounds to their patients.)
"This stuff matters. My ridiculous governor, my dad voting for Trump," Leonard said. "I like to feel like I am doing something to at least speak up."
Speaking up hasn’t been difficult. Search “I stand with Planned Parenthood” on Twitter and you are greeted with an endless scroll of messages of support. Women from across the country protested on Capitol Hill and shared stories of the services—from treating yeast infections to abortions—that they’ve received at one of the organization’s nearly 7,000 health centers.
Translating that support into a change in policy—or, say, the general priorities of Congress and conservative state legislatures—has been the hard part.
With a certain kind of budget, conferences can sometimes take on awards show-levels of luxe absurdity. I have attended events with enough booths and giveaways to constitute a small gratis shopping mall.
The Planned Parenthood membership summit was not that. In a glass-front building the size of a city block, there was just one table for registration. At one end of the long stretch of conference rooms, a few chairs and headsets were in place for people to watch an interactive, virtual-reality film about what it’s like to cross through a line of protesters when entering a clinic.
The weekend, decidedly unflashy, was about other stuff. Like how young people don’t really vote in non-presidential election years, and how that’s really, really bad for organizations like Planned Parenthood.
The 2014 midterms were, perhaps predictably, something of a bloodbath for Democrats because midterm elections skew old. In 2008, when young people turned out for Barack Obama in record numbers, voters under the age of 30 made up 18% of the electorate. In 2012, the youth vote inched up to 19%. But in 2014, without a presidential candidate on the ballot, it dropped to 12%.
Which is why increasing turnout among young people who support reproductive rights was a major agenda item at the conference in Pittsburgh. One session, which attendees were told by cheerful facilitators would be “the most fun,” was primarily a PowerPoint presentation about campus outreach strategies that had succeeded in registering students to vote. (Setting up a table with a full-size Beyoncé cut out worked really well in Texas.)
At the end of another session, a facilitator passed around slips of paper asking each participant to write down the names of dormant volunteers they would contact when they got back home, in an effort to hold themselves “accountable.”
It was, in other words, kind of dry. But if there is anything that the progressive movement may be slowly coming around to, it’s the reality that, in order to compete in any of the states where access to basic reproductive health care is most contested, the grunt work of organizing has to get done.
This was not a hard sell for the young women I met that weekend, who had traveled in some cases hundreds of miles to the conference. It may be a harder sell for their peers back home.
You know those people you blow past on the street after they ask you to give up crucial minutes of your lunch break to sign on to some list or agree to some donation to support Planned Parenthood? Those campaign calls you don’t pick up because they're coming from an unlisted number? That is unglamorous, often dejecting work.
It is also the business of flipping districts, getting amendments on the ballot, or challenging registration deadlines that many see as a barrier to full voter participation.
Kaia Sikora, 20, a student at Indiana State with electric pink hair that was the same shade as her T-shirt (“Planned Parenthood Action Fund: I Vote”), had been part of the group developing ideas for a teen pregnancy support program. After the session, we started talking about her organizing work back at school.
She was interested in the presidential campaign, she said, but she seemed just as focused on turning out other students for state-level and local ballots.
"I think a lot of people don't realize that the president doesn't really get to make a lot of decisions without the House and Senate,” she said, adding that the Republican majorities in Congress had made the kind of changes she was interested in nearly impossible to achieve.
“If there's ever a narrative about Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, I always make sure to stamp it with something local so that people have a working knowledge of the laws being passed,” said Grecia Magdaleno, a 21-year-old Arizona native with a shaved head and bright red lipstick.
There’s a lot to pull from. When Trump talks about a “deportation force,” he is talking about the kind of policing that Arizona enacted under SB 1070, its sweeping immigration enforcement bill. When he says he wants to defund Planned Parenthood, he means like how Texas managed to exclude it from its family planning infrastructure, denying it Medicaid reimbursements.
These aren’t just policies that could change people’s lives, Magdaleno told me. In states like hers, “They already have.”
And so Planned Parenthood’s pivot is really an attempt to answer some of the fundamental questions facing the progressive movements more generally: Can it turn national support—polls show people like Planned Parenthood more than, say, any of the current presidential candidates—into an activated base? A national network that will vote for candidates who support the work, who will get pissed about the gerrymandering that has locked their district into a partisan black hole, and who will turn out for down-ballot elections on weird days that are not in November?
For now, it remains an open question.
“The community I'm in, it seems like they're just not interested. College, classes, clubs, it's like the last thing they're paying attention to is local politics,” Kailah Waheed, an 18-year-old student from Connecticut, told me with a shrug. “People are paying attention to the presidential election, but I have friends who aren't even registered to vote. I think getting them registered is the first step.”