Photo by Heather Sten.

Meet the Lawyers Fighting for Abortion Rights All the Way Up to the Supreme Court

This year, the Supreme Court will hear its first abortion-related case since Trump's appointees took the bench. That doesn't worry this team.
Feb 12, 2020 @ 9:00 am

It was January 2017 and Meagan Burrows’ first week on the job as a lawyer with the ACLU and the Reproductive Freedom Project (RFP). Along with her colleagues, she was scrambling to file a preliminary injunction on a mandatory ultrasound law that had passed in Kentucky. Without it, abortion providers would be legally forced to show and describe ultrasound images to their patients and play the fetal heart tones prior to performing an abortion, regardless of the patient’s wishes. A heavy workload wasn’t anything new for Burrows — she had spent two years at a corporate law firm to pay back student loans — but fighting this hard for continued access to abortion care wasn’t what she thought she’d be doing when she interviewed for the job.

“I applied to and was interviewing for this job the summer leading up to the election, when many of us anticipated a Clinton presidency,” Burrows, 30, tells InStyle. “We were discussing all of our plans for proactive work, what we were going to do to expand abortion access, and our vision for a Supreme Court with a seat filled by a Democratic president.”

Meagan Burrows by Heather Sten.

The nature of Burrow’s potential workload shifted dramatically when Donald Trump was elected, but that didn’t scare her off from joining the ACLU.

“It’s not as though the White House flipped and suddenly abortion rights were at stake — it’s a battle that the reproductive rights movement has been waging at the state level for a long time,” Burrows says. “So when they said, ‘We’d still love to have you if you are still interested in coming’… well, the refrain that many of us have said in the movement since Trump was elected is: Yes. More than ever.”

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After taking office, Trump fulfilled his campaign promise to appoint Supreme Court justices who’d overturn Roe v Wade, the 1973 decision that solidified abortion as a Constitutional right. Then, conservative lawmakers passed a record number of abortion bans.

In 2017, 19 states passed 63 laws restricting access to abortion. In 2019, 58 abortion restrictions passed, and 12 states passed some kind of ban. Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Ohio moved to ban abortion at six weeks, before most people even know they’re pregnant, and Alabama passed a total abortion ban. And while none of these have gone into effect — abortion is still legal in all 50 states — these laws represent a shift in the anti-abortion movement’s gameplan. Instead of chipping away at access with restrictions, the GOP is putting forward blatantly unconstitutional bills knowing they’ll trigger a legal challenge, which they hope will reach the Supreme Court (which is now lopsided enough to overturn Roe v Wade).

So far, all is going according to their plan. This March, the Supreme Court will hear June Medical Services LLC v Gee, the first abortion case since Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh joined the bench. The case is being argued by the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), and if the court rules in favor of the Louisina abortion law that requires providers to acquire hospital admitting privileges — which mimics a 2015 Texas law that shut down more than half of the state’s 42 clinics before being struck down by the Supreme Court in 2016 — Roe v Wade will essentially be gutted. And on Jan. 2, 2020, more than 200 members of Congress urged the Supreme Court to instead overturn the decision entirely.

“Their goal has always been to prevent people from getting abortions, but they had been using this sort of incremental approach,” Jen Dalven, 48, Director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, tells InStyle. “But when they saw the new Supreme Court Justices they decided to just go for broke.”

Jennifer Dalven by Heather Sten. Sweater: La Ligne.

The ACLU is currently handling 17 abortion-related cases at the state and federal levels across the country. The five women interviewed here are waging that fight alone but represent a team of 14 lawyers who make up the RFP. (They tell us there is one man on the team, and he’s wonderful.)

“It has really hit a fever pitch,” Dalven says. “But we take a lot of strength from our clients: the folks who’re fighting these laws on the ground and trying their best to serve their patients in very hostile states — the Alabamas and Kentuckys of the world, places where there’s real sacrifice on the parts of their professional and personal lives. We have it pretty easy being here in New York City.”

Of course, what Dalven and her team consider “easy” is anything but. They’re working long nights, evenings, and weekends. They’re missing vacations with family or working during their increasingly rare "time off." They’re missing bedtime routines with their kids, time with friends, and nights with their partners.

Brigitte Amiri by Heather Sten.

“It’s been really intense for us,” Brigitte Amiri, 45, Deputy Director of the ACLU’s RFP, tells InStyle. “This is probably the hardest we’ve all worked at a concentrated period of time. There’s always been an ebb and flow to our work, but now we’re at a constant [flow] — there hasn’t been a lot of downtime. We’re just non-stop running breathless, and that’s been unusual, to have this kind of onslaught.” Amiri, who has a 6-year-old daughter, says she hasn’t been around as much as she'd like, and has had to pass on family and friend get-togethers as a result of her caseload. “But everyone understands and really supports my work," she says. "I feel very fortunate that I have that support system to be able to do this — and hopefully we will have some down time at some point.”

That down time isn’t on the horizon just yet, and that’s regardless of what happens in November.

Alexa Kolbi-Molinas by Heather Sten. Sweater: La Ligne.

“When there’s a Democratic president in office, people assume that everything is going to be fine, and don’t really understand that so much of this happens at the state level,” Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, 40, Senior Staff Attorney with RFP, tells InStyle. “Obviously a president can do bad things — we’re fighting on the federal and state level — but it doesn’t necessarily get easier or make the fights go away when there’s a Democrat in office.”

That’s because a fight to keep abortion accessible isn’t just about keeping Roe v. Wade on the books. It doesn’t matter what federal law says if people across the country still can’t get the care they need. And many already can’t. A reported 90% of counties in the United States do not have an abortion provider, and six states are down to just one provider each. This is largely as a result of “TRAP” laws, or Targeted Restrictions on Abortion Providers, which put requirements on clinics that don’t have much to do with health or safety (such as: the layout of a janitor’s closet). When a provider can’t afford to comply, they are forced to shut down.

“I think Kentucky is a perfect example of what happens in a state where the attacks have been just one on top of another,” Amiri says. “Shortly after Roe was decided in 1973, there were 17 places where you could get an abortion in Kentucky. Now, there’s only one — and they’re our client, EMW Women’s Surgical Center.”

The preliminary injunction the newly hired Burrows and her colleagues filed in January of 2017 was on behalf of EMW against a TRAP law. A federal trial judge struck down the law, but it was upheld in the court of appeals. On the day InStyle interviewed the RFP team, the Supreme Court announced that it wouldn’t hear the case, allowing the law to immediately go into effect.

The lawyers were tasked with the heartbreaking job of calling their clients and telling them that now, in Kentucky, abortion providers must administer medically unnecessary ultrasounds, show those ultrasounds to their patients, describe them, and play fetal heart tones — even if their patients say no. They did this while each awaiting their turn in the hair and makeup chair, before and after sitting for these photos.

“It’s really rough to have to explain to a clinic what they’re going to have to do now for nonsensical reasons — for political reasons that have nothing to do with science and medicine,” Amiri says. “And as health care providers their first response is, ‘Why? Why do we have to do something that has nothing to do with making sure our patients get the care that they need?’ And that disconnect — between what health care providers know to be true and the politics of it — is just really hard to have to live with and to break the news.”

The team wins more cases than it loses, though. So any disappointment in defeat, while palpable, is swiftly followed by action.

Elizabeth Watson by Heather Sten.

“We prepare for these things all the time, so even though we’re disappointed that the Supreme Court didn’t take up this case, we knew that it was a possibility,” Lizzy Watson, 31, Staff Attorney with RFP, tells InStyle. “Most patients just want care, so even though they have to jump through all these hoops to get it, they’re going to do what they have to do. We’re just trying to minimize the effect on them.”

The team has also found ways to de-stress, refocus and reprioritize as they move on from a disappointing ruling and look toward the many cases ahead.

“I meditate every day,” Watson says. Kolbi-Molinas says she leaves the house at 7:30 every morning to swim before work.

“It’s such a labor-intensive job,” Watson continues. “So making sure we appreciate each other and making sure we all hear from each other [is important].” And of course, for every lawyer on the team, perspective helps.

“I’m not a martyr and I’m not a workaholic, and I also recognize that there are people on the front lines of this battle that have such a higher level of stress in their life,” Amiri says. “So I put things into perspective and I appreciate the support system and the other ways that I’m able to do my job and still sleep and see my kid.”

By the end of our day on set it’s clear the team shares that almost-frustrating level of humility. In moments of intense stress or letdowns that would seem heartbreaking, they buck up and keep at it.

“There are so many other people who are part of this ecosystem,” Amiri says. “There are the abortion funds that make sure people who don’t have enough money can access abortion — whether it’s for travel, child care, paying for the abortion itself. There are the volunteers outside the clinic who make sure patients can get in without being harassed by protestors. We all work really hard to make sure people aren’t going to go without care in these crisis moments.”

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But in many parts of the country people already are going without care, and Black, brown, and poor people bear the brunt of that crisis. According to the Guttmacher Institute, Black and Hispanic people are more likely to experience unintended pregnancy than white people, due in no small part to a lack of contraception access and hurdles to reproductive health care. For Watson, whose Black father and white mother met in a Louisiana high school shortly after schools began integrating, and who left the state to find a home where they’d feel safe, it is the ability to serve these communities that fuels her tireless work.

“I wanted the movement to be more representative of the people that we’re serving,” she says. “And it’s very important to me to be in the reproductive justice spaces where we’re taking about all the things that the community needs, that Black people need and Black women need and Black families need, and not just abortion.”

The ACLU lawyers of the Reproductive Freedom Project all had incredibly different plans heading into the 2016 election. From expanding access to care to working with a more liberal-leaning Supreme Court, the future they envisioned on Nov. 7, 2016, in no way included a flagrant assault on the Consitutional right to access abortion care. As a result, it’s difficult for many of them to even take a shot at envisioning the future now.

“I can’t imagine how busy it’s going to be in 2020,” Watson says. “Because it was so busy in 2019.” From flying to various states to meet with the abortion providers they represent, to filing emergency briefs for individual immigrant women in need of care, the work was overwhelming and emotionally taxing. But Watson says that because it’s work in which they’re wholeheartedly invested — morally, ethically, professionally, and politically — it’s work they gladly run toward.

“How can they possibly make it worse than it already is for patients?” Watson continues. “I mean, that’s not a challenge — please don’t try. But the Constitution is the floor not the ceiling, and states are always trying to lower the floor.”

And now, in 2020, anti-abortion lawmakers in those same states are working to demolish the floor entirely. Passing as many abortion restrictions as possible is a noted Republican goal for 2020, so the ACLU is responding accordingly. The team is preparing for the first hearing for the Women’s Health Protection Act on Feb. 12 (an effort from the CRR as part of the Act for Women Campaign), arguing at the 9th circuit on the Title X case on Feb. 27, arguing at the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals on an Ohio law March 11, and preparing to file an AMICUS brief in an upcoming Supreme Court birth control case sometime in April.

“We are so privileged to work at an organization that enables us to be able to say, ‘Whatever you need that lawyers can do, we are going to do it,’” Kolbi-Molinas says. “[Our clients’] work is so important, and what they’re up against on a daily basis —  regardless of who is in office, regardless of what’s happening at their state legislatures — is so heroic."

To be clear, this work is done in service of what the majority of American people want and need. Support for abortion is the highest it has been in nearly two decades71% of American voters support Roe v Wade and don’t want it overturned. For the lawyers fighting against party politics, laws being passed in opposition of the will of the people is infuriating. “I am someone who is often filled with rage, as they say,” Kolbi-Molinas says. “But it’s motivating.”

And as for Burrows, who is beginning her fourth year as an ACLU lawyer, as (she hopes) Trump begins his final year in office, the team’s successes are just as motivating as their righteous indignation.

“I would say what pushes us forward is that we are winning a lot, despite what is happening in the world, despite the fact that it feels like sometimes we’re fighting an uphill battle and as soon as we get one law blocked there’s another crazy law on the table that makes no medical sense and is completely contrary to judicial precedent,” she says. “But we are winning.”

 

Photographs by Heather Sten, assisted by Flaminia Fanale. Hair by Yohey Nakatsuki. Makeup by Angela Davis Deacon. Styled by Samantha Sutton and Kristina Rutkowski, assisted by Alexis Bennett and Copelyn Bengel. Art direction and production by Kelly Chiello.