How Kierra Johnson Is Ensuring Young Women Have A Say In What Happens To Their Bodies
Kierra Johnson says her mom never imagined her daughter would be fighting to improve abortion access when she grew up. Johnson is the executive director of Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity (URGE), but her mother didn't think her daughter would be fighting for something her generation fought for so many years ago. An emotional conversation a few years ago had Johnson’s mother in tears, telling her, “I wouldn’t have ever guessed that we would be in crisis mode about these kinds of issues in the 2000s. I thought this would be done by the time you were an adult.”
It’s frustrating, Johnson says. It’s 2016, and it’s awfully possible that young people today might have less decision making over their bodies than their mothers and grandmothers. Since 2010, more than 300 laws restricting abortion access have been passed, one of the most well-known in recent history being Texas’ HB2, which went to the Supreme Court and was struck down on Monday in a rare win for women's reproductive rights. Johnson and URGE — which was founded by Gloria Steinem, Julie Burton, and Kristina Kiehl as Choice USA in 1992 — have been working to fight against laws like HB2 for decades.
Johnson is dedicated to improving access to the legal health service for all women, but she particularly focuses on ensuring young people’s voices are heard. Barriers to abortion access disproportionally affect young people, and the way to break those barriers down is by sharing those lived experiences.
“Young people,” Johnson says, “have more power than I think they often know.”
That caveat is important — that young people don’t know they hold a great deal of power. “That’s by design,” Johnson says. Politicians are clamoring to get the vote of people ages 18 to 30, because they're now the largest voting bloc, which is why it’s vital for young people to recognize that they can wield that power just by getting out to the polls. It's time to take action, and that's exactly what URGE, a national organization with several on-the-ground chapters in a number of states, is doing.
“People were just pissed off,” Johnson says. “That’s probably the most real description. People were pissed off, people were scared, right?” Wendy Davis had recently held her famous 11-long filibuster, so many Texas residents were already in a state of emergency. (And if you're wondering how Davis reacted to the Supreme Court ruling, see her interview with Bustle here.) Abortion legislation wasn’t moving in the direction that would mean access for women, and it was time for Texas — and the rest of the nation — to mobilize.
When Johnson says abortion barriers have a disproportionate effect on young people, here’s what she means. HB2, which would have required abortion doctors to have admitting privileges to local hospitals and requires that clinics have the specifications to be ambulatory surgical centers, would have meant that Texas’ 19 clinics would have shrunk to 10.
So, if a woman in El Paso wanted or needed an abortion, she would have to drive more than 500 miles to the closest clinic in San Antonio. That’s, at minimum, a seven-hour drive one way, so she’d need not only transportation, but also somewhere to stay, a job that would allow them to take that time off, maybe child care, and of course, money. “I don’t know how many 18 year olds, even 20 year olds, who have all the things that they need,” Johnson says.
In Texas, Johnson and the entire URGE team have been working to ensure that the messages and narrative surrounding the effects this bill could have include the voices of young, diverse people, who it would predominately affect. And Johnson is more than qualified to be at the helm of this effort. She began working with URGE in 1999, when it was still known as Choice USA, as a participant in the National Gloria Steinem Leadership Institute. She was soon awarded the Maxine Waters Reproductive Freedom Fellowship and received the Young Women of Achievement Award from the Women's Information Network as well as several other awards.
Proponents of HB2 argued that the bill was meant to protect women and their health by ensuring that clinics were as up-to-standards as possible. But there was a reason #StopTheSham trended on Twitter.
HB2, opponents argued, was a sham law that pretends to protect women, but ultimately serves to just make abortion harder to access. Even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her stunning concurrence, wrote, "Given those realities, it is beyond rational belief that H. B. 2 could genuinely protect the health of women, and certain that the law “would simply make it more difficult for them to obtain abortions." That is something Johnson absolutely agrees with.
“[HB2] isn’t about protecting women’s health. It’s about playing politics with women’s health. And not only is it wrong, it’s dangerous.”
In fact, Johnson thinks HB2 goes beyond just making abortion harder to access. She says ultimately it comes down to the government controlling who can and can't be a family and who is and isn't fit to be a parent. In some states, Johnson said, thanks to family cap policies, federal insurance doesn't cover abortion, but it also mandates that if you are on welfare and have another child, you don't get additional support. "So, the same entity is staying no you can’t have an abortion, and it’s saying actually we don’t support you to be a parent, either," she says.
As great as the ruling striking down HB2 was, the fight is far from over. Even though the Supreme Court ruling "affirms that each person deserves compassion, respect and dignity in making health decisions without needless barriers," there are still a lot of next steps for reproductive rights, that includes ensuring the government doesn't get to decide who can and can't become a parent as well as making sure abortion is actually accessible. That means services being affordable and covered by health insurance, no matter what the woman's zip code or paycheck might be.
Johnson and URGE will continue on with the fight, to ensure that women and young people have agency and power, to move forward other policies that affirm sexual health, reproductive rights, and gender justice.
“Ultimately, this ruling is not just about abortion,” she says. “It’s a decision that impacts how we see women as valuable people with the maturity and the ability to make decisions for themselves.”