The moment I’ll never forget is the moment we lost.

I was standing behind a podium at the steps of the Supreme Court, with a crowd of thousands in front of me. It was my responsibility to announce that Brett Kavanaugh had been confirmed to the Supreme Court.

It was an indescribable feeling to hold grief and pain for people in that way. What I bore witness to was not merely an announcement about a congressional process. It was seeing people’s faith in our democracy and our world shift. It was a group of people that feel so deeply for this country clamoring to be seen and to be shown that she would love us back. It was a chilling reminder that to love oneself and one’s country, we have to hold her accountable. It was the end of the fairytale and the beginning of the next fight. As much as it was pain and fear, it was also resilience embodied. We tried to end the rally, but the people would not leave. That is the story of the Kavanaugh fight.

That crowd was full of people whose lives would be affected by the decisions Kavanaugh will make as a Supreme Court Justice. There were countless survivors of sexual assault present. There were people who had had abortions, people who would one day need abortions. There were queer and trans folks, immigrants, and people of color, whose rights depend so much on the Court as the last line of defense.

I had to tell them that we’d lost a fight they’d poured their hearts and souls into for months. But really, the fact that we were there in that moment was a victory.

When Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement June 27, there was shock. When Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh on July 9, that shock was replaced by a belief that the fight to stop his confirmation was unwinnable. Good thing that the unique skill we, as a movement, had honed since 2017 was a unique ability to defy what we believe to be possible.

Part One: It is Our Duty to Fight

To be clear, we’d BEEN fighting. It was non-stop from the day Trump was elected. We mobilized for the biggest march in American history, we showed up at airports to defend our brothers and sisters from majority-Muslim countries, we organized to stop the administration from separating families at the border. When it came to sexual and reproductive health and rights, we’d met every attack from the administration with the full force of our organizing might: the global gag rule, changes to the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, the erasure of transgender people by the Department of Health and Human services — and we defeated each and every attempt to overturn the Affordable Care Act and defund Planned Parenthood.

Our people were exhausted. With so much to lose, the emotional and physical burden of such an uphill fight was hard to take on. But we knew we didn’t have a choice.

Our first step was letting our champions know that they weren’t going to be let off the hook. As we looked to the damage the courts had done already, this fight was too important not to fight. A chilling story that still sticks with me is Jane Doe, the young immigrant woman who was pregnant in HHS custody and wanted an abortion, but had to fight the entire federal government (including a ruling from Brett Kavanaugh) to exercise her basic human rights. If she could fight, we needed to fight and no one was going to be let off the hook.

There are two very important things that every organizer needs to remember about campaigns and fighting the good fight: 1) This fight wasn’t about Kavanaugh and the fight isn’t generally about the target, it’s about all of the people that will be impacted — and if they wake up needing to fight, then we have to too. In many cases, the risk of not taking on the fight is greater than the risk of losing. 2) That there’s no way to know if you can win, unless you’re in the arena. And, a fight doesn’t become winnable unless a critical mass of folks believe they can win.

Part Two: You Can’t Fall Over the Goal Line From the 50

As one of my mentors, Dawn Laguens has said: “You can’t fall over the goal line from the 50.” This means that in order to be positioned to win a campaign, you’ve got to be in the campaign.

Once we were all on board, our second task was to define Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh’s confirmation would determine the ideological bent of the Supreme Court for a generation, so the Supreme Court needed to not only be a top organizational priority; it had to be top of mind for anyone in this country who cares about protecting reproductive health and rights. Folks had to know his record, and know what he could do to our health and rights with a vote on the court.

One thing we had going for us in this phase of the campaign: Trump was clear during his run for president that he would only nominate justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. We laid the groundwork early to center this question in the public debate. We developed a clear measure that Senators should hold nominees to, if they support abortion rights. In short, the test required an affirmation that the individual liberty provision of the 14th Amendment of the constitution includes the right to privacy and therefore specifically tie that right to abortion, birth control, and marriage equality.

Once Kavanaugh was nominated, Planned Parenthood focused on his record of restricting abortion access and lifting up the ways he has been hostile to reproductive rights, particularly the right to abortion. And people listened. Over the course of the first few weeks of his nomination, the headlines shifted from talking about Kavanaugh as a “carpool dad” to talking about him as the existential threat he was to millions of women across the country. His approval rating sank to among the lowest in the modern history of Supreme Court nominees.

Planned Parenthood also uplifted the stakes of this fight by centering the people who would be most impacted by his confirmation to the forefront of the national conversation. We know nearly half of states are poised to ban abortion if Roe is overturned. At the time, four states had trigger laws on the books that would automatically ban abortion if Roe is overturned, and 16 were run by legislators who have already pushed through restrictions with one clear motive — to make abortion inaccessible (since Kavanaugh’s confirmation, these states have raced to pass even more restrictions and bans on abortion). The people who would be affected by these laws are Planned Parenthood patients. They’re in the communities we serve, and the vast majority of them are people of color, people in rural areas, and people with low incomes.

Then, unexpectedly, the narrative shifted. When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and Julie Swetnick came forward with their allegations against Kavanaugh, the national dialogue expanded to encompass sexual violence. Planned Parenthood was proud to bring our voice as a health care provider, to whom many survivors turn. We both supported the credibility of survivors in the face of the ensuing attack and launched public education digital ads about the experiences and needs of survivors.

The national conversation shifted from one being about the future of our reproductive and constitutional rights, to one about if our country will take the voices of sexual assault survivors seriously.

This phase of the campaign was a massive effort by organizations across the spectrum of the progressive movement. Who can forget Maria Gallagher, from MoveOn and Ultra Violet, and Ana María Archila, the Co-Executive director of Center for Popular Democracy, teaming up to confront Sen. Jeff Flake in that elevator? Or the crowds of protestors every day in Hart Senate building atrium?

As we were lifting up the women who came forward to talk about their experiences with Kavanaugh, we were also reminding the country of Anita Hill — confirming that we still believed her, and that our elected leaders wouldn’t get away with treating Kavanaugh’s accusers the way they treated Anita Hill in 1991. The bar had been raised, and we were watching.

Part Three: Never Say Never

Regardless of the outcome, there was a lot we got right in this fight. We ran a campaign that centered the folks most affected by Kavanaugh’s nomination, we got folks to show up, and we fundamentally redefined the role of the courts. Leaving the Kavanuagh fight, more than 400,000 new supporters joined Planned Parenthood alone, and folks began to understand the effect courts have on their lives and the harm that the Trump administration has done to and through the judicial system.

Just before Sen. Lisa Murkowski announced her opposition to Kavanaugh’s nomination, one of the last people she spoke to was a storyteller from Alaska. Throughout the campaign, the people whose lives would be affected by Kavanaugh’s decisions were front and center in our work. Planned Parenthood engaged more than 60 storytellers to participate in ads, rallies, press interviews, and more. These folks shattered the silence and the stigma surrounding both abortion and sexual assault, and brought understanding and empathy to a difficult conversation. It would have been impossible to have such a deep bench of diverse voices engaged in the fight, without the day-in, day-out relationship building work of Planned Parenthood affiliates and organizers across the country. We know effective organizing centers the people in the communities we serve, and we have to do that work every day if we’re going to be ready when the big moments happen.

For so many people across the country, Kavanaugh’s nomination felt personal. And that’s why they showed up. Just a few of the highlights:

Planned Parenthood teamed up with NARAL Pro-Choice America and MoveOn to organize the Unite for Justice Day of Action, a day of local events, like rallies, canvasses, phone banks, and letter writing parties, to show Senators the groundswell of opposition to Kavanaugh in their states. More than 200 events were held across all 50 states.

  • Over 1,000 people came out each day of Kavanaugh’s original Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. We held a daily vigil outside the hearing with storytellers, drop ins from members of Congress, and opportunities to write letters or phone bank.

  • Partnering with Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, and many other coalition organizations, we called for a National Walkout and Moment of Solidarity in support of Dr. Blasey Ford and all survivors of sexual assault, abuse, and violence. Folks across the country wore black on September 24th and walked out in unison to show solidarity with survivors.

  • Hours before Kavanaugh’s confirmation, we organized people across the country in marches to voice their outrage, fear, and sadness. “No Justice, No Seat” marches were held in over 75 communities and anchored with a march in Washington D.C. that culminated in that massive rally on the steps of the Supreme Court.

And it wasn’t just the grassroots — legal scholars and thought leaders got involved to make public appeals to Senators Collins and Murkowski regarding Kavanaugh’s likelihood of being the deciding vote to overturn or gut Roe v. Wade, including a notable op-ed written by Laurence Tribe days before the confirmation vote.

Finally, we were strategic. Planned Parenthood ran comprehensive state-based 360 degree campaigns to make sure the Senate was hearing from the voices of those who would be most impacted. Through the media, thought leaders, advertising, and direct action and supporter calls and letters, we made sure that the voices who would be most impacted by Kavanaugh’s appointment would be impossible for Senators to miss.

Planned Parenthood’s local organizations organized hundreds of rallies and grassroots events in states for supporters to voice their opposition to Kavanaugh and call or write into their Senate offices to demand their Senators vote against his nomination. This included nearly 140 events in Maine, close to 50 events in Alaska, nine in West Virginia, 15 in Indiana, and 11 in North Dakota.

While the list of undecided Senators was limited, it was important for supporters in every state to have the ability for their voices to be heard. Planned Parenthood hosted dozens of virtual phone banks that gave people, no matter where they lived, the chance to call supporters in target states and encourage them to contact their Senators. In total, these phone banks yielded 43,938 calls to supporters and contributed to a broader awareness of the overall campaign. And throughout the course of our Supreme Court campaign, Planned Parenthood sent dozens of emails and SMS messages reaching over 2 million people.

Part 4: You Lose, You Learn, You Get Back At It

But in the end, we did lose. And there are key lessons to take from that loss.

The first is to never take a future win for granted. We believed that in 2016 the country would elect a historically qualified candidate who believed in access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, who would appoint justices who we could trust to uphold our constitutional rights. We were dead wrong.

Ultimately, 49 senators voted against Kavanaugh’s nomination. Only one of them was a Republican — Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. With his record of opposition to abortion, the serious allegations against him, and his obvious lack of temperment during his hearing, there should have been far more. Our democracy suffers when the courts are a partisan political battleground, and our failure across the progressive movement to make that clear to both the public and our Senate targets cost us a seat on the court for decades.

But in the process, how Americans think about the Supreme Court shifted. Conservatives have long understood the power of the courts to decide key issues in this country, and used that power to turn out voters. Progressives know it now, too.

At Planned Parenthood, we often say we fight these fights not only to win, but to weaken our opponents for the next fight. And the next fight is upon us. The rash of extreme restrictions and bans on abortion passed in the last few months are the direct result of Kavanaugh’s presence on the court. Americans now understand what’s at stake — a record 77 percent do not want Roe to be overturned. When these cases inevitably make it to the Supreme Court, the deciding vote could be cast by the most unpopular justice in modern history. The legitimacy of the court is undermined by his presence there.


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