Next to the Hastings Park Gazebo, about a dozen red cloaks lay weighted down by block-letter signs and coat hangers late Friday afternoon. The eerie display, which brought shrouds to mind, contrasted with the pristine summery day. The signs were silent condemnations:
“IT IS NOT ENOUGH TO BE ‘SAFE’ IN MASS.”
“STILL THINK THIS CAN’T HAPPEN HERE?”
“ABORTION BANS ARE CRUEL.”
The announcement Friday morning that the Supreme Court voted 6-3 to overturn Roe v. Wade in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, obliterating nearly 50 years of precedent guaranteeing women the constitutional right to an abortion, triggered massive spontaneous protests – and celebrations – nationwide. In Lexington, Jessie Stegierwald organized a 5 p.m. local gathering at Hastings Park for pro-choice community members frustrated, saddened and outraged by this decision.
Steigerwald is a founding member of the Boston Red Cloaks, an organization of hundreds of women who have used dress inspired by Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale in demonstrations over the past two years to symbolize contemporary attacks on women’s rights. Despite being organized with just a few hours’ notice, Friday’s Lexington gathering drew at least 70 people.
“I feel like my personal humanity has been diminished,” Steigerwald said. “I feel like in the eyes of the laws of my country that I love…suddenly, I don’t matter as much as a person, because I am no longer allowed to do what I want with my own body.”
Most of the signs on display had been saved from a previous protest of Texas’ six-week abortion ban, SB 8, Steigerwald said. The robes were arranged on the ground, rather than being worn, at Friday’s gathering “because it’s really important that people see our faces, and understand that what the Supreme Court did today hurts us as real people. We’re not characters. We’re not fiction. We’re real.”
The decision wounded Steigerwald all the more because she’s trained as a lawyer with immense respect for the Supreme Court as an American institution. “That’s my Bible – [the Supreme Court] interprets the laws of this country,” she said. “And that Court has today said I don’t have the rights that I’ve grown up with.”
But Steigerwald, like several other speakers, is already thinking about how to fight the reversal, and has no intention of giving up. She recalled becoming friends with other organizers and Boston Red Cloaks members while collaborating to support passage of the Roe Act in 2020, which codified and expanded abortion rights in Massachusetts law. “I know, looking around, there’s more friends to be made,” she said.
“The way we got the right established in the first place was generations of men and women and people coming together, just like this, and sticking their neck out at a time when abortion was also illegal,” she emphasized. “So what we’re doing today is going to make that difference for generations to come.”
Beth Byers didn’t mince words: “I am very pissed off,” she said. The decision pained her as a daughter, a sister, a wife – and mother to a daughter. “She’s old enough to get pregnant. She’s terrified,” Byers said, adding that her daughter’s male friends were also “feeling pretty helpless right now, because they want to do something too.”
This isn’t the only Supreme Court ruling to upset Byers this week; she condemned other “incredibly horrific decisions,” referencing in particular the expansion of gun rights Thursday, and noting that some people had contacted her expressing a desire to respond with violence to the Roe v. Wade reversal. Byers, instead, implored everyone to vote – in every election, for every position.
“I want everybody who is 18 and older to make a promise to themselves, their loved ones, their friends and their community to register to vote and turn up for every election,” she said. “I want everyone here who is already registered to think long and hard about how you’re going to vote this fall, and show up, and vote – while you still have one.”
She added, emphatically, “and don’t vote for a conservative.”
Byers also advocated both traditional, and less traditional, strikes to protest the ruling. While she mentioned work strikes and finding ways to convey the importance of abortion access to employers, she added another idea: “Do not have sex with a conservative.”
Following Byers’ call to vote, State Senator Mike Barrett (D-3rd Middlesex) shared his reactions and legislation-focused call to action with the crowd.
Barrett recalled the pre-Roe world: “Those were scary times for Massachusetts and for the country,” he said. “But we worked and we organized then to secure rights….Let’s just remember…that we know what it’s like to fight when we’re down – and to win.”
In Massachusetts, “The constitutional right to abortion and to women’s health…remains safe,” he emphasized, citing the State Supreme Court’s abortion protection and the state legislature’s actions in the past two years to make additional funding available for women’s health services.
But, as he and other Lexington state legislators said when a draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade leaked last month, Barrett reiterated the need to protect women seeking abortions from out of state: ”Massachusetts has to begin to think about the women who don’t live here and don’t have the rights that we’re going to continue to retain,” he said. He cited findings that about 60% of Americans support the right to choose, but only about 35% live in states where that right is protected.
“In that difference between the [approximately 60%] who would uphold your rights, and the [approximately 35%] who actually have them securely, lies a political zone where we’ve got to get busy,” he said, prompting vocal affirmation from the crowd.
To Barrett, meaningful support entails working to fund abortions for woman from outside Massachusetts who seek care here. It also means “we’ve got to redefine what a safe haven state means when it comes to a woman’s constitutional right” including by forbidding in-state law enforcement from assisting out-of-state legal authorities, and protecting abortion providers and seekers from criminal charges.
“Let’s work for a series of safe haven statutes that make sure that we’re a home for your individual rights, and for the rights of someone who lives in Pennsylvania,” Barrett summarized. He singled out Pennsylvania as an organizing front because it’s “a stone’s throw from Massachusetts” and currently has a Republican-controlled legislature, unlike most close neighbor states.
“I know we’re tired. I know we’ve been at this in one form or another for a very long time. But I remember how energized we were before 1973, and I promise you, we’re going to be energized again,” he said.
Steigerwald noted that she’d spoken with State Representative Michelle Ciccolo (D-15th Middlesex) by phone Friday, who could not attend the event on such short notice, but whose “heart is here.”
During the protest, attendees had one small, concrete opportunity to encourage additional state action: signing letters on red and pink clipboards supporting legislation to expand medication abortion access on public university campuses in Massachusetts (which Barrett and Ciccolo both support). The letters will be sent to Public Health Committee House and Senate leadership. Steigerwald pointed out that due to the yearslong legislative cycle, it can be challenging to push bills through – “when you introduce legislation, you have to…lobby for two years to keep that issue moving forward.” The legislation in question has sat in committee for some time, but Steigerwald said she hopes that getting more names on paper will increase the chance the bill is introduced for a vote prior to the summer recess.
For Lexington Public Schools students, Friday was the last day of school and first day of summer – typically a carefree occasion. Instead of celebrating the end of the year by relaxing with friends, multiple students joined adults at the protest.
Anjali Agarwal, 17, was one of them.
“Our rights and our personal freedoms, our futures, are way too important for us ever to stop this struggle,” she said. Agarwal pointed out that Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion throws other codified rights into doubt. “At this point, everything is up for grabs,” she said, specifically referencing the seminal decisions about the right to gay marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges), gay sex (Lawrence v. Texas) and access to contraceptives (Griswold v. Connecticut).
“We have to be prepared for what’s next, and we have to know it’s coming,” she said, “because we can’t afford to be blindsided after this crushing blow to all our freedoms.”
LexPride President Valerie Overton observed that the decision had brought people of all ages together “engaging with this horrific decision in all different ways.”
“Today is such a sad day in our history,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. Like Barrett, Overton personally recalls pre-Roe times: “I grew up knowing women who had ‘back-alley abortions’ and suffered complications from the back-alley abortions and died, or had pregnancies that were high risk and died, or had children who they were not equipped to raise.”
“Those were really painful days,” she said. “Safe, legal abortions save lives.”
Roe v. Wade had been “a huge step forward” for the women in her life, Overton said. That said, “the pushback was immediate” – she recalled clinic bombings and doctor murders over the decades since Roe’s passage (which include the murder of two clinic receptionists in suburban Boston in the 90s), as well as harrassment and even assaults of women seeking care.
“Those were really scary times as well, even though Roe v. Wade was law,” she said. “Since then, there has been a constant effort to undermine and restrict abortion access.”
So the work has never stopped: “During those years of the 60s and 70s and 80s, I was among many of us who advocated and protested and used our de-escalation skills at these health clinics,” she said. “In some cases, we put our very bodies on the line to create safe perimeters around health care clinics, and escort women in and out.”
Overton pointed out that the burden of this decision will fall disproportionately on those with marginalized identities: “It has always most affected the poor, people of color…people with disabilities, [among others].”
Abortion does not only affect women, she added; it also impacts “people of non-binary gender identities who can become pregnant [and] transgender men who can become pregnant.” This means “abortion rights are important for everyone who has the ability to get pregnant.”
“I know that we cannot stand here, or sit here, or be in sadness forever,” Overton said. “But we have to acknowledge the sadness, and the hurt, and the pain, and the anger that we are living with in this moment in time. And we also know that we will transform those feelings into action.”