Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights in 44 States, and Growing

In 2013, Judy Kahrl, then 79, convened 17 friends to discuss her newest idea: Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights, or GRR!. They met in her living room in Maine and shared their anger over the continued attacks on reproductive health access. They decided to form GRR! and over the next couple of months, created a mission statement, recruited friends, and ordered bright yellow T-shirts with the GRR! Logo.

In the following years, the group showed up at protests, at the statehouse and in letters to the editors of local newspapers. After the 2017 Women’s March, Judy posted a photo of GRR!s on Facebook and received a tsunami of interest. Folks across the country identified with these grandmothers in yellow who were serious about protecting reproductive rights and working with young activists on behalf of generations to come. Due to this interest, the Maine team decided to go national.

People sometimes reach out to GRR! asking why grandmothers care about reproductive rights. They don’t expect elders to think or talk about sex, much less to be sexually active. They don’t imagine our activism or our empathy for younger generations. When legislators see a group of white-haired women coming into the statehouse, they listen in a different way. When grandparent-figures speak with young people there is care and truth, along with comfort. All are welcome to join us, from all generations. There is no need to be a grandparent: everyone is a grandchild, after all.

Busier Than Ever

Now, grandmothers and elders from 44 states (that number is growing) are signing on to national calls to action like the passage of the Women’s Health Protection Act; phone-banking for Kansas’ constitutional amendment to protect abortion access; giving presentations in college classrooms on pre-Roe activism; demonstrating outside insidious anti-abortion centers to debunk misinformation through our R.O.E. (Reproductive Options Exist) Campaign; sending postcards of appreciation to abortion providers around the country; and sharing their pre-Roe abortion stories with the media to illustrate the lives made possible by abortions.

‘Abortions are often talked about as endings, whereas this program aims to illustrate the lives that came after.’

In May of 2022, GRR! created the Insight to Incite storyteller program, partnering with We Testify, to support and train a first cohort of 40 women elders, many of whom told their abortion stories for the first time decades after the fact. Since then, in Zoom rooms and to media outlets and at rallies, these women have shared their abortion experiences. Abortions are often talked about as endings, whereas this program aims to illustrate the lives that came after: the families, careers and activism made possible through access to abortions. Additionally, we will archive these stories to preserve the history.

At age 17, Sarah, from Arkansas, 51 years ago had the means to go to New York with her supportive mother under the guise of a “shopping trip to Memphis for college clothes.” When sharing her story recently, Sarah worried no one would be interested because it wasn’t a harrowing tale. “Three weeks after the abortion, my parents dropped me off at the University of Arkansas, helped me unpack and drove away. I was able to show up with my classmates from high school and begin my new life.” Sarah became a school librarian and continues to fight for reproductive rights.

Carol, 79, drove to Washington, DC, in 1969 to a non-medical office for her abortion. The doctor told her, “Don’t make any noise,” before performing the procedure without anesthesia. Carol went on to social work school and became a college professor.

‘Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights’ activists are furious and grieving over the SCOTUS decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.’

As storytellers address stigma and change the narratives around abortion, our R.O.E. Campaign activists challenge the lies of the anti-abortion movement at anti-abortion centers or “crisis pregnancy centers.” These manipulative places lure in pregnant people with promises of free ultrasounds, healthcare, diapers and more. In actuality, their goal is to scare vulnerable folks away from making informed decisions about their healthcare. These “centers” have an agenda: to keep people from having abortions through misinformation, lies and scare tactics. GRR!s organize protests onsite, cosign letters to the editor of local newspapers, present in college courses, and find creative ways to shine a spotlight on the deception. GRR! created flyers, handouts and presentations for GRR!s to use around the country.

Prepared to Support an Updated Movement

Nine years after we started, Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights’ activists are furious and grieving over the SCOTUS decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. We anticipated this appalling decision and have been preparing GRR!s to support an updated movement, working hand-in-hand with younger generations.

The world is a different place than it was in the ’60s and ’70s, and although we are facing new challenges we are not returning to a pre-Roe world. Today GRR! is part of a network of organizations that provide support systems for people experiencing unwanted pregnancies. We now have safe tools for self-managed abortion. There is an extensive network of abortion funds. We have our lived experience of the hard years before Roe, the wisdom we have gained over years of protests and activism, more informed (and learning!) understandings of systems of oppression and intersectionality, and a determination to fight for reproductive health, rights and justice.

At GRR!, elders learn and teach, share and listen, and support activism for reproductive health, rights and justice. We are building a community for folks to walk arm in arm, intergenerationally, to recognize the triumphs and the shortcomings of the past, to continue to learn together, and to combine our strength and care for the future.

Kelli Wescott McCannell is the executive director of Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights in Rockland, ME.

Photo caption: Elizabeth, Lucy, Jay and Kelli protest outside an anti-abortion center in Augusta, ME, in June 2022 as part of the R.O.E. Campaign.

Photo credit: Crystal Soria