The fight for abortion is the AIDS fight of the 21st Century

Shain Slepian
6 min readJul 1, 2022
A person at a protest holds a sign that reads “Here blood is on your hands!!!” Smears and handprints of blood are on the sign.

It’s been one week since the inevitable — on the night of June 24th, a concerted effort to strip us of our rights to self-determination, at least five years in the making, came to fruition at the hands of the Supreme Court.

That night, I attended a march in here New York City. It had been a long day at work, one I’d struggled to stay on top of in my depression about the day’s events. I had thought about not going to the march: I had a ticket to a comedy show in my neighborhood for a small group I wanted to support. Maybe that’s what I needed: some fun, a distraction. My voice was hoarse from chanting, my legs were getting sore, and my friends had left early. I trudged along slowly, holding up the rear after stopping for a ridiculously overpriced bottle of water near Times Square.

It wasn’t that there was a lack of fire at the event: that no one cared and we were all simply going through the motions of resistance. But how long can you sustain the trembling and visceral anger that comes with an unprecedented rollback in your right to healthcare?

A figure rushed past on our left, leaping deftly on to the barrier on the side of the street. There they stood, silent and stoic, their head and bare chest covered in red paint. One arm was up in a fist, but this wasn’t the image of a warrior. It was the embodiment of the spirit of every resistance movement that has ever crawled over the bloody corpses of their comrades to demand their pain be seen — be respected and treated.

I needed to see that. I think we all needed to see that.

In 1987, six years into the AIDS crisis in America began, a brand new direct action coalition called ACT UP created a float for the New York City Pride Parade. The float was, as described by Maxine Wolfe, “a concentration camp with wire all around and people inside. There were people outside the wire dressed in masks and military gear and handing out flyers and people were selling ACT UP T-shirts with the SILENCE=DEATH logo…”

Float by ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) at the Gay Pride March, New York City, June 28, 1987. Photo by Donna Binder, via

Wolfe goes on to voice her disagreement with Larry Kramer at the use of this imagery, though she admits the striking nature of the float attracted hundreds of new people to the AIDS movement. “The imagery was so stark that people said, “Got It.’”

Two years later, the group that had barely consisted of a few artists who had grown lethargic of the toothless nature of other AIDS advocacy groups was large enough to stage one of the most memorable acts of passive resistance in this country: a die-in at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

1992's Ashes Action was a similarly sensational demonstration — one you can’t help but think about late at night when no distractions will protect you from it. A poster for the event depicts the White House obfuscated by the ghostly shape of an urn. Inside the urn, the details for the event are explained:

You have lost someone to AIDS. For more than a decade, your government has mocked your loss. You have spoken out in anger, joined political protests, carried fake coffins and mock tombstones, and splattered red paint to represent someone’s HIV-positive blood, perhaps your own. George Bush believes that the White House gates shield him, from you, your loss, and his responsibility for the AIDS crisis. Now it is time to bring AIDS home to George Bush. On October 11th, we will carry the actual ashes of people we love in funeral procession to the White House. In an act of grief and rage and love, we will deposit their ashes on the White House lawn.

These acts of spectacle became the hallmark of ACT UP’s demonstrations. Larry Kramer was a playwright, and the most impactful protests staged by the coalition exemplified the many qualities of a seasoned dramatic writer — metaphor, poeticism, unhinged and desperate soliloquys .

Again, from Maxine Wolfe: “We focused on what would stand out, what would show up. This was in a way that no one I ever knew had done before….We did not just picket around the front of a building, which is totally boring; we broke into the building.”

These actions were instrumental in mounting the kind of populace support for AIDS research that was needed to end the crisis. It may seem campy and theatrical, but as history has shown, it was entirely and strictly necessary.

I argue that such actions are no less needed now than they were at the height of the AIDS crisis. Our government has taken our passivity as consent for far too long. Roe v. Wade was never enough, but no one has taken the responsibility to codify the right to abortion legislatively.

All of “our” people failed us. President Obama failed us when he had the House and Senate and never acted to secure abortion. Ruth Bader Ginsberg failed us, for not stepping down under Obama’s presidency. Our current president is currently failing us as he considers appointing an anti-abortion federal judge, because he has no incentive to agitate his buddies in the Senate. He seems incapable of mustering the verve to condemn the machinations of the anti-choice fascists of our government, or to provide for the people that cannot get abortions in their states at this very moment.

Mitch McConnell’s party has failed us to a degree so severe, we must instead recognize it as a success toward the end of killing us all rather than a failure to stop our bleeding. The former Vice President has already called for a federal ban on abortion. This means no New York safe haven, no federal protections, and an increase of maternal mortality by 24%.

Between the ectopic pregnancies that doctors will not operate on, the children who will be forced to birth their abusers offspring before physically mature, and the senselessly dangerous births of fetuses that are not viable, this ban will cause no less than thousands of preventable deaths every year.

Let’s call these coordinated efforts what they are: mass murder. Our government, as a collective, is intentionally stripping us of our right to live.

Our streets and hospitals and back alleys will soon be dripping with death. It’ll be everywhere: there won’t be a day you won’t hear about a 14 year old being forced to carry their father’s offspring, or a woman who was left screaming on a gurney for 10 hours until her fallopian tube ruptured, or about someone being handcuffed to their hospital bed and arrested for the crime of having a miscarriage.

Timestamp 22:37 lists some horrifying examples of the harm these bans do.

Where are the die-ins? Where is the spreading of ashes? Why isn’t this happening now?

We aren’t asking the government to research a plague that human kind has never seen before, we’re not asking for a miracle. We are asking for our health and freedom not to be actively and maliciously taken away from us.

Take a good look at your future in this country. It is mockery, assault, enslavement, pain, and death. Most of all, death.

Our ACT UP moments shouldn’t be in 12 months when the abortion ban is instated, or in five years, when contraception and homosexuality have been made illegal, or in ten years when women can no longer own credit cards and 100,000 of us have died in hospitals and prisons and at home with our abusers whose children we were forced to have.

We have to be loud. Now.

Groups and info to read about for direct action opportunities:

Left Voice

Bread and Roses: A Socialist Feminist Group

DSA Protect Abortion Chapter Toolkit

Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights

(If you know a good one, leave it in a comment and I will add it to the list.)



Shain Slepian

Shain is a screenwriter and screenplay editor. For more content, follow their blog and check out their YouTube channel, TimeCapsule.