Anyone Can Be A Defender

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In the final episode of our series, we’re hitting the streets of Manhattan to join up with Nix Rao, a young activist dedicated to expanding reproductive health access in New York. Fueled by their motto, “legality does not equal access,” we’ll follow Nix as they lead the charge to bring abortion pills to college campuses.

In the final episode of our series, we’re hitting the streets of Manhattan to join up with Nix Rao, a young activist dedicated to expanding reproductive health access in New York. Fueled by their motto, “legality does not equal access,” we’ll follow Nix as they lead the charge to bring abortion pills to college campuses.

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Gloria Riviera and Samantha Bee are our hosts. Muna Danish is our supervising producer. Hannah Boomershine and Lisa Phu are our producers. Isaura Aceves and Tony Williams are our associate producers. Ivan Kuraev and Natasha Jacobs are our audio engineers. Music by Hannis Brown with additional music by Natasha Jacobs.Story editing by Jackie Danziger, our VP of Narrative Content. Fact-checking by Naomi Barr. Executive producers are Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs

This series is supported by Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and Levi Strauss Foundation.

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To follow along with a transcript, go to shortly after the air date.



NYPD, Nick, Protesters, Vidalia Anne Gentry, Gloria Riviera, Speaker 4, News, Monica, Speaker 3, Samantha Bee, Tia Freeman

Gloria Riviera  00:01

Hey everyone. First off, we want to thank you for listening to The Defenders. And now we want to hear from you what you’ve learned what sticking with you what questions you still have, and what you’re motivated to do as a result of listening. Right now you can take our short survey to help us better understand the impact of our work. And even better once you’ve completed the survey, you can enter for a chance to win a $100 Visa gift card. The survey is short and sweet and will help us keep bringing you content you love. Take the survey at defenders survey. That’s defenders survey. Thanks again.


Gloria Riviera  01:00

It’s 7am on a rainy April day in New York City. Unlike most 20 somethings, Nick’s isn’t sleeping in on this Saturday morning. Instead they’re on their way to a Planned Parenthood in Manhattan. Their next is joining up with a group called NYC for abortion rates. The goal to defend the clinic against a Catholic anti abortion group called witness for life.


Nick  02:13

It should not be acceptable for far right clinic harassers to do this in a supposedly pro abortion New York study. I know for a fact that folks from all over the country are coming to New York right now to access abortions. And they should not have to deal with this on the streets when dealing with the 100 other barriers that now exist or have always existed to accessing abortion.


Gloria Riviera  02:38

This is not Nick’s his first time going to a clinic defense. They’re familiar with the process. The practical goal is to keep the clinic in this case Planned Parenthood free from anti abortion protesters. This defense happens the first Saturday of every month and Nick’s has it down to a routine after dropping off their dog and chugging that coconut Red Bull. They need to get into the right headspace.


Nick  03:03

I usually listen to music I have a before clinic offense playlist that I like blast.


Gloria Riviera  03:11

A clinic defense playlist. Next told our producers it’s angry-ish music to get them pumped up for what can be an intense and chaotic experience.


Nick  03:21

There’s a book the place by NWA Nazi punks fuck off by the Dead Kennedys Sally’s pigeons which is about an abortion by Sidney lawfare, All Right but Kendrick Lamar, Rebel Girl by Bikini Kill obviously.


Gloria Riviera  03:37

Fun fact, this playlist, Nick’s angry ish pumped up music actually inspired the theme song for this show, obviously. This is The Defenders a show about the fight for freedom and post Roe America, I’m Gloria Riviera.


Samantha Bee  03:54

And I’m Samantha Bee. This week is part two of our series finale about The Defenders, Olden Young who refused to back down in the fight for abortion access.


Gloria Riviera  04:04

Last time you heard about a medical professional who has dedicated decades to providing safe abortions. Today we follow a young activist on the ground, because even in places as progressive as New York, legality does not necessarily mean access. Before we get deeper into Nick’s story, which we will, I think it’s important to point out that they are doing all of this activism as a college student. It got me and Sam thinking back on our own college years.


Samantha Bee  04:38

Well, you know, Gloria, I think I just heard that Nick is on the subway at 7am, and I want to say that there was probably no 7am on any Saturday of my entire college career that I that I witnessed. I get a bit tan feed my lizard and then right I hate my bike to my job selling tie dies anyway, we don’t need to. We don’t need to deep dive into why I went into comedy. But that’s basically why.


Gloria Riviera  05:12

I mean, the only thing I have in common with Nick’s from when I was in college was that I think I listened also to the Dead Kennedys and Cyndi Lauper. But right, I mean, I am astonished by Nick’s because their experience in college is so full of drive and passion for a cause.


Samantha Bee  05:36

Yes, we’re dealing with a high quality person here.


Gloria Riviera  05:41

Next, his passion for organizing goes way back to before college even growing up in Delhi, India, they remember seeing news reports about violence against women, it really struck them.


Nick  05:52

That is like one of the earliest points I can remember of being like, I want to spend the rest of my life doing something about this. I think that type of thinking very quickly led me to the path of like reproductive justice, and what does bodily autonomy and bodily freedom actually look like?


Gloria Riviera  06:14

Over the years Nick has supported friends who have had abortions, and even though they haven’t had one themselves, this is an important fight for them to.


Nick  06:24

I identified as non binary. So being pregnant itself would be extremely dysphoric for me, that’s kind of like my personal reason of why I think abortion, you know, frankly, is gender affirming care and is really important access to health care for a lot of people.


Gloria Riviera  06:44

That is what motivates Nick’s activism. The fact that this fight is intertwined with so many other attacks on bodily autonomy. These attacks often affect young people the most, because the barriers to basic health care like abortion can be so high, which is why Nick’s is up early on a Saturday morning, walking to the corner of Mont and Prince taking in the scene.


Nick  07:09

So we are coming up on the barricades and a lock of police getting Poppy.


Gloria Riviera  07:14

Dozens of police officers are standing in the street. They’ve already blocked off sections of the sidewalk on one side but those steel crowd control barricades you often see it parades all of this catches Nick’s his eye. They are concerned so they go up to other members of NYC for abortion rights to get some answers. What is happening?


Nick  07:35

Um well, they blockaded the entire area. So we have to go on the street or is that blockade for I think that this is to force us into the street to arrest people.


Gloria Riviera  07:45

Because the police have blocked off the sidewalk Nixon NYC for abortion rights can’t defend the Planned Parenthood from the anti abortion protesters. This is not typical. The way this usually goes is the anti abortion protesters depart from a nearby church and start walking towards the Planned Parenthood on the sidewalk to delay them from reaching the clinic for as long as possible. Counter protesters. In this case, Nick’s and others gather on the sidewalk to face them. Then they walk backwards. Imagine the two opposing groups face to face walking in slow motion. One group walking forwards one group walking backwards. It’s a stalling tactic. And usually it works pretty well.


Nick  08:28

So during a successful clinic defense, it’s usually an hour to one and a half hours. And again, every single one of those minutes means that someone is able to just walk into Planned Parenthood and not experience harassment while they’re getting basic health care.


Gloria Riviera  08:45

But today, that doesn’t look possible. The police have set up the steel barricades on the sidewalk starting at the church and stretching to blocks to the Planned Parenthood. Those barricades mean that only anti abortion protesters can access that side of the sidewalk. Counter protesters like Nick’s and NYC for abortion rights can’t get through. And they can’t move into the street without the threat of arrest. So the counter protesters do only what they can’t. Leading chants, holding rainbow umbrellas and displaying signs in support of abortion. Next is clearly frustrated.


Nick  09:22

Do we want to ask? Like ask them what the fuck they’re doing? I’m miked up, so any anything they’ll say to me is recorded.


Gloria Riviera  09:30

Next goes to speak with a representative from the NYPD.


Nick  09:34

I’m just kind of wondering about the legality of blocking off public sidewalk to any counter protests.


NYPD  09:42

It’s a permanent event or new events just like any other parade, get the sidewalks blocked off.


Nick  09:49

Public sidewalk


NYPD  09:51

Giving the yes okay harmony.


Nick  09:54

Okay, but we don’t then need a permit.


NYPD  09:56

You could be no you could be on this side of the street. What are you in the road, like sight and sound of each other is what you have to get. And that’s what you’re absolutely getting.


Nick  10:04

And just just to clarify, because technically that is still public sidewalk, even if it’s even if it’s a permitted event doesn’t matter, okay understood.


Gloria Riviera  10:15

Because the anti abortion protesters have a permit from the city, Nick and NYC for abortion access can’t get to the sidewalk, that means clinic defense is practically impossible. This way witness for life can walk right up to the Planned Parenthood, and there’s nothing the counter protesters can do to slow them down. In the five years that they have been doing this, Nick says they have never seen this policy from the NYPD.


Nick  10:41

Obviously, they’re not going to do anything about the DMRs anti abortion folks who cross over to the street, hang outside of the clinic and follow and harass patients as they’re entering the clinic. Despite that being a violation of the faceapp. We’ve talked to them a bunch about that they don’t believe in enforcing it. So that’s basically the situation where you have the NYPD blatantly collaborating, and giving extremely preferential treatment to the point where they’re violating other folks first amendment rights.


Gloria Riviera  11:10

The face act stands for freedom of access to clinic entrances. It came about in response to a series of violent crimes committed by anti abortion protesters at clinics in the 90s. The act prohibits anyone from using violence or intimidation against reproductive health clinics and their patients. But the law has some serious limitations, especially if law enforcement is not always enforcing it. We reached out to the NYPD for comment, but they did not respond to Nick’s, it all comes back to the same point. The core reason why they do this work.


Nick  11:50

Legality does not equate to access. Oh, that’s like my motto. And I think that’s very evident over here. Given that what an abortion patient is going to have to experience is a bunch of far right groups, a bunch of riot police, and a bunch of harassers literally standing outside of the clinic in order to access care. So that does not equal access that does not equal stigma free care.


Gloria Riviera  12:17

Witness for life made it to the Planned Parenthood in about 10 minutes. That’s a far cry from the usual hour to hour and a half it takes when counter protesters can actually slow the procession. The anti abortion protesters prayed as they marched.


Protesters  12:32

Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women. And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus, holy mary mother of god.


Gloria Riviera  12:46

And they continue to pray as they stood in front of the clinic, protected by barricades and the NYPD. Since the jobs decision, federal authorities and abortion rights organizations across the country have noticed an uptick in clinic harassment. Some anti abortion protesters even travel from red states to protest abortion clinics in blue states, like New York. By the time someone gets to a clinic for an abortion, they’ve already jumped through many hoops cost transportation, taking time off of work, to name a few. So to then face clinic harassment on top of everything else, is just another unnecessary obstacle. As an undergrad at Barnard College, Nick had been thinking about all of those obstacles their peers might face. Even in a progressive space like Barnard. They knew things could be easier, and they decided to do something about it. When we come back, Nick and fellow activist demand access to abortion pills right on campus.


Gloria Riviera  14:55

I think we came into it kind of like oh my God, we love Barnard. This is a great school, it’s feminist. If we tell them that maybe there’s just never thought of this. As an idea, they’ll be really receptive and it will happen in like a couple of months tops.


Gloria Riviera  16:30

Nick’s one at Barnard to offer medication abortion on campus. It seemed like a no brainer to them. Students already got all of their health care on campus at the Student Health Center. Why not include abortion pills their medication abortion is FDA approved for use within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy is a safe and convenient way to self manage and abortion.


Nick  16:53

We’re students we know students who’ve had abortions, you know, as our fellow peers and we know it’s really hard. So I think it would really help to have medication abortion on campus.


Gloria Riviera  17:05

In February 2020, Nick says that they and a fellow Barnard student approached school administrators with the idea of offering medication abortion on campus.


Nick  17:14

It really started with a conversation of, hi, would this be something you’re open to?


Gloria Riviera  17:21

Like Nick said before Barnard is known for being progressive and feminist. But they say the response from administrators was not very supportive.


Nick  17:31

They came back to us with we don’t think students want of this. It’s very easy New York. We’re not sure that we want students bleeding out in dorms was something that was told to us. They said we already give access to larks which is long acting reversible contraceptives like IUDs and to hear those from a Barnard campus clinic coordinator that they don’t want students bleeding out in their dorms was okay, well, firstly, how does that make any sense? Because if they have an abortion elsewhere, if it’s a medication, abortion, they’re going to be bleeding out in the dorms anyway. And secondly, people have periods every month. So what is the logic over here?


Gloria Riviera  18:18

First off, we should note that the chances of bleeding out our minute, bortion pills are incredibly safe. According to a recent report since the year 2005 point 6 million people in the United States have taken abortion pills, and only point 000 5% of those cases resulted in death. We reached out to Barnard about these allegations from Nick. In response, a representative said that the current leadership of the Barnard health and wellness services and primary care health services did not make those claims or any related claims. They also said medication abortion was already on their radar before students approached health services officials. That’s different from how Nick describes it. They say administrators were not on board right away and needed convincing. So Nick and other organizers formed the reproductive justice collective or RJC. The goal was to organize for intersectional healthcare on campus, including access to abortion pills.


Nick  19:19

We had a petition with over like 1500 signatures of Barnard and Columbia students being like, yeah, this makes sense. It’s really hard to get an abortion in New York, it would make our lives a lot easier to have it at the campus clinic.


Gloria Riviera  19:34

As they continued talks with Barnard administrators, Nick says, it became clear just how disconnected the school was from the realities that a student seeking an abortion would face.


Nick  19:45

They were like, Oh, we had never heard of protests. Thank you for letting us know, we won’t refer people to those clinics anymore. And it was like well, okay, firstly, almost all the clinics in New York are protested and secondly, how can you be referred offering students to abortion clinics and not know that they are protested. Like the level of, frankly, like negligence. And just we don’t care about this, this is like a key woman’s health like, stop it, this doesn’t matter.


Gloria Riviera  20:14

After months and months, Nixon RJC finally got through to the school administration.


Nick  20:21

It is not easy to get an abortion as a young person in New York at all. And I think that’s what ended up actually making them finally, you know, agree to offering medication abortion on campus.


Gloria Riviera  20:32

I want to pause on something Nick said here, it is not easy to get an abortion as a young person in New York. Because compared to other states, getting an abortion in New York actually, is pretty easy. The restrictions are minimal and the state has given millions of dollars to fund abortion providers. But I think what Nick’s might be getting out here is that even in progressive New York, it doesn’t always feel easy to get an abortion. There are still obstacles like clinic protesters that can be especially intimidating for young people in college. That’s why this when getting Barnard to start offering medication abortion on campus is so significant. It became available in fall of 2023.


Nick  21:19

The idea is they go in to the primary care at Barnard and they say they want an abortion. It’ll probably be like a consultation. And they can take the first pill which is mifepristone. And then 24 to 48 hours later, they can take the four pills of misoprostol in like you know their dorm or in class or while having dinner at the dining hall with their friends.


Gloria Riviera  21:48

Because abortion is normal. It doesn’t have to be siloed or stigmatized. It can happen while you’re going about your regular day. And thanks to Nick’s and their fellow students work, it can now be as easy to access as any other care. Other private colleges in New York are following Barnard’s lead. The new school also began providing medication abortion on campus in the fall of 2023. Plus Nick’s has been involved with other private colleges across the state pushing for access. It’s all progress, has anyone said to you, thank you, like this will make a difference for me.


Nick  22:27

Yeah, I have got a lot of thank yous, I’ve got a lot of I cannot believe it took you this long, but thank God finally happened, yeah.


Gloria Riviera  22:42

This whole campaign took place during nixes undergraduate years. You know, when most college students are cramming for finals and playing beer pong.


Nick  22:50

I wouldn’t recommend the way I have lived this past year to a lot of people because of the very real mental and physical toll it is taken. It’s a lot of text like my friends, I miss you, and I love you and I wish I could be there. But this is my life right now.


Gloria Riviera  23:07

Nick was busy, incredibly busy, not just with bringing medication abortion to campus, not just attending protests, but with a whole other campaign they organised during their undergraduate years, it was their biggest goal yet to ensure abortion pill access on all public college campuses in New York.


Nick  23:29

I do think in a lot of ways, it was what I felt I had to do. And it was my response to the dobs decision.


Gloria Riviera  23:39

That fight for statewide access on college campuses really began to pick up in 2022. With our JC, Nick’s been organizing across other college campuses, and meeting with New York legislators.


Nick  23:51

A lot of meetings, a lot of talking to legislators and telling them what the state of abortion access looks like explaining to them what an actual medication abortion was, what the safety was, how it should be accessible the medical and scientific support for its accessibility.


Gloria Riviera  24:10

By the start of 2023. Nixon, their fellow activists learned New York Governor cat vehicle was in support of the bill and had even included it in the executive budget. From there, everything began to move quickly. The bill passed in the assembly and then shortly thereafter in the Senate.


News  24:27

With this bill, York will be positioned to accommodate the healthcare needs of all of our students. And the students will be welcoming from other states.


Nick  24:36

I could feel the work of the past year, like in my body at that moment. I could feel like the weight of all the work I’d put in all the work we had put in all the emotions.


Gloria Riviera  24:52

In May 2023 On the one year anniversary of the Dobbs leak. Governor Kathy Hoko signed the bill into law, Nick was there at the signing. And the governor invited them to speak of.


Nick  25:04

Supported dozens of young people in New York who have had a medication abortion, and told me how grateful they are that they can have an abortion while sitting in class, while engaging in their family responsibilities, and while hanging with their friends in their dorm.


Gloria Riviera  25:18

It’s hard to overstate how big this step really is. Thanks in huge part to the work of RJC medication abortion is now available on all 89 campuses in the SUNY and CUNY systems. Only two other states in the country, California and Massachusetts, have a similar law on the books. Nick, describe the experience as surreal.


Nick  25:44

Seeing it like literally inked into law and signed was, oh my god, I did that. I, you know, well, not just me, obviously, like all the amazing people I worked with, but we sat down and worked really, really hard for something. And that felt really special.


Gloria Riviera  26:08

When I heard Nick’sstory, I was moved by how someone so young had made such a difference. I mean, just imagine how many students lives will be made that much easier, thanks to the work of Nick’s RJC and other activists. But at the same time, it all struck me is kind of bittersweet. This is important work. But it comes at a cost to young activists like Nick’s like you heard earlier, Nick’s organizing has consumed their college experience. When we spoke in the spring of 2023. They told me it has even affected their graduation timeline.


Nick  26:46

I’m not walking this year, I am, you know, taking extra time over summer. To finish up all my course requirements. I had no time to be a student. I had no time to be a friend last summer after jobs, I couldn’t go out with my friends. I couldn’t relax. I was like constantly going to state if we have to do something and we have to push back. I wasn’t able to engage in school, I wasn’t able to engage with my friends with taking care of myself really with my family.


Gloria Riviera  27:26

It is tough to hear about the sacrifices Nick’s has made. It’s not easy to do this work. And it’s just the beginning of what I’m sure will be many more legislative fights and wins for next. These days, Nick is working full time as the political and legislative affairs associate at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. They also started New York abortion, doulas, and abortion support collective. In a recent email, they said they are exhausted and angry at the state of affairs, but also trying to find moments of solace with people close to them. It is so clear Nick is still pouring energy into their community. It reminds me of something they shared in our interview about the future of the reproductive justice movement.


Nick  28:15

We really I think, have to start looking in our own backyard. With regards to how abortion care and abortion access is being repressed rights don’t really mean anything without access.


Gloria Riviera  28:30

Nick, and all of the defenders we’ve heard on this show are keeping the fire alive. They no change won’t happen overnight. But this fight, it’s already making a difference. So when things feel bleak, when new bands and attacks threaten access, remember, there is a network of defenders across this country committed to protecting reproductive freedom. You’ve heard their stories throughout the course of this series. They’re funding abortions after successfully suing the Texas Attorney General. They’re leading the intersectional fight to for bodily autonomy in Tennessee. They’re preaching to congregations about abortion in Georgia. All together, they’re offering hope and the ongoing battle to safeguard reproductive rights. And they’re not going anywhere.


Tia Freeman  29:24

There’s fun in the fight, there’s fire in the fight, there’s passion in the fight, you know, and it’s not the last they go see of us.


Monica  29:30

Reproductive justice is connected to so many other issues like voting rights, like economic justice, you know, like what people are talking about what’s going on in the environment, it’s all connected.


Vidalia Anne Gentry  29:41

Unity is really what we need to be looking to unity intersectionality reaching across these proverbial bridges to people who are maybe not exactly like us.


Speaker 3  29:50

There is this messaging out there by and large that preachers are anti abortion, and many of us aren’t.


Speaker 4  29:56

Banning trans health care isn’t helping anyone, it’s just spreading more hate.



In my opinion, there is absolutely no justification for any law, restricting access to abortion in any way.


Speaker 3  30:08

We can create this world where abortion restrictions will no longer exist, where we will not have gestational limits where people can access abortion care whenever they want, whenever they need it for free.


Samantha Bee  30:24

First of all, can I just say that I’m so glad we took this podcast gathering all of these incredible voices together in one place in one place. I think that maybe I just didn’t fully realize how inextricable abortion as it touches every issue that is important to people in some way.


Gloria Riviera  30:48

What talking to everyone in each episode has shown me is that there are just so many ways to be a defender. It’s not just about yes, please use your vote and support abortion funds. But there is a long list of ways in which you can support this movement.


Samantha Bee  31:09

Yes, Imagine talking about reproductive freedom at your church, with your kids, with your friends who are on the fence.


Gloria Riviera  31:17

Yeah, I’m coming out of this series with an enormous amount of hope, because I think there’s so many avenues that I didn’t know existed before, right? Like that’s the good news, guess what? You can contribute in a myriad of ways and have impact. Like you’re sitting there and you think like, well, what can I do? Guess what a hell of a lot.


Samantha Bee  31:37

A lot, I mean, even down to your own community, you can just support people’s reproductive choices, just like starting your own family.


Gloria Riviera  31:48

I have felt the weight of my inaction. Like I was born with Roe. So it has taken a lot of time for me to understand how inadequate Roe was from the beginning. And yet, the tone of so many that we’ve spoken to is, you know what, it’s okay. We can build something better.


Samantha Bee  32:16

Exactly, building something better. There can be a better, more expansive future and it is necessary, it is needed.


Gloria Riviera  32:32

That’s where you come in. We’ve put together a resource guide for you with all of the organizations mentioned in this show. Organizations that need your help, your time, your donations, whatever you can offer. We’ve linked to this guide in the show notes. Take a look because there are so many ways to make meaningful change as a defender in your backyard and beyond.


Gloria Riviera  33:06

There’s more of The Defenders with Lemonada Premium subscribers get exclusive access to bonus content, like extended interviews with organizers, abortion providers and experts. Subscribe now in Apple podcasts.



The Defenders is a production of Lemonada Media. We’re your hosts Gloria Riviera, and Samantha Bee. Muna Danish  is our supervising producer. Lisa Phu  is our producer. Isaura Aceves and Tony Williams are our associate producers. Ivan Kuraev and Natasha Jacobs are our audio engineers. Music by Hannis Brown with additional music by Natasha Jacobs. Story editing by Jackie Danziger, our VP of narrative content. Fact checking by Naomi Barr. Executive Producers are Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs. This series is supported by Charles and Lynn Schusterman, Family Philanthropies, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Levi Strauss foundation. Follow The Defenders wherever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership.

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