(This article was originally published on 21 December 2021 and has been republished from The Quint's archives in light of Politico's exclusive report, which says that the Supreme Court has, according to a leaked draft opinion, voted to overturn abortion rights in the US.)
“I lobby the legislature to ensure reproductive rights,” is how Indian American Mini Timmaraju explained her work to perplexed aunts in Hyderabad during one of her India visits.
“My aunties had a hard time understanding this, politically. They asked, 'are these programs not funded by the government?' They were surprised because in India abortion is much more readily available and paid for by the state. India has a progressive stance on reproductive rights. Abortion is liberalised due to the government's family planning policy. US politicians are actively trying to fix this. US has a tremendous impact on policy issues across the globe including abortion access,” adds Mini Timmaraju, the President of NARAL Pro-Choice America, an organisation that has been leading the fight for abortion access in the US, for over half a century.
Women across the world, like Mini’s aunts, have looked to the US as their north star when it comes to women’s rights. Now astonished, the rest of the world is looking on as millions of women battle to save their reproductive rights in 21st Century America.
'Reproductive Choice Facing Its Biggest Crisis in USA'
Abortion is an issue that divides the US like none other. At the centre of it all is an Indian American – Mini Timmaraju. A skilful campaigner and coalition-builder with over 20 years of experience fighting for reproductive, gender, and racial justice. Mini has been chosen to lead NARAL at a time when reproductive choice is facing its biggest crisis in the country.
The right to abortion is on extremely shaky ground as a divided US Supreme Court is hearing arguments on the fate of Roe v Wade, the court's 1973 decision that legalised abortion in the United States.
With the decision that could overturn Roe v Wade to come before the mid-term 2022 elections, Indian American Mini Timmaraju’s role is crucial. Rallying in thousands outside the courts, NARAL is leaving no stone unturned.
“Priority between now and midterms is democracy reform, protection of voting rights, filibuster reform. Our attention is on this as our senate majority is very slim – not all democrats are pro-choice. We expect the Supreme Court to come out with the decision next summer, so we will be hammering away with every senator, every representative, messaging to rally, maintain majority, make investments in swing states,” says Timmaraju, warning that the undemocratic trend will not stop at limiting abortion access.
“There is a direct line between Roe v Wade and litigation around contraception, gay civil marriage. If the court can over turnover a 50-year precedent, they are coming after gay civil marriage, they are coming after contraception, it is 100 percent to be expected.”Mini Timmaraju, President of NARAL Pro-Choice America
Fearing going back to the horror of back-alley abortions, with so much at stake, NARAL’s 2.5 million members are currently mobilising to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would safeguard the right to abortion in all 50 states. It passed the US House of Representatives earlier this year.
NARAL is also holding to account the senators who voted to confirm Trump’s anti-choice justices. When asked whether the Biden-Harris administration will consider increasing the number of judges at the US Supreme Court, Mini Timmaraju said that nothing is off the table to tackle the conservative majority in the court and added, “It is not impossible. We will pursue every single possible solution including a possible extension of the court to protect reproductive rights, or else women will die and we will be in a crisis.”
Dealing With Racism: How Supportive Parents Encouraged Mini to Fight for Equality
Named after the little girl from Rabindranath Tagore’s popular Kabuliwala, Mini was born in India, “My parents lived in US, the Philadelphia area, where I live now, but we didn't have a lot of family here. When I was about to be born, my mom wanted to be with her mother and sisters, her loved ones. She went to Hyderabad and was reunited with my father when I was four months old. I joke that I can't be president now as I was born outside the US!” shares Mini, laughing.
Her growing-up experiences shaped her worldview. “In the late 70s, early 80s there was a hate group in New Jersey and New York area called ‘dot busters’. You know that our community is small. We all get concerned. I was hearing in our living room, aunties and uncles talk about – 'maybe we should not wear bindis and saris any more’, ‘we have to watch out and be careful’ – as a very young child you hear everything,” recalls Mini.
Even though the family was surrounded by a "diverse set of wonderful friends and neighbours, Christians and Jewish people, who were very supportive," Mini knew that, “There was a small but vocal minority in this country who were not comfortable from our success.”
As a high schooler, Mini Timmaraju had more direct encounters, “When we moved to Texas it became palpable. I heard racist slurs. I had a teacher who didn't like my political position in an argument in high school and said, if you don't like this country then you can go back!” Fortunately, Mini was growing up with progressive parents who provided, “intellectual freedom and robust political conversations at home. My parents surrounded me with newspapers. They were politically active in their community,” shares Mini.
Inspired by her parents and other tangible experiences to fight for equity, Mini skipped the stereotypical career route that most Indian immigrant parents prefer for their children. Her parents couldn’t be prouder.
“I think from my earliest ages my parents both expressed a lot of pride in my choices and pursuits. My father was particularly enthusiastic about my interest in Indian classical arts. I studied some Kuchipudi dance, and did some Hindustani classical music studies into college, with a focus on tabla. However, the high point was probably when I worked for Hillary Clinton and I was able to introduce my mother to her. She's a very passionate feminist and that was a nice moment. They are of course very proud of this role I have now with NARAL Pro-Choice America. They are active Democrats and share my concerns about the state of our democracy."Mini Timmaraju, President of NARAL Pro-Choice America
As National Women’s Vote Director for the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, Mini Timmaraju helped ‘build a historically diverse coalition of women.’ Even as a young girl, Mini admired Hillary Clinton. “When I was in college, she went to Beijing and said, human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights. Working side by side with her was a dream. Secretary Clinton is a woman I looked up to as a kid,” she says.
Mini Timmaraju received her bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley and studied law at the University of Houston. She has extensive experience leading federal, state, and local campaigns, as well as advocacy efforts for reproductive rights including significant roles at Planned Parenthood.
She was a Senior Advisor to the Director at the Office of Personnel Management in the Biden-Harris Administration, where she helped “put an equity lens through the entire federal workforce.”
'Have To Do This for My Kids': Mini on Why Fighting for Reproductive Rights Means So Much to Her
Mini knows that she has the backing of a progressive administration. “You can tell the character of President Biden by people he surrounds himself with. He has put smart and most passionate people for human rights, racial and minority equity, in that place. We have a strong partner in the White House,” says Mini.
And with that support she has now jumped into the biggest battle of all – to fight for reproductive freedom, as President of NARAL. “I took this job in spite of being comfortable in a corporate job, because I have to do this for my kids because democratic rights are under threat,” shares Mini, who lives in the Philadelphia area, adding, “My husband is white American from Midwest. Our kids are black, they are adopted. We are a multiracial and multicultural American family.”
This Indian American is fighting for and alongside millions of American women and men, who in spite of being in majority, are threatened by a conservative agenda.
“The origin of US is very Christian. We see remnants of its puritanical cultural ethos about sex. But it is important for me tell you that several Americans, seven out of ten – 7 by 10 – support abortion freedom, they support birth control. It is a popular issue. So why has it become such a controversy? It is the same reason as why did the country elect Trump, because there has been a fundamental impact on our democracy, a steady erosion of rights, which is something that Indians can relate to”, Mini emphasises.
The civil rights leader has a message for women in India and South Asia, who give her hope:
“Rights are something you have to continually fight to protect. You can't take it for granted. Rights don't grow. They are not naturally linear. We have to protect them vigorously, especially for coloured women in a postcolonial world. At the same time, they (South Asian women) give me hope – India Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka – women taking over as leaders of organisations, leaders in parliament, it’s tremendous, they give me hope.”
(Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced ‘Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She tweets @SsavitaPatel.)
(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)