They moved to red states — and they're worried about the future of abortion rights

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"The politics here were barely tolerable before, and now it’s getting to the point where it’s endangering my daughters," said a college professor in North Carolina.

In the fall, Patrice Douglas was looking for a change. She decided to move from Philadelphia to Austin, Texas, a modern-day mecca for liberal-minded young professionals like herself. She started working in the gaming unit of a technology company and soaked up the city’s youthful energy.

But on Monday, after Politico published a leaked draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, Douglas felt “appalled.” She is a strong supporter of reproductive rights, and she was shaken by the idea of living in one of the 23 states that could ban abortions if the 49-year-old landmark decision is reversed.

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“I am questioning my decision to move,” said Douglas, 29, “but it also makes me want to be more involved in local politics.”

She is one of an untold number of progressive-leaning Americans who, faced with the stark possibility of a post-Roe world, find themselves second-guessing having settled in liberal enclaves or academic sanctuaries in otherwise red states.

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“I’d always had my eye on the city because of the growth of the tech industry. It’s been listed as one of the top places for people in their 20s and 30s,” said Douglas, who wants to purchase a house in the area soon.

“The culture of downtown Austin, around the University of Texas — that’s not the stereotypical Texas,” Douglas said. “But as soon as you get outside the city limits, that’s where you experience more of the conservative perspective.”

New residents grow fearful

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The rapidly shifting political environment is especially jarring for the many young people and restless professionals who moved during the height of the pandemic, seeking solace in rural communities or new opportunities in thriving blue-tinted cities like Austin, Atlanta and Nashville, Tennessee.

Exactly a year ago, Theresa Francisco and her husband, Sean Curtis, packed their bags and drove from Los Angeles to Greenbackville, Virginia, a rural seaside community near the Maryland border.

They enjoy their new small-town idyll. The rustic peace is a welcome change after nearly a decade of urban hustle and bustle. The rent is cheaper. They continue to work remotely for employers based in California.

Image: protesters carry signs and listen to speakers as they demonstrate near a federal court on may 3, 2022, in richmond, va.
A protest outside federal court Tuesday in Richmond, Va.Steve Helber / AP

But since the draft Roe opinion was leaked, Francisco and Curtis, both 31, have grown increasingly alarmed. They do not want kids, and the thought of being forced to go ahead with an unwanted pregnancy terrifies them.

“I’m in a privileged position. I have a good support group,” Francisco said. “But this could jeopardize the life that I’ve built for myself and the life that we’ve built together, and that’s extremely scary.”

Curtis said he realized he needed to “take steps to avoid” scenarios he and his spouse consider untenable. Two days after the Politico report was published, Curtis said he made an appointment to have a vasectomy.

Virginia is one of 11 states where abortion would be restricted but not completely banned if Roe is overturned.

“We have Gov. [Glenn] Youngkin. We have a Republican attorney general,” Curtis said, later adding: “We live in a rural, deep red area, where liberals like us are few and far between.” (Youngkin did not make specific positions on abortion policy this week, but he has identified himself as “pro-life.”)

Virginia “isn’t nearly as extreme as, say, Texas or Louisiana,” Curtis said, “but this whole debacle has shaken any faith or optimism in it staying that way.”

Moment of reckoning for some progressives

Many conservatives across the U.S. were heartened by the news on Roe. Republicans and conservative leaders have fought for decades to undo a legal precedent they believe was wrongly decided, and many anti-abortion advocates believe the procedure is deeply immoral.

Numbers from a recent NBC News poll show that a majority of Americans — 54 percent — believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. That number rises to 65 percent for younger Americans, ages 18 to 34, who believe abortions should be legal; 32 percent disagree.

The leak from the Supreme Court represented a moment of reckoning for progressives who felt they were beginning to find their footing in red-skewing areas of the country.

Twelve years ago, Arielle Kuperberg needed a job. She was nearing the end of her graduate studies in sociology, but the job market, still reeling from the Great Recession, looked bleak. She received one promising offer: a tenure-track position at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Kuperberg accepted the faculty role, although the Northeast native felt uncomfortable with the politics of North Carolina. She was opposed to the state’s rightward tilt on social issues like LGBTQ rights, for example, but she took the job and made a home in Greensboro, giving birth to two daughters. The city grew on her.

Abortion rights supporters protest outside the supreme court on tuesday.
Abortion rights supporters protest outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday.Valerie Plesch for NBC News

But the news about Roe sent her into a panic. She feels it would be unacceptable to remain in North Carolina if abortion is effectively outlawed.

“The state Legislature is completely controlled by Republicans,” Kuperberg, 39, said in a phone interview this week. “We have a Democratic governor right now, but the second a Republican wins an election, I feel like abortion is going to be gone.”

“The politics here were barely tolerable before, and now it’s getting to the point where it’s endangering my daughters,” Kuperberg said, letting out a heavy sigh.

Kuperberg is strongly considering moving to a “solidly blue” state — maybe Oregon, Washington, California or somewhere in New England — even if it means abandoning her tenured position and changing professions.

‘We’re going back 50 years’

Austin has had an influx of new residents over the last decade, offering them a left-leaning home inside a deep-red state. Texas’ archconservative governor, Greg Abbott, signed a law last year that bars abortions after six weeks, before some women even know they are pregnant.

“The laws here are f—ing crazy. They’re scary,” said a woman who moved to Austin in November and requested anonymity because she fears being harassed for her views. “Austin is a liberal bubble: It’s queer, it’s creative, there’s good music, there’s good food. But you get two seconds outside this bubble and you’re very much in Texas.”

“I feel unsafe because I’m a queer-representing female who comes from a hippie commune, so I don’t feel comfortable in a place where human rights are in question,” she added.

In the summer of 2018, Tara Brooke, who had left the U.S. for Spain after the election of Donald Trump, decided to move to Austin for her career, too.

Brooke, 44, a trained doula who co-founded Born Into This, a nonprofit organization that supports birth workers and reproductive freedom, said she was not shocked by the content of the leaked opinion.

“The leak itself was a surprise. But most of us who work in reproductive health knew this was coming,” Brooke said in a phone interview. “Republicans aren’t shy that this is what they’ve wanted for a really long time.”

Image: demonstrators gather near the federal courthouse to protest news that u.s. supreme court could be poised overturn landmark roe v. wade case legalized abortion nationwide on may 3, 2022, in austin, texas.
Demonstrators gather Tuesday in Austin, Texas, to protest the news that the Supreme Court could overturn Roe v. Wade.Eric Gay / AP

But the idea of living in a GOP bulwark during what could prove to be the final months of Roe still gives her pause, and she is especially fearful for women in Texas who will be most vulnerable if Roe is tossed out — particularly people of color, the economically disadvantaged and other marginalized groups.

The stakes feel personal, too.

“I’m a mother of three children. I think it’s really unfortunate that my children will enter their teen years and not have access to abortion,” Brooke said. “I’m a white woman and I have resources available, so I know they would be able to get an abortion in another state or Mexico. But it’s still really sad. We’re going back 50 years in time.”

Brooke is committed to living in Austin and doing whatever she can to push back against a rising tide of anti-abortion legislation that she finds abhorrent.

“I’m not leaving,” Brooke said. “I was a doula for a long time, and I saw that the country was so behind in education about the body. … I’m really focused on getting the next generation to have bodily autonomy and understand their own anatomy.”

“That’s why I’m not going to leave now,” she added. “I’m going to stay and fight.”

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