Mini Timmaraju, president of Naral Pro-Choice America: ‘“It can be the bleakest of times and it can be terribly scary. It can also be an incredible opportunity.’ Photograph: Les Talusan/Naral Pro-Choice America

Mini Timmaraju, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, braces for an era in which the federal right to an abortion may no longer exist.

Born a month after the landmark 1973 supreme court decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion, Mini Timmaraju has never lived in an America without the rights enshrined by the landmark Roe v Wade supreme court ruling.

Now she is helping lead the reproductive rights movement into an uncertain, “frightening” future where the federal right to an abortion may no longer exist.

Just days into her new role as president of Naral Pro-Choice America, a conservative supreme court will hear arguments in a case that many advocates fear will be the death knell for Roe v Wade.

“It’s frightening times for advocates of reproductive freedom – for all Americans,” she said in an interview. And yet, Timmaraju sees reason for optimism.

“It can be the bleakest of times and it can be terribly scary,” she said. “It can also be an incredible opportunity.”

Earlier this month, the supreme court took up two separate challenges to a Texas law effectively banning abortions in the second most populous state in the nation. But the more direct threat to Roe comes on 1 December, when the court will consider the constitutionality of a Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy – about two months earlier than Roe and subsequent decisions allow.

These are the first abortion cases to be considered by the expanded, 6-3 conservative majority, which includes three appointees of Donald Trump, who had promised to nominate only “pro-life” justices.

If Roe were to be overturned, there are 26 states that are “certain or likely” to ban the procedure, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The list includes nine states with abortion bans still on the books from before Roe, and 12 states with so-called “trigger” laws, which would be enacted if Roe is overturned.

“With Scotus in mind and with the midterms at play,” Timmaraju said, “we have a real opportunity to wake up a big majority of the electorate that we know supports reproductive freedom and double down and ramp up that work to meet the moment we’re facing right now, this moment of crisis.”

Pro-choice protest in New York.
‘We have a real opportunity to wake up a big majority of the electorate,’ Timmaraju said. Photograph: Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

Timmaraju, the daughter of immigrants from India, is the first woman of color to lead the organization, which is one of the nation’s oldest and most powerful abortion advocacy groups.

Most recently, she worked as a senior adviser for the Biden administration on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility. In 2016, she led efforts to mobilize female voters as a director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. She also led diversity efforts at Comcast Corporation, held leadership roles with Planned Parenthood and served as the national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans.

“I feel like I’ve been at the intersection of race and gender my whole career,” she said.

Timmaraju said it was time to “raise the alarm” on the “very organized, concerted effort by the extremist right to whittle away at reproductive rights since the minute Roe became law of the land”.

Exposing these tactics, she believes, will help energize voters, especially those who support abortion rights but may not have realized the extent to which abortion access is under threat, particularly at the state and local level.

At the federal level, she called for the immediate passage of the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would effectively codify Roe and counter state-level restrictions on abortion. The House passed the bill in September, but it faces daunting odds in the Senate, where a Republican filibuster awaits.

Naral has been outspoken in calling on Democrats to eliminate the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to pass most legislation.

Yet it’s unclear the legislation would pass with just a simple majority, as two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin and Bob Casey, have not yet signed on to a Senate version of the bill. Nor have the two pro-choice Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins.

Mini Timmaraju.
Mini Timmaraju. Photograph: Les Talusan/Naral Pro-Choice America

Nevertheless, Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, has promised to bring the measure to the floor for a vote – a sign, Democrats believe, that abortion could be a potent issue in next year’s election.

In her new role, Timmaraju hopes to build on the solidarity between progressive organizations, leveraging their collective power to resist the tide of abortion restrictions and voting rights restrictions, while fighting for LGBTQ rights and climate justice.

“We know there’s a throughline of white supremacy throughout,” she said. “These are not new playbooks.”

Furthermore, she said that overturning Roe would have a disproportionate impact on people of color, low-income people and people who live in rural areas, all of whom already experience higher barriers to accessing reproductive and maternal health services.

Despite the myriad political and legal setbacks, she said the reproductive rights movement has made critical gains.

Abortion is no longer a “taboo” topic, Timmaraju said, crediting the decades of work by activists and a new generation of female lawmakers who have publicly shared the story of their decision to have an abortion.

“We need to not be afraid of talking about it. When we become afraid or we get, you know, uncomfortable with it,” she said, “that’s when we give all this opportunity for our opponents to push and spread misinformation.”

Timmaraju said pro-choice advocates must be prepared to forcefully counter attempts by anti-abortion activists to portray the fall of Roe as “reasonable”, by pointing to medical advances or the availability of birth control, for example.

“They’re going to downplay it,” she said. “And we’ve got to be very ready to say, absolutely not.”

While the nation awaits a ruling from the supreme court next year, Timmaraju’s message to the movement is to keep the faith.

“We may have some short-term losses – and we’re gonna fight like hell to avoid them,” she said. “But we also have some really significant long-term gains, the seeds [of which] are being planted now.”