As US Policymakers Close in on Reproductive Rights, Can Social Media Help Women Access Abortions?

by Viola Stefanello

11 June 2019

“No judgment, no questions – I’ll pick you up at the airport, hold your hand, show you around.”

“We’ll take some selfies by the lake, chill out by a campfire, check out some cool art.”

“I have a warm bed, a shower and little dogs to keep you company.”

Towards the end of spring, messages like this began multiplying across social media platforms: in feminist Facebook groups, under dedicated Twitter hashtags, shared through viral pictures and in emotive Reddit threads.

A distracted reader scrolling past these posts might not notice a pattern or would perhaps shrug it off as some gimmicky online challenge. But the posts are not part of a new travel trend – they are the way thousands of Americans are choosing to resist the latest restrictions being imposed on reproductive rights across the country.

Nine American states have passed bills banning or severely limiting access to safe abortion since the beginning of this year. Alabama legislators voted to prohibit the procedure in nearly any case in early May, six other states have recently passed “heartbeat bills”, banning abortions from the moment a doctor can detect a foetal heartbeat, and Utah and Arkansas limited the procedure to the middle of the second trimester.

The recent uptick in anti Abortion legislation is part of a larger pattern. Reproductive rights in the US have been being gradually eroded for years: according to data collected by the University of California, San Francisco, 275 clinics that used to carry out the procedure have been closed since 2013 alone. Although there is currently still at least one open facility in each of the 50 American states, in some states it is only one. Approximately 11 million women live more than an hour’s drive from their closest clinic.

As laws become more prohibitive, the overturning of Roe v Wade – the historical ruling that protects a woman’s right to abortion in the United States – has started to seem a very real possibility. As a result, people are taking to social media to open their homes to women who may need to travel far from their own state to access safe abortion.

Hannah Jones*, an obstetrician-gynaecologist from the Midwest, founded one of the many Facebook groups that popped up following the near-total ban on abortion in Alabama. Her group, “The Pink Brick Road”, wants to “connect people to safe access to [abortion to] exercise their inherent reproductive rights,” by offering support, lodging and company throughout the process.

“The idea was to connect resources and people together to help ease the burden of restriction on bodily autonomy and information,” Jones explains.

“Our priority is harm reduction. Above all, we wish to share our resources and experiences to lessen the harmful impact restriction of reproductive rights causes”.

The group currently has over 3,000 members – and there are many others like it.

One of the first groups set up, The Auntie Network, has accrued 2,000 members since 14 May and promises to help those who “need a hand to hold, have a story to share… need to be in a place of peace to make the decisions that are right for them, free from government oppression or religious pressure”.

Another one with a similar name, AuntieNetworkUSA, almost 3,000 members strong, defines itself as “a movement of like-minded people who want to help one another”. Many people have also come forward to offer women help on Reddit or Twitter.

But although the current incarnation has sprung up in a matter of months, the network is not without precedent. The need to travel to access safe reproductive healthcare is something women have faced historically around the world. Before Roe v Wade, for instance, American women traveled all the way to Japan, Sweden and the United Kingdom, as well as relying on truly radical underground abortion networks within the country. 

Today, as twenty-six countries still have a complete ban on abortion – including Malta and the British territory of Gibraltar – many still have to venture outside of their home country for an abortion. Even within the United Kingdom, all women are not alike: in Northern Ireland, for instance, a Victorian era act means that anyone procuring an abortion can face life imprisonment.

In cases like these, a central problem arises that Auntie Networks do not fully take into account: while wealthy women may have the means to cover travel expenses, marginalised or impoverished women have to fend for themselves.

Mara Clarke of the London-based Abortion Support Network, a charity that provides advice, financial assistance and accommodation in volunteer homes for people living in Ireland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, Malta and Gibraltar in need of an abortion, says this is one of the main criticisms of recent grassroots networks online.

Over almost twenty years working for an abortion fund, Clarke has seen thousands of women reaching out for help: students and mothers, married, partnered or single, victims of sexual assault, in or escaping abusive relationships, younger or older. One of them, she recalls, was 12 years old.

“We don’t ask our clients how they got pregnant or why they want abortions because rich women don’t have to justify this. We only ask how much money they have and we do our best to help make up the difference.

There is often an idea that what people need to get an abortion is a ‘cup of tea’ or a ‘shoulder to cry on’ and while some women may want those things, the fact is what they really need is help with logistical support in navigating abortion restrictions.”

This is where organised abortion funds come in. Clarke says:

They have been doing this work for decades: they have funds to help with the biggest obstacle in accessing care – money – and many funds also help with things like transportation, accommodation and childcare, since the majority of women who have abortions already have children.”

Known internationally, highly organised, expert on recruiting, screening, training and maintaining volunteers as well as on the more logistical aspects, funds are at the heart of the fight when it comes to making abortions more accessible to marginalised people.

Clarke’s view is shared by the National Network of Abortion Funds, based in Boston. “People who are setting up online networks have great intention and a great heart, but perhaps they don’t know what work has already been done for several decades – part of our job is to let them know that there are already people in local communities that have been working to make these processes very safe and compassionate”, says communications director Lindsay Rodriguez.

“People who have to travel to get an abortion deserve to have the least amount of hustle and barriers that they can – we even have funds that will text people through the night to make sure that they have companions and they’re not alone,” she continues.

“We know how to do this in a way that makes people feel safe – it’s scary for someone to reach out to a stranger on the Internet, and there are risks of people who are not acting in good faith infiltrating these networks. Also, even if they are acting out of the goodness of their hearts, if someone is not familiar with the logistics, they might not be the best advocate or supporter for the person who needs an abortion”.

Abortion funds throughout the United States have been calling for new volunteers to join their ranks rather than reinvent and divide them; their message is clear, while ‘Aunties’ are almost certainly well intentioned, it’s better to rally behind organisations that have been helping women for decades than to set up new ones.

*Not her real name

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