With reproductive rights gutted in the U.S., wanting to do something is only reasonable. But are forms of new activism helping or hindering? How can we do better?
Humans can be pretty nifty. When something goes wrong, when there’s a crisis in need of immediate redress, many of us are right there on the frontlines, trying to help. And sometimes knowing how to help is easy! Show up here. Sign the petition there. Contact your government representatives (always). But in many situations, the help we want to offer isn’t actually the help required. This is why food banks prefer cash over your almost-expired canned goods. And why disaster relief teams really prefer your dollars over used T-shirts.
We mean well. We do. We might not be ready to make substantial life changes to help others, but the idea of contributing to good causes still resonates with most.
However, sometimes our kneejerk readiness to act can do real damage—especially when the causes we’re trying to help have deep, decades-long histories, and there are already a slew of activists who carry vital legacy know-how about how to do the work well. Showing up is still important! But how we show up in seasoned movements is crucial to not undermining the work already being done.
So how can we recognize potential missteps, and strive to do better?
Activism after SCOTUS’s Dobbs verdict
When SCOTUS overturned Roe v. Wade through its Dobbs verdict, a groundswell of people horrified by the harm that this decision will cause took to the streets, and flooded social media with their commitment to doing whatever they could to mitigate the damage. While the anti-legal-abortion movement believes that this decision is going to “save babies”, abortion bans don’t actually reduce the abortion rate. If anything, they increase the overall death and trauma rate, by hiking maternal mortality rates. And in the US, these rising state bans also come with powerful diminishments of human rights for anyone with a uterus, which fits neatly into Christian nationalism’s key goal of boosting the white population at whatever cost.
Doing something to try to reverse this damage makes sense. But as with so much of our online activism, we can easily signal-boost the wrong messaging, and make the work even harder for those who’ve been on the frontlines all along.
One of the worst offenders in recent weeks is the “camping” meme. Folks trying to signal support for people who need to leave the state to get abortions have been spreading some version of this well-intentioned message:
But this is one heck of a promise to be sharing with internet strangers, and as existing abortion providers have made abundantly clear, it’s an exceptionally ill-advised approach to the crisis on hand, for many reasons.
As the Abortion Care Network recently posted, the biggest issues lie with safety and privacy: both the patient’s and yours, as a well-intentioned ally. Many factors go into providing people in need with help at such a delicate time. You have to be fully aware of relevant laws, for one, and know your limits when advising others of the law as well. You also need to be prepared for a wide range of patient behaviors, because not everyone who needs help is going to be a tip-top perfectly grateful human being. They might also be dealing with drug addiction, mental health crises, and medical or childcare needs for which you are absolutely not prepared. And why on Earth should they automatically feel comfortable around you? Why do they owe you that trust in a time of great uncertainty and vulnerability?
You also need to be able to provide discretion at every step of the process at a level for which you, your family, and your community are almost definitely not set up.
That’s why there are professional networks for this kind of aid-work instead.
The Abortion Care Network‘s thread is generous, though, because it redirects rather than tamping down all that well-intentioned energy. (And pay attention to the thread’s excellent embedded article, which gives tips on how to talk responsibly about this issue, without diminishing other social crises.)
For instance, you should be having these conversations, but more with your nearest and dearest than with strangers. Do people in your circles know that you’re a safe person to talk to about these issues? What do you do, in general, to show and foster care within your networks? How have you already been reaching out to build a climate of trust close to home? Is it only just now that you’ve started to demonstrate an interest in helping people around you who are struggling?
And you should be making a list of resources to direct people to, if it comes to your attention that they’re in need. (Remember, too, that searches for related materials should be done on secure browsers.) Let people know to visit ineedanA.com to look for the nearest options, and to contact the Bridgid Alliance for travel needs.
Organizations like the National Network of Abortion Funds are deeply thankful for donations at the time, but have also made it abundantly clear that some shows of support, like flooding the helplines to offer assistance, are not beneficial. These organizations are busy trying to reach and support an overwhelming number of frightened, desperate, and confused people in need. If you want to be present, be present. Sign up for mailing lists. Follow key organizations on social media. Stay apprised of their updates, and look for concrete, specific asks for aid as they arise.
Remembering our history, honoring our activists
One of the biggest missteps we make when diving into a freshly trending struggle is assuming that, just because we’ve reached a crisis point on a political and/or legal level, there must not have been people fighting hard enough before us.
This could not be further from the truth.
All around the US today, there are burned out social workers and medical care providers, legal aid teams and community organizers, trying their damnedest to manage personal grief and fury over this callous rollback of rights and strong guarantee of increased harm in the coming months, while still doing the work. Work that, for decades, many have been doing with very little support and certainly without the surge of interest that’s arisen now that the situation is so dire.
Many of these folks are now also finding themselves in the unenviable situation of being lectured at by new arrivals to the activist scene: folks ever so confident that they know what’s best and what needs to be done next, even though they haven’t actually tangled with the government and organizational logistics firsthand.
The best activism remembers its history, and honors the experiences of its long term and legacy activists.
Resources for learning about U.S. reproductive rights activists
There’s a wealth of listening and reading available, to help folks understand what pregnant people underwent before legalized abortion, how different networks of care arose to support all facets of reproductive rights (from contraception access, to safe abortion, to proper maternal care), and the sorts of hard, unglamorous activities (such as volunteer patient escorts, helpline management, and pill mail-outs) that have kept choice alive even when it was technically protected by law. Here are a few:
Throughline‘s “Before Roe: The Physicians’ Crusade” illustrates that abortion was a normalized practice in colonial America, right up until it became one zealous doctor’s crusade to ban it, and then covers how another “crusade” rose to legalize it.
The Janes, a documentary about the Jane Collective, offers a comprehensive look at the underground movement that helped people gain abortion access in Illinois before Roe v. Wade, at great personal cost and peril.
Marlene Gerber Fried’s “Reproductive Rights Activism in the Post-Roe Era”, a 2013 article in The American Journal of Public Health, presents a broad snapshot of different activist efforts striving to protect reproductive rights even after the initial Roe v. Wade decision.
And on the legal side? The Problem with Jon Stewart‘s “Limber Up and Pack a Lunch: The Post-Roe Fight Ahead” delivers a solid interview with law professors Leah Litman, Melissa Murray, and Kate Shaw about the (very bleak, exceptionally long term) struggle ahead on the judicial front.
Lastly, This American Life‘s “The Pink House at the Center of the World” looks at abortion-network activism in just the past few weeks. Some segments address the activism now being performed by the anti-legal-abortion set (some of which truly thinks it’s reducing harm), but most give a powerful glimpse into what abortion networks are actually dealing with in the way of transformed day-to-day workflow after the Dobbs verdict.
(And honestly, the episode’s insights into current and impending anti-legal-abortion activism offer key intel for us, too.)
Long haul activism, and checking in with yourself
Unfortunately, the U.S. is looking at a very long, ugly road back to what most of the rest of the world fully understands: that abortion rates and maternal death rates are both reduced in societies that don’t have the stigma of bans and criminalization, that invest in universal contraception access and comprehensive sex ed, and that provide citizens with low-cost healthcare services and more family support benefits.
Long term activists have always known the work to be grinding and unending, though. These are painful times, but not surprising ones for anyone deep in the fray.
What can the rest of us do? First and foremost, check in on ourselves as we seek to take up the work. Are we angry? Are we grief-stricken? Okay.
Are we centering ourselves in the activism? Do we actually want to do something, or do we want to be seen by others as doing something? If the latter? Less okay.
Have we checked in with existing networks in our regions? Do we know what those networks are, and what they’re asking folks to do? How much of their history have we taken the time to learn? How many of their public-facing professionals are we following on social media, to listen to and take direction from in the fight ahead?
At the end of the day, donating to existing networks, signal-boosting their calls to action, and deepening our commitments to local communities will always be our strongest modes of response. And that’s okay. The world is hurting in many ways. We’re not expected to be “heroes” for them all. To fix the Ukrainian refugee crisis. To halt civil war in East Africa. To bring down big oil and save the planet from climate change. To singlehandedly heal all of the world’s judicial schisms.
What we need is simply to know the difference between what we can do whenever a new crisis arises, and what we can do best—and to lean into the latter wholeheartedly.
And while we’re doing the best we can, where we can? Just remember to support the heck out of those better suited for all the other activist work that’s needed, too.
Because we cannot do this alone.
So thank goodness we are not.