Abortion rights activists sound the alarm on 'terrifying' aspect of Roe v. Wade's possible overturn: 'So few people are talking about [it]'

The internet brims with heartwrenching abortion stories: a 13-year-old rape victim forced to travel hours across Texas to terminate her grandfather’s baby; a woman who underwent a late-term abortion because her life depended on it; a family that ended a desperately wanted pregnancy to spare their child from severe suffering.

These personal narratives received heightened attention in late 2021, following Texas’ six-week abortion law and Mississippi’s 15-week abortion law. These limitations pose a serious threat to the abortion access guaranteed by historic cases like Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

At a House hearing on the Texas law in September, Missouri Democratic Rep. Cori Bush joined the growing chorus of voices working to generate support for the right to choose by taking a rare step for a lawmaker.

She recounted her own trauma of being raped, becoming pregnant and seeking an abortion at age 18.

Online and offline, from TikTok to Washington, D.C., abortion discourse is taking place in such an unprecedented way that it’s borderline impossible to remain unaffected by it.

But even as women continue to cry out in support of their right to bodily autonomy, the fate of abortion as a constitutional right still remains uncertain.

As many as 26 states are poised to either ban or severely restrict abortions pending the Supreme Court’s upcoming ruling on Mississippi’s abortion law, which directly challenges Roe v. Wade.

This is happening despite polls showing that about 61% of Americans believe abortion should be legal in most or all circumstances during the first trimester of a pregnancy, while 54% of people oppose the complete overturning of Roe.

At this precarious moment in history, pro-choice activists are exploring many ways to preserve what they believe to be a fundamental human right.

‘Pro-life accounts dominated the app’

For such a contentious subject, abortion is an exceedingly common medical procedure in America.

Nearly one in four women in the United States will have an abortion by age 45, according to an analysis by the Guttmacher Institute, one of the nation’s leading groups for research and policy analysis on abortion.

By age 20, 4.6% of women will have had an abortion, and 19% will have done so by age 30.

The odds that you know someone who’s had an abortion are pretty high.

And yet, the topic largely remains taboo, even when a majority of the population wants to keep abortion legal. Why is that?

An organization dedicated to changing the conversation about abortions, Sea Change posits that abortion stigma disseminates from our culture’s “shared understanding that abortion is morally wrong and/or socially unacceptable.”

We see these morals — many of which are deeply rooted in both religion and politics — imposed again and again through both abortion bans and challenges and through the shaming of women who have undergone abortions, both in pop culture and in real life.

Whether consciously or not, we act in line with these morals every time we speak about abortion in a secretive manner, like it’s something to be deeply ashamed of.

Activists suggest part of the solution lies in changing the language and tone we employ around abortion.

Paige Alexandria, a 30-year-old Austin resident and staunch pro-choice advocate, is working toward this through her TikTok page, @abortioncounselor.

The content creator, who worked as an abortion counselor at a Texas clinic for two years and now serves as a board member at The Lilith Fund, started her account in May 2020 when she became aware that pro-choice voices were wildly underrepresented on the app.

“I joined TikTok last year at a time when pro-life accounts dominated the app, after being approached by a young person who was determined to shift the narrative,” Alexandria told In The Know. “She contacted every abortion organization in the U.S. and tried to convince them to join the app to combat the wave of misinformation and abortion stigma.”

Alexandria decided she could be the voice to fill that void, and, almost immediately, her unique content gained traction.

In one of her early viral hits, Alexandria joyfully dances along to Doja Cat’s “Say So” while sharing information on how those under 18 can obtain an abortion without their parent’s permission.

In another video, Alexandria and her girlfriend @abortionqween — another prominent pro-choice activist — lip-sync to Olivia Rodrigo’s “Good 4 U” while lamenting how women are forced to bear the brunt of unplanned pregnancies.

“When you have to have an abortion to avoid parenting, and all he has to do is block you on social media,” Alexandria writes, before mouthing Rodrigo’s lyrics, “God, I wish that I could do that.”

‘Abortion can be happy, sad, funny, relieving and more

Alexandria’s light-hearted and playful videos stand in stark contrast to the solemn ways we typically discuss abortions. Her casual, humorous tone clearly resonates with TikTokers, as her account now boasts over 112,000 followers.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that abortion stories cannot be sad, as in the traumatic anecdote shared by Rep. Bush — it just means they don’t only have to be sad.

“Our experiences with abortion can be happy, sad, funny, relieving and more,” Alexandria explained. “Most importantly, they’re our stories, and we shouldn’t have to hide them.”

Alexandria says she developed her unique presence on the app to speak directly to members of Gen Z, who may have been explicitly taught in school or at home that “abortion is wrong,” period.

“It seemed that many people on TikTok weren’t exposed to the same messaging I was … it often seemed [that] folks thought abortion was supposed to be someone’s secret — certainly not something to celebrate, like I often posted about,” she explained. “I soon learned a lot of my viewers didn’t have access to information that discussed abortion in an unbiased way, or [that] they lived in homes where abortion wasn’t presented as a pregnancy option.”

The decision to terminate a pregnancy is a complex matter influenced by myriad factors. Alexandria believes that by showing people how abortion is a three-dimensional choice rather than a black-and-white moral issue, she can begin to normalize the subject.

“TikTok has provided so many young folks with a different perspective when it comes to learning about their own body, pregnancy options and reproductive health,” she said. “And so many other creators have shared their abortion stories by creating engaging videos that normalize abortion in ways that resonate with Gen Z.”

“Whenever abortion is illegal, a miscarriage must be investigated”

Abortion is not the only facet of pregnancy healthcare that Roe v. Wade impacts.

Whitney Smith (@prochoicewithheart), a 35-year-old mom and activist who founded ProChoice With Heart, says she first began advocating for the cause when she was questioned about whether she was responsible for causing her own miscarriage during an emergency room visit.

After the traumatic experience, Smith did some research and realized she was not alone.

“When I looked online, I found all these other stories of women who'd been arrested, detained, investigated and imprisoned simply for having miscarriages,” she told In The Know. “I knew I had to speak up.”

In November 2021, Brittney Poolaw made international headlines when she was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison after having a miscarriage at 17 weeks pregnant. Although the 21-year-old Native American woman admitted to using illicit drugs while pregnant, the fetus’ official cause of death was attributed to multiple different factors, including genetic anomaly and placenta abruption, BBC reports.

Pro-choice advocates like Smith worry about the precedent that Poolaw’s case may set.

Miscarriage, or the spontaneous loss of a pregnancy before the 20th week, is relatively common. Between 10 and 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The healthcare organization notes that the real number is likely even higher since some miscarriages happen before many even know they’re pregnant.

Should states be allowed to enact near-total bans on abortion, it could mean more scrutiny toward those who miscarry or deliver stillborns.

“We have to remember that when [lawmakers] ban abortion and put these really strict abortion laws in place, not only does that hurt access to healthcare, it also criminalizes miscarriage because whenever abortion is illegal, a miscarriage must be investigated to make sure that the ‘crime’ of abortion didn’t happen,” Smith explained.

An August 2021 report published by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers titled "How Legislative Overreach Is Turning Reproductive Rights Into Criminal Wrongs" addressed the legal landscape for future prosecutions of pregnant people if Roe is overturned.

“Whether as a result of self-abortion, a miscarriage or stillbirth allegedly caused by some action including alcohol use, drug use, or a physical altercation, an omission, such as lack of prenatal care or hospital-based birth, or the birth of a baby that was exposed to some risk of harm while in utero, pregnant women in states such as Arkansas, Alabama, Utah, Mississippi and Ohio are being aggressively targeted through state criminal and anti-abortion statutes,” researchers found. “Increasingly, pregnant women are subjected to arrest, prosecution and incarceration for crimes that run the gamut from child and chemical endangerment to First Degree Murder despite the fact that many state statutes criminalizing abortion purport to reach only those who perform the abortion.”

The report also found an increase in state laws that have already redefined “personhood” to include “an unborn child,” including Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina.

Reclassifying a fetus as a person could leave women who have abortions, miscarry or deliver stillborns criminally liable for the outcome of their pregnancies and open them up to charges such as homicide, feticide and aggravated assault, nonprofit newsroom The 19th explains.

Smith hopes her TikTok page can make people aware of this less-discussed aspect of Roe’s possible overturn.

“This is something that so few people are talking about,” she said. “These abortion bans do not just affect people that need or want an abortion, they affect every single person who can get pregnant.”

‘They can’t coexist'

Alexandria says she noticed a mood shift in the pro-choice community regarding the recent setbacks to abortion rights in Texas and Mississippi.

“People have been sharing their experiences with abortion for as long as we’ve been able to get pregnant, but I think this new reality is scaring a lot of us,” she told In The Know.

Those fears are certainly not unfounded.

Nicholas Creel, a 37-year-old assistant professor of Business Law at Georgia College and State University who specializes in constitutional law, explained why the Mississippi law poses a threat to both Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

“Mississippi’s law is set to ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy,” Creel told In the Know. “Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey established that states could not put an undue burden on women seeking abortions up until the point of fetal viability, which today is set at about 24 weeks. So, Mississippi is trying to move the standard up about nine weeks earlier than the existing precedent allows. Hence, it’s a direct and flagrant challenge to Roe and Casey. Either [Mississippi’s] law or [Roe and Casey] have to go; they can’t coexist.”

As for how that will likely play out?

“The short version is that I am strongly expecting Roe and Casey to be overturned and the Mississippi law to stand,” Creel speculated. “The reasoning for my pessimistic view as to Roe and Casey’s fate is that the Supreme Court’s current makeup is strongly conservative, and the oral arguments over the Mississippi case made clear there are not five votes from Justices to uphold those cases.”

Of the current nine justices, six (Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett) were appointed to the bench by Republican presidents whose party has sought to overturn Roe.

“To see the math, it helps to remember that, of the nine justices, we have only three who we can expect to uphold Roe [Justices Sotomayor, Kagan and Breyer], and we have three that we can absolutely expect to seek to overturn it [Justices Thomas, Alito and Barrett],” he continued. “With just three justices left [Gorsuch, Roberts and Kavanaugh], the liberal side of the Court would need to win two of these potential ‘swing votes’ to win the day.”

While Creel believes that abortion discourse may not change the imminent fate of Roe v. Wade, he, like Alexandria and Smith, argues that these narratives likely make women feel more comfortable being open about their own abortions.

In turn, this could help destigmatize the topic and expose more people to the reasons why safe abortion access is so important, leading to more long-term support for reproductive freedom later on.

“We can’t really gauge the impact of any single abortion narrative, but should the topic continue being discussed openly, we could well see increased support for abortion access over time,” Creel said. “This won’t be any sort of overnight change, mind you. It’ll be a slow slog filled with uncomfortable conversations.”

‘All abortions are OK’

As the future of reproductive freedom in America hangs precariously in the balance, one of the most viable long-term solutions is to remove expectations of shame surrounding abortion.

Creators like Alexandria, who discuss their abortions as informally as one might discuss a new song release or what they had for lunch, are diligently working to destigmatize the topic and push society toward a place where abortions can be spoken of as easily as anything else.

“Abortion storytelling can lead to real, tangible change on a legislative level, but it also builds community for those of us who’ve had abortions, which is extremely important when living in a society that tells us what we’re doing is wrong — or that only some abortions are OK,” Alexandria explained. “All abortions are OK, and every reason is a good enough reason to have one.”

Smith also encourages people to open up about their experiences with abortion and miscarriages, if they are able to do so safely and without risking their personal wellbeing.

“It is a place of privilege to have the ability and the safety to share your story,” she said. “But I do think if someone is able to share their story, that it can help change the narrative and change the world, because what we’re up against are years and years of systematic paid political advertisement stigmatizing abortion, women’s healthcare and anyone with a uterus’ health, because this affects more than just women.”

She also shared hope for a day that women will not feel pressure to share their personal stories in order to prove that they deserve healthcare.

“I wish we didn’t have to be doing this at all. It’s absurd that we are having the same fight that our grandmothers fought, that our mothers fought, but here we are,” she said. “I would rather be spending my time and energy doing just about anything else than having to fight for my most basic human rights and to have to share the most intimate, personal details of my life. I would rather be doing anything else. However, we cannot do anything else until we have the right to control our own bodies.”

So … what do I do now?

As the pro-choice community addresses these issues with abortion discourse, experts say we need to immediately start preparing for a world where Roe is no longer law.

Creel says the best way to fight for the right to safe abortions is to pressure state governments to protect these freedoms.

“The Supreme Court’s path is pretty much set at this point, and their ruling is expected to free up state governments to pull back on abortion access,” he explained. “Many people tend to ignore state politics, focusing only on national races instead. They don’t realize that most of the policies that affect them the most, like reproductive rights, aren’t set in Washington, D.C., but in their own state capitals.”

To register to vote, visit Vote.gov and select your state or territory from the dropdown list. Check out key election dates in each state here.

It’s also worth taking the time to familiarize yourself with relevant medical information that can help lower your odds of needing access to an abortion in the near future.

Smith suggests joining in with local pro-choice rallies, or even volunteering to organize one, which her organization can help plan.

"We do volunteer training for free because we're a volunteer organization," she explained. "Since I started doing activism through ProChoice With Heart, we've held hundreds of protests all over the country, some even outside of the country, and we've even had teens step up and be speakers at our protests, which I think is incredible."

Ultimately, most abortion rights activists seem to agree on one thing; the time to take action is right now.

"We are seeing the reality of a world where our rights are constantly under attack," Smith said. "It is terrifying."

If you wish to support local abortion funds, consider donating to these foundations in Texas and Mississippi, and learn how to support your own state’s fund here.

If you or someone you know needs abortion counseling, contact the National Abortion Federation at 1-800-772-9100 or Planned Parenthood at 1-800-230-PLAN. You can also connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor at no charge by texting the word “HOME” to 741741.

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