Republicans Are Trying to Ban Speech About Abortion Pills. Activists Are Vowing ‘Mass Defiance.’

“We are going to break these laws all day, every day, and help the people around us to do the same,” reproductive rights activist Amelia Bonow told Jezebel.

Republicans Are Trying to Ban Speech About Abortion Pills. Activists Are Vowing ‘Mass Defiance.’
Photo:Mary Ella Jourdak (Other)

Amelia Bonow spent the Fourth of July talking to strangers about abortion pills at a lemonade stand in front of the Supreme Court. About ten days after the institution ended the federal right to abortion, the founding director of Shout Your Abortion gathered friends and volunteers to dress in red, white, and blue and hand out popsicles and lemonade, while spreading the word that, thanks to an activist doctor based in Austria, people in all 50 states can order abortion pills—pregnant or not, regardless of local laws. People cooled off with paper fans printed with the words “ask me about abortion pills” superimposed on a mifepristone tablet, while others carried signs saying, “We will aid and abet abortion.”

Bonow is part of a movement to reclaim the language from the Texas abortion ban, S.B. 8, which deputized private citizens to sue anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion in the state. To Bonow, “aid and abet” can mean any number of things that, for the time being, remain legal—from donating to abortion funds and indie clinics, to sharing information about pills. When actor Busy Philips got arrested as part of a pro-choice demonstration outside the Supreme Court on July 1, she was wearing SYA’s “I will aid and abet abortion” T-shirt. (Granted, it’s much safer for a white celebrity in D.C. to wear such a shirt than an activist in Texas.)

Bonow told Jezebel that anti-abortion lawmakers want to instill fear in people. “S.B. 8 made it clear that the anti-choice movement is not just intent on banning abortions, but on trying to make us afraid to help each other in post-Roe America,” Bonow said. And she will not be cowed into silence, given that we’re in what she called an immediate healthcare and human rights crisis. “We need to commit to participating in one another’s care. That’s going to look really different for everyone, but we need to respond to this moment with a promise of mass defiance and, in declaring that, we will find more helpers,” she said. Bonow added that “expressing defiance and finding a way to support abortion access happening in post-Roe America is not only acceptable, it’s a moral imperative.”

Neither Bonow nor SYA provides pills; they’re just spreading the word about Aid Access, the website that mails them to U.S. women from overseas, and Plan C, a pill information website. But because abortion pills taken at home are the next frontier for anti-abortion lawmaking, anti-abortion activists are already working to criminalize simply talking about them.

Before Roe fell, the National Right to Life Committee, the oldest and biggest anti-abortion group in the country, proposed model legislation that would make it a felony to share information about self-managed abortion online or by phone—that is, it would criminalize speech. The “aiding and abetting” section of the model bill doesn’t mention abortion pills, but that’s absolutely what it’s targeting. Lawmakers in South Carolina have now introduced their version of the law, and many other states are expected to follow.

“We are going to break these laws all day, every day, and help the people around us to do the same,” Bonow said. “They can’t prevent the spread of information, but this may be the play that just takes them to full embrace of fascism.”

Elisa Wells, the co-director and co-founder of Plan C, told Jezebel that if these laws take effect, her organization will also not comply. “Laws that attempt to prevent people from sharing information about abortion access are a clear violation of our First Amendment rights,” she said. “Plan C will not be bullied by legislators who pass illegitimate, unconstitutional laws. We will continue to provide research-based information on our website about how people can find abortion pills and other resources for a medically safe self-managed abortion.”

At the rate Democrats are moving to restore abortion access, Bonow said it’s essential to ensure that as many people as possible know how to get abortion pills right now. (It’s also faster than waiting for new clinics to open.) People barely know the pills exist to begin with: A June 2022 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 60 percent of women between ages 18 to 49 (and 73 percent of all adults) hadn’t heard of mifepristone or medication abortion, despite the fact that it’s now the most common method in the U.S. If that many people don’t know about abortion pills, it’s safe to say that even more don’t know they can get them before they become pregnant.

“The idea that we could ever live in a country without abortion is wacky, magical thinking. It’s as real as white Jesus riding a dinosaur.”

Renee Bracey Sherman, the founder and director of abortion storytelling group We Testify, made headlines when she shared the World Health Organization protocols for self-managed abortion (SMA) during a July 19 House panel on abortion access. “I got an abortion at a clinic. I had the money, I was fucking lucky. But my abortion story is becoming more and more rare as access is dwindling,” Bracey Sherman told Jezebel. So after she was invited to testify during the hearing, she thought, “‘Of course I’m going to share the SMA protocol.’”

Some would consider it a risky move, but Bracey Sherman said it was necessary. “I actually don’t give a shit about anybody but people who have abortions right now, because the people in power are letting us down,” she told me on the phone. “If the government isn’t going to step up and provide the resources for its people, the people must rise up and do it ourselves, as we have been doing for thousands of years. The only people who are going to save people who have abortions are other people who have abortions, and the abortion movement. It’s just that simple.”

Amelia Bonow at a July 4th demonstration outside the Supreme Court. Photo:Mary Ella Jourdak (Other)

We Testify has long shared self-managed abortion information on its site and social media, and Bracey Sherman said the group won’t stop now. “What [lawmakers are] trying to do is scare people out of talking about abortion,” she said. “They’re trying to scare people out of action. And they are so afraid of medication abortion and SMA because they are afraid of not having control over us, and they know that SMA is one of the ways they lose control.”

“It’s a tactic to get us to be silent, and I will not go along with it,” she added. “I also have the privilege of having resources and lawyers to be able to make that decision.”

Bonow said there’s safety in numbers: The more people who defy anti-abortion laws, the less enforceable they become; and the more people share information about abortion pills, the fewer people who might resort to unsafe or ineffective methods.

Bonow launched #ShoutYourAbortion as a social media campaign in 2015 with former Jezebel writer Lindy West to encourage people to share their abortion stories, and now she’s encouraging SYA supporters to widely share how people can get abortion pills. In November, SYA launched, a site that explains where to get abortion pills and links to legal and medical resources. She views the pledge to “aid and abet abortion” as similar to Polish activists’ “I am Justyna” campaign. Justyna Wydrzyńska, an organizer at Poland’s Abortion Dream Team (ADT), faces up to three years in jail for sending abortion pills to a domestic violence survivor, and ADT is encouraging supporters to proclaim that they’d also assist someone who needed help getting abortion pills.

“The idea that we could ever live in a country without abortion is wacky, magical thinking. It’s as real as white Jesus riding a dinosaur,” Bonow said. “They will never ever, ever actually win because from the beginning of time, people have found ways to end pregnancies that they do not want, because their lives are at stake, their entire everything is at stake.”

Bonow is the same activist who took abortion pills in front of the Supreme Court during the December arguments in the case the justices used to overturn Roe. (She swallowed mifepristone alongside three other activists, none of whom were pregnant.) As Bonow told Jezebel at the time, the demonstration was “a promise to defy the decision of this stolen court full of sexual predators and conservative operatives who have been groomed since they were young psychos in law school to overturn Roe. To stand here and just say ‘fuck this court, we’re doing it anyway’ and this is completely out of your hands.

“You will never stop us. We are taking abortion pills forever. We are helping each other have safe abortions forever.”

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