On a post-Roe v. Wade internet, unvetted abortion support is going viral

On a post-Roe v. Wade internet, unvetted abortion support is going viral

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last week, ending the constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, social media platforms have buzzed with anger, dismay, and offers of assistance, particularly from people in states with stronger abortion protections.

But a particular type of offer has captured media attention. In viral tweets, TikToks, and screenshotted and reshared Instagram posts, people are opening their homes up to abortion patients who must travel for care.

“If you choose to have an abortion, and need a place to stay, there is always a bed for you at my apartment in Portland. Free. No questions asked,” reads one tweet, liked more than 150,000 times and retweeted by more than 20,000 people.

Providing lodging or transportation to appointments has long been part of practical abortion support, and organizations have honed their methods through decades of experience. With the fall of Roe, there’s heightened urgency from people who perhaps weren’t doing this work before but now want to. Making an offer of accommodation feels like a tangible and direct way to help.

But organizations who have been coordinating lodging and transportation services worry that an influx of one-off, public, and unvetted offers arranged via social media could put patients and volunteers in dangerous situations.

Jade, who coordinates volunteers and trainings with the Northwest Abortion Access Fund, says volunteers go through a number of steps and screenings before they’re able to host abortion seekers in their homes. After a brief intake form, the fund conducts phone screenings, trainings, and walk-throughs of homes, making note of how accessible it is — especially for people just coming out of a procedure — who has access to the space, and whether there’s privacy for patients.

NWAAF paused home stays during the pandemic, and staff members are working on retooling their process in preparation for relaunching the program. The preference for abortion funds, Jade says, is that people needing a place to stay after their abortion go through reputable organizations that know what they’re doing.

It’s a challenge to balance an appreciation for the influx of volunteers and additional resources with very real security and safety concerns, and Jade says they’ve been concerned about the issue as the SCOTUS decision neared.

For one, abortion resources like funding, transportation, and lodging already come from a variety of sources, and accessing them is often difficult or confusing — now add in thousands of individuals and new groups offering up couches, air mattresses, and guest rooms. And without training or experienced staff to facilitate something like a homestay, a relatively risky arrangement could become even more fraught.

“The worry I have is that if there’s no vetting process, and there’s not a clear place to go to stay somewhere safe, that harm could happen from well-intentioned people,” Jade says. Even worse, the volunteer hosts may be in bad faith. Anti-abortion individuals welcoming patients into their homes could try to talk someone out of getting their abortion, similar to how crisis pregnancy centers operate, or patients could end up being in physical danger.

Unmediated and unvetted stays could be dangerous for hosts, too. Recent anti-abortion laws suggest the future of abortion is one that criminalizes not just people seeking reproductive care but also those that help them access it. The restrictive Texas abortion ban passed last year, for example, allows people to sue doctors, advocacy organizations, volunteers, family members, and anyone else who helps a patient get an abortion (the ban was temporarily blocked by a Texas judge this week).

“There are more legitimate risks right now to being someone publicly advocating for abortion in general,” Jade says. “It gives the potential for folks to find your address, your phone number, get in contact with you, and generally know what you’re up to.”

That risk isn’t a concern for Janie Harvey Garner, a nurse and the creator of the Volunteer Aunties Facebook group, which was started the day of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overruling Roe. Volunteer Aunties is one of many offshoots that have popped up since last week, and it’s grown to around 3,500 members, many of whom Harvey Garner recruited through another Facebook group for healthcare workers she moderates.

Harvey Garner says she’s not trying to reinvent the wheel — she’s simply hoping to connect volunteers with groups already doing abortion access work.

“My goal is to hook these volunteers who are in a demographic that follows me with existing organizations,” Harvey Garner says. At this point, the group’s goal isn’t to match individual abortion seekers with resources, but she says if someone did join the group looking to help, she would point them to available resources.

But choosing a public platform like Facebook groups to organize pro-choice volunteers is far from foolproof — several members have raised safety concerns about using the platform to coordinate with each other. People joining Volunteer Aunties must answer a handful of screening questions before being added, but Harvey Garner believes that the group is already being monitored by anti-abortion users.

“I’m quite sure within the first 1,000 [members] there were people who were anti-woman,” she says.

How platforms themselves will respond to a post-Roe world is still unclear and is unfolding in real time as people face new challenges to abortion access. Earlier this week, Meta clarified that posts offering to mail abortion pills violate its policies on pharmaceutical drugs. Even the online sharing of information about abortion is under legal threat.

New groups or individuals popping up to provide resources often aren’t equipped to respond to the myriad of situations that can arise as a person goes through the steps of getting an abortion, says Marisa Falcon, executive director of Apiary for Practical Support. These less-experienced actors may not have yet thought through the questions that veteran organizations have, such as how to minimize a patient’s digital footprint, how to respond to a crisis before or after a procedure, and how to protect patient privacy.

Offers of couches and guest rooms may have gone viral on social media, but many practical support groups have intentionally moved away from volunteer housing in recent years, Falcon says. Her organization provides resources and trainings to abortion groups offering housing, childcare, meals, transportation, and other support and maintains a first-of-its-kind directory of providers.

“What clients want and need, by and large, is a private hotel room,” she says. “They do not want to be sitting at the house, let alone on the couch of a stranger.”

Falcon and Jade both say that what organizations really need is money and patience that will allow them to serve abortion seekers most effectively. For people who want to help, that means plugging into the groups nearby that are active, which tend to be unfunded and under-resourced already and are bracing themselves for even more acute need as abortion protections are chipped away.

“A lot of this sort of outpouring of support is about people wanting to offer the things that they want to offer and not necessarily thinking about the needs and interests of the clients,” Falcon says. “We need to be talking about what people need, not what people want to give.”

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