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'You Need to Be Alarmed'
Discourses with: a non-binary, Black director of two Southern abortion funds.
When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last month, I was among the many people who read the news notification of her passing and thought, "Oh fuck, there goes legal abortion access." I started low-level panicking, thinking about whether I needed to research how to get an abortion in Canada, a surely expensive and timely process if you're from the South, like me. Once I was able to breathe a little, though, I remembered the obvious reality of America in 2020: that, for millions and millions of people, the right to a legal abortion is not something that a future Supreme Court could take away. It is something that has already been taken away in all but name.
Another reminder of this came to me from Laurie Bertram Roberts, a non-binary, Black abortion access advocate and the outgoing executive director and co-founder of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, which gives material resources to both pregnant people seeking abortion and to parents with children in Mississippi, and also facilitates travel for abortions, sometimes across state lines (Mississippi's only abortion clinic is in Jackson). They’re also the executive director for Alabama abortion fund nonprofit Yellowhammer Fund.
Amid the likely confirmation of anti-abortion judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, Roberts spoke with me about their experience helping advocate for abortion access in the South, and how the region is a blueprint for what’s to come nationwide should Roe v. Wade be overturned.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
How did the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund become an advocate of abortion in the state?
I started going to the legislature and live tweeting after I couldn't work in retail anymore because of my fibromyalgia. That was 2012. I became the PR person for the Mississippi National Organization for Women chapter during the fight against “personhood” [the failed 2011 state amendment that would have claimed human life starts at fertilization]. As president, I started the fund under the NOW chapter, When the fund co-founders and I left NOW we took the fund with us, ‘cause it was definitely a Black lady project, and it became the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund.
In 2015 we were doing direct abortion funding, practical support. We had always been giving away Plan B, condoms and lube. And then we started paying for birth control. Over time we added on diapers and the period supply closet. We bought a house, we bought some more property. We own a half acre on the block behind the house. So we've just been branching out and doing more reproductive justice work, because none of the work we do are in silos.
You need to be alarmed. That’s the thing, people say “I don’t want to be an alarmist,” but people should be alarmed.
LAURIE BERTRAM ROBERTS
I believe strongly in the rights of parents, just as strongly as I believe in the right to abortion. To me, you can not show up in communities and only be like, “Hey, I'm here to stop you from having kids” and authentically say you are a reproductive justice organization. That's why we started giving away baby supplies, why we help with rent and utilities when we can. If someone had child protection called on them, and the caseworker came and said they needed a bassinet and a bed, we'll make sure they have all those things. There's no reason why someone should be under DHS’s care for being poor.
If Roe v. Wade is struck down, what do you foresee happening?
All the states that have automatic trigger bans — there’s not going to be abortion access. A trigger ban just means that they have a law that says if Roe v. Wade is ruled unconstitutional, that automatically abortion is illegal. They've been plotting for this for a long time, and I know this ‘cause I was raised fundamentalist.
There's going to be all these states that don't have trigger bans, but they already have a lot of restrictions. The next restrictions are going to be on procedures. You're gonna see them pushing for more dilation and extraction bans, the bans on the procedures that are generally used for people who are over 14 weeks [pregnant]. You're gonna see longer waiting period bans, like the 72-hour waiting period [such as in Missouri].
Use of self-managed abortion is going to go up. That's just a given, and in some states, performing your own abortion is not illegal. But there are plenty of states where it is illegal, even a felony for you to perform your own abortion on yourself. If Roe goes away and people are DIY-ing at home — which by the way could be as simple as ordering some pills offline. Misoprostol [one of the two abortion medications] is really easy to find. If you do that, then you could go to jail depending on what state you're in. And the absurdity of that is, how is the state going to monitor that?
Going back to your experience of helping people get abortion with transportion, the cost, helping someone be able to sleep in a hotel the day before they have their procedure since they have to stay overnight, what do you foresee happening — I don’t want to be alarmist with this —
You need to be alarmed. That’s the thing, people say “I don’t want to be an alarmist,” but people should be alarmed. And the truth is people should have been alarmed in 2015, when people were all trying to tell them, “Listen, this is serious. This isn’t a game. This is not a drill. We are at a crisis” and people took it for a joke and took it like it wasn't no big thing. And here we are. That's number one.
The thing is that conceivably, the closest clinic for us if Roe goes away would be in Illinois. And you're talking about an eight- or nine-hour drive. ‘Cause we've used that clinic before for other things, for people who were like almost 22 weeks.
Here's the thing with all these waiting periods, bans, travel restrictions and stuff that makes it take longer for people to get abortion. Anti-choicers, “pro lifers,” the one thing that they love to talk about is second trimester abortions, third trimester abortions. And they love to make them sound ghoulish ‘cause if they actually showed what a real 6- to 7-week abortion looked like, they couldn't get a whole lot of people hyped up about that, ‘cause no one really cares about looking at what looks like your period. But what kills me and aggravates me so much is that it's because all of the policy obstacles they put in their place makes it so that they have to delay their procedure.
I was looking into Florida, because you mentioned that for your purposes Illinois would be the closest city to travel to for abortion services.
Yeah or Florida, they’re about the same distance.
If you have been in Florida, where do you typically go to take someone for a procedure?
There’s a clinic in Pensacola we don't do business with. But the clinics that we actually trust are all on the East side of Florida, in Tallahassee and Jacksonville. ‘Cause we try to stick with the top of the state instead of like sending people all the way down to Orlando. If Georgia stays active, which is probably a dream, then Atlanta would be a good one because it's a direct flight from Jackson, so that's dope.
But here's something else I want to stress to people. Robin Marty [a former reporter and current board member for Yellowhammer Fund] had just put out this map [on the legality of abortion by state should Roe be overturned]. You're talking about the whole South gone, from Texas, Oklahoma. I’m just going to lump all these states in there but if you're talking about the real Southeast, which I always think of from Arkansas and Louisiana over, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia. All of those, no access, except for Virginia. Almost all the Northeast states will be solid except for some of these little states.
Even though Texas is close to New Mexico, you're looking at like 20 some states that are gonna [make abortion] illegal. For all those other states to absorb that need is going to be really, almost impossible. There are already not enough clinics in the states that have clinics. You see what I'm saying? How does a state like Wisconsin or even Minnesota—Minnesota doesn't have that many clinics. How does Minnesota absorb the need, possibly, from Wisconsin and Missouri? And Iowa, and in the Dakotas?
Just the logistics and thinking about it just makes me tired. Now am I saying that we cannot get people — do travel logistics for people? Of course we can. Can we not do distance doula services for people? Of course we can. I'm not gonna lie, my kid’s the one who came up with it, but I’m like the Olivia Pope of abortion. It's handled. However, it's not going to matter if I get you to Illinois if they're already booked for the week. Or it's not going to matter if I have your travel money if you can't get in anywhere for four weeks.
I just don’t know how the capacity would work. Like even if you shuffled enough doctors around, you still have to worry about equipment, room. And building that capacity takes time. So you're talking about at least probably a year to build up capacity from the time that Roe would [go away], being super optimistic about how much investment would maybe go into it. ‘Cause that would be with people actually investing to make it happen.
When Texas [clinics] went down because of [Texas H.B. 2, passed in 2013 which required abortion providers to meet strict requirements, shuttering half of Texas’ 41 clinics and threatening the closure of another 10] Texas patients had to be absorbed by other states. So that meant a lot of them went to Louisiana, some with Oklahoma, some went to New Mexico. But when they started being absorbed by Louisiana’s clinics, then some Louisiana patients couldn't get in in Louisiana. So they started being absorbed in Mississippi. So then Mississippi had an overflow of patients and some patients couldn't get in in Mississippi. So guess what happened? They went to Alabama, So then we had this domino effect of like everybody being busy, that then spilled over into Georgia. I watched that happen for like three months until it kind of evened out. That's just one example of one state, one state patients having to be absorbed.
I just want to clarify, when you’re talking about the ruling you mean—
H.B. 2, made it so they had to close most of the clinics in the state and it ended up being overturned. But by then, when your clinics have been closed, that's a lot of infrastructure to put back together. Can your people even come back? Have they gotten another job? I mean, it was just a lot. And that's their hope, right? That you won't come back. It's not even about closing for good, sometimes it's just about closing you long enough that hopefully you will close for good on your own. It's also just pandering to their base.
Be willing to talk about abortion, for fuck's sake. We're never going to have a culture shift without people talking about abortion.
LAURIE BERTRAM ROBERTS
It's all just for show. In Mississippi where they did the 20-week ban a couple of years ago. Our clinic only goes to 16 weeks. There are very, very, very few abortions providers perform that are over 16 weeks, much less over 20 weeks. All of them are already performed in hospitals. They're always emergency situations because we already had a law on the books that made that so. So literally the law was just redundant, but of course the Republicans made a big show of it, and then of course it made national news because, oh my god, it’s another ban.
That's fine, great, whatever, it fundraises us money. I was really honest with people when they would ask me: it doesn't affect us. So then next year, what do they do? They filed a 15-week ban, and I belly laughed when I read it. Because what is the point of a 15-week ban when your clinic only goes to 16 weeks? It’s pandering to your base, it's all posturing. They are playing with people's lives and they're also stoking fear, shaming, guilt, all of that.
For states where abortion is not protected or where abortion is already banned, what is the legal recourse there? The end goal obviously is not just buying time through legal challenges, but what can be done?
We're going to have to change who is running our states. So if it's important to folks to have things like, I don't know, full bodily autonomy, then they need to elect state legislators who care about full bodily autonomy, and stop pandering to these religious zealots because that's what it is.
Is there anything else you want people to know?
I'm going to shamelessly plug Robin Marty's book, A Handbook for a Post-Roe America. Hands down it’s the best resource for this topic, like if you're wondering what you can do. We need to be more focused locally. National organizations have not always invested in local people. They're busy getting their national money and I get it. But at the end of the day it's going to be our local people who are determining what's going to happen to folks. It's going to be our local DA's, it's going to be our local sheriff's departments. It's going to be our local ERs, whether or not they turn folks in. It’s going to be AGs, governors, local Senates and Houses.
I need people to understand, who are the people you need to get policy through or to keep you safe? Who's your circle that you can get together if you're willing to have more skin in the game? Who are your people who you can trust to be down and be out there doing the work? And by that, I mean actually advocating, helping people, doing direct work with folks, being a person who keeps pills at your house, using your white privilege to do those things. Not waiting on people of color to save everybody, cause I see a lot of that. “Vote like a black woman.” No. It's like, no, get your booty to the polls. I just need folks to really wake up and realize it is on us. Like we gotta do it.
I say don't freak out. You know, if grandpa happens to be taking a misoprostol for an ulcer and he has extras, I would say keep those. I'm not gonna tell you you should absolutely commit any illegal acts, but people should be thinking about these things longterm because misoprostol is all around us. Dogs, people who have arthritis, and people who have ulcers, take misoprostol. People who want to not be pregnant anymore can take misoprostol, and the instructions are very easy to find online.
People should be preparing for alternatives outside of clinics, because the reality is everybody's not going to be able to go to a clinic. So people really need to be really focused on, how can they protect people who are independently self-managing their abortions, and also how can they work to change their state's laws? How can they get them to allow telemedicine for early abortion? Even if they can get them to allow telemed for early abortion — because most people know that they're pregnant by six weeks and you can do medical abortion ‘til you’re about nine weeks, and most people can qualify for medical abortion — that may not be the preferred method, but at least it gives someone access to abortion. That would knock out so many people right there, if a state will allow early abortion with pills. That makes so many less people who would have to go out of state.
We're going to have to learn a lesson from the “antis,” which is incremental steps are okay. It's not my preferred way to work, but it works. So it might take doing smaller laws at a time. And I think we really need to be thinking about that instead of this very new notion in politics where it's just all or none, all the time. Revolutions have to be planned too, buddy. Things take time to build and grow and get consensus with. Also, be willing to talk about abortion, for fuck's sake. We're never going to have a culture shift without people talking about abortion.
This blog is part of our interview series, Discourses. To read all of our interviews, click here.