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‘Hope resides in connection’: Abortion access advocates on navigating a post-Roe world29:27
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Women's Health Center of West Virginia Executive Director Katie Quinonez speaks to a crowd at a vigil outside the Robert C. Byrd federal Courthouse in Charleston, W.Va., on Friday, June 24, 2022. The Women's Health Center, West Virginia's only abortion clinic, had to suspend abortion services after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision because of a state law dating back to the 1800s that makes abortion care a felony. (AP Photo/Leah M. Willingham)
Women's Health Center of West Virginia Executive Director Katie Quinonez speaks to a crowd at a vigil outside the Robert C. Byrd federal Courthouse in Charleston, W.Va., on Friday, June 24, 2022. The Women's Health Center, West Virginia's only abortion clinic, had to suspend abortion services after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision because of a state law dating back to the 1800s that makes abortion care a felony. (AP Photo/Leah M. Willingham)

We always try to tell stories outside the usual headlines on Endless Thread. But sometimes, the news is too big to ignore.

On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, stripping away Americans’ constitutional right to abortion after almost 50 years. The ruling instantly criminalized abortions in 6 states and will likely lead to further restrictions or bans in 22 states.

Reddit's Auntie Network, an online community "dedicated to providing information and resources to those in need of abortion services," has been inundated with new members since the Supreme Court's decision on Roe v. Wade was leaked in early May. Community members can offer rides, lodging, and emotional support for anyone seeking an abortion — especially when crossing state lines. (Monetary donations are not allowed.)

In today’s episode, we hear from two moderators of the Auntie Network group, Jen and Lally, about how they are screening new volunteer "aunties" and "uncles" for the safety of “niblings” (a term combining nieces, nephews, and siblings).

But the Auntie Network has received criticism from staff and volunteers at established abortion mutual aid organizations, who say that the group offers little protection against bad faith actors. We hear from the executive directors of the Blue Ridge Abortion Fund in Virginia and the Kentucky Health Justice Network about how abortion rights advocates — online and off — can work together in a post-Roe America.

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Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text. 

Amory Sivertson: A quick note: It's not often we have to update one of our episodes before we even put out the actual episode... but that's the case with this one. Because, we learned of a development in the story just before we hit publish. So, we'll get you up to speed, too, of course... at the very end. OK, here's the show.

Ben Brock Johnson: Amory.

Amory: Ben.

Ben: We try to spend a lot of our time giving our listeners something a little outside of the news grind. Not your average headlines. The latest from...not the hellscape of the bad things happening in the world and how we feel about it. Because you probably get enough doom-scrolling elsewhere.

Amory: Right. But we’re also journalists who are trying to understand the world and how to live in the world with some level of kindness and goodness and grace. And sometimes, the news is just too big to ignore.

[Protesters:  Pro-life is a lie! You don’t care if people die!]

Ben: Last Friday, the Supreme Court overturned five decades of precedence built by Roe V. Wade, in a ruling that could change not just the lives of pregnant people, but all Americans, and the people who will feel the ripples of this decision outside America in how our country’s policies can create policies elsewhere.

Amory: For a huge number of people this is very sad, and very scary. For a smaller number of people, it’s a victory. And we knew we didn’t want to get into the debate, but we wondered how to talk about it on Endless Thread.

Ben: It’s a good question. And I think the answer comes, as it often does, from Mr. Rogers. At least I thought it did. In fact, it came from his mother. Which is a relevant correction to the record.

[Fred Rogers: She would say, "Always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers. Just on the sidelines." That’s why I think that if news programs could make a conscious effort of showing rescue teams—of showing anybody—who is coming into a place where there’s a tragedy. To be sure that they include that. Because if you look for the helpers. You’ll know that there’s hope.]

Amory: Now, some would say the half a century in which the government protected a person’s right to choose was the tragedy. But today, we’re going to look specifically at the other side. The people who are pushing back against this supreme court decision.

Ben: If you believe that anyone with a uterus should have access to abortion, the SCOTUS decision is the tragedy. And the helpers are people who are now technically breaking the law in many states. The people they are helping? Also breaking the law.

Amory: And whether or not you see breaking this law as right or wrong, they’re doing it on Reddit.

Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson…

Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson. And you’re listening to Endless Thread.

We’re coming to you from WBUR, Boston’s NPR station.

Amory: Today’s episode: Aunties.

Ben: Have we talked about this before?

Amory: This post?

Ben: Yeah.

Amory: I think I've seen this post but we haven’t talked about it for a long time.

Ben: Yeah, like one of the first posts I ever saw on Reddit that I found incredibly moving and difficult to forget was about abortion.

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It was a teenage boy in Texas, asking for help. His young sister, maybe 14 years old, was pregnant. The parents were completely opposed to abortion, and since the girl was a minor, they had to get out of Texas to get it done. The brother was trying to get her out. And this kid was asking redditors to help because he didn’t know where else to turn. The reaction to his post was massive. People gave him advice on how to get a car, get across the state border, deal with the parents with police potentially people offered rides. This was years ago now. And both the abortion issue and Reddit itself has gone through tons of change.

Amory: So today, we're going to talk about how the two have changed together and how people are using Reddit to try to have an impact on abortion access as seen in the community, r/auntienetwork. A subreddit which has itself changed a lot.

Lally: I found it by accident. 

Ben: This is Lally. Or a person who goes by Lally for short on Reddit. And is the lead moderator of the Auntie Network community.

Lally: I am an auntie of several little nieces and nephews in my own personal life. And I was just looking for things related to being an auntie. And then I was like, Oh, hey, look at this. This is something unexpected that I didn't think I'd find. So there are several other abortion related subs on Reddit, but ours just kind of happens to be the one that is the grassroots groundswell of, you know, people helping others. 

Amory: The community is described as “a place to help anyone who has a uterus.” The people offering help are aunties or helpers. The people seeking help are "niblings," which is kind of a fusion of niece, nephew, and sibling.

Ben: And there are a lot of different ways people use the subreddit to ask for, or offer, that help. Rides. Mailing plan B pills. A safe place to stay for the night. Childcare during a clinic visit.

(Endless Thread staff reads Reddit post headlines.)  

[“Texas niece requesting assistance for Colorado appointment”

“Delaware auntie”

“Alaska auntie”

“Uncle in North Woods Minnesota”

“CT Auntie with a couch to stay on, a car to drive you, and a heart to love you”

“Southern VT Auntie (plus uncle, pup & bees?)”]

Amory: The one resource you won’t hear mentioned in r/auntienetwork though? Funding. It’s not a subreddit for fundraising—niblings can’t ask for money—and aunties or helpers can’t offer it. And all of the aunties are volunteers. Lally, who is based in North Carolina, says that while she’s only been moderating this subreddit for a year, she’s been helping with this kind of access generally for two decades.

Ben: Sometimes she’s an escort in person—helping pregnant people get to abortion clinics, navigating through protestors and more. But these days she’s mostly moderating Aunties. Which can be a source of happy things, even inside clear examples of hardship.

Lally: Some are really joyful and really fun. Last week we had a lady who came in. She said, I'm 66 years old and I can't get out there in protest anymore, but y'all need me. Y'all come and let me know. And that was really just so endearing. You know, this woman who was, you know, outside of the spectrum of protesting or maybe even going to clinics. But she was willing to be there for us. We had another couple, I believe, in West Virginia, maybe. I don't remember exactly now, but they said, if you need to come, you come. We've got a room for you. We've got some puppies who will be happy to snuggle you. And we have an open bar. I just thought, heck, I want to go visit them just for cocktails anyway. 

Amory: The subreddit was created in 2019 and then abandoned by the person who started it. Last year, Lally took it over, and it was growing steadily. But then, in May, when the upcoming Supreme Court decision was leaked, Lally says the community exploded.

Lally: We went from about 25,000 users to 60 some thousand users. So a that time I was functioning with no sleep for getting to eat, for getting to do other human things that humans need to do. I was just on the computer 24/7. 

Ben: Now the community has over 100 thousand users. And Lally has help. From moderators like this one, who is in one of the states with a so-called “trigger ban"— a law that will ban essentially all abortions as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision.

Jen: Tennessee is a scary place to be. It's very conservative and it is going to be rough here. 

Amory: This is an auntie named Jen, who was up late one night recently scrolling through Auntie Network posts, when she saw one that gave her pause.

Jen: Something very simple like, "Help me." And that was it. It was so it sounded so scared and desperate and didn't give a lot of information. And so I was afraid that the person was in crisis. 

Ben: By “in crisis,” Jen means that something told her this person might be considering hurting themself.

Jen: And so I messaged and began a conversation with this person and she was in crisis and she was terrified. 

Amory: The woman Jen was messaging with was pretty sure she was pregnant, and she didn’t want to be.

Jen: She's an adult. And she lives with her parents and currently unemployed and, you know, mental health issues and disability issues. And her parents are very anti-choice to the point where she didn't feel comfortable getting a pregnancy test and taking it at home. And in the course of the conversation, very, very coincidentally, it was just amazing. I figured out that she lives 20 minutes from me, and so I thought, "Wow, I don't exactly believe in fate, but I can't pass up this opportunity to be there for her."

Ben: Auntie Jen asked this woman, or “nibling,” if she’d be able to meet her at a nearby store.

Jen: And I would buy her some pregnancy tests, some snacks, some drinks, some other supplies, and we could go home where it's safe at my place and take the pregnancy test together. And we did. And it was positive. And she cried and she cried. And I held her. And then when she was ready, we started calling abortion clinics.

Ben: Some aunties in the Reddit community start as niblings. Jen included.

Jen: I actually think that, that this story is beautifully connected to the Auntie Network because Lally helped me through my abortion.

Amory: Although Jen’s story predates the subreddit by about 20 years, she and Lally were actually best friends in college.

Jen: And then after university, I got into a whirlwind romance and got married. And in Vegas it was very wild and and the guy turned out to be abusive and terrible. And I got pregnant, not of my own volition. And I had been looking for a way out, a safe way out, because he'd been threatening to kill me and hurt my family. And I thought I can find a safe way out. And then when I found out I was pregnant, I realized there was no safe way out. I just had to get out. And so I actually... (sniffles.) Just a second.

Amory: Take your time. 

Amory: Jen’s dad picked her up. She says she left everything behind.

Ben: Lally and another friend of theirs took Jen to Planned Parenthood. And then they stayed up with her all night when she had an allergic reaction to the anti-nausea medicine she’d been given.

Jen: And yeah, it was beautiful the way that they took care of me and held my hand through it. And I think that that is a large reason why we do this work. Now we know how important it is to have someone be there for you, not just, you know, a supportive stranger, but someone who can hold your hand and give you love and support like an auntie would.

Amory: But Auntie Network, like most online communities, is a group of strangers. And that has some people in the abortion rights movement concerned.

Tannis Fuller: I think that in today's landscape, divulging that information on the internet to what is potentially a perf— probably a perfect stranger, is scary and and dangerous. 

Ben: More in a minute.

[SPONSOR BREAK] 

Amory: It was Friday morning, June 24th — not even an hour after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade had been announced — when we were scheduled to talk with Tannis Fuller.

Amory: How are you feeling? You're allowed to swear on this program also, I should say.

Tannis:  Yeah. Well, I'm going to quote Senator Lucas, then, who is the senator from Virginia. I am mad as a motherf*****. 

Ben: Tannis is executive director of the Blue Ridge Abortion Fund in Virginia.

Amory: What is abortion access like in your area of Virginia? 

Tannis: We have more clinics than some states and we have fewer clinics than other states.

Ben: Virginia has 16 clinics. Mostly in urban areas.

Tannis: Folks generally call a clinic and the clinic tells them, here's your appointment. Here's the cost of your appointment. A caller will say, "Huh, I don't have somewhere between 375 and $2,200. Can you help me?"

Amory: And so the next call is often to Tannis’ organization, where funding is the name of the game. No questions asked.

Tannis: Very often when people are seeking support, money for things, they are asked for their employment history. How much money do you have in your bank account? How much money did you make last year? What is the size of your family? Does anyone else in your family have a job that they can help you with this situation? 

Ben: And Tannis says, the funding isn’t limited to the cost of the actual abortion alone.

Tannis: Maybe you need a hotel because you're traveling. Maybe you need some support for gas because you're traveling, maybe you need child care because you're traveling. And so each callers circumstance is unique and we do our best so that money is not the reason they can't get their abortion.

Amory: So you have abortion funds like the one Tannis runs offering financial support for resources like lodging and travel…

Ben: …but you also have an online community of a hundred thousand aunties and helpers offering many of those resources for free. So we asked Tannis what she thinks of groups like Auntie Network.

Tannis: You know abortion funding this work that I do was born from friends who knew someone who needed an abortion in their community and they gathered resources to support that person. I know that the heart of these auntie networks or of these Reddit groups is the same. It is people who care very deeply about this issue and want very much to be helpful and useful and a part of this movement. But I think that if I was traveling for an abortion, where the risk of criminalization now exists, the stakes are a lot higher. And the internet is full of really wonderful people. It is also full of people who are not there to be your friend.

Amory: But our auntie moderators, Lally and Jen, know this. Oh boy, do they know this! There’s a reason we’re only using their Reddit name and first name, respectively. Lally’s received threats from an anti-abortion activist who was convicted of stalking a North Carolina doctor back in 2011. Jen worries about her abusive ex somehow finding her.

Ben: And you will not be shocked to hear that their abortion resources subreddit faces a fair amount of vitriol from anti-abortion activists.

Jen told us that moderating a sub like Auntie Network means going through every post and every comment to every post.

Jen: So that people don't have to be hit with hate when they're in such a vulnerable position, especially. 

Amory: The moderation actually starts before someone is even let into the community.

Jen: We also have been trying to, when someone applies to be an auntie or helper, go through their Reddit history and make sure that they seem well-intentioned, that they show a history of being pro-choice. And, you know, and that's a pretty labor intensive process for us. 

Amory: And there has to be enough of a Reddit history to vet. If someone applying to be a member of Auntie Network hasn’t been on Reddit long enough, or hasn’t been active enough to get a feel for whether they really are an ally to the cause, they get rejected.

Ben: The aunties mods are about to get a big assist in this work from a bot.

Jen: And this auntie-bot we'll be able to vet everyone in in a matter of seconds and do a much better and do a much better job than we can do.

Amory: The bot was built by one of the subreddit’s newest moderators — an uncle, if you will — and it will be able to scrub not only a user’s visible comment history, but their deleted comments, comments that got rejected by other subreddits. It’ll also search their history for all matter of slurs.

Jen: Unfortunately it was not ready in time for the deluge, but it's coming and we're we're really happy to have that extra security measure because we are human. And I you know, we can't always stay on top of which which subreddits are a little sketchy or or say. And this this bot will be able to analyze those and kind of give us a safety rating for each individual auntie or helper.

Ben: Is this level of vetting enough? It’s hard to say. Tannis Fuller of the Blue Ridge Abortion Fund wasn’t familiar enough with the Auntie Network specifically to weigh in, but she did vouch for the vetting that her organization, and the 91 other members of the National Network of Abortion Funds, does of all of its helpers.

Tannis: We are trusted organizations. And we can also provide that support. And if we can't provide that specific support that you're looking for on the Internet, we have networks of people that we can connect you to that are safe, that are trained, that will not be harmful, and who, most importantly, aren't going to turn you into the police. 

Amory: We put that to Jen, and she said first, she wanted to be very clear that she and the whole Auntie Network, love abortion funds.

Jen: One of the first things that we tell everybody is go, go check, you know, the National Network of Abortion Funds. Check your local fund. See what they can offer you. We definitely want to work in conjunction with them. But there are people who fall through the cracks when the abortion funds might not have the resources that they need to take care of everyone.

Ben: Jen wonders if the nibling she recently helped take a pregnancy test—a woman who needed emotional support more than any other resource in her moment of crisis —would have been able to get that support quickly enough if she had turned to an abortion fund before Reddit. And whether she would have even known that was an option.

Jen: And a lot of people find us first and then they're able to go to the abortion fund and get what's what's available. Because, you know, everybody is on Reddit and maybe they are not great researchers and they just didn't know that abortion funds were even a thing. And we were happy to be the people that introduced them to the beauty of abortion funds. 

Amory: Meeting people where they are is crucial in any kind of activism. And Tannis Fuller doesn’t dispute that, but she wondered if the Auntie Network is able to meet some of the people they’re trying to help in one very particular way.

Tannis: I don't know for sure. But I suspect also that the networks are run with information disseminated by middle class white women who are probably hetero partnered. And we know that the folks who are going to be most impacted by these bands are black, brown, indigenous and queer community members. Is it safe for them to be seeking support from those networks? I don't know. Is it possible to make those networks safe? I don't know. I don't know. 

Erin Smith: I told I've told people before, I said, this is going to be a time for allies and allyship.

Ben: This is Erin Smith, the executive director of the Kentucky Health Justice Network.

Amory: Kentucky, a state whose abortion ban went into effect the moment the Supreme Court’s decision was announced last Friday. Which means Erin needs all the allies they can get.

Erin: And honestly, it's going to be white women, white allies, white cis hetero allies to make it through. Because I don't have a lot of privilege. I'm a black, queer, trans non-binary person. I have a partner. I do not feel safe or protected on a daily basis. So me taking more risk is going to be more harmful to me and my family than it potentially could be for someone else. You know, if I get arrested for anything, you know, whatever aiding and abetting or whatever the heck they're trying to do, that happens to me. I can get six years to someone in six months just by racial bias alone. I know that.

B: Still, Erin says their organization vets its volunteers THOROUGHLY. And they share Tannis’ concern that the Auntie Network might not be vetting its helpers enough. To which Jen, the moderator, says…

Jen: I believe in the goodness of our community and the fact that these people are genuine. There is always a possibility of bad actors anywhere, and we certainly caution folks to protect yourself and try to be as cautious as you can while being as loving and open as you can. 

Amory: Jen says the Auntie Network community on Reddit hasn’t had any bad experiences that she and the other mods know about. But risk—at least at some level —does feel kind of inevitable right now. And that goes for EVERYONE playing a role in trying to increase abortion access. Aunties and helpers take a risk offering resources. Niblings take a risk receiving them.

Ben: And both the legal and safety risks for healthcare providers offering abortion services and organizations like Erin’s and Tannis’ will only increase nationally as a pregnant person’s right to those services decreases.

Amory: And yet. And yet...

Tannis: We have had, and abortion funds across the country, have been flooded with requests from folks wanting to support the work 

Erin: We are getting an influx of people saying, I want to help, I want to donate water, I want to donate my time. I want to donate gas cards. 

Jen: We have so many more aunties and helpers than we have niblings. I mean, there's so many people that really want to help. 

Erin: And it's beautiful. That's exactly what we need right now. That's exactly what we need this time. Of course, we're still going to vet them. But to see that and to hear that is absolutely amazing. And and just shows like we're not done yet, we still have a fight in this. 

Ben: A flood of helpers—whether they’re strangers online or members of your local community—is a good problem to have. Especially if they can all work together, as Erin hopes. To make their efforts even safer and further reaching.

Erin: I would love to see us as well as is other networks kind of partner with some of these groups and work with them through the vetting process. So it's like, okay, cool. We have a whole other outreach of volunteers who want to help. 

Tannis: Hope resides in connection. And so I wake up and I know that there's 92 abortion funds across this country, which is hundreds of people who do this with a singular focus everyday, how do we get people to abortions. And being part of that community is the source of hope.

Erin: I would say to anyone who is just really in need, just to continue to call us, continue to reach out, because despite the way things are, we're connecting, we're networking, we're talking to each other. 

Jen: You know, we can take care of each other. Even when you feel like you're completely alone in the world, you're not. 

Tannis: We do not have to fix everything today and we don't have to do it by ourselves. 

Erin: So there's still access to safe and healthy abortions. We just have to, you know, work together a little bit longer and significantly harder to figure out those solutions and how to get you what you need. 

Tannis: This is a long road. We didn't get here overnight. We're not going to get out of this overnight, but we are going to get out of it. And I think the way to hold onto that is just to be connected to people who are doing work that feels good to you. And maybe it's about abortion or maybe it's about a free fringe in your community. Maybe it's about a menstrual product pantry. Right? Those are all things that are connected to this abortion work, right? How do we take care of our communities and connect them with the resources that they need? And that keeps hope alive, I think.

[MUSIC]

Amory: Ok, as promised, we do have an update this story. Because right before we were about to publish this episode, we saw a new post on the Auntie Network subreddit, the subject of which is: "We are suspending auntie/helper services." And the post says:

Due to a great deal of safety concerns caused by a rapidly burgeoning amount of publicity, and with incredible sadness and trepidation, we are going to TEMPORARILY shut down auntie services. The Auntie Network can still serve as a gathering place for information, a source of great organizations to support, and exchange of ideas. But the overreaching concern is for the personal safety of every individual here.

We love serving. We love helping. we do not want to be a source of danger for anyone, and the extraordinary demands that have been on us have made us see how very needed discussion, information, and education is. We don't have budget, means, or staff to background check everyone who volunteers, and although 90 percent of the applications we see are great people...it's a gamble no longer worth taking.

We don't know right now how long we may wait — as laws change, as we brainstorm other means to keep you safe, we may reopen that service. We thank ALL of you for your efforts to be here, to volunteer, and to keep niblings safe. We can still be proactive, share ideas, news, information, empowerment and hope with one another!

[Credits]

Amory: Endless Thread is a WBUR production in Boston.

Ben: If you want early tickets to events, swag, bonus content, you can sign up for our email list. That is at wbur.org/endlessthread.

Amory: This episode was written and hosted by me, Amory Sivertson.

Ben: And me, Ben Brock Johnson. I mostly just talked.

Amory: Mix and sound design by Matt Reed.

Ben: This episode was produced by Grace Tatter with production help from our web producer, Megan Cattel. The rest of our team is Nora Saks, Emily Jankowski, Paul Vaitkus, Quincy Walters and Dean Russell.

Amory: Endless Thread is a show about the blurred lines between digital communities and...

Ben: Real life.

Amory: Healthcare. For everyone! If you’ve got an untold history, an unsolved mystery, or a wild story from the internet that you want us to tell, hit us up. Email endlessthread@wbur.org

Amory Sivertson Twitter Senior Producer, Podcasts
Amory Sivertson is a senior producer for podcasts and the co-host of Endless Thread.

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Grace Tatter Twitter Producer, The Great Wager
Grace Tatter is an independent journalist and audio producer.

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