What might happen if abortion becomes illegal in the U.S.? On the first episode of Traitor Radio, meet Julie and Harriet, two women who are bringing safe, self-managed abortion options to people in the the country’s abortion deserts — places where, even if abortion is technically legal, access to the procedure is all but non-existent for any but the wealthiest Americans. And find out what you can do to support your local abortion funds, the resilient nonprofits that work to ensure everyone who needs access to legal abortion care can access it by providing direct funding for pregnancy terminations, rides to clinics and overnight stays with volunteers who offer their homes to families in need.
Can’t listen? We’ve posted the episode script below — something we’ll be doing for all of our episodes as part of our commitment to accessibility.
TRAITOR RADIO EPISODE 1: WORST-CASE SCENARIO
ANDREA GRIMES: Hello, Traitors! Welcome to episode one of Traitor Radio, the podcast for people who are mad as hell and ready to bring the resistance home.
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ANDREA GRIMES: I’m your host, Andrea Grimes, and I am just beyond pumped to ship out this first show. I know the news cycle is absolutely wild right now, and if you’re like me, it feels like you can’t take a break from the internet or the tv without wondering what next act of this presidential shit-show you’re going to miss.
Traitor Radio is a break from that — a way, I hope, to focus our energy and our anger into making positive change in our own communities, one issue at a time. The format is pretty simple — we introduce y’all to real people who will talk about how their lives are affected by the racist, sexist, transphobic and otherwise oppressive laws and policies that are backed by the officials and institutions that are making america un-great. Then we’ll give you some homework — stuff that goes beyond calling your elected officials, which you should totally do, but which will help you start making change in your own community.
Because when government doesn’t work for us we have to take matters into our own hands. We can’t wait for the mid-terms, we can’t wait for the perfect politician to save us. We have to lift each other up, now, today.
Every activist, new or seasoned, is welcome here. Hello, old-school resisters! But this is a 101-level space; if you’ve never done activism before, or you’re just getting into the swing of it after the election, I’m so happy to join you on your journey to un-fucking this country.
So let’s get started.
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ANDREA GRIMES: Back in January, we asked Traitor Radio supporters to tell us about their worst fears for a Trump presidency as part of our Traitor time capsule project; nearly everyone who responded said they were worried about attacks on reproductive rights, and especially decreasing access to abortion care. This is Caitlin, a nursing student from Boston who hopes to work in reproductive care in Texas after she graduates talking to us about her time capsule a few weeks ago:
CAITLIN: “I am feeling, I don’t even know about women’s health. That’s my biggest thing that I think is going to be the hardest battle. I think it’s very easy to point out the flaws in, like, Trumpcare and everything, especially with the essential health benefits and everything. Things that are very blatantly horrific. And I think it’s, you know, easy to be against those, and for many, many people, you know, wherever they fall on the political spectrum, it’s much harder for people to support, like Planned Parenthood and abortion access and support these more controversial issues. And so I think the Congress is going to have a much easier time passing restrictions on that.”
ANDREA: Caitlin’s right to be worried; the “Trumpcare” replacement for the Affordable Care Act basically makes having a uterus into a pre-existing condition — everything from having a c-section to surviving sexual assault would make insurance coverage prohibitively expensive, or even impossible to get. And Trump also cut America’s international funding for abortion care, and he signed a law that allows states to defund Planned Parenthood. In fact, if you’ve heard anything about reproductive rights lately, you’ve probably heard about defunding Planned Parenthood, which is a very, very shitty idea.
But get a load of this: Since January — that’s in the last five months — state lawmakers have proposed 431 new abortion restrictions across the country. Defunding Planned Parenthood is the big, crappy tip of the anti-abortion iceberg.
These restrictions run the gamut from bans on certain types of safe, common abortion procedures to forcing abortion providers and patients to cremate or bury fetal or embryonic tissue after their abortions. None of this has anything to do with making people healthier, or safer, even though lawmakers often claim that when they’re hollering about this stuff — it’s all about closing abortion clinics. More than 150 abortion providers closed across the country between 2011 and 2016; that doesn’t just create a hassle for people who now have to travel farther, and wait longer, to end their pregnancies, it forces people who now can’t get to a doctor to stay pregnant against their will at the government’s behest.
Legal abortion is incredibly safe — about as safe as getting a colonoscopy. Giving birth, on the other hand, is 14 times more likely to result in death than getting a legal abortion. So when politicians shut down abortion clinics, they aren’t just making it hard to end a pregnancy, they’re forcing people to put their lives on the line if they can’t get to a clinic.
That’s at the state level. At the Supreme Court, the tenuous balance just barely in favor of bodily autonomy is now in the hands of Donald Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress hungry to repeal Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that legalized abortion and took the procedure out of the back alley and into the doctor’s office.
But legal abortion and accessible abortion are two different things. When the nearest abortion provider is hundreds of miles away and they don’t have money for a hotel room or a plane ticket, they may technically have a right to end their pregnancy, but no way to exercise that right in reality.
And tackling that bullshit is what today’s show is all about.
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Here’s what’s different about 2017, instead of, say, 1953: Today, there’s information about a safe, non-invasive, medication-based protocol for self-managed pregnancy termination that’s available over the internet and through telephone hotlines. No back alley, no coat hangers, no knitting needles required.
You’re about to hear from two activists who are working to get that medication — it’s called misoprostol — to people who can’t make it to a legal abortion provider; after their stories, we’ll talk about how the medication works and recommend a film about some amazing actiists who literally sail the high seas bringing safe abortion care to countries where it’s illegal But we’re not asking you to break the law, and we don’t recommend it — which is why we’re also going to talk about abortion funds, the badass nonprofits that help get people to licensed clinics.
But first, meet “Julie” and “Harriet.” They’re two members of a grassroots abortion access movement who are taking radical steps to give their neighbors the tools to end their own pregnancies at home — safely.
“Julie” and “Harriet” are pseudonyms, and the voices you’ll hear reading their words are not their own, for reasons that will quickly become obvious. But their stories are true. Julie, who you’ll hear from first, is white, Harriet is not. One of them has kids, the other doesn’t. One’s a millennial, the other is a gen-xer. These two women live thousands of miles apart but are united in one goal: Making sure people who don’t want to stay pregnant don’t have to — even if they can’t make it to a doctor’s office.
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“JULIE” read by Alex Mechanic: I am an adult woman, and getting in trouble is my worst nightmare. I don’t like breaking rules. I hate challenging authority. I am not the kind of person you expect to engage in a little illegal drug smuggling. And yet, here I am. About to tell you about the time I smuggled abortion pills into the United States from Mexico.
It took me about six months to work up the nerve to buy the pills from the Mexican pharmacy. I’d made three or four trips to the border before I came back with a pack of medicine tucked inside my bra, each time thinking this would be the one, this would be the day when I put my money and my white, documented privilege where my mouth is when it came to abortion access. Six months of stress, of false starts. And then, finally, when I ran out of excuses and reasons to accidentally leave my passport at home, again, it took me about an hour — including a stop for some liquid courage at the local cantina — to actually buy the pills and carry them back into the United States.
It’s perfectly legal to purchase misoprostol over the counter in Mexico. It is not legal to possess misoprostol without a prescription in the United States. And I definitely didn’t have a prescription — i don’t have stomach ulcers, which is what misoprostol is often used to treat in humans, or an arthritic dog (or any dog, for that matter), who might need the medication. I was buying the medicine for its other indication — the termination of pregnancy. I didn’t think about what I was doing as “resistance,” I just thought of it as getting safe medication to the people that politicians don’t care about — women who are too poor to pay for a legal abortion but can’t afford another baby, either, people who live hundreds of miles from a clinic and have no way to get there, teenagers who know they’ll be kicked out of their homes, or forced to go through with an unwanted pregnancy, if their abusive parents find out their situation.
Tens of millions of Americans live along, or within a few hours of, the Mexican border. I am just one of them. No matter what Donald Trump wants you to think about a “wall,” commerce back and forth between the two countries is a totally normal part of day-to-day life for people like me and my neighbors. There are entire Mexican towns that exist to sell drugs to American “snow birds,” the white vacationers who haul their RV’s down south for the warm winter weather, the tacos, and the cheap medical care that’s available from Matamoros to Tijuana. It costs about $500 to get a medication abortion here in the U.S.. A box of misoprostol — which comes with enough medication for two or three uses, depending on the brand and the pharmacy — costs about $40 in Mexico.
Forty bucks or five hundred? If I were trying to figure out how to put dinner in my kids’ bellies, or whether I could afford to keep the lights on, I know what I would choose. Misoprostol is affordable, but most of all, it’s safe. It’s not a coat hanger. It’s not a knitting needle or a glass of bleach. It’s not a back-alley doctor or a trip down the stairs. It’s a box of safe, effective medication — the same pills that American doctors use in conjunction with the drug mifepristone to terminate pregnancies — and it works, more than 80 percent of the time. But my friend Harriet can tell you more about that. She’s the one I sent the medication to, and she lives in a part of the country where abortion is technically legal, but fundamentally inaccessible. She’s in a kind of a legal abortion desert, where anywhere from zero to just a handful of providers are available to serve millions, sometimes tens of millions, of pregnant people and their families. There are a couple of these ‘deserts’ in the United States — the South, broadly speaking, but also parts of the midwest and upper west, and swaths of Texas, too. I’ll let Harriet take it from here.
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“HARRIET” read by Wagatwe Wanjuki: I started helping people do their own abortions at the end of 2013 — and, oddly, despite attempting a self-abortion in my early 20s using alcohol and a flight of stairs, I had no idea that these pills existed until a few years ago. In the rural areas, I deal with many women who attempt to or do self-terminate using herbal methods, or worse, ingest toxic chemicals — and, yes, unfortunately the threat of other extreme measures, like knitting needles, is still real. So the fact that there is a way to help those in need not resort to these methods, but instead have a safe option they can easily manage at home piqued my interest.
You might be thinking right now, why not just help these women go to a clinic? When I first started doing reproductive rights work, I thought that was the solution. That if we just increase access within the current framework, everyone could be seen. But then I met Amy* (that’s not her real name). She was a young mom who had 2 young kids at home under the age of 3. She was new to the area from out of state, unemployed and lived several hours from every clinic near her. She had no family nearby and no childcare. Her partner not only wasn’t supportive of her having an abortion, he was starting to suspect she was pregnant. She was trapped.
She and I went over multiple plans to get her to a clinic, and there just wasn’t one that worked. There was no way for her to get away from her house twice, due to our state’s waiting period law that forces people to go for two appointments, 24 hours apart, to get an abortion. Even if she found childcare, her family only had one car, meaning she had an 8 hour window while her partner was at work to go to a clinic and return.
Finally, she just blurted out: “I read about these pills online. I wish I could get some.”
I knew I had someone close to the border who could send them to me. It was so dumb to leave her in that situation when I knew I could help her. I didn’t think about my decision – how to keep myself safe, I really just winged it. I went to Women on Waves and read their protocol — I’m talking some real bootleg, grassroots shit.
An abortion fund could have helped Amy get to the clinic, pay for her abortion, find a place to stay overnight, even get her child care. But she had an eight-hour window, and she’s got to go to the clinic twice in 24 hours? No. Even if she drove twice, in two days — She can’t get pulled over. She can’t have a tire blow-out. And what’s her kid going to tell the babysitter?
So she became the first person I helped. She was so grateful to no longer be pregnant. I just have a heart for people in these tough situations. I don’t want to get another phone call from someone who tells me they drank bleach. I’m so tired of hearing stories from young women, someone telling me her friend mixed some fucking turpentine with sugar.
So I am grateful that there is a way to help, even if it’s just a few people at a time. Who am I, if I have access to this medicine, to be like, no, not for you?! I think of this as civil disobedience, in the same legacy as civil rights. I feel like it is my duty to make sure that my sisters have what they need, if I can.
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ANDREA: I know that’s some pretty intense stuff — and don’t worry, your activist homework is not going to be about doing anything illegal. But these stories raise some really serious questions about what politicians are actually doing when they pass abortion restrictions in the name of “health and safety”. Are they really making abortion safer, or are they just creating two classes of people — those who can afford to get to a legal abortion provider, and those who can’t? People who don’t want to be pregnant will go to great lengths not to be; your homework today is to make sure that not being pregnant is as safe as possible in your own community.
I’m asking you to do three things: First, learn about how misoprostol works. Second, watch a movie about abortion activists, and third, donate your time and money to your local abortion fund.
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Barriers to abortion access vary from state to state — and some states have just ONE abortion provider: West Virginia, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota and Kentucky. Because access can be so limited, there’s an organization called Women Help Women that has put information about misoprostol online for use in what they call “self-managed” abortion — abortion outside of a clinic, not supervised directly by a medical professional.
I’m going to share with you part of what’s available at their website, Abortion Pill Info dot org. Let me be clear: The homework I’m about to give you is purely for your own intellectual edification. Your homework is not — REPEAT, IT IS NOT — to obtain misoprostol, to distribute misoprostol, or to use misoprostol. Your homework is to have this knowledge, and not to act on it or to tell anyone else that they should act on it.
But first, some background: This information about self-managed abortion is borne out of the resistance work of women of color. In the 1980’s, women in Brazil built their own grassroots abortion access movement when misoprostol, under the brand name Cytotec, became available over the counter. The medication’s label warned against using it while pregnant, and women swiftly caught on to the potential side effects. Since then, doctors and reproductive health experts have developed a consistent protocol for the use of misoprostol in terminating pregnancy — the protocol I’m going to tell you about, from the Women Help Women website, is based on the the World Health Organization’s guidelines for misoprostol. According to research published in the medical journal the Lancet in 2007, this methodology can be effective for inducing miscarriage more than 80 percent of the time for people who are not more than 12 weeks pregnant.
A key element of these protocols, according to health professionals who work in areas where seeking, obtaining or performing abortion care is illegal, is that they can be used to induce a miscarriage without leaving any trace of the medication behind. If a person experiences complications after following these protocols and presents at an emergency room, research shows that their symptoms will be indistinguishable from those of a spontaneous miscarriage — period. (That pun was, sort of, intended.)
Everything starts with a few very important caveats, according to the Women Help Women website.
They say that their guidelines for misoprostol are for people who can:
- confirm their pregnancy is under 12 weeks (that’s 84 days since their LMP), and is not an ectopic pregnancy (that’s something that a doctor could verify on an ultrasound)
- affirm that they do not have any blood-thinning conditions, are not HIV-positive, and do not have an IUD
According to these guidelines, a pregnant person should not be alone while taking this medication, and they should be within two hours of a hospital. As with any abortion — clinical or otherwise — the guidelines say that a person should be making an affirmative, non-coerced decision to end their pregnancy.
These protocols detail the sublingual — that means under the tongue — application of 200-microgram tablets of misoprostol. According to the guidelines, a person could terminate their pregnancy by placing four 200-microgram tablets of misoprostol under their tongue and letting those tablets dissolve for thirty minutes, then waiting three hours, dissolving another four tablets under the tongue for thirty minutes, then waiting three hours, and dissolving another four tablets under their tongue for thirty minutes.
To simplify: The Women Help Women protocols indicate that a person can induce a miscarriage by dissolving a total of twelve tablets under their tongue, in groups of four, every three hours.
Side effects. After four to five hours, research shows that a person could expect to experience vaginal bleeding and cramps similar to a heavy period. They could also feel flu-like symptoms, making them nauseous, and/or a low-grade fever. The guidelines indicate that a person may take ibuprofen to mitigate the pain and Women Help Women specifically cautions against using alcohol or other drugs at the same time as misoprostol.
The guidelines say that if a person does not experience any bleeding, cramps or nausea, the medication they are using may not be effective, or was not actually misoprostol.
The guidelines caution that it is important to understand signs of complications, which could indicate an infection. Medical research shows that complications are very, very rare when these guidelines are followed, but they are possible. Those complications are: A fever of more than 102 degrees fahrenheit at any point, or a fever of more than 100 degrees for more than 24 hours, or severe abdominal pain that continues for two to three days and is not relieved by the use of painkillers.
And bleeding complications are possible — according to the guidelines, that means a faucet-like blood flow, or soaking two very heavy maxi pads per hour.
As for aftercare, the guidelines say that bleeding may continue for up to three weeks, and that a person should not have penetrative sex, or use tampons, for five days. After three weeks, the guidelines say, a person can take a urine test to see if they are still pregnant, or go to their doctor for an ultrasound.
Again, this information available on AbortionPillInfo.org, along with even more educational materials on pregnancy and contraception.
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ANDREA GRIMES: So, who might need this kind of medication? And who is brave enough to bring it to people who live in places where abortion is illegal? This is where your abortion access movie night comes in. The film you absolutely have to watch is called Vessel, and it’s a documentary that follows a group called Women on Waves that literally sails patients into international waters where they can end their pregnancies safely. I know “watch a movie” sounds like the laziest possible homework, but there is nothing easy about this film. It’s going to challenge everything you think you know about illegal abortion, and introduce you to some doctors and activists whose dedication to reproductive freedom will absolutely fucking floor you. The trailer alone will probably have you in tears as you watch these activists push through the angry mobs that gather at the places where Women On Waves docks their boat; Go to vessel the film dot com, and rent the film to watch online for five bucks, or buy a copy for ten bucks. It will jazz you the fuck up for demanding better abortion access here in the United States.
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ANDREA GRIMES: For your final piece of homework, something you can do RIGHT NOW — like, right this second, if you have your credit card and the internet handy — is make a donation to a local abortion fund. The website you want is FundAbortionNow.org, home to the National Network of Abortion Funds, where you can learn more about a network of more than seventy nonprofits that do, well, what it sounds like they do: Fund abortion. These funds are often run by a small staff and a network of volunteers, and some funds, like Access Women’s Health Justice in California — where I volunteer, by the way — hook patients up with volunteers who provide rides to clinics or even a spare bedroom or couch for patients who need to travel overnight. Abortion funds operate in almost every state, and especially in deeply conservative areas and abortion deserts, their work is doubly difficult. So even if you’re in Mississippi, where there’s just one remaining abortion clinic, there’s the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund. There’s Arc Southeast in Atlanta; up in New England there’s the Eastern Massachussets abortion fund — and there are funds in Chicago, New York, Oregon, Washington D.C. — pretty much wherever you live, there’s a fund nearby that needs your time and your money. Give abortion funds your time and your money.
So, those are your three tasks: Learn about misoprostol, watch the film Vessel, and donate a few bucks to support your local abortion fund. Okay, one more — let us know how it goes! Find us on Facebook at Facebook.com/TraitorRadio, and tell us how you felt about watching Vessel and which abortion fund you donated to! Did you screen the film with your friends and family? What did they think? How did it feel to fund abortion, or to talk about funding abortion? We want to hear about it!
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Thanks for tuning in — and thanks to the dozens of donors who have made Traitor Radio a reality. If you want to join the Traitor Radio resistance, check us out at Patreon.com/TraitorRadio. Because we’re committed to paying our contributors for their time and their emotional and intellectual work, we can’t do what we do without your financial support.
If you would like to contribute to Traitor Radio, we are always taking submissions, especially from people who are willing to share their first-person stories with listeners, just like Julie and Harriet did on this episode. Journalists are also welcome — if you want to do radio reporting on social justice activism, let us know! Our email address is traitor radio at gmail dot com.
This episode was produced by me, Andrea Grimes, with help from Traitor Radio’s creative director, Carrie Kaplan. Thanks to Alex Mechanic and Wagatwe Wanjuki, who read for Julie and Harriet, respectively. Our music is by Emily Meo. Follow us on twitter at @TraitorRadio, and find us on Facebook and at TraitorRadio.com.
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