There’s a common story about abortion in this country, that people have only two options to intentionally end a pregnancy: the clinic or the coat hanger. They can choose the safe route that’s protected by Roe v. Wade—a doctor in a legal clinic—or, if Roe is overturned, endure a dangerous back-alley abortion, symbolized by the coat hanger. But a close look at the history of abortion in America shows that there’s much more to this story. As the Supreme Court prepares to hear a case that could overturn Roe v. Wade in June, activists are once again preparing to take abortion into their own hands.
Reporter Jessica Bruder explores the abortion underground to learn about the movement’s origins, and reveals how activists today are mobilizing around effective and medically safe abortion methods that can be done at home.
Further reading: “A Covert Network of Activists Is Preparing for the End of Roe”
Be part of The Experiment. Use the hashtag #TheExperimentPodcast, or write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This episode was produced by Gabrielle Berbey and Alyssa Edes, with help from Salman Ahad Khan. Editing by Michael May and Julia Longoria. Reporting by Jessica Bruder. Fact-check by Michelle Ciarrocca. Sound design by Joe Plourde. Engineering by Jen Munson. Transcription by Caleb Codding.
Music by R McCarthy (“Fine”), Ob (“Ere”), Parish Council (“Leaving the TV on at Night” and “Mopping”), Laurie Bird (“Detail Wash” and “Jussa Trip”), Safa Park (“Loose Yams”), Ceefax (“Dissolving Skull”), and Column (“｢The Art of Fun｣ (Raj)”), provided by Tasty Morsels. Additional music by Joe Plourde. Additional audio from CBS, Hope 2020 (Clip 1 and Clip 2), NBC News (Clip 1 and Clip 2), KCRG, WLKY, and KXAN.
A transcript of this episode is presented below:
(With a beep, riot-grrrl music launches headlong into an up-tempo electric guitar riff: light, intense, fast. With another beep, it cuts out.)
Julia Longoria: Okay, tell me the story of your coming-to-the-story.
Jessica Bruder: Yeah, so it’s actually kind of bizarre. I love checking the schedules of hackers’ conferences.
Longoria: Jessica Bruder is a freelance writer for The Atlantic. And she’s not a tech reporter.
Bruder: I am not a coder. I’m not super, super tech-savvy.
Longoria: The reason she likes hackers’ conferences is because of the kinds of people who attend them.
Bruder: My beat has essentially become subcultures.
(Upbeat electronica starts to play underneath, almost like muzak in its levity, its vague positivity.)
Emmanuel Goldstein: Welcome to HOPE 2020.
Greg Newby: There’s so much going on over the nine days of Hackers on Planet Earth 2020.
HOPE seeks to build a vibrant, supportive community of hackers, and you’re here. Welcome.
Bruder: There’s always somebody doing something really smart for the hacker halftime show or something. (Longoria laughs.)
Newby: We have a talent show, Hackers Got Talent!
Bruder: So I remember I was flipping through their sessions online. And it was just what you would expect at a hackers’ conference: privacy …
Presenter 1: Defending your system through binary recompilation.
Bruder: Coding ...
Presenter 2: Resistance to the NSA-level global adversaries.
Bruder: The surveillance state. And then …
Presenter 3: I’m very happy to welcome Maggie Mayhem on “Hackers in a Post–Roe v. Wade World.”
(The music craps out.)
Bruder: Randomly, out of nowhere, abortion!
Maggie Mayhem: I believe that abortion is information technology. So this is a talk that will be very frank about abortion in all kinds of contexts. So … (Fades under.)
(New music enters, quiet and dreamy, an animal cry echoing in the distance under a bed of synthesizer chords.)
Bruder: It was this session presented by a woman who called herself Maggie Mayhem, and she had this very riot-grrrl vibe: dark eyeliner, big earrings. And she was talking about the criminalization of abortion.
Mayhem: (Fading back up.) Since, right now, people are looking for self-managed abortion—but that can be a really scary thing to hear. Self- managed abortion. Isn’t that a back-alley abortion? Isn’t that the wire hanger that we’re all so afraid of? And, in this case …
(The animal music slowly fades out.)
Bruder: When I was growing up in the mid-’90s, the idea that I had was, when it came to abortion, it was either the clinic—and the clinic was safe and warm—or it’s the coat hanger, which is the back alley, which is what happens when abortion is restricted.
Mayhem: But it just may be that self-managed abortion is the solution we need until we can actually secure legal rights, and I’m going to reassure you on why it might be okay.
There has always been a network of underground abortion. They eventually realized that abortion itself wasn’t maybe as complicated as they thought it had to be.
Bruder: And she held up this thing I’d never seen before.
Mayhem: The equipment looks simple—basically a jar with tubes.
Bruder: Which was, in essence, a DIY-abortion device from the early ’70s.
It kind of looks like a home-brewing or science-fair project with these long, clear plastic tubes coming out.
Mayhem: And it was based completely off of what doctors at the time would have been using, and you can find activists who are providing care using these right now in the United States.
Bruder: I’d never heard of a device like that. And I wondered, Where did this thing come from? And I also wondered, What does this mean, given that Roe v. Wade could be overturned in June? What does this mean now?
(A soft song, driven by a plucky bass run, emerges: a mechanical jungle of steam and tubes clinking and clunking in harmony.)
Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart: Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the court. Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey haunt our country. They have no basis in the Constitution. They have no home in our history or traditions. They’ve damaged the democratic process. They poisoned the law.
(A beat. The music plays on.)
Longoria: Since before Roe v. Wade was decided, pro-abortion activists have used the cautionary tale of the coat hanger as an argument to make sure abortions are legal, safe, and accessible—inside doctor’s clinics.
Bruder: I think I still had the coat hanger and the clinic as—as poles in my brain when I started reporting this. But there have been people in this gray area, in the middle, who were working outside the medical establishment, but not using coat hangers [Laughs.] who were actually performing safe, respectful abortions. And I think that was really news to me.
(The mechanical elements of the song are stripped away, leaving only aspirated chords sustaining below Longoria’s speech.)
Longoria: This week on the show, while the country awaits a Supreme Court decision that could result in abortion being illegal in about half the country, reporter Jessica Bruder embeds in the abortion underground.
I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment, a show about our unfinished country.
(The chords themselves disappear too, leaving only dialogue.)
Longoria: So it sounds like Maggie Mayhem sent you down a bit of a rabbit hole. What did you learn about the history of abortion in our country?
Bruder: So to start, I hadn’t even heard about the quickening. Have you heard of the quickening?
Bruder: It sounds like a film title, doesn’t it?
Longoria: (Laughs in recognition.) Yes!
Bruder: But, you know, in the early days of America, when they were still following what had been British common law, when there weren’t disposable pregnancy tests around [Both chuckle lightly.] the idea was that there wasn’t anything that would be legally recognized or treated as a fetus until the woman felt the first fetal movement, which would be about four to five months into pregnancy. So that at the time that first kick comes, then there’s something going on. And until the quickening—
Bruder: —it was perfectly legal for women to go out and pursue treatments, to“bring down the menses,” as they called it. So, early in the 19th century, you could go to a midwife, you could go to other traditional healers, and that was pretty uncontroversial. By mid-century, you’ve got newspapers with all these advertisements for things like Madame Drunette’s Lunar Pills. And some of those commercial preparations could kill you. So some of the first laws set up to regulate abortion were really poison-control measures aimed at those concoctions.
They weren’t there to make some sort of moral point. They were there to keep people from drinking stuff that might kill them.
Longoria: So when did social attitudes toward abortion start to change?
(Sparse music, like puffs of air in a distant chamber, plays quietly under the conversation.)
Bruder: Yeah. So it was around the 1860s that there was this shift in how abortion patients were perceived. There was a lot of racism and nativism going on at the time, stoking fears about white women having fewer children than immigrants and people of color. [Longoria exhales firmly.]
The anti-abortion leader Horatio Storer, who was running the anti-abortion campaign, I mean, he literally asked whether the West would be, quote, “filled by our own children or by those of aliens.” [Longoria scoffs.]
And said, “This is a question our women must answer. Upon their loins depends the future destiny of the nation.”
Bruder: And Horatio Storer led the campaign against abortion for the newly organized American Medical Association.
Longoria: Wow. So the American Medical Association was organizing against abortion in this way.
Bruder: Yeah. At the time, doctors—who were just about all male—weren’t the ones who were delivering babies or performing abortions. Midwives were.
(The music goes out.)
Bruder: So the American Medical Association was trying to drive out competition, and they decided to campaign against abortion. And it worked. Within a generation, every single state had laws that criminalized or restricted abortion.
(The flourish of a news-show intro, dramatic and horn-led, sounds the charge into the discussion of a hot topic.)
Walter Cronkite: Good evening. Tonight, the subject of abortion: The illegal termination of pregnancy has reached epidemic proportions in this country. Abortion will continue to be a critical problem and, for those involved, may call for desperate decisions that result in dangerous medical complications.
(The horn is very quietly replaced with the low, ominous rumble of a timpani.)
Bruder: So basically when you have abortion becoming totally criminalized, it goes underground, which means some people are going to resort to really dangerous methods.
Cronkite: The facts are astonishing. Hundreds of thousands of pregnant women, unmindful of what may happen to them, secretly seek abortions.
Bruder: Common causes of abortion deaths were poisoning, and there were also complications from people introducing a foreign instrument into the uterus—something like the proverbial coat hanger.
Cronkite: For them, there is a wide gulf between what the law commands and what they feel they must do.
(The music fades out.)
Bruder: By 1965, botched abortions accounted for one in five maternal deaths.
So around that time, activists started organizing to make abortions safer. They knew how horrific they could be if they were done in the absence of good information and help, and they wanted to change that.
(A keyboard line, solemn and interspersed with whirling, dizzying electronic sounds, creates an uncomfortable atmosphere.)
Carol Downer: It’s a dignity and control-of-your-own-body issue.
Bruder: So one of those activists was Carol Downer. Earlier this year, I went to L.A., and we ended up sitting on her porch and just chatting for hours. Today she’s 88 years old. But back when she was in her 30s, she had an abortion at an illegal clinic. This was in the early ’60s, and Carol had already had four children. She’d separated from her husband.
Bruder: What kind of method was used when you got an abortion?
Downer: The dilation and—and—
Bruder: The D&C?
Bruder: One of the most popular methods until then was dilation and curettage, which involves essentially scraping out the uterine walls.
Downer: And I can tell you from my own personal experience, it was an incredibly painful procedure.
Bruder: It sounds excruciating!
Bruder: And she had a really bad experience. It was painful; it was traumatic. And that got her on the path of wanting to make abortion safer, more accessible, more humane.
Although she didn’t really know where to start.
Downer: I was a housewife. [Laughs twice, haltingly.] I had no way of connecting to activists, especially in the feminist movement—except the abortion committee!
(The music ends.)
Bruder: She joined the Abortion Committee of the National Organization of Women in L.A.
Downer: Because I had an abortion and I had children and I was very aware of what that was all about.
Bruder: So, as part of an effort to educate herself, she started shadowing illegal-abortion providers.
Downer: And I was assigned an ex-military guy.
Downer: This guy was a sexist pig if there ever was one. And I was really appalled at some of the equipment that he used.
Downer: And these women were just trembling there, and he’s sitting back in his chair, you know, admiring their vulvas.
Bruder: (In disgust.) Ohh.
Downer: And just … I mean, it was just nasty. You know? It was really, really, bad. Now, we knew the abortion biz.
Downer: We knew you took who you could get!
Bruder: But there was one abortion provider that Carol did feel she could learn something from. His name was Harvey Karman, and he was running an illegal-abortion clinic in L.A.
Downer: It was right next door to the Christian Science Reading Room. (Laughs.)
Bruder: What a trip!
Downer: And then—and I was brought up Christian science too, by the way. [laughs]
Bruder: Yeah, yeah! Yeah.
Bruder: Now, the thing that was different about Harvey was that he had created a plastic cannula.
Downer: The Karman cannula.
Bruder: Which is essentially a straw that could be connected to a syringe for suction.
Downer: This suction device was in fact a great improvement, and much less pain and much less complications.
Bruder: It was a soft, plastic, flexible straw that could make a first-trimester abortion much less traumatic than some other methods.
Downer: Well, he had a name: the nontraumatic abortion.
Bruder: They called it a lunch-hour abortion because you could go in, get it done—safely—and then go back to what you’d been doing beforehand.
Downer: I mean you can see the procedure that he’s doing. This is something we could learn! So that sparked us to start paying more attention and becoming even more hands-on—
Bruder: The idea was “Why shouldn’t we know how to do that? Wouldn’t that give pregnant people more autonomy than having to rely on a male-dominated medical system?”
Downer: When we first started, there was no manufactured Karman cannula.
Bruder: Mhm. Okay.
Downer: Harvey made his own.
Bruder: So, in 1971, a friend of Carol’s who was part of the same feminist group—Lorraine Rothman—borrowed one of Karman’s devices and tried to figure out how to make a version of her own.
Downer: What she did was just make a tube and then take a little razor blade and notch it.
Downer: And, uh, there’s your cannula.
Bruder: And built something they called the Del-Em, which was a mason jar, some aquarium tubing, a syringe to create a vacuum, and a cannula, which was what the person who was performing the abortion would carefully insert through the cervix—and essentially just created this device that could be used to safely empty the uterus. And they showed hundreds of women how to have safe, successful abortions in that way.
The Del-Em is the same device I first saw at the hackers’ conference with Maggie Mayhem.
Longoria: What does Del-Em stand for?
Bruder: Yeah. Well, in the beginning they called it just a menstrual-extraction kit, which gave it, this, you know, plausible deniability. Because the idea is “Well, we don’t know if we’re pregnant; we want to get our periods over with in, you know, a half an hour, rather than several days.” That way, if they ever got accused of performing abortions, it could be “Well, we didn’t know.”
Bruder: So they did demonstrations, and a lot of it went over quite well, but then they met one doctor at a clinic who was just hostile to the whole idea of it and referred to what they were showing her as a “dirty little machine.” [Longoria exhales.]
And kind of turned her nose up at it as in, like, [Assuming a haughty voice.] “How do you clean that dirty little machine?” [Longoria laughs lightly.]
And, uh, apparently it really cracked up these feminists. So they turned it around, decided to reclaim that, and, among themselves, started calling it, uh, the “Dirty Little Machine” as an in-joke. They shortened that to DLM, and then that became Del-Em.
Much later, they ended up pretty much disowning the idea that Del-Em ever stood for Dirty Little Machine, because they wanted to be taken seriously. It had been this really sassy way of asserting themselves to—to call it that. And at this point, they just wanted people to know that they knew how to create a sterile environment—that when it came to hygiene, they meant business.
Later, I’m told, Lorraine Rothman went on to tell people that Del-Em stood for “deliberate emptying of the menses.”
(Funky plunky music plays over a persistent beat.)
Bruder: So Carol and Lorraine basically took it on tour. They called themselves the West Coast Sisters. They hopped on a Greyhound bus and, over the course of six weeks, went to 23 cities around the country, giving people speculums. Uh, if you’ve ever been to a gynecologist, you know that’s the tool that opens up access to the cervix. And they showed people how to use the Del-Em.
Downer: I remember, at the abortion demonstration—
Downer: —these women were just absolutely pullin’ away in a bad way.
Downer: Well, it’s coat-hanger abortions, right? That’s all that’s in their mind!
Downer: And they were getting green around the gills. I was afraid the couple of them were gonna faint. So I said, “Well, maybe this will help!” And I took the speculum, found a desk in the adjoining alcove, and invited people to come over and look at my cervix.
Bruder: Showing them how, once you can access your cervix, you can do something like a menstrual extraction.
Downer: Absolutely. They were enthralled.
(The music stops abruptly.)
Downer: What we did was great because of our process.
Bruder: And the idea was that you would have a group of people who knew each other well and who were there for each other just to make the whole experience more communal, less traumatic.
(Another news flourish, this one a little more serious and less dramatic.)
NBC’s Garrick Utley: Another major story today, aside from the death of Lyndon Johnson, and the hopes for peace in Vietnam, is the decision of the United States Supreme Court.
Bruder: And then, in 1973 …
ABC’s Howard K. Smith: The Supreme Court today ruled that abortion is completely a private matter to be decided by a mother and doctor in the first three months of pregnancy.
NBC’s Betty Rollin: The freedom to have an abortion is now legal in every state. The basic legal fight is in effect over.
(A beat, back to Bruder and Downer.)
Bruder: So, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion across the country in 1973, it would have stood to reason that the Del-Em would disappear, right? I mean, nobody needs this anymore. Why keep that mason jar and aquarium tubing in your closet if, uh, no one’s ever going to need it?
Downer: Well, we didn’t expect patriarchy to give up. Um, we didn’t have any illusions that it—Roe v. Wade—would bring it.
(A rush of wind, a trilling succession of notes rising and falling, and a sporadically plucked guitar all come together to create a sense of movement: down, up, somewhere new.)
Downer: I think we all thought it would get turned around sooner. We didn’t think it was much of a law in the first place. And we thought abortion should not be governed by the law, period.
(The sound of waves and beach atmosphere enter.)
Ellie: (Laughter fades up.) I’ve never done this on a beach before!
Yeah, so I brought a bunch of stuff. Um, we have, like, aquarium tubing …
Bruder: Instead, the Del-Em got handed down from generation to generation.
Ellie: But then the way you make it is very simple. Um …
Bruder: Which is how, a few months ago, I ended up on a beach in California learning how to build one.
Ellie: And then you wanna take the syringe [The sounds of a syringe being moved around.] and attach it to this side.
Bruder: And it’s funny; I started thinking about the Del-Em as almost a bellwether for the level of abortion anxiety in America.
Bruder: Like, whenever it looks like something might happen to Roe, you see the Del-Em kind of creeping back into the press.
Ellie: The last thing to do is attach the cannula, which you wouldn’t do until you’re ready to use it.
Ellie: And then that’s it! Like, you’ve done it.
(The music, now driven by whistles, a wash of sound, and a new plucked and synthesized string line, gives a beachy feel.)
Longoria: After the break, the bellwether for abortion anxiety returns.
(The music ends. The break.)
(The episode resumes with a hit of riot-grrrl electric guitar.)
Longoria: I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment.
Reporter Jessica Bruder stumbled upon an abortion underground: a group of activists who, for decades, have tried to take abortion out of the hands of lawmakers and empower people to take control of their own care.
In the 1970s, some activists did this work with a device called the Del-Em. And today—as various states pass laws around the country to further restrict and ban abortion—the Del-Em is back.
Bruder: So when I was trying to learn more about the Del-Em, I was referred to this woman who I will call Ellie. She’s got her own business in reproductive health.
So I went out and met her, and she was just getting over COVID.
(Drum hits play emptily in the background.)
Bruder: And she was also concerned about having me over to her place. She just didn’t want anything to be traceable, because she worried about harassment or even violence from anti-abortion extremists. So we ended up in this really strange situation where we were sitting on a beach.
(The waves fade back in. With them comes a looping guitar line, hushed by almost static, but bright and carefree, beachy.)
Ellie: (Laughs.) Wouldn’t be my ideal location to start!
Bruder: It was like she was laying out this unusual picnic, because there we are on the beach; you know, maybe 10 yards away, there’s two teenagers practicing volleyball, there are people walking their dogs, there are pelicans.
(Seagulls cry over the music, as if flying away.)
Ellie: It’s cold; I’m freezing!
Bruder: And it’s really windy, and we’re sitting there, and she, um, starts showing me how to build a Del-Em.
Ellie: Yeah! So I brought a bunch of stuff.
Bruder: Just on a couple of towels in the sand.
Ellie: But then the way you make it is very simple.
Bruder: And to make it a little more clear on how it works …
Ellie: I bet we could do it with the coffee here, if we tried, like …
Bruder: She had a cup of coffee, and she decanted some into a jar and then stuck the cannula in …
Ellie: Very scientific. (Laughter.)
Bruder: And basically pulled the syringe and suddenly …
(A loud slurping sound.)
Ellie: There you go!
Bruder: She’s, you know, extracting the coffee, and it’s collecting in the device, and I was just watching it happen.
(More of the slurping sound.)
Ellie: Yeah! And that’s how that would work. (Fades under.)
Longoria: Hm. And what was going through your head, sitting on this beach, watching coffee get slurped up by a Del-Em?
Bruder: It was really, really odd. I mean, here we are, in the middle of the pandemic, using this homemade abortion device from the ’70s. I mean, it did make me wonder what reality [Starting to laugh.] I’d ended up in a little bit! (Longoria chuckles.)
Ellie: And I think whether or not this is something that someone uses, just knowing that there are options in the world and that the people who came before you had other ways of managing these things.
Ellie: That has always made me feel less lonely or, like, less despondent. (Fades under.)
Bruder: So the idea of the Del-Em, for Ellie, was almost this symbol.
Ellie: Again, are these, like, the most effective methods? Are these the best methods? Not necessarily.
Bruder: So, you know, Ellie was telling me that, while this is pretty safe, it’s not what she would want to use. And, you know, I did talk to a doctor who’s also a researcher and professor at Stanford to ask about all this, and he assured me that the Del-Em is safe and essentially said that abortions aren’t rocket science. It’s not that different from manual vacuum-aspiration kits that are mass-produced, that are used in doctor’s offices, and that, frankly, some activists were telling me they had ordered online. Maggie Mayhem said she picked up a couple on Amazon, even though they’re not available there anymore.
So the Del-Em, in a lot of ways, is a relic from the past. And I wanted to get up to speed. I wanted to find out about [A phone rings.] the other methods that are out there. What methods are the abortion underground today—what are they rallying around?
Voicemail: (As a phone rings.) Your call has been forwarded to an automatic voice-message system … (Fades under.)
Bruder: But as you might imagine, it’s really difficult to get people to talk about this stuff.
(A percussion line begins to play.)
Voicemail: When you have finished recording, hang up or press 1 for more options.
Bruder: People don’t trust you right away. And nor should they.
(Sporadic guitar notes resonate out over the percussion line, weird and mysterious.)
Bruder: Eventually, one person recommends you to another, recommends you to another.
Bruder: Hello? Hello?
Maggie Mayhem: Hello, hello!
Bruder: They want to make sure you can protect them.
Anonymous: What we’re doing is somewhere on the spectrum of, like, straight-up, really illegal to somewhere in a gray area.
Ellie: We live in a country where doctors have been killed because they provide abortions.
Bruder: And a lot of them knew each other.
Anonymous: So if I do bring you in and provide information about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, I’m gonna need to remain anonymous.
Bruder: And what I saw was that people were getting really creative about getting around abortion restrictions. One of the most interesting examples of that came from this group called Abortion Delivered that ended up driving around, offering a sort of “abortion on wheels”–type delivery service.
Angela: In the abortion world, it’s always been this thing that folks have considered and jokingly said, “When I retire, I’m going to have a mobile clinic. And, um …” (Fades under.)
Bruder: And when something popped up involving vans, I was fascinated.
Angela: We would be in one town for, you know, 20 minutes.
Bruder: And then they’d be gone.
Angela: So we’ve seen 1,300 patients. We started in Minnesota, um—really focused on rural areas, because there’s so few providers in Minnesota.
(A wash of sound for a moment, soothing and ethereal.)
Angela: Then we started seeing folks coming over from the Dakotas: North Dakota, South Dakota. Also Wisconsin, uh, Iowa. Everyone was crossing over to be able to get the medication.
(The wash fades to nothing.)
Bruder: There’s something very Road Warrior [Longoria laughs.], almost Mad Max or Station Eleven about it. So the group went on, and when I spoke with them, they were in the process of bulletproofing a couple of vans to send to just outside the Texas border.
Bruder: Literally bulletproofed?
Angela: Yes. Yes. Yes.
Bruder: Ahh! I wish that were able to be a euphemism in these strange times!
Angela: (Laughs.) I know. I know.
Bruder: They’re worried about being so close to an open-carry, gun-enthusiastic, abortion-hostile state, doing what they’re doing.
Angela: As they try to restrict things, that will just make us push harder to open things up.
Bruder: How does it all change if Roe just gets completely upended?
Angela: If Roe gets upended, we will just be driving up and down the borders.
(Dreamy atmospheric music enters, lush and soft like a fuzzy blanket underneath Bruder’s reporting.)
Bruder: And while some people are taking these sort of complex measures, from the Del-Em to the vans, one of the newest and most accessible self-managed options right now is actually pretty simple, even though a lot of people still haven’t heard of it. And that is abortion pills.
(The music fades out.)
Bruder: One of them is called mifepristone, which the FDA approved back in 2000. And the other is misoprostol, which women in Brazil in the 1980s realized could be used for early-stage abortions. There was a label on the side of this medication that said you shouldn’t take it if you’re pregnant, because it could cause violent uterine contractions. So people began using it off-label to have abortions. And the medical establishment has followed their lead on that. So we’ve reached a point where more than half of all legal abortions in the U.S. are done with a method that uses both of these drugs. But now …
Texas Governor Greg Abbott: (Booming over a loudspeaker, over applause.) Mail-order abortion drugs are now prohibited in the state of Texas.
Bruder: We’re in a situation where 19 states have already made it illegal for doctors to prescribe the pills via telemedicine or for anyone to send them by mail.
WLKY’s Mark Vanderhoff: There’s a battle over whether people should be able to order the so-called abortion pill online in Kentucky.
Bruder: And nine additional states are considering similar bills.
KCRG’s Jay Greene: Iowa House Republicans have passed a bill which would ban mailing abortion pills. (Fades under and out.)
Bruder: In Iowa, there’s a bill that would make distributing abortion pills—even if you’re a doctor—punishable by up to 10 years in prison. All of this is why people in the abortion underground are now hyper-focused on the pill and making it accessible. I learned about one international nonprofit called Aid Access that delivers abortion medication to all 50 states. And they can’t be prosecuted for it, because they’re actually located overseas. But I wanted to understand how people are sharing information about the pills.
So I got introduced to this activist named Susan Yanow.
(A loop of light synthesizer notes plays over what sound like weighty puffs of air—the sound of a court held in the clouds, perhaps, somber and surreal at once.)
Susan Yanow: I’m really happy that more and more people are coming into this space—
Yanow: —and understanding the potential of abortion pills.
Bruder: And she let me sit in on one of her Zoom seminars, and she basically talks to people about how they can access and then use abortion pills without supervision by a doctor.
Yanow: And it’s, you know, not just the stigma, but the—the fear of the medical establishment to trust that we can do this by ourselves.
Bruder: And I just remember, before the class, she instructed us all to go out and get Skittles and M&Ms, and I’m thinking, All right, I’m trick-or-treating for abortion here. What is going on?
Yanow: Because it’s mifepristone and misoprostol—I mean, it’s M&M!
(The music fades out.)
Bruder: And she actually had us tuck four M&Ms into what you call the buccal cavity, which is that little pocket between your cheek and your gums, and you’re supposed to sit with them for 30 minutes, which, uh … I know I didn’t make it. I mean, I really like M&Ms, right? So I was not going to just sit with them there in my mouth. [Laughs.]
That’s like giving a squirrel a peanut and saying, “Hang on to that, buddy.” Um, good luck there! So, um, but with the—with the pills, what I think a lot of people don’t realize is, even if you do go to the doctor, the doctor has you take the first pill and sends you home with the rest of the pills. So you’re monitoring yourself for any complications. So this is essentially self-managing abortions anyway, right? I mean, it’s more regulated. So when we talk about the future, essentially, we’re already there.
Longoria: What are the risks of going the self-managed route without a doctor?
Bruder: I think the idea of self-management isn’t, uh, this almost rugged American individualism, you know. [Longoria laughs lightly.] You cowboy up and you go out into the wilderness and you induce your abortion and then you come back. [Longoria laughs more heartily. Bruder has a lightness in her voice at the idea, too.]
Like it’s not—it’s not that at all! I mean, it’s—the idea is, you know, you make sure that you’ve got people who are close to you, who are around, who know what you’re doing. You make sure you’re close to a hospital in case something goes wrong.
One of the interesting things, though, was, there are some places where people have gotten in trouble when they went to the doctor, after people found out that they used abortion pills for various reasons. So if somebody goes to the emergency room, activists—and others—recommend that they say, “I’m having a miscarriage.” And clinically they would treat you the same way anyway.
(Through a haze, a kind of lo-fi, chill beat-and-keyboard mix plays up. A rapid arpeggio of bright synthesizer notes trills up and down.)
Longoria: So, taking a step back for a minute, it seems like you came upon this story almost by accident. And then, as you’ve been reporting this, we’re still waiting for a decision from the Supreme Court; we’ve seen new abortion restrictions crop up from several states in the last few months. I wonder what it’s felt like for you, working on this story as the story is unfolding.
Bruder: Uh, it’s been intense watching all of these restrictions snowballing in real time. In Florida, they just signed a 15-week abortion ban into law. We have Oklahoma and Kentucky where abortion has now been effectively banned. So it’s really coming to a head. And after talking to people who’ve seen this coming for such a long time, and who really were willing to risk their lives and their freedom to help people get abortions, it was interesting to me because I think I thought we were in a place where that wasn’t needed in the same way anymore. And what I learned was that the abortion underground never really went away.
(The arpeggio continues over the rest of the music. Eventually, the whistle from earlier in the episode plays back up.)
Alyssa Edes: This episode of The Experiment was produced by Gabrielle Berbey and me, Alyssa Edes, with help from Salman Ahad Khan. Editing by Michael May. Reporting by Jessica Bruder.
You can read Jessica Bruder’s full article “A Covert Network of Activists Is Preparing for the End of Roe” on our website, www.theatlantic.com/experiment.
Fact-check by Michelle Ciarrocca and Yvonne Kim. Sound design by Joe Plourde with additional engineering by Jennifer Munson.
Music by Tasty Morsels and Joe Plourde.
Our team also includes Peter Bresnan, Tracie Hunte, Emily Botein, Jenny Lawton, and Natalia Ramirez.
If you enjoyed today’s episode, please take the time to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen.
The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thanks for listening.
(As the song fades out, humming enters, combining into an eventual quiet.)