With ‘The Abortion Underground,’ Jessica Bruder Reports on the Covert Network Preparing for a Post-Roe Future

Bruder’s cover story leads The Atlantic’s May issue, with reporting from Anne Applebaum, Ko Bragg, Jonathan Haidt, and Helen Lewis.

The Atlantic's May 2022 cover
Photo illustration by Oliver Munday

This summer, the Supreme Court is expected to hand down a decision that could weaken or overturn Roe v. Wade. Already, states across the country have passed more than 1,300 restrictions on abortion since it was made a constitutional right; nearly 90 percent of U.S. counties lack a clinic that offers abortions. For a new cover story in The Atlantic, Jessica Bruder reports on the covert network of community providers who connect women to the services they need. This network existed before Roe, and it never entirely disappeared. Now, with the right to an abortion expected before the Court, it is poised to take on new prominence. “Its ranks include midwives, herbalists, doulas, and educators,” Bruder writes. “When necessary, they are often willing to work around the law.”

Bruder, the author of Nomadland, makes her debut in The Atlantic with “The Abortion Underground,” a deeply reported story on the individuals preparing for a post-Roe future. She traveled across the country to understand how people are providing assistance to women who lack access to legal abortions, meeting with a variety of groups and reporting from inside their grassroots efforts. Her story offers a bracing portrait of what the country will look like if abortion ceases to be a constitutionally protected right and women and providers are forced into the underground.

In the opening scene, an activist named “Ellie” demonstrates the construction of a Del-Em device, a homemade abortion tool composed of everyday parts including tubing, a rubber stopper, and a mason jar that is easy for anyone to make and suitable for ending pregnancies during most of the first trimester. Though more symbolic than pragmatic—today, pharmaceuticals can end a pregnancy safely and reliably—Bruder writes that the Del-Em represents how practical knowledge can be shared even as the legal landscape shifts. “Whatever the laws may say, history has shown that women will continue to have abortions. The spread of pills and devices like the Del-Em—discreet, inexpensive, and fast—could, if nothing else, help ensure that abortions are done safely and, because of their accessibility, on average earlier in a pregnancy than is the norm today.”

Bruder describes how such knowledge is transferred, with a focus on the acquisition and use of effective and medically safe abortion pills. Already, pharmaceuticals account for more than half of all abortions in the U.S. And as Bruder writes, “More autonomy is coming, at least eventually—both in places that attempt outright bans and also where abortion remains legal.”

As she did in Nomadland, Bruder tells of the Americans who rely on one another in difficult circumstances. She shows how women are supporting one another—practically, without resorting to alarm or fear—as services become scarce. But even as these networks ramp up, they acknowledge the challenges ahead. Three states have banned self-managed abortion outright. ​Would-be providers fear for their safety. And some women who seek abortions won’t know where to turn. If the Supreme Court allows states to ban or even more severely curtail abortion, women’s lives will be at risk. “Statewide bans on abortion would cause a rise in maternal deaths—of women with complicating health issues and of women who resort to dangerous methods,” Bruder writes. “Maternal deaths will also rise because women who want an abortion can’t get one—childbirth is far riskier than ending a pregnancy.”

Bruder’s piece is joined by an extraordinary roster of stories in the May issue that will publish over the next two weeks, including:

  • In “Tour Guide to a Tragedy,” writer Ko Bragg travels to Philadelphia, Mississippi, where in June 1964 three civil-rights activists where brutally murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. The activists had been working with the Freedom Summer campaign, which aimed to combat racial discrimination by registering Black Americans to vote. While the local museum ignores the murders, town residents, including Ko’s stepfather, have taken on the task of educating visitors through private tours. “I can understand why people don’t want to talk about this history. It’s disturbing and painful, as the truth can be. Learning this history is like taking bitter medicine,” Bragg writes. Publishing April 7.

  • In “After Babel,” author and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that social media has dissolved the mortar of society over the past decade. He likens our confounding times to the fall of the Tower of Babel, as recounted in the Book of Genesis: “The story of Babel is the best metaphor I have found for what happened to America in the 2010s, and for the fractured country we now inhabit. Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past.” Though platforms such as Facebook and Twitter promised to bring us closer together, instead they have riven society, undermined institutions, and corroded thinking on both the left and the right. But Haidt also offers a possible way forward: “We must harden democratic institutions so that they can withstand chronic anger and mistrust, reform social media so that it becomes less socially corrosive, and better prepare the next generation for democratic citizenship in this new age.” Publishing April 11.

  • In a feature essay, staff writer Helen Lewis talks to “The Shadow Royals,” descendants of dethroned or exiled monarchs who believe they might have a role to play in their home countries. Aristocrats from Albania and the former Austro-Hungarian empire discuss their current duties as pseudo-diplomats; Lewis also explores our global fascination with monarchy, even in the United States. “Monarchy speaks to a deep need in people—the need for a connection with the past, and a sense of continuity across time. Less wholesomely, it also suggests a widespread desire for fixed, unarguable hierarchies and a lingering opposition to the idea that jobs should be distributed on merit. These are strong currents in the human psyche, and they are resistant to change,” she writes. Publishing April 13.

  • In “There Is No Liberal World Order,” which published last week, staff writer Anne Applebaum argues that the invasion of Ukraine has shown that if we value democracy, we need to fight for it. Applebaum pushes liberal democracies to defend themselves together, while also naming the challenges we must prepare to meet. We must “take democracy seriously,” she writes. “Teach it, debate it, improve it, defend it.”

The Atlantic’s May 2022 issue launches today, and will publish online over the next two weeks. Please be in touch with questions or requests to interview our writers about this reporting.

Contact: press@theatlantic.com