The recent passage of draconian anti-abortion laws in Alabama, Georgia, Missouri and Ohio has exposed persistent tensions in the abortion rights movement between pro-choice liberals and those of us in the reproductive justice movement. There are two marches planned for Chicago this week (the Emergency Rally to Save Reproductive Rights on Monday, and the Rally for Reproductive Justice on Thursday), evoking these long-held tensions. This duplication of efforts wastes our limited resources and undermines our collective power to fight back.
There has been a great deal of talk over the past week about the Auntie Network/Our Network, a new, well-meaning group that initially was developed to create an underground network for women seeking access abortions in states that are trying to restrict the procedure. Yet, as laudable as these efforts are, an underground abortion support network already exists, built by grass roots feminists, women of color, working class women, and queer folks.
I am on the board of directors of the Chicago Abortion Fund (CAF), one of 74 similar organizations across the country which have been working to advance reproductive autonomy and justice by providing financial, logistical, and emotional support to people seeking abortion services and mobilizing political power for decades. We have been here passing the hat and providing safe passage for marginalized people all along. The “Auntie Network” erases us, our labor and the fact that we have been showing up for people who need abortions since Roe!
For example, a little over a month ago, I returned home in Chicago after a weekend in Atlanta. Shortly after landing, I received a group text from Megan Jeyifo, CAF’s board co-chair and helpline coordinator asking the rest of our working board/collective if any of us were available to meet one of our grantees who was arriving from Louisiana alone and scared. Yes, you heard that right. Though our work centers those in need in the Chicago and Midwestern region, CAF is increasingly supporting people from all over the country who simply need access to basic healthcare. We do our best to not just provide the financial resources they need but also work to provide reproductive justice values aligned logistical and emotional support. So, when Megan said someone was landing at O’Hare and the exact time I was landing, I was honored to able to be her warm welcome.
It took me a minute to find her since O’Hare is big and can be difficult to navigate. She collapsed into my arms when we finally saw each other and began crying uncontrollably. I told her was going to be Ok and that we were here for her. I just held her and I told her how brave she was. She looked tired and overwhelmed. I also learned it was her first time flying. Yes, you heard me right again!! She didn’t get to experience flying for vacation or work travel like so many — instead she flew for the first time to claim her reproductive freedom. Alone! Into the third largest city in the country. She also noted that she came not knowing how to navigate public transportation and was grateful I had shown up to figure it out with her.
She was alone because her mother stayed behind to take care of her kids. She showed me a text her father had sent to her while she was flying to Chicago. It was apologetic. She appreciated it but told me it would be more helpful if he had argued with her before she left knowing she was navigating so much. We talked about how important it is to support people the way they need to be supported. Unfortunately, the people she needed to be there for her were not supporting her the way she felt she deserved to be supported. I was both grateful and humbled that I was called by the universe to be there for her.
If Megan had not sent me there to meet her, she would have had to figure out where ground transportation was and how to get an Uber to her appointment while also negotiating being alone at a time when she needed comfort and support. She also had not eaten or rested and wanted to shower before her procedure. She needed a home — both literally and figuratively.
So I brought her home with me and once we got into a cab, she shared her journey with me. She gave me permission to share it with others because she said “people need to know what is really going on and what systems are impacting my life”.
Marie (a pseudonym) is a 27-year-old Black woman. She is a mother of two and suffers from hyperthyroidism and Grave’s Disease. She was also recovering from two black eyes because her boyfriend, the father of her children, beats her regularly. He hits her in her eyes even though he knows her Grave’s Disease impacts her vision and eyes. She also has a jaw that hurts and clicks because he has hit her in her face so many times. She said she decided to have an abortion because she did not want to have another child with a man that was an abuser. Marie had already begun to get some distance herself from boyfriend by calling the police on him after he attacked her in front of their children. She said she not only wanted him to be accountable for what he physically did to her but also for what he did that traumatized their children.
Marie shared how frustrated she was with the state of Louisiana and the anti-choice culture of her family and community. I am partnered with someone from Louisiana and have a close friend who lives in New Orleans who spends her life fighting for the reproductive and sexual freedom of Black women in Louisiana and beyond so I am well aware of the hostile political and religiously oppressive climate that Marie is navigating. She told me that when she tried to get an abortion there, the staff at the clinic that serves primarily black people, were unwelcoming and mean to her. She refused to be treated disrespectfully, so she left. Marie told me that her mother, who provided childcare support so she could travel, also had “named” her fetus and encouraged her to just have the baby and then abandon it. She said her doctor, whom she has had since she was 14, would not let her get her tubes tied because she had not had enough babies. To that I emphatically say, “What the fuck, Louisiana!?”
She wanted to know if she could get her tubes tied as part of her abortion procedure. She also pointed out that she would not even be in Chicago had her doctor let her get a tubal ligation after she asked for one after she had her first child and then again after her second. She told me, “This [pregnancy] will happen again because birth control is not covered under Medicaid in Louisiana.” We talked about the influence of Catholicism (and Evangelical Christianity!), patriarchy, and sexism on people’s belief systems as well as the laws, policies and practices that ultimately control women’s bodies. Marie was righteously pissed that she did not have bodily or reproductive autonomy.
We sat at my dining room table after she had had a chance to shower and have a bite to eat. She said she had never heard of organizations that helped people who wanted an abortion. Marie said no one she knows has heard of resources for women who need them and can’t afford them. She said when abortion comes up the poor and working class people she knows say “I can’t afford that”. She asked good questions because she is brilliant and understood all the systems that are controlling her life. I told her not only about CAF but also about New Orleans Abortion Fund, Inc. and our National Network of Abortion Funds that has 75 funds all over the country. I told Marie about Women with a Vision, a New Orleans based reproductive justice organization committed to supporting Black women. Marie told me she needed help with thinking about housing and employment now that she is navigating multiple disabilities and single parenthood. She talked about the struggle to find employment that paid well when the minimum wage was $7.75 in Louisiana. She knew the truth of it all—that she and so many others were under attack.
I knew Marie was a soldier fighting not only for her own freedom but justice and resources for others. She wanted to be armed with the information about abortion care access and she planned to go home and spread the good word! She also needs ongoing affirmation and support given all that she was navigating. She was determined to get free and I felt an aura around her. I mean, who the fuck gets on a plane not knowing what is on the other side but their freedom?! She didn’t know Chicago! She didn’t know me! She didn’t know Megan! She didn’t know our partners at Midwest Access Coalition (MAC) who were coordinating her travel and lodging! She didn’t even know where she was going for her abortion procedure! But she believed in her power! I told Marie we were very much like an underground network that helped folks like her in need but that CAF also cared about her humanity after that moment. I thanked her for coming into my life and I reminded her over and over how brave and bad assed she was. She said her sister had said the same thing when she heard she was coming to Chicago alone.
During our brief time together, we connected about Louisiana, the good, the bad and everything in between. For me, this was just more evidence that I was supposed to be there, the CAF board member with pseudo Louisiana roots, who randomly happened to be at O’Hare that day due to a flight cancellation the day before. We also connected on a human level, I shared my abortion stories and my trauma stories with her. I begged her to stop calling me “ma’am” but also appreciated her sweet southernness. We laughed and cried together but we also talked about getting free together.
I sent Marie to her appointment after she paused to delight in the spring snow that had fallen the day before. More signs the universe was working its magic–the snow that we all complained about brought a smile to her distraught face. Then I called Megan to make sure she would pick up the next love shift at the clinic and then checked in with Lakeesha at to make sure she would support her and shower her with love when she got back to Louisiana.
The next day I woke up full of joy and rage. Joy that I had the opportunity to meet, connect and be inspired by Marie; rage as I recount all the systems that are failing her. She deserves access to health care and abortion services wherever she lives — without judgement and without the burden of cost. She deserves to be safe and loved in her relationships without being attacked in front of her children because she did not cook her male partner a meal or because she visits a sick family member in the hospital and stays longer than expected. She deserves to not have to rely on a man for financial stability and instead be given the economic resources she and her children need to live — whether she can work or not. She deserves to find work that is fulfilling but also accommodates her disabilities. She deserves to make a wage that will allow her and her family to actually live! She deserves supportive people in her life that do not impose their heteronormative, patriarchal, and conservative anti-choice values onto her. She deserves to have claim to her body and her reproduction not her male partners, her parents, her community, or her government! Marie told me she was in Chicago for her and her children. She wants more, is fighting for more, and deserves more in this life.
She is determined, I am determined, CAF is determined, and the reproductive justice movement is determined to give her all that she and so many others deserve in this world. This is critically important work, but we can only do it if we work together, and not at cross-purposes. We are already doing the work – please work with us, and not against us.
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Photo © Charlotte Cooper