What Are Abortion Code Words Even For?


“If you want to come ‘see my cows’ for the weekend, let me know,” Laurel Ysebaert, the owner of a small Ontario cattle ranch, posted on TikTok in May, as the U.S. Supreme Court prepared to overturn Roe v. Wade. “I can give you a safe space while you recover from ‘seeing my cows.’”

You get it. Like many similar videos shared on the platform in the past few months, it was soundtracked by a clip of the song “Paris” by The Chainsmokers, specifically the part that goes, “If we go down / then we go down together.” On Twitter and Facebook, people outside of the TikTok age demographic have been sharing an analogous cartoon depicting two women on a hike through the woods, captioned, “If you are a person who suddenly finds yourself with a need to go camping in another state friendly towards camping, just know that I will happily drive you, support you, and not talk to anyone about the camping trip to anyone ever.”

Of course, the idea is that people will know what the poster is talking about: not “camping,” not “wine tasting,” not “learning to knit,” not “playing dress-up,” not “eating cheesesteak.” They are talking about helping someone in a state that restricts abortion access the procedure elsewhere. The comments on the TikTok videos riff on this message, extending the repertoire of euphemisms: “I live in Maine, our lobsters are still legal here and I have a couch”; “bagels are legal in NJ, I’m here if you need me!” Pittsburgh commenters offered appealing options—pierogies and a locally famous sandwich with french fries and coleslaw in it. A Boston commenter, of course, offered “legal Dunkin’ Donuts.”

The backlash to this code-word activism from others in the pro-choice movement has been quick and frank: “If you’ve thought about it for one second, why would you tell anybody the secret method you’re trying to use to help someone?” an exasperated source said in an interview with NBC News. “Please don’t trust any of these random online people who have no plans to actually save you,” implored one viral Twitter thread. But the posts are not imminently “dangerous,” nor are they outrageous expressions of “hero complexes,” as some critics have suggested. They simply show how online activism has run up against and smashed into its own limitations.

Activists must believe in their own power as a group, said Ioana Literat, an associate professor at the Teachers College of Columbia University who has written about youth political movements and social media. The code-word videos signal that a lot of people are coming around to the same general idea about how to move forward, she told me, and they serve as affirmations that many people are committed—or are growing committed—to circumventing abortion restrictions. “Though they fall short in many ways and are very idealistic, they still help toward reaching that goal,” she said.

When I asked Laurel Ysebaert, the Canadian cattle-ranch owner, about her video (which has more than 3 million views), she told me over email that she intended it as “a message of solidarity” with American women as opposed to a literal invitation to her home. “I have my own family to protect and taking in a stranger from the internet would definitely be risky for everyone involved.” She claimed to have received many messages from women who did not expect to find refuge over the border but wanted to talk with her about their need for abortion anyway. “I have been trying my hardest to research and locate abortion funds/networks that are local to the person confiding in me,” she said. “There are networks that already exist and are able to help people in need in the safest way possible.”

This makes perfect sense, but it is also kind of weird. Why are people making these videos at all if no one can tell which are literal and which aren’t? Some of the “I’ll take you camping” TikToks are more far-fetched than others: Not very many Americans are going to fly to Sweden, France, or Australia (!) to get an abortion. This is part of what makes the posts seem ridiculous or insincere. (It doesn’t help that social-media conventions call for every video to be filmed while looking straight into the camera and pulling maudlin faces.) The pro-life movement has historically been very good at encouraging participation and bringing more people into the fold, rather than pushing them away over rhetorical missteps or attention-seeking faux pas, Sarah K. Cowan, an assistant sociology professor at NYU, told me. “The pro-choice movement lost, and lost big,” she said. “So why are people squabbling about this?” She offered what she called the generous interpretation of the “camping” posts: Some of them may be genuine offers of help, and others may be political statements that are perhaps more sentimental than savvy.

In fact, research shows that most Americans are quite willing to assist others in seeking an abortion. Cowan and her colleagues found that 72 percent of adults say they would provide logistical help to a close friend or family member in need of the procedure, including almost half of those who were morally opposed to it. (Those findings are based on data collected in 2018.) In that sense, the “camping” posts tie into a long history of people offering resources to help others get abortions. “When abortion was legal in every state, it was nevertheless the case that most abortion patients needed some kind of help: money, child care, transportation, a hotel room,” Cowan said. “This is a heightening of what was already the case.”

The transformation of this practice into a viral social-media phenomenon, however, creates novel contradictions. Many young people understand activism as work that happens largely in pursuit of awareness and attention. This situation requires the opposite: If you’re going to pivot from advancing social justice in the abstract to helping people evade the state, you’ll have to give up on being in a searchable, followable online community. That transition will likely be an awkward one.

Lots of young activists, however dedicated and diligent, are not used to working totally “in the dark, in the absence of reward,” Literat told me. “There’s an unresolvable tension between the desire for visibility and the practical need for secrecy.” But at some point, anybody who imagines that they care will have to make a choice.

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