A Weekend at Abortion Camp Offers a Glimpse Into the Future of Abortion Access

A Weekend at Abortion Camp Offers a Glimpse Into the Future of Abortion Access

A Weekend at Abortion Camp Offers a Glimpse Into the Future of Abortion Access

In the year after Dobbs, the movement has been operating in triage mode, and Abortion Camp was conceived as a conclave where activists could come together to have honest conversations about their work and what they needed from each other.

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On the wall in the gym at Abortion Camp hung a massive, colorful map of the United States festooned with index cards. Each card had the name, age, pronouns, astrological sign, and affiliation of each of the 50-or-so people who had traveled from across the country, and a few from overseas, to attend the event. As a kickoff activity, the campers had broken into small groups to fill out the cards and then placed them on the map to show where they were from.

Abortion Camp was held in early September at a hotel in the Pacific Northwest. The campers ranged in age from 19 to one woman in her 80s, and spanned professions and geographies. They were doctors, midwives, abortion fund workers, community organizers, nonprofit leaders, poets, digital security specialists, lawyers, clinic escorts, doulas, and researchers. Some attendees had known each other for years, while others were meeting for the first time. What they all shared was a commitment to keeping abortion accessible in the wake of the Dobbs decision.

“In post-Dobbs America, patient navigation is not a linear path,” said Amelia Bonow, executive director of the activist group Shout Your Abortion, which organized the event. “Access is a cobbled-together ecosystem of smaller organizations, including those ready to do shit in a post-institutional way, who aren’t waiting around for courts, for politicians, for doctors, but all our work is too siloed. It feels like we are building a new system, and we need to do it in-person.”

In the year after Dobbs, the movement was operating in triage mode, and Abortion Camp was conceived as a conclave of sorts, where activists could come together to have honest, nuanced conversations about the present and future of abortion access, build relationships, and relax and recharge. There were people present who represented mainstream organizations, folks who operate underground, and everything in between. The idea was to get them all in a room where they could productively and securely talk to each other about their work, their challenges, and what they needed from each other.

“One of the most memorable parts of it for me was just being in physical space with all these people,” said Niharika “Nix” Rao, who was instrumental in the campaign to make medication abortion available on the Barnard campus. “The last year has really been traumatic and kind of chaotic since the Dobbs decision, and it’s been hard to feel like you’re sincerely part of a movement and not going at it alone.”

The sessions covered topics like intergenerational and international organizing, how to find abortion pills, and how to provide support to people dealing with intimate partner violence, which has surged since Dobbs. There was a documentary film screening and a theatrical demonstration of a manual vacuum aspiration (an early abortion technique) on a person dressed as a papaya with a sparkly detachable womb.

Bonow was inspired to organize the event after attending an Abortion Camp in Poland two years before. Abortion had been banned in Poland with few exceptions for decades and the camp, then in its third year, was primarily focused on how to provide access to abortion outside the law and medical supervision. Bonow was there on September 1, 2021, when SB8 went into effect in Texas. SB8 banned abortion after six weeks, and when the Supreme Court refused to block the law, it seemed clear that Roe v. Wade’s days were numbered.

“The camp was on this beautiful lake, and I walked down to the edge and lost my shit,” she said. “I thought about how everything was going to be really hard forever. There was no way to make it okay. Then I went to the opening session and shared what happened, and it was the perfect place to be, because this had been their reality forever. Their conversations around pills and self-managed abortion were light-years beyond what was happening here.”

Thirty-six million women and people who can get pregnant, who are of reproductive age, live in states that have or are likely to ban abortion, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families. There are around 90 abortion funds across the country that collectively spend millions of dollars to help people access abortion, as well as state governments that have created funds to support out-of-state travel to clinics. But in addition, a significant number of people are turning to telemedicine providers like Aid Access, which uses shield laws to ship abortion pills to all 50 states, or self-managing their abortion with medication procured through unofficial channels, like online pharmacies and underground community networks.

Within the movement, there is not widespread agreement on the role that self-managed abortion (SMA) should play, which was one of the themes that came up throughout the event. Medication abortion is well-established as safe and effective and there is plenty of research to show that people can take the pills outside of a clinical setting with minimal complications. To Jex Blackmore, an activist and artist who lives in Detroit, SMA, telehealth access, and mail order provision are ways to prevent people from falling through the cracks, especially if they are unable to travel or don’t have money to cover the costs. (Medication abortion in a clinic, not including travel expenses, costs around $500, while Aid Access charges $150 on a pay-what-you-can sliding scale, the cheapest online pharmacies currently sell pills for about $45, and the community networks distribute them for free.) However, Blackmore said they have noticed some tension between people who work for organizations that operate strictly within the scope of the law, like brick-and-mortar clinics and abortion funds, and those who promote alternative modes of access.

“Folks are scared of losing their livelihoods or putting their families at risk,” they said. “Those fears are absolutely justified but they do not serve the people we are trying to help. There are many people working on changing policy, which is important, but the reality is we need people on the ground helping folks get the care they need.”

Part of the hesitancy is due to the fact that SMA is not the right choice, or even a safe or viable one, for all abortion seekers, nor for all abortion activists, as the risks of criminalization vary greatly depending on factors like geography and race. To Maleeha Aziz, deputy director of the Texas Equal Access Fund, conversations around SMA can feel frustrating because they feel removed from the realities facing people in a state like Texas, which has demonstrated a willingness to go after people suspected of obtaining abortion pills.

“While it is a safe option to have an abortion, the criminalization of people of color in abortion-hostile states is what makes it dangerous,” Aziz said. “I wish there was some more consideration for what that meant for low-income people of color.”

Abortion Camp was designed as a forum where people could be in the same room and work through these complicated dynamics face-to-face. Blackmore initiated a discussion about SMA during a session about independent clinics, and it continued through the camp over crafting and meals. There are no simple answers or solutions, but they said the acknowledgement that this was an issue the group needed to address felt like a “huge relief.”

“I absolutely believe that by gathering in this way, we can solve any problem,” Blackmore said. “We can learn from others experiencing struggles that we may not be familiar with. We can bring the things that we learn back to our respective homes and share them with others, and they can do the same. That’s what it means to build a coalition of support.”

In addition to the scheduled sessions, crafting and downtime were a big part of the camp. The hotel had a spa, landscaped grounds, and hammocks hanging everywhere. Abortion Camp requisitioned a round structure on the property called “The Sanctuary” as a crafting studio, where people strung beads that said “ABORTION” onto bracelets and emblazoned various articles of clothing—T-shirts, shorts, underwear, jackets—with slogans like “Abortion Pills Forever” and “Abortion Access Is a Community Responsibility.” Near the door, a stick-and-poke tattoo station was set up where people could get one of four tattoo options.

“I got a little mife and miso tattoo,” Rao said. “My work is really around medication abortion access and I’m also an abortion doula. I’ve supported over 100 people through their abortions, and a lot of them have been medication abortion. Obviously now, mife is under threat, so it felt like a really important moment to get that tattoo.”

As befits any camp, the event culminated on the final night with a dance party dubbed “Abortion Prom.” There were flashing lights, balloons, music, and, according to Judith Arcana, “fabulous costumes.” Arcana was one of the “Janes” who helped provide 11,000 women in Chicago with abortions in the years before Roe. She said one of the things that struck her most about the event was the atmosphere—there was a gravity of purpose, but there was whimsy too.

“I loved that people who have chosen to work against bad laws and bad attitudes in this country could come together for Abortion Camp, but also for prom, for God’s sake,” Arcana said. “They are on the right path to not separate the serious, sometimes desperate business of abortion healthcare in the US from pleasure and coming together with joy.”

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