In a striking sign of the times, volunteers across the United States and Canada are joining forces on social media to create a network of safe houses for women seeking abortions in states that are trying to restrict the procedure.
Dubbed “The Auntie Network” or “The Pink Railroad,” the grass-roots effort emerged in the wake of strict new abortion laws passed in numerous states — most recently, an Alabama measure that would criminalize all abortions except those required to save a mother’s life. Six additional states have already this year enacted laws that would limit abortion access to the early weeks of pregnancy; Missouri would become the seventh, if a bill passed by the state Senate on Thursday passes the House and is signed by the governor.
The new restrictions have yet to take effect and many will be challenged — if not overturned — in state courts. Abortion remains legal in all 50 states. But volunteers are preparing for the possibility that abortion will be severely restricted in some states and that they can no longer count on a right codified by the Supreme Court 46 years ago.
As a result, abortion rights supporters have begun extending a hand and offering to open their doors to women who may find themselves in need of assistance.
“Aunt Michelle in Massachusetts would love to see you,” one woman tweeted this week. “I will meet you at the airport, bus station, train station — wherever — to get you where you need to go, support you & give you a place to stay.”
“I know it’s a shame that your family lives as far north as Ontario but the lakes and campgrounds are beautiful,” a woman from Toronto tweeted. “If you ever need it, nature is great for women’s health.”
The chatter on social media was cheeky — using winking invitations from heretofore unknown “relatives” in blue states — but some of the organizers behind the network are dead serious.
Lynnie Couillard-Blance said she and her friends are already building a system of “regional directors” who will interview and vet all the volunteers who offer their homes.
“In order to become a ‘family member,’ we’re actually going to have an application and an interview process in order to do as best as we can with security,” Couillard-Blance said.
Couillard-Blance, the manager of a chiropractic office in upstate New York, launched the effort somewhat inadvertently from her couch over the weekend, as she watched the news on abortion restrictions in Georgia and Ohio and worried about the impact on people she knew in both states.
“I can’t vote there, obviously, so I thought: What can I do?” she said in a phone interview.
The 45-year-old married mother of a Marine has previously opened her extra room — her art studio — to people trying to get back on their feet. She realized she could do the same for women in a tough spot.
The mission isn’t necessarily to help people get abortions, she said, but “to help them get to a place where they’re not afraid to make their decision. If that’s their choice, then we’ll figure out a way,” she said. She noted that others have already reached out for different kinds of assistance.
One Georgia girl wrote her asking for a pregnancy test; she was afraid that if she bought one, she’d be spotted on a video camera. Women in Ohio are asking about crossing state borders to get birth control, she said, noting concerns about whether a proposed bill that would limit insurance coverage for abortion would affect birth control as well.
“This is so much bigger than abortion. It’s about women’s autonomy and bodily rights,” said Couillard-Blance. “And while the bans may be on abortion, women are feeling it in other ways.”
At 1:30 a.m. Saturday, she wrote her post, inviting women in Georgia, Ohio, and Texas to contact her if they needed to visit their “Auntie/Cousin Lynnie in NY.”
“No judgment. No questions,” she wrote. “You pay for your trip but I’ll be here, pick you up from the airport, hold your hand, show you the sites [sic], make some reservations, give you a peaceful place to escape. . . . Let’s face it. It’s been too long since we’ve seen each other.”
Some of her friends shared the post, as she suggested. By Monday morning, she had over 1,000 messages, coming from as far as Australia and Poland. Some of those just want to be heard — like the woman who contacted Couillard-Blance about the abortion experience she’d never shared with anyone. And many others began offering their own homes, adapting Couillard-Blance’s post to highlight the tourist offerings in their states, where they would be willing to host abortion refugees.
The idea took off with the hashtag #UndergroundRailroad2019, which drew immediate concern. “Don’t want to inappropriately compare the reproductive rights emergency to slavery,” tweeted Erin Shipp, 39, of California.
In an interview, Shipp noted that her state — like Massachusetts — recognizes the right to an abortion, independent of the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision. As more conservative states try to limit abortion access and blue states aim to expand it, gaps in coverage from one state to the next are widening.
But abortion rights activists note that states have always restricted access in various ways, and they have long sought to help women get the procedure, as volunteers are trying to do now.
“Sadly, it’s not really a new thing for us,” said the Very Reverend Katherine H. Ragsdale, interim president & CEO of the National Abortion Fund. “With the number of restrictions and bans across the country, we’ve had far too much practice having to help women out of states to get care they need.”
She noted that’s especially true for abortions late in pregnancy, which are offered in very few locations. Massachusetts women seeking abortions after 24 weeks often travel to Colorado, activists say, and have to find a way to pay for the cost of travel as well as the procedure. Abortion rights advocates are pushing a bill that would allow those late abortions in Massachusetts in cases of anomalies the fetus is not expected to survive.
In states across the country, abortion funds already help women pay for abortions and navigate the process, which can require multiple visits, days off work, and child care.
“These organizations exist and can be plugged into already,” said Amanda Reyes, president of the Yellowhammer Fund, a nonprofit that helps women obtain abortions in Alabama.
The tumult over her state’s new law has brought a surge of donations, volunteers, and advocacy, she noted.
“We have gotten this amazing response,” she said. “People said ‘No, we’re not going to take this, and we are going to send our money to people who can make sure that people in Alabama are getting the abortion care that they need.’ ”
Several candidates for president in 2020, including Kirsten Gillibrand, Beto O’Rourke, and Kamala Harris, even encouraged their followers to donate to the Yellowhammer Fund.
“This is the first time, really, that we have seen presidential candidates talk about abortion access in this way,” Reyes said. “And I am floored.”