The first breadcrumb leading me to an Auntie Network landed in my path last week, in the form of a Facebook post written by a friend of a friend:
“Hey! People with uteri in other states! If you need to visit your friend Cindy in Chicago, you just PM me and ask for my phone number. I will be so excited to TALK and HANG OUT with you. No judgment. No questions.”
Cindy went on to describe this theoretical Illinois vacation which, as became clear when reading between the lines, was not a vacation at all. It was an offer to reach across state borders, into the jurisdictions that are passing severe reproductive legislation, and help desperate pregnant people acquire abortions.
Some of us with dark imaginations have spent lifetimes imagining theoretical apocalypses. How would we react? Would we be the neighbors who would open our homes, share our bottled water and ramen? What would all of this look like?
A particular kind of dystopia has arrived, and we’re beginning to see its fuzzy outlines. It would involve a whisper network on social media. It would entail announcing “Off to go see Navy Pier!” and then going instead to an abortion clinic. Thousands of women would have to learn — or remember — how this all worked before 1973, when desperate women also had occasion to visit their cousins, old friends, and aunties.
The message I saw was one of hundreds that include the label “Auntie Network” — or “Jane Collective,” a reference to the underground web of support in the pre-Roe era. (Some initially used “New Underground Railroad,” which others quickly called out as tone-deaf and inappropriate.) Many messages were patterned off an early post written by a New Yorker named Lynnie, who has since set up a Facebook group. More than 2,000 would-be volunteers have joined; Lynnie wrote that she’s hearing from more every day. Come and see the Lincoln Memorial, the Aunties offer. Come visit the Mall of America. Have you been to the Finger Lakes recently?
Some invitations are written hyper-cautiously, as if in anticipation of a backlash. Attorneys have raised concerns that the new measures could penalize those who seek abortions across state lines. And so we see some aunties suggest that itineraries could include touristy selfies in front of landmarks. “Proof” that the trip was merely a vacation.
Of course, in many parts of the country, travel and secrecy have always been a part of obtaining an abortion: 90 percent of counties don’t have any abortion providers. Many nonprofit groups already have long-standing systems in place to help abortion-seekers get past the logistical and monetary barriers. Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, worries that the ad hoc creation of Jane collectives could dilute resources from what groups like hers are already doing. “This is a time to build our ranks — not attempt to create new structures,” Hernandez wrote.
What struck me about postings written by Janes and Aunties — and it’s mostly Aunties, though there are a few Uncles, too — is that they don’t read as if they’re attempting to create new structures. They read as if they’re attempting to create new communities. There’s an intimacy to these posts: promises of foldout sofas, herbal tea, fully-stocked DVD collections.
“I’d be happy to mail you a birthday card,” wrote one helper from Iowa. The birthday card could contain birth control, the writer explained, or perhaps a Plan B pill or a pregnancy test.
The idea of entrusting your safety and personal information to a random stranger from Iowa seems impractical if not dangerous — again, there are vetted, established abortion rights organizations for this purpose. And relying on Facebook means you’re mostly reaching people in your own network. There’s a limit to the efficacy.
But to me, the Iowa offer communicates more than logistical solutions. The implied message is that this offer of help is not merely transactional. The Iowan on the other side of the exchange does not believe you are a uterine problem to be solved, but rather a human to be cared for.
As legislatures in states such as Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi place their concerns almost exclusively on the well-being of embryos and fetuses, the posts from Janes and Aunties are reminders that the humans carrying these pregnancies matter as well.
The other thing that struck me, in scrolling through post after post from Janes and Aunties, is how quickly everything coalesced. How quickly women leaped to action in the face of this impending dystopia. Within days, there were new codified hashtags, terms and protocols. Dormant activists creaked back into gear, joining the ones who’d never gone off duty.
A reader emailed earlier this week — one who didn’t know that Auntie Networks were underway or that the National Network of Abortion Funds had been doing this work for years. She was 82, she said. She was infirm and couldn’t get out much. But she’d been following the news, and wondering whether women seeking abortions were going to need safe houses. And if they were, she wanted to volunteer her own. Women from Georgia or Alabama could come and stay with her.
She was in her 30s when Roe v. Wade came before the Supreme Court. She had never grown complacent, she said. She’d seen it all before, and she’d steeled herself to see it again.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society.