If the United States The Supreme Court is overturned roe deer v. veal in the next few weeks, as leaked draft of the majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization suggests that it will, the decision will push the country into legal ground that has remained largely unexplored for the past half-century. 32 states risk banning or severely limiting abortions. But the laws won’t change the fact that many residents in those states will want or still need abortions. In the absence of the longstanding constitutional right to exercise control over one’s body, how far will people go to ensure access to reproductive care and who will help them?
To get an idea of what the post-Roe era might be like, one place we can look at is Myanmar. I’ve talked about the country since a coup toppled the nation’s government last year, and I’ve talked to anti-coup activists and rebels about the role reproductive rights play in the country’s struggle for democracy.
in Myanmar, abortion is illegal unless it can be shown that pregnancy poses a risk to the life of the natural parent. The laws governing abortion have not changed since they were first enacted in the 19th century, when Myanmar (also known as Burma) was under British colonial rule. In 2013, the country began developing a new law in order to meet international norms on gender and sexual violence, giving activists some hope that the country could update its outdated abortion laws.
Yet, according to supporters, who have pushed for better protection of reproductive rights, the bill failed to meet those standards. And after eight years of limbo, the bill on the bill was derailed by a 2021 military coup that precipitated the collapse of the national health system. Certainly, if the post-coup conflict is anything to build upon, the international standards to which the law was originally intended have been completely ignored by the military junta, which routinely uses rape as a weapon of war and a form of punishment. Seen in this context, the abortion ban is just another form of violence used by a repressive state.
The threat of a significant prison sentence for people in Myanmar who have abortions has given rise to a network of black market abortion pills and providers. Some of the resulting clandestine abortions are dangerous, and due to the looming threat of severe penalties, people who experience them likely choose not to seek post-abortion care, exposing themselves to potential long-term medical and psychological consequences. According to the United Nations Population Fund – Myanmar, complications resulting from unsafe abortions are a leading cause of death for pregnant people in Myanmar.
Since the 2021 coup, a new generation of young people have risen in protest and are attempting to eliminate many of the ethnic and gender divisions that previously served as barriers to intersectional solidarity in the country. To counter a status quo that perpetuates sexism in legal and cultural codes, some activists and grassroots organizations use organizational methods inspired by a concept known as mutual aid.
The practice of mutual aid is ancient, initially conceptualized as an organizational theory by the Russian anarchist Petr Kropotkin in 1902. Mutual aid, charity, tries to give a different help without strengthening the hierarchy; it is often described using the phrase “solidarity, not charity”. Mutual aid groups are generally collectives of people who give what they can and get what they need. Reciprocity in mutual aid does not have to be direct; the goal is to create a system where needs are met for all, not just those with resources.
Mutual aid groups have often sprung up around the world to deal with disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina and the Covid-19 pandemic. They are commonly used to provide health care in parts of the world where access to care is restricted by rules or resources. In neighboring Thailand, thousands of people receive free medical care since Mae Tao Clinicfounded by doctor and pro-democracy activist Cynthia Maung.
Although the group does not explicitly describe itself as a mutual aid group, it works in a very similar way. Doctors provide reproductive assistance and even birth certificates to people, allowing children of migrants to access Thai public services. Meanwhile, a separate squad associated with the clinic sends backpackers to remote villages and other disadvantaged areas. Other groups provide assistance in cities and areas where government control is strongest and have supported black markets for drugs such as misoprostol, an over-the-counter treatment for ulcers commonly prescribed in the United States, off-label, to induce abortions. in combination with another drug, mifepristone.
Now that the Supreme Court seems ready to overturn roe deer v. vealmutual aid groups and other grassroots networks following a similar pattern could become more popular in the United States.
Such networks existed before Roe. Between 1965 and 1972, an underground group known as the Jane Collective facilitated about 11,000 abortions in the Chicago area. While the women of the Jane Collective have practiced abortions on their own – whose associated risk they have openly acknowledged – today, a new wave of clandestine networks aims to facilitate reproductive care by sharing knowledge.
One group, the Four Thieves Vinegar Collective, recently posted a prescription for a homemade medical abortion pill online. Like the Jane Collective’s clandestine procedures, these DIY abortion pills can come with serious risks. They may have dangerous interactions with other medications or conditions and are by no means a viable substitute for safe and legal abortions. But for people who feel like they have no other options, groups provide one and the kind of knowledge they are spreading cannot be stopped at borders or enacted by law. The days when powerful people held the information monopoly are over.
Ideally, everyone, everywhere would have access to safe, legal and affordable abortions. But the past few years have repeatedly shown us that simply voting is not enough to protect marginalized people from violence and state control. It is hoped that states that enact the right to reproductive autonomy by law will also consider protecting and granting shelter to people who help facilitate abortions in states where those rights have been respected.
During the pandemic, people across the country supported their communities when the government’s unequal power structures failed them. While facilitating a safe abortion is more complicated and riskier than shopping for elderly neighbors, the same principles apply. Throughout history and around the world, from Myanmar to the United States, people marginalized by an insensitive system have found ways to come forward to protect each other. And in a post-Roe world, they will continue to do so.