Denny spends most of his days sitting on his bed packing little pills into plastic zip lock bags and then into brown envelopes, ready to be mailed out to people seeking abortion medication in states. like Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio.
The pills are mifepristone and misoprostol, two drugs that are the subject of intense political and legal debate.
Every packet of pills sent by Denny puts them in danger. But they won’t stop doing it.
“A legal gray area is kind of where we live,” Denny, who works with the WeSaveUs group and uses the pronouns them/them, told The Daily Beast. “What is legal and what is right are two different things.”
When deer fell last June, protesters took to the streets in their thousands, some with signs and T-shirts that promised to “help and encourage abortion”.
Almost a year later, a small group of committed activists have built secret support networks to do just that. Denny is one of a handful of activists in states with very restrictive bans who distribute abortion drugs and face lawsuits every day.
Denny, who identifies as non-binary, lives in Louisville, Kentucky, a progressive urban hotspot in a deeply red state. (The Daily Beast only uses his first name due to concerns about lawsuits.)
Kentucky’s tripping ban went into effect immediately after Roe vs. Wade was overturned, banning abortion entirely in the state, with very few exceptions. Overnight, Kentucky became one of the most restrictive states on abortion in the country.
Denny knew they had to act. They had been involved in activism around reproductive rights and had always been guided by the principle of bodily autonomy.
“It’s about: What do you want and need? What will make you feel safe? If what makes them feel safe is going out of state to a clinic, I’ll help them. If what will make them feel safe is taking pills at home, I will help them. Everyone deserves care,” Denny told The Daily Beast.
Despite the new legal precarious environment, Denny started working with WeSaveUs last fall. Since then, anti-abortion activists have targeted abortion drugs, sued the FDA and demonstrated outside pharmacies, making Denny’s job even riskier.
Denny’s room is the end of a long secret network that starts thousands of miles away.
Drug smuggling from Mexico
The underground network begins with activists like Verónica Cruz Sánchez, founder and executive director of Las Libres, a feminist organization founded in Guanajuato, Mexico, in 2000. For two decades, Cruz and her colleagues worked to distribute the abortion drug misoprostol to through Mexico. .
“Abortion has always existed, it will always exist. It will not cease to exist. Even if countries restrict it, even if territories restrict it, it does not mean that it stops abortion – it just putting people’s lives and health at risk,” Cruz says of the philosophy of Las Libres, which provides the drugs for free.
When the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 8 in 2021, drastically restricting access to abortion in the state, Cruz turned his eyes to the United States. Mexico’s Supreme Court had just declared it unconstitutional to punish abortion as a crime, an extremely progressive step in a once staunchly conservative country. While Mexico seemed to be taking a step forward, Cruz says, she could see the United States moving in the opposite direction.
“We decided to form a cross-border network,” Cruz told The Daily Beast. Abortion pills are available over the counter in Mexico. Cruz organized hundreds of volunteers to transport abortion pills across the border, first to Texas and then, when deer fell, to other hostile states. Some are older American expats who have made Mexico their home and are sometimes referred to as “the old hippies.”
Cruz is careful to protect the identities of the militants involved in smuggling pills across the border or the manner in which they do so. The people carrying the pills across the border don’t know exactly where they’re coming from or where they’re going, Cruz says, which helps make each node in the network more secure.
“Nobody knows, in general terms, the woman who has an abortion. She doesn’t know everyone involved, so she has a safe abortion. And the people helping her don’t know who the person having the abortion is. It’s our safety process,” Cruz says.
Las Libres is committed to providing abortion medication to the most vulnerable populations in the United States, including undocumented arrivals, the poor, and immigrants, despite all restrictive laws. Cruz views abortion as a human right that cannot be taken away by lawmakers.
“We are not supporting or promoting a crime – we are assisting a right that the state is not able to guarantee at this time in the restricted territories,” Cruz says.
Nevertheless, anti-abortion groups in the United States aim to further restrict abortion drugs.
In April, a case brought by anti-abortion activists trying to restrict the use of mifepristone reached the Supreme Court. The lawsuit claimed the FDA rushed approval of the drug, which studies have overwhelmingly shown to be safe. A stay issued by Judge Samuel Alito temporarily preserved access to the drug, but it is unclear how the court will ultimately rule.
Activists who distribute and promote abortion drugs continue to operate in this landscape of legal uncertainty.
Once the abortion pills are smuggled into the United States by activists like those working with Las Libres, they are passed on to people like Denny. But a whole support system has sprung up to support both activists and those seeking abortion drugs.
Linking pregnant women to drugs
“We are not waiting for the courts and legislators to do the right thing about access to abortion. Our model is already based on this: how to provide access in the face of unjust laws? says Elisa Wells, co-founder and co-director of Plan C.
Plan C, founded in 2015, is a nonprofit organization that provides information on access to abortion pills in every state. The group also tests pills from online vendors and community vendors like Denny, checking each vendor they list and making sure the drug is genuine and safe.
After the Supreme Court voted to strike down abortion rights, Wells said the website saw a huge increase in traffic, from about 40,000 visitors in a busy month to more than half a million overnight.
“People recognize that these state legislatures are acting inappropriately and causing a detrimental situation for people trying to access basic medical care,” Wells says. “They recognize that this is a solution that gives them a bodily autonomy option.”
Plan C recommends telehealth providers who can prescribe pills in abortion-friendly states, as well as groups like Aid Access, a nonprofit based outside the United States that sends out abortion medications. in the country. But for those who live in restrictive states or can’t afford the high prices for some pills online, community groups like WeSaveUs are the only option. Wells says Plan C’s role is to control and amplify vendors like Denny, who are on the ground and able to provide pills for free.
The ultimate goal of Plan C is to advocate for full and free access to abortion for everyone in the United States, Wells says. “But until that becomes a reality in the United States, we know people need other sources of access immediately.”
Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, board-certified OBGYN and executive director of Mayday Health, a nonprofit health education organization, doesn’t mince words about the battle she faces.
“We are at war for our rights,” she says. “The mantra is: ‘We will save ourselves.’ We can’t wait for the Supreme Court or politicians to fix the problem.
Like Plan C, Mayday Health provides information on accessing abortion pills. But the group focused on viral marketing and high profile stunts. Earlier this year, they launched mobile notice boards around 14 college campuses in restrictive states with information about access to abortion pills.
The anti-abortion movement has long been known for its poster campaigns, often containing misleading information about fetal development. Lincoln says Mayday’s poster campaigns provide a counterbalance.
“You have to grab people’s attention,” says Lincoln. “We try to target people who are also targeted by the anti-abortion movement.”
While groups like Mayday Health and Plan C are nonprofits that can easily receive donations to fund their work, grassroots activists like Denny are in a much tougher position.
Denny’s principles mean, like Las Libres activists, that they do not charge for the services they provide, but rather depend on donations from the wider community to survive. But it’s hard to fundraise when you can’t be open about the services you provide.
“Not being able to publicly ask for donations sucks,” Denny says, “because of the legal risk involved, a lot of people and a lot of organizations that could help, that have resources that they could use for that purpose. , are afraid to come close to me. They will listen to me and call me a hero, and say “Don’t stop what you’re doing”. But they stop before they fund me, because they don’t want to of the possible association.
The risk of legal action also takes its toll. Denny says they feel “terrified, every day”.
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron is an evangelical Christian who has been vocal in his anti-abortion views. Although there is no law prohibiting the distribution of abortion pills in Kentucky, Denny and many other activists believe it is only a matter of time before an aggressive attorney general finds a way to prosecute. (In Texas, it’s illegal for anyone who isn’t a doctor to hand out abortion pills, with the risk of jail time.)
“I’m doing my best to protect myself, but it’s not perfect and it never will be,” Denny says, “but at the same time, I’m not going not to. I have the opportunity and the ability to do that, and people need it.
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