"We Are Moving Backwards": A New "Underground Railroad" in U.S. Amid Draconian Abortion Laws (2023)

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She was a university student at the time, carrying a baby she didn’t want, standing on a street corner in New Jersey with $700 in a plain white envelope. She was waiting for a black limousine. Her brother-in-law, who knew somebody who knew somebody, had arranged everything. She knew it would be painful and that she was about to commit a crime, but she was glad it was happening.

That was a long time ago, but it’s still not over. Harriett Magee, 75 years old, is sitting with a friend on her veranda in Marblehead, Massachusetts – and she knows that what happened to her, or something very similar, is now happening again. That women are not able to decide for themselves if they want to be mothers or not. That they will be forced by law to give birth.

"We Are Moving Backwards": A New "Underground Railroad" in U.S. Amid Draconian Abortion Laws (1)

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 44/2022 (October 29th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

It's June 24, 2022, the day on which the Supreme Court robs U.S. women of control over their own bodies. "We are moving backwards. We are repeating history," Magee thinks when she learns of the Supreme Court ruling.

The court found that a Mississippi law banning abortion after the 15th week of pregnancy is consistent with the U.S. Constitution. More than that, though, it marked the overthrow of Roe v. Wade, the precedent from 1973 that was a milestone of liberalization, and which established abortion as a fundamental right.

The ruling in June did not ban abortion in the U.S., but it means that abortion is no longer protected by the U.S. Constitution. Now, it is up to the states to determine what is allowed and what is not. And around half of the states either intend to drastically tighten their abortion laws or have already done so.

The overturning of Roe v. Wade marks a turning point in the history of U.S. society – for this country that sees itself as the leader of the free world. It means that pregnant women will be criminalized in many cases and that those who help them obtain abortions will be tracked down as their accomplices. For many women, it will put their lives in danger.

Ohio, June 2022. One week after the Supreme Court ruling. A 10-year-old girl has to cross the state border into Indiana because the laws in Ohio prohibit an abortion in the seventh week of pregnancy. She was raped a few weeks earlier and became pregnant.

Wisconsin, summer 2022. Following an incomplete miscarriage, a woman seeks medical attention in a hospital. But doctors there refuse to treat her because they aren’t certain if doing so is still legal.

Louisiana, August 2022. A three-time mother is excited about having her fourth, until a life-threatening developmental disorder is discovered. The doctors recommend abortion, but because of the unclear legal situation, they won't perform the procedure in the state. "The only thing I could replay in my head was, I was carrying my baby to bury my baby," the woman told U.S. broadcaster CBS.

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A drive through Marblehead to the home of Harriett Magee takes you past homes ringed by verandas with large front yards, the streets bearing names like Rainbow Road and Darling Street. Magee has spent most of her life here, as a journalist and as a teacher. She had two children with her first love and then fell in love again after her divorce.

Magee is a delicate woman with steel-blue eyes. On a humid August day, she is sitting on the veranda of her Colonial-style home sipping an iced tea – the same place she was sitting with her friend on June 24 – and thinking about the past. Her hands, sinewy and thin-skinned, are clasped in her lap.

That summer 56 years ago, the summer she had her abortion, she had just finished her freshman year at Connecticut College for Women and was spending the semester break with her family in Marblehead and waiting tables to earn a bit of money.

Because her period was overdue, she went to see a gynecologist for the first time in her life. Her parents – a prosperous mother with an alcohol problem and an engineer father who didn’t talk much – never spoke with her about sex. And contraception outside of wedlock was still illegal in the U.S. at the time. Harriett used an assumed name at the practice and then called later using a payphone to get the result of her pregnancy test. It was positive.

In the mid-1960s, the first U.S. states started to loosen their abortion bans, places like California and Colorado. But Massachusetts, where she was from, and Connecticut, where she was going to school, were not among them.

But she didn’t want to become a mother yet, and didn’t want to get married at 19 as her sister had after an unplanned pregnancy. She wanted to continue her studies and earn her degree. "I didn’t really feel ashamed, I just felt desperate," she says. She wanted an abortion, even if it was illegal.

Magee climbed into the black limousine. She recalls that six or seven women were already inside, sitting in silence. What lay ahead, she says, "scared the shit out of us." The car stopped in front of a motel and the women were led into a suite. The room with the couch and television was the waiting area, and the examination table was in the other room. A cartoon was showing on the television, she still remembers that quite clearly. "The TV was blaring to make sure that no one in the motel could hear what was going on."

"We Are Moving Backwards": A New "Underground Railroad" in U.S. Amid Draconian Abortion Laws (2)

Her memories of that day are still quite clear, even after more than half a century. She remembers the man – who may or may not have been a doctor – standing there between her legs and, without anesthetic, inserting an instrument inside her all the way to her uterus. He joked about a hospital in Boston and she recalls wondering if he may have been fired from the hospital and was now forced to make ends meet by performing abortions in a New Jersey motel. "He was seedy, and I hated him, but I didn’t want to hate him because he was doing me a favor. I was very grateful in a way."

If you listen to stories about illegal abortions performed prior to 1973, before Roe v. Wade, Magee’s is among the least dramatic. It wasn’t uncommon for men performing abortions to become sexually abusive. Women had no idea if the person they had been sent to, whose cars they got into and whose motel rooms they entered, were trustworthy. You had to be desperate to take such a risk – and the women were nothing if not desperate.

Pregnant women who had neither the connections nor the money necessary for the clandestine procedures would frequently insert coat hangers or knitting needles into their vaginas, sometimes sustaining life-threatening injuries as a result. Others threw themselves down flights of stairs or convinced somebody to punch them in the stomach. In 1965, almost 20 percent of the deaths in the U.S. that were linked to pregnancy and birth could be traced back to illegal abortions. And that’s just according to the official statistics. The true number is likely far higher.

The right to abortion isn’t just about the extremes, with rape and incest, severely deformed fetuses and life-threatening pregnancies. It has to do with the right of every person to determine the course of their own lives, and Jeramesha Warner remembers quite clearly the day on which that right was taken from her by the Supreme Court. From her and the women that she provides counselling to at Planned Parenthood.

At 32 years old, Warner is two generations younger than Harriett Magee. Her dark hair wrapped in a scarf, Warner speaks with her entire body, such that her gold-colored hoop earrings swing back and forth.

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She is sitting on a couch covered with a number of pillows, the same couch where she broke down in tears when she learned of the Supreme Court decision. Her apartment, which she shares with her boyfriend and her cat, is on the eastside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "In that moment, I was no longer proud to be a Black woman, and I was no longer proud to be from the South. I was scared to be a Black woman from the South."

Just a few hours after the decision was announced, all three abortion clinics in Louisiana ceased performing the procedures. Louisiana is among the 13 states that had prepared for the ruling by passing so-called trigger laws, designed to enter force immediately once Roe v. Wade was overturned. Like a trap snapping shut.

Louisiana’s trigger law was blocked by courts twice before finally going into effect on August 1. Along with its neighbors in the Bible Belt – Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi and others – Louisiana now has some of the strictest abortion laws in the United States.

"We Are Moving Backwards": A New "Underground Railroad" in U.S. Amid Draconian Abortion Laws (3)

There are around 64 million women of child-bearing age in the United States, with around 30 million of them living in states where abortion is already tightly controlled or soon will be. In Arizona, a law from 1864 could once again take effect, according to which abortions are also banned in cases of rape or incest. In Wisconsin, a team of doctors and lawyers has spent several months examining how a similar law from the year 1849 might be applied today. The team must determine when a woman is close enough to death to justify an abortion. A wrong decision by a doctor could lead to six years in prison.

Your womb belongs to us: That is the message these states are sending to women.

"I went back to 16-year-old me," says Warner. "Who is she going to call? What the fuck is she going to do?"

That 16-year-old me bought a pregnancy test from a dollar store before school one fall day in 2006. Warner waited until the lunch break before heading to the restroom in the old boy’s gymnasium. She knew that there was hardly ever anyone there.

"We Are Moving Backwards": A New "Underground Railroad" in U.S. Amid Draconian Abortion Laws (4)

The first strip on the test turned pink, and then the second did too. "Fuck" – that was her first thought. She threw the positive test into the garbage and left the gym. Later that day, she went to band practice, where she played clarinet, and then to her job at a shoe store. For a whole month, she didn’t talk to anyone about the test and the two pink stripes.

Today, 16 years later, Warner tells the story in the way you might tell a scary story to a child – half horror, half comedy.

Warner’s mother was 16 when she was born. When she talks about her biological mother, she says: "The person who gave birth to me." It sounds like an attempt to distance herself as far as she possibly can from the woman who sent her seven-year-old daughter a letter from a jail in Virginia announcing an impending visit. Only to then not get in touch again for several more years.

The woman who Warner calls "my mama" is the sister of her biological father, who spent most of her childhood in prison for dealing drugs. "I never felt unwanted. I got so much love" Warner says. "My mama treated me as if she birthed me." But, she says, she still always had the feeling that someone was missing.

"I didn’t want to have a child that was like me," Warner says. She decided to have an abortion in the 13th week of her pregnancy.

If she became pregnant again today, the law would force her to carry the baby to term. "We live in a hyper police state," she says. "As a Black woman, I was scared to ever get pregnant again. If I have a miscarriage, are they going to assume because I’m a Black woman that I tried to do something?"

"We Are Moving Backwards": A New "Underground Railroad" in U.S. Amid Draconian Abortion Laws (5)

Statistics show that Black women and women of color end their pregnancies far more often than white women, meaning they will be most affected by the new laws. And the effect will be magnified by the fact that, according to the statistics, Black women have lower incomes and are less likely to be able to afford a trip to a different state to obtain a legal abortion. Statistics also show that in the past, hundreds of women were arrested, indicted and sometimes even convicted in connection with pregnancies – at a time when abortions were actually still protected by the Constitution. Black women are overrepresented in these statistics as well.

1992, North Dakota. Martina Greywind, in her 12th week of pregnancy, is accused of negligently endangering her fetus through her addiction to sniffing paint fumes. Officials arrest the 28-year-old Native American woman. She is already a mother of six, homeless – and now has to spend a few days in prison. During a doctor’s appointment, for which she is allowed to leave prison, she has her pregnancy terminated despite significant media attention to her case. The charges are ultimately dropped.

1994, Florida. Kawana Ashley, 19, shoots herself in the stomach to end her pregnancy. Ashley is already a mother and cannot afford a second child. She was turned away by the abortion clinic. Ashley survives and is charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. The charges are ultimately dropped.

2001, South Carolina. Regina McKnight, in her early 20s, spends eight years in jail after suffering a stillbirth. The court found her guilty of causing the stillbirth through her cocaine consumption during pregnancy.

"Ingrained in this society is this mistrust of people who look like me," says Warner. "We as Black women are going to be incarcerated at higher amounts than our white women counterparts simply because they’re not going to believe what the fuck we say."

Roe v. Wade, in effect from 1973 to 2022, was not a guarantee for the right to abortion, access to clinics, access to trained medical personnel and access to financial support. Roe was the foundation upon which a system was to be built that guaranteed women control over their own bodies. But that’s not what happened. The so-called "pro-life movement" undermined this foundation until it finally collapsed.

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Mary Ziegler is a law professor at the University of California, Davis, and one of the foremost experts in the abortion debate. She sounds breathless when speaking on the phone. "Within a few years, anti-abortion leaders figured out that they could introduce restrictions on access to abortion that they could claim were consistent with Roe," she says. "So, instead of directly saying Roe was wrong, they would say, well, Roe actually allows for these restrictions."

"We Are Moving Backwards": A New "Underground Railroad" in U.S. Amid Draconian Abortion Laws (6)

In 1973, the U.S. Senate passed the Church Amendment at the federal level, allowing doctors to refuse to perform abortions if it wasn’t consistent with their religious beliefs or moral convictions. The Hyde Amendment followed in 1976, according to which pregnancy terminations, with very few exceptions, could no longer be financed using federal funds. Mostly, though, the pro-life movement’s strategy focused on state legislatures. The Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice organization and research facility, found in 2016 that U.S. states had by then issued a total of 1,074 legal restrictions.

Such restrictions included mandated waiting periods between pre-abortion counseling sessions and the procedure itself. Notarized parental consent for patients under the age of 18. Directives that doctors must make pregnant women listen to the fetal heartbeat prior to abortion. Pre-abortion education requirements.

Just how such laws feel in practice became abundantly clear to Jeramesha Warner. As a 16-year-old, she had to drive two-and-a-half hours to the nearest clinic. During her consultation, she was made to watch a video showing images of fetuses that looked like babies. She was told that she could die during the procedure or become sterile. And she was told that the risk of falling ill with breast cancer was elevated following abortions.

"To scare a child who’s trying to save her life? That’s fucked up," she says.

Those who pass such laws are primarily interested in controlling women’s bodies. And there were also people who tried to stand up to such legislation, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In 1993, she became the second woman ever to become a Supreme Court justice. During her confirmation hearing, she explained to the Senate Judiciary Committee why she felt the Constitution guaranteed every woman the right to terminate a pregnancy: "The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity. It is a decision she must make for herself. When government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices."

"We Are Moving Backwards": A New "Underground Railroad" in U.S. Amid Draconian Abortion Laws (7)

“To scare a child who’s trying to save her life? That’s fucked up."

Jeramesha Warner

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September 2020, the Supreme Court lost a staunch liberal voice. Her successor, Amy Coney Barrett, who was nominated by former President Donald Trump, handed the conservatives on the Supreme Court a clear majority for the first time in decades.

Gaining control of the Supreme Court with conservative justices was a key long-term goal for the pro-life movement. The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg meant that the end of Roe v. Wade had moved much closer, and just two years later, it was overturned.

Studies show that bans do not actually prevent abortions. Women terminate pregnancies whether it is legal or not. Or, as it is formulated at demonstrations: "You can never ban abortion, you can only ban safe abortions!"

The world is no longer the same as it was 50 years ago. Those wanting to secretly terminate a pregnancy no longer have to climb into a black limousine. There are other ways.

Organizations like Planned Parenthood or Abortion Finder only need a zip code to provide those in search of an abortion with directions to the nearest clinic. Aid groups like Women Help Women have videos explaining how to terminate a pregnancy using pills, without ever having to leave home. Women living in states where abortion is banned can order the medication necessary from abroad or they can find instructions on websites for how to order home delivery from a state where it is legal.

The websites, though, also clearly indicate that women living in states where abortion is banned risk conflict with the law.

In these times, though, in which providing assistance to women seeking abortion can result in a prison sentence, nobody knows for sure whether aid organizations are risking prosecution by providing such information. "It’s designed, I think, to create legal uncertainty and have a chilling effect," says law professor Mary Ziegler.

Yet it’s not as if a majority in the U.S. is in favor of stricter abortion laws. According to surveys, the majority wants the termination of pregnancies to remain legal in all or most cases. Yet the options available to those who have an unplanned pregnancy continue to worsen. And doing something about it is becoming increasingly dangerous.

South Carolina, June 28, 2022. The South Carolina legislature introduces Bill S. 1373. Should it become law, all those who provide pregnant women with information about abortion or who acquire information for them would be liable to prosecution.

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Mississippi, August 2022. The Southern state initiates legal proceedings against the organization Mayday.Health after it commissioned three large billboards in the state capital of Jackson with the message: "Pregnant? You still have a choice." The organization’s website was listed at the bottom.

Nebraska, August 2022. Media outlets report on a police investigation into a woman who allegedly helped her daughter terminate her pregnancy in the 23rd week. Evidence for the allegations comes in the form of Facebook messages in which the mother and her daughter, who was 17 at the time, allegedly discussed the procedure. The messages were acquired from Facebook by officials.

“Doing the things I’m doing, I could go to jail."

Emma Wilson*

The world is no longer the same as it was 50 years ago, which opens up new possibilities. But it also means that those intent on surveillance no longer have to hire spies, they can just follow the digital crumbs. And women have become their quarry. One of them, we’ll call her Emma Wilson, is in her late 20s and lives in one of the largest cities in Texas.

Wilson asks to conduct our interview via Signal, an app for encrypted communication. "In Texas, we have been fighting this battle since before Roe v. Wade was overturned," she says. Her voice sounds rather uncertain. She opted against an in-person meeting.

"I’m a bit nervous," she says with a brief laugh. "Doing the things I’m doing, I could go to jail," she adds. "But there are things that are more important than one person’s personal freedom. I want people to know the lengths we have to go to to get the medical care we need."

In March 2021, more than a year before the end of Roe v. Wade, the Texas Senate introduced Senate Bill 8, also known as the Heartbeat Bill. According to the bill, doctors would no longer be allowed to perform abortions as soon as an ultrasound showed embryonic heart activity, which can be the case as early as the sixth week of pregnancy. A point at which women may not even be aware yet that they are pregnant.

The idea behind the bill is that citizens are to help enforce it. All those who learn of an illegal abortion are able to sue anyone who provided assistance. The law is formulated so vaguely that anyone could be a target, from the person who provided information about abortion to the pregnant woman to the taxi driver who took her to the clinic. And there is plenty of incentive for potential plaintiffs: The bill offers a reward of $10,000 for a successful lawsuit.

"We Are Moving Backwards": A New "Underground Railroad" in U.S. Amid Draconian Abortion Laws (9)
"We Are Moving Backwards": A New "Underground Railroad" in U.S. Amid Draconian Abortion Laws (10)

Emma Wilson herself terminated a pregnancy two years ago, 10 months before Texas passed the Heartbeat Bill in May 2021 and became the strictest abortion ban under Roe v. Wade in the state’s history. Wilson started working "underground," as she says, immediately after the bill became law.

Wilson joined a group that organizes itself via social media. Her goal is to offer assistance to those wishing to terminate their pregnancy, an activity that the state has turned into a crime. Together, they determine which abortion method is the safest for the woman in question and they provide logistical and financial assistance if a trip is necessary. They also make their own homes available as needed.

The group advises women to delete their period tracking apps. "When your medical care providers ask you when your last period was, you don’t answer that question. If you’re having to get blood work done or your analysis done, you let the medical team know that you do not consent to a pregnancy test."

Those who look for the group using the search function of the social media apps will not find it. Users must be invited by a member and can only then ask to join. If the administrators find the inquiry to be credible, those seeking help can post, using coded language, their location and what they need.

Wilson has installed a VPN client on her telephone and laptop to avoid leaving a digital trail. And she only communicates via encrypted apps like TeleGuard or Signal.

The network functions completely by word-of-mouth. Just like back in 1966 when Harriett Magee needed an abortion and was searching for contacts. Hundreds of such groups have sprung up across the country, operating independently of one another. "We know that it is a matter of time before someone in our groups gets busted," says Wilson.

"We Are Moving Backwards": A New "Underground Railroad" in U.S. Amid Draconian Abortion Laws (11)
Illegal Assistance

In reporting this story on the consequences of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Constitutional right to abortion, Carolina Torres also spent time in the deeply religious state of Louisiana. From her hotel room, she spoke on the phone with a woman who helps pregnant women receive illegal abortions, a crime for which she could end up in prison. Prior to making the phone call, Torres stuffed a towel under the door so that nobody outside could listen in on her conversation. She also no longer felt safe.

Legal expert Mary Ziegler describes the dangers of such activity as follows: "Texas lawmakers are clearly at least considering the possibility of treating that person as an accomplice to murder. Or at least an accomplice to abortion, which under Texas law can be punishable by up to life in prison."

Wilson is fully aware of the risks she is taking. She describes this organized aid system as an "underground railroad," a reference to the 19th century network that helped enslaved African Americans escape the South to freedom in the North.

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"It’s about keeping people safe," says Wilson.

It’s about helping women who find themselves in the same situation as Harriett Magee in 1966, Jeramesha Warner in 2006 and Emma Wilson in 2020. It’s about developing a security network for women who are being endangered by a state that should actually be protecting them.


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