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Even abortion artwork is legally risky now

Visitors to a facility at a reproductive justice conference last weekend were greeted with a warning.

“If you live in a state where self-managed abortion is illegal, please be aware of the risks of criminalization,” read one sign, with orange warnings on a blue background and below a pair of sinister eyes. “The information in this addendum is intended to advocate for greater understanding and availability of self-managed abortion, not to recommend or advise that any person obtain and manage an abortion.”

The people behind the facility, the sign added, were unable to answer any questions about obtaining a medical abortion or performing a self-managed one.

The installation, titled “Self-Managed Abortion Stigma-Free Zone,” was an exhibit at Let’s Talk About Sex! conference in Dallas, organized by reproductive justice collective SisterSong. Through a series of Ikea-style room facades and banners about how self-inducing your own abortion works, she intended to approximate the experience of a self-managed abortion. (The exhibit ended Sunday, with the conference closing.) But the facility and its organizers, the Abortion on Our Own Terms campaign, were haunted by one fear: What if someone arrests or sues them for this information?

In the two months since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion rights activists have grappled not only with a new wave of abortion bans, but also with the risk that simply spreading information about abortion could put them in the crosshairs of law enforcement. This facility was perhaps especially dangerous: Not only was this a self-managed abortion, which is still allowed in much of the country but still carries legal risks, but it took place in Texas, one of the most anti-abortion states in a country that is full. from them

In addition to a near-total abortion ban prompted by the Roe fall that went into effect last Thursday, Texas has long had a law on the books that allows people to sue each other for helping patients undergo abortions. an abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy. .

“We knew coming to Texas that we would have to take certain precautions. We consulted with legal counsel,” Kimberly Inez McGuire, a member of the steering committee for the Abortion On Our Own Terms campaign, told VICE News.

“I have a 1-year-old daughter and I was going to bring her with me, but I made the decision to bring my mother as well, because given the possibility that we would be unjustly and illegally arrested for doing this, I wanted to make sure there was someone to take care of me. son”.

Anti-abortion activists already seemed poised to try to push the boundaries of exactly what people can say about abortion. Before Roe’s then-anticipated demise, the National Right to Life Committee introduced model legislation that proposed punishing people for “aiding or abetting an illegal abortion,” which they defined as “giving instructions over the phone, the Internet, or any other means. of communication about self-administered abortions or means to obtain an illegal abortion”, as well as “hosting or maintaining a website, or providing an internet service that encourages or facilitates efforts to obtain an illegal abortion”, among other actions.

South Carolina state legislators have begun to buy into the idea. At the end of June, a few days after the fall of Roe, state senators introduced a bill ban people from providing information “by telephone, internet, or any other means of communication about self-administered abortions or the means of obtaining an abortion,” or operating a website that does something similar.

McGuire told VICE News that the Abortion On Our Own Terms exhibit fell squarely under the protection of the First Amendment. But as he walked through the conference in a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “mife” and “miso” (references to mifepristone and misoprostol, the drugs commonly used to induce medical abortion), McGuire was not shy about talking about the risks. of the art

“This is constitutionally protected free speech,” McGuire said. “That doesn’t mean a rogue law enforcement officer can’t misunderstand or someone looking to sabotage this can’t misrepresent what we’re doing here.”

If law enforcement wants to go after someone for self-managing an abortion, experts warn, they will find a way to do it. At the time of Roe’s overturn, only three states had explicit laws against self-managed abortion on the books. But between 2000 and 2020, at least 61 people in 26 states faced criminal consequences for self-managing an abortion or helping someone else do it, according to research published by the legal advocacy group If/When/How earlier this month.

The organizers of the installation were so cautious that they also put up a sign suggesting that even visitors to the installation should be careful. This sign warned that “discussing self-managed abortion can be complicated and risky” and urged people to use some suggested “reviewed social media copy” if they wanted to share information about the exhibit on social media.

Despite the looming danger, the exhibit tried to cultivate a relaxing yet relentlessly practical atmosphere. The exhibit included a fake kitchen, a bed with a pillow that said “Good Vibes” and a toilet. That toilet was part of the exhibit’s focus on destigmatization: having a self-managed abortion most likely involves sitting on a toilet. The facility even installed a chair for someone to sit next to the toilet, as if whoever was sitting there could hold the hand of the person having an abortion. (Medical experts widely agree that self-inducing abortion with mifepristone and misoprostol early in pregnancy can be safe.)

The facility also offered information about Euki, an app developed by a group that supports self-managed abortion to help people keep track of their reproductive health. Earlier this month, the app earned a rave review from Mozilla for its privacy features.

“It’s the only period tracking app that the police can’t use to screw you over. So we’re making sure people know there’s an app available that doesn’t store their information,” McGuire said. “Because unfortunately, as we’re seeing, Facebook messages are being used to criminalize people.”

McGuire, who also serves as executive director of URGE: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity, said she hopes to take this facility on tour. She envisions showing it in community centers, college campuses, health centers; perhaps future iterations of the installation could include the packaging of abortion-inducing drugs, so people can become familiar with its appearance.

But the calculation of what information the exhibit can safely include changes from state to state, and even from day to day, as the landscape of anti-abortion laws changes.

“By sharing this information, we are [doing] ongoing risk assessment and we want to share as much as possible while protecting our staff,” McGuire said. “This exhibit is being attended this weekend by three women of color. We also care about protecting our people.”

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