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Worried About Roe v. Wade? These Activists Have Been Coping With Severe Abortion Restrictions for Years

6 minute read

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s announcement Wednesday that he will retire sparked a social media panic among some women and had them wondering aloud what they could do to protect their reproductive rights in the event that Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion ruling, is overturned.

President Donald Trump vowed to appoint anti-abortion justices during the campaign and the Center for Reproductive Rights estimates that women in 23 states would be at the highest risk of losing access to abortion if Roe were struck down by the Supreme Court.

Women took to social media in droves to encourage others to get an IUD or stock up emergency contraception like Plan B. Others are donating to abortion funds and calling their senators. Some supporters are getting more creative — considering donating air miles so women can travel for abortions and looking into building or finding temporary housing for women in places where abortion will likely remain legal should Roe be overturned.

But in many states with restrictive abortion laws, pro-abortion rights organizers have been dealing with the realities of highly restricted abortion access for years.

“What we would see [if Roe is overturned] is that the restrictions that have already been preventing the people who face the economic or social barriers, those will be faced by people with wealth. They’ll have to take time off work, fly to New York — but they’ll still have the access to the money to do it,” Meg Stern, who helps to pay for abortions and find transportation to appointments for low-income women in Kentucky, tells TIME.

“But the people who are already disproportionately affected by all of these restrictions will continue to be most impacted by this. They’re the ones who will lose their jobs and have to choose between having their electricity cut off and getting this abortion.”

Stern is the Support Fund Director for the Kentucky Health Justice Network, which works in a conservative state that already has several restrictions on abortion and only one open abortion clinic.

“Being in a red state, we have seen and experienced firsthand the closure of the second-to-last clinic in the state. We’ve seen the big guys, by which I mean Planned Parenthood, be actively blocked from our state government from being able to provide,” Stern says. “So when I say we are prepared, it’s because in many ways this has already been our reality.”

Mississippi currently has only one abortion clinic as well, and the state recently passed a ban on abortions after 15 weeks.

Laurie Bertram Roberts, the co-founder and executive director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, said that many women who come to the organization often miss the 15-week cutoff while saving up money for the procedure. She said volunteers will drive women to Tennessee and Louisiana, both of which have waiting periods — meaning they have to make the trip at least twice.

Low-income women accounted for 49% of abortion patients in 2014, according to an October 2017 analysis from the Guttmacher Institute, a policy and research organization that advocates for reproductive rights. Black and hispanic women had higher rates of abortions than white women.

Roberts said her organization also provides safety information to women who might purchase their own abortion pills — known as a medical abortion, which can be taken up to ten weeks into pregnancy — and use them without the guidance of a doctor. Currently, at least 19 states — including Mississippi — require a doctor to be physically present during a medical abortion.

“We know people are doing it, we know people are going to do it and we want to make sure that they know how to properly use it,” Roberts said.

Immediately following Kennedy’s announcement, some on social media suggested women should get an IUD (a birth control implant that lasts for up to 10 years) and buy emergency contraception, which has a shelf life of up to four years, in anticipation of reproductive rights being rolled back.

Sophie Vershbow, a 28-year old who works in book publishing in New York, booked an appointment to get an IUD next week. She tells TIME that she had been having conversations with her doctor about getting an IUD for a while, but Kennedy’s retirement made her act sooner. She feared that the Supreme Court could place more restrictions on birth control access, as well as abortion rights.

“It really is the safer option to get something that will last. If you have the financial means and the health [considerations] to get an IUD to outlast what’s going on, why not?” Vershbow said. “Right now, I have very little trust that the government is going to do anything that is going to protect me… I don’t want to wait to see how much worse it’s going to get before personally taking action.”

Abortion rights supporters also called on others to donate to abortion funds, as their work will only become costlier if Roe is overturned. Women would potentially have to fly to states like New York and California, where abortion is likely to remain legal.

After Trump’s election in 2016, Planned Parenthood said it received an “unprecedented number” of donations — nearly 80,000 — at the time, and requests for IUDs and Plan B purchases spiked. But while some state abortion funds — which help women travel and stay for free in other states if they need to for an abortion — also saw a post-election uptick in donations, the funds didn’t come close to Planned Parenthood’s numbers. A spokesperson for Planned Parenthood told TIME it was too early to tell whether Kennedy’s retirement would lead to a similar increase in demand.

Meanwhile, anti-abortion supporters celebrated the Supreme Court opening at the National Right to Life’s annual convention this week in Kansas City, according to the Kansas City Star. Republican Louisiana State Rep. Lawrence Bagley told CNN: “Anything we can do to soften the blow of Roe v. Wade or weaken it or dilute it, it’s up on us to do that.”

“We urge President Trump to nominate a committed constitutionalist to the Supreme Court who will hew to the intended meaning of the nation’s charter and refrain from employing it as a means of social engineering,” Catherine Glenn Foster, president of anti-abortion organization Americans United for Life, said in a statement.

All of the abortion rights activists who spoke to TIME said that they hope the fear around Kennedy’s retirement prompts pro-abortion rights women to get — and stay — involved in the efforts they’re talking about on Twitter and Facebook.

“Ultimately, what we need people to do is mobilize, and if they need to grab some Plan B One-Step while they’re doing it, then great,” Pam Merritt, the co-founder and co-director of reproductive rights organization Reproaction, said. “We are gearing up for this fight. We are prepared and building a strategy to win. Failure is not an option.”

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Write to Samantha Cooney at samantha.cooney@time.com