Even Artwork About Abortion Is Legally Risky Now

The activists behind a recent installation about self-managed abortion in Texas knew they’d “have to take certain precautions” because of the state’s abortion restrictions.

Visitors to an installation at a reproductive justice conference last weekend were greeted by a warning.

“If you live in a state where self-managed abortion is illegal, be aware of criminalization risks,” read a sign, its warnings rendered in orange against a blue background and beneath a pair of ominous eyes. “The information in this exhibit 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.”

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The people behind the installation, the sign added, could not answer any questions about obtaining a medication abortion or performing a self-managed one. 

The installation, titled the “Self-Managed Abortion Stigma-Free Zone,” was an exhibit at the Let’s Talk About Sex! conference in Dallas, hosted by the reproductive justice collective SisterSong. Through a series of Ikea-style room façades and placards about how self-inducing your own abortion works, it aimed to approximate the experience of a self-managed abortion. (The exhibition ended on Sunday, with the close of the conference.) But the installation and its organizers, the Abortion On Our Own Terms campaign, were haunted by a fear: What if someone arrests or sues them over 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 land them in the crosshairs of law enforcement. This installation was perhaps especially perilous: Not only was it about self-managed abortion, which remains permitted across 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’s full of them.

In addition to a near-total abortion ban triggered by the fall of Roe, which took effect last Thursday, Texas has long had a law on the books that lets people sue one another for helping abortion patients get the procedure past roughly six weeks of pregnancy.  

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“We knew, coming to Texas, that we would have to take certain precautions. We consulted with legal counsel,” Kimberly Inez McGuire, steering committee member of 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 actually also bring my mother, because on the off-chance that we were unjustly and illegally arrested for doing this, I wanted to make sure there was someone to take care of my kid.”

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

State legislators in South Carolina have started to run with the idea. In late June, just days after Roe fell, state senators introduced a bill to ban people from providing information “by telephone, internet, or any other mode of communication regarding self-administered abortions or the means to obtain an abortion,” or running a website that does something similar. 

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McGuire told VICE News that the Abortion On Our Own Terms exhibition falls squarely under the protection of the First Amendment. But as she walked around the conference wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “mife” and “miso”—references to mifepristone and misoprostol, the drugs commonly used to induce a medication abortion—McGuire wasn’t shy about discussing the risks of the art.

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

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

The installation’s organizers were so cautious that they also put up a sign suggesting that even visitors to the installation needed to watch out. This sign warned that “talking about self-managed abortion can be complicated and risky” and urged people to use some suggested, “vetted social media copy” if they wanted to share information about the exhibit on social media. 

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Despite the lurking danger, the exhibit tried to cultivate a soothing, if relentlessly practical, atmosphere. The exhibit included a faux-kitchen, a bed with a pillow that read “Good Vibes,” and a toilet. That toilet was part of the exhibit’s focus on destigmatization: Having a self-managed abortion will very likely involve sitting on a toilet. The installation even set up a chair for someone to sit next to the toilet, as if whoever was sitting there could hold the hand of the person going through the abortion. (Medical experts widely agree that self-inducing an abortion using mifepristone and misoprostol, early on in pregnancy, can be safe.) 

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

“It’s the only period tracker app that the cops can’t use to fuck with you. So we are making sure that people know that 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 that she hopes to take this installation on the road. She envisions showing it at community centers, college campuses, health centers; perhaps future iterations of the installation could include the packaging for abortion-inducing drugs, so people can get familiar with what it looks like.

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 shift. 

“As we share this information, we’re [doing] an ongoing assessment of the risks and we want to share as much as possible while also protecting our staff,” McGuire said. “This exhibit is being staffed this weekend by three women of color. We're also about protecting our people.”

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Tagged:

abortion, self-managed abortion, texas, abortion restrictions, Misoprostol, Mifepristone, roe v. wade, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization

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