“Hey I’m 16 and I am pregnant and want to get abortion but I am in Louisiana and its illegal and i don’t know what to do and so scared and i want it all to be over. I took a test 2 days ago. My parents are quite conservative and I am scared if i tell them that they would stop me and i can’t tell them.”
“I live in an illegal state, and traveled to a legal state for my procedure 3 weeks ago. I’ve been having a concerning amount of bleeding and a lot of very large clots. Last night I passed a clot bigger than my pad. I want to get checked because I’m worried about infection but I’m also terrified to tell anyone I’ve had an abortion.”
In 2019, doctoral student Ariella Messing, who studies abortion funds and had been volunteering at one, logged on to Reddit. The abortion sub-Reddit, as the silos there are known, was full of people looking for both abortion help and a way to help, or at least trying to. “People come to Reddit because it’s available 24/7 and it doesn’t close,” Messing told me. “And when you’re really stressed out, it’s two in the morning, and you just took a pregnancy test and you’re panicking, Reddit is open.” Helping people get abortions has gotten only more complicated since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last June. Messing co-founded and directs the Online Abortion Resource Squad, or OARS. Its 25 volunteers — researchers, abortion doulas, clinic staff, movement lawyers, and more — help run the abortion sub-Reddit and are on call around the clock to root out anti-choice trolls and make sure every question gets a good answer, whether from OARS or someone else.
I talked to Messing about what makes Reddit unique, the unending challenges of giving abortion advice to strangers online, and the trade-offs of self-managing abortion. The following conversation has been edited and condensed.
So why Reddit?
We know most people have an immense feeling of relief after an abortion, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t having complex feelings during this whole experience. And a large part of their complex feelings stems from the fact that our society stigmatizes abortion and makes people feel like terrible people for needing one. That makes it really hard to talk to anyone in your life about abortion because you don’t know how they’re going to react and because we were told that abortion is so controversial and so rare. Neither one is true. So people feel very alone, and they seek support on Reddit because that’s where they can talk anonymously and connect with other people like them. As we move more into pills by mail and how people are trying to get abortions in other states where clinics are slammed right now, there’s often a lot of waiting time between when you decide to have an abortion and when you can actually get one.
Probably 50 or 60 people post a question on r/abortion every day. Within an hour, each post has thousands of views. We get around 800,000 page views a month. Our priority is to make sure we write our answers clearly so someone reading can take action based on what they learned on the sub-Reddit without feeling the need to post themselves. But many people don’t like to search the sub-Reddit for an answer; they’d rather ask their own question. That means many questions get asked repeatedly. It creates more work for us, but that’s okay. The internet is full of disinformation about abortion. I’d rather people come and ask “Is the online abortion-pill provider Aid Access legitimate?” even though it’s been answered before, than have them assume a crisis pregnancy center is legit. [Note: Aid Access is legit.]
Tell me about some questions you get a lot.
People constantly post on Reddit asking, “Okay, I’m in a red state, where do I go? What state should I go to?” That’s not an easy question to answer right now. The answer may be “Not the state closest to you, probably, because they are so overbooked or because that state may have wait periods.”
I spoke to someone last week who was under the impression that you could be prosecuted for leaving their state to get an abortion. With all these news stories and all these tweets that are fearmongering, at the end of the day, it’s so important to always clarify, “This law is not in effect,” or “It is legal to get an abortion in another state.”
We often get people who are like, “I heard I have to be six weeks pregnant to get an abortion at a clinic, and I’m only a week and a half pregnant. I can’t believe I have to wait this long.” So we’re constantly explaining that pregnancy is measured from your last menstrual period and not from conception.
How did activity on the sub-Reddit change after Dobbs?
We’ve had a big spike in people trying to offer assistance in the comments. That sounds like it’s a good thing, but you need to really understand the new abortion landscape in order to be helpful, especially for questions about logistics. So it actually has added a tremendous amount of work for moderation.
I’m always kind of sad when people who clearly live in California are commenting, “Just ask about Medi-Cal. They’ll pay for it.” If only. Where the person who’s asking lives, that is not happening. People are just coming to learn how messed up things are because they’re having this experience. So we have to explain, “Well, your state, California, decides to cover abortion through Medi-Cal, but other states have opted not to.”
Or with Aid Access, for example, someone who lives in a state where telemedicine is legal for abortion will get their pills within a few days. But in states where abortion is banned, the doctor is in Europe, and the pills come from India. So it can take weeks.
Do you remove comments that give the wrong information? What does moderation look like?
A huge part of what the moderators and volunteers do is to read every comment to correct misinformation. A lot of people have things in their posts that aren’t malicious; they say things they were told. We make sure to correct those comments. You remove the post and then you post the reason and write a correction. For example, a lot of clinics and people still perpetuate this myth that you can’t swim, bathe, use tampons, or have sex for two weeks after an abortion. This is patently untrue.
We remove all misinformation. If you look at the forum rules, there are only a few of them and one of them is accuracy. Any mention of herbal or natural remedies will result in a ban, though we have a different standard if it’s someone seeking support.
There’s value in keeping the comments generally open. Every week, people post things like “Has anyone ever had an abortion and then gone on to have children?” And then I sit back and watch as hundreds of people comment to tell their stories of three abortions, four abortions, then having had all these kids. Or the reverse: “Have any parents had abortions?” And it’s so wonderful for people to be able to support one another publicly like that. I don’t see that anywhere else on the internet.
How do you handle security?
It’s really important to us that people who are posting understand internet privacy and security. So there’s a million warnings on the sub-Reddit saying, “Please read these guides to internet privacy from the Digital Defense Fund and the Electronic Frontier Foundation before you post.” I can’t promise that everyone does. It’s something we’re constantly thinking about. I don’t want people to be posting and putting themselves in danger.
We’ve been hearing so much about abortion pills providing access in the post-Dobbs era, so it’s really interesting to read about a lot of the nitty-gritty of people’s experiences self-managing their abortions. There are a lot of posts about pills being held up in customs, issues with the mail, people talking about how long they might bleed for, asking if it’s normal to bleed for a month. What’s your sense of how this is playing out?
I had some concerns or reservations about abortion pills even pre-Dobbs. If you have a procedure, you leave the clinic and you know you had an abortion and you’re not pregnant anymore. If you’re worried it didn’t work, you can call the clinic and they’ll be like, “It worked, we checked.” But with medication, there are more unknowns.
With medication, I just think we’re not adequately preparing people for the experience by saying, “It’s just a bad period.” How does anyone know what that means? What is a bad period? Because no one knows what other people’s periods are like and what constitutes bad. What ends up happening when people hear it’s just a bad period, they have different expectations than what actually happens. So that can go both ways. Some people post, “I’m not in terrible pain, and I’m not bleeding that much. What do I do? This must not be working.” Then there are people on the other end of the spectrum who say, “I feel like I’m dying of pain.” The range of experiences is really broad.
I also see all the time that people are like, “You bleed for a week or two.” Some people do, but a lot of people do until their next period, and it can take five or six weeks to test negative on a pregnancy test. That’s a lot of time to be stressed. Say someone orders pills online, then waits three weeks for the mail, and let’s say they have to wait till the weekend to do their abortion because of work, and then they’re waiting another five weeks to take a pregnancy test. So we’re talking about two months or weeks of this whole process.
Speaking of the anti-abortion movement, how do you handle trolls or people who come in trying to trick abortion seekers or concern-troll them?
It’s a huge problem, and that’s what a lot of the moderation is. We have a no-tolerance policy for misinformation and disinformation. We just are constantly banning people. It’s unfortunate, but it’s just the truth. And that’s why people keep coming to us — because they know that this is a safe resource and that we are so open about removing things that are wrong and removing people who are harassing them.
Still, I’d like to think the benefits of having the sub-Reddit be public, where anyone can read it, outweigh the negatives. And the truth is that with a lot of the people who are harassing and trolling, maybe they’re going to need an abortion someday and they’ll have learned something. We are doing a lot of work to demystify abortion and combat stigma by having a space where people can openly share their experiences.
With the state of the internet, I wonder if people are more surprised to get support than they are to get trolled.
Yes. Sometimes people say in their posts, “Don’t come at me with your judgments.” And then we’re like, “We don’t judge you. We think you know your life best and you can decide what’s best for your life because you are the expert on your own life.”