Scenes From a Pandemic: 16

19 07 2020

by Renee Bracey Sherman

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe it.

We Testify abortion storytellers rally at Supreme Court for June Medical Services v. Russo oral arguments, March 2020.  (photo: We Testify)

Something’s Happening Here

Washington, D.C.

Last November, I drove more than 12 hours for an abortion. It wasn’t mine (I had mine in 2005); I picked up a young woman in rural Pennsylvania whom I’ll call Raquel. She needed a ride to a clinic in Maryland to get some pills that she would take back at her home to have a medication abortion. As we drove to the clinic, I told Raquel about what to expect during the appointment; after I finished I paused and said, “As much as I love getting to know you on this drive, did you know you could safely do this at home but the government won’t let you?” She was surprised. Like many people, she knew about limitations on abortion but didn’t know that very safe and basic methods are being restricted because of outdated FDA regulations on how they can be dispensed. The drive bonded us—we still keep in touch, and she approved the inclusion of her story here—but it was an unnecessary exercise, one that antiabortion politicians created to make yet another constitutional right as inaccessible as possible. The cruelty of the barricades along the journey is the point.

Since Covid-19 hit, I’ve thought a lot about that drive with Raquel, particularly as people have reached out needing abortions. States have limited travel, issued stay-at-home orders, and required people to quarantine for at least two weeks. While several states declared abortion an essential service, others exploited the pandemic to shutter clinics. The future we have worried about was upon us in an instant. Patients had appointments canceled. Those who could afford it, or who knew about abortion funds, were able to travel to other states for care. The moment was both unprecedented and familiar. The uselessness of our nation’s health care system was showing, and became even more burdensome on abortion patients.

In a just society, Raquel (or anyone wanting an abortion but anxious about contracting Covid-19) could have ordered the necessary pills via telemedicine, online, or at a pharmacy, and completed the abortion at home. That’s the way many people around the world do abortion, because it’s incredibly safe and simple. That’s how Americans once did it. Concoctions were advertised in newspapers and shipped through the mail, or herbs such as pennyroyal and black cohosh root were made into teas. But since the late 1800s, abortion has been deeply criminalized, and if Raquel had ordered the pills online, she and the person who sent them would have risked prosecution and jail.


Covid-19 has brought a taste of what life would be like if abortions were illegal, but then it always has been, in some form… What kind of nation allows people to be prosecuted for health care?


Recently, Polish abortion activists reminded me that all of our laws governing abortion actually promote criminalization. (To be sure, those are different from medical practice regulations that ensure procedures are performed correctly.) Rules dictate how, when, where, and why someone can have an abortion, and mandate a series of physical and legal barriers one must cross. Wait too long because you can’t afford the procedure? You can be criminalized. Take pills at home with a parent because you couldn’t afford a procedure? You both can be criminalized. Have a miscarriage, but a doctor thinks you self-managed an abortion? You can be criminalized. It doesn’t matter whether the rules are medically necessary or just, and of course, enforcement and punishment are significantly more severe with overpoliced communities of color and those who live in poverty.

What kind of nation allows people to be prosecuted for health care?

On July 13, just as this article was nearing publication, a federal judge issued an injunction on in-person requirements for dispensing pills necessary for a medication abortion, saying they create a “substantial obstacle” for patients, and may be an unconstitutional undue burden during a pandemic. The ruling allows providers to mail or deliver the pills to patients—an important step, however temporary, in juris-prudence and in people’s lives.

But this moment has radicalized me. I’ve never supported restrictions—I’ve ex-perienced the panic they create when I was unsure if I could afford an abortion—but I’ve realized that it’s time for us to push for decriminalization of abortion and the abolition of all abortion restrictions. There is no medical necessity for any of these laws restricting abortion. They just create a tightrope for people to fall from and then invite the police into the experience.

As Black Lives Matter protests have swept our country, we are having a national dialogue about the spaces and places police hang around to control black and brown people—schools, hospitals, grocery stores, coffee shops, and our homes. Police are heavily involved in our inability to exercise reproductive freedom; they brutalize us while pregnant; spray us with tear gas, which can affect our fertility; arrest people who choose to terminate a pregnancy outside of the narrow confines of the law; shoot our children; and shackle us during labor. We deserve police-free pregnancies. This is why the fight for reproductive justice is critical. It addresses systemic issues that have long prevented families of color from thriving on our own terms. It’s worth recalling that antiabortion white supremacists pivoted from rallying for school segregation to protesting abortion; they want to control our futures.

If we are serious about protecting abortion access, we have to become serious about the fight to abolish abortion laws. Our ancestors worked hard to ensure we had access to abortion to space our pregnancies, save our lives, and free us from the rape and violence of chattel slavery. It is in their tradition that we must continue to make abortion free and available, whenever and wherever someone needs it.

Covid-19 brought a taste of what life would be like if abortion were illegal again, but it always has been in some form through the criminalization of black and brown bodies. I hope that more people will realize that to have reproductive justice, we have to take extreme efforts to decriminalize our health care, defund the police, and create communities that love people who have abortions, unapologetically.

Renee Bracey Sherman is a reproductive justice activist, abortion storyteller, strategist, and writer. She is the founder and executive director of We Testify, an organization dedicated to the leadership and representation of people who have abortions and share their stories at the intersection of race, class, and gender identity. She is also executive producer of Ours to Tell, an award-winning documentary elevating the voices of people who’ve had abortions. She was a participant in Kopkind’s 2015 political camp.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on July 15, 2020, on The Nation‘s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: ‘I Know the Price of Life’, a Radio Short From Gdansk

Maria Margaronis writes from London, with another in her series of shorts about women making masks; a slightly different version of this radio piece was broadcast on Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 4, on May 14.

Khedi Alieva (l) and her sister Amina (r) in Poland, amid the forsythia. (photo: Dorota Jaworska)

I spoke to Khedi Alieva this spring with the help of translator Joanna Dabrowska, and also to her friend, psychologist Dorota Jaworska. Khedi is a Chechen refugee in Poland. She and her sister Amina are members of Fundacja Kobiety Wedrowne, which roughly translates as Foundation for Women on the Road. Khedi and Amina were welcomed to Gdansk by Pawel Adamowicz, the city’s mayor for 20 years, who was fatally stabbed on January 13, 2019, while speaking at a charity event. Adamowicz’s support for migrant, minority and lgbt+ rights ran directly counter to the policies of Poland’s increasingly reactionary Law and Justice Party, which squeaked back to power this month on the back of a nasty campaign in which President Andrzej Duda attacked gay people, Jews, and liberals, who he says are undermining Poland’s security and traditions. 

Khedi, “making masks to slow down death.” (photo: Anna Rezulak / KFP)

But Khedi and her sisters are all about solidarity, gratitude, joy, and life. When the pandemic hit, they began sewing face masks and scrubs to protect their Polish friends, taking breaks to dance to the wild rhythms of Chechen music, a sampling of which Khedi chose for this piece. “The most important thing in life is just life.”

Maria Margaronis, a writer and radio maker, is a longtime neighbor and member of the Kopkind family. She is part of Kopkind’s honorary board. Click here to listen to her documentary about the Singer sewing machine.