The Post-Roe Time Warp
From the Series: After Roe
On December 3, 2021, abortion activists staged a direct action outside of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) protesting the imminent overturning of Roe v. Wade (1973) and with it the constitutional right to privacy that had previously protected abortion rights (for some). Four activists stood in front of a huge black banner reading, “We Are Taking Abortion Pills Forever.” Each person opened a box labeled “Abortion Pills” and swallowed one dose of mifepristone, the first pill of the two-drug regimen (mifepristone and misoprostol) that constitute medication abortion.
The action was part of several awareness-raising campaigns to alert the public about the impending SCOTUS decision and to educate people about medication abortion. Democracy Now! ran a segment unpacking the day’s events with reporter Amy Littlefield, who described care provision strategies for the “post-Roe future that is imminently approaching.” Amy Goodman observed that the post-Roe future “sounds exactly like the pre-Roe past.”
Except it doesn’t. Roe time warp rhetoric just makes it seem that way. Millennial abortion activists are modifying the previous messaging: “Keep abortion safe and
legal fuck SCOTUS we’re doing it anyway.” The current generation doesn’t have time for Clinton-era rhetoric about keeping abortion “safe, legal, and rare.” They want it to be “free, safe, legal, and on demand.” Young activists are done centering medical authority and instead affirm: “We can be our own abortion providers.” They make explicitly proabortion music videos in churches while wearing saints’ halos that boldly consecrate “Abortion.” They build miniature replicas of the supreme court out of white abortion pill boxes. They <3 mife + miso. They want Biden to say “abortion.”
Previous generations of activists successfully harnessed the emotional resonance of traumatic pre-Roe abortion stories and collapsed them into politically expedient tropes: coat hanger, back alley, charlatan. This strategy helped frame legalizing abortion as harm-reduction, but it also made abortion seem like an unsafe, shadowy, shameful practice to be kept private. Pro-choice rhetoric vows, “We Won’t Go Back” while reproductive justice allows us to ask, “When is ‘Back’? For whom?’”
When scrutinized through an intersectional lens, the Roe time warp collapses on itself. Long before June, poor people were already disproportionately impacted by the Hyde Amendment’s restrictions on Medicaid funding for abortion care (Cates 1981). Thanks to the chilling efficacy of TRAP laws—Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers—many people, especially those living in rural areas or without the means to travel, were already unable to access abortion care. They were already living the post-Roe present.
It is an immense privilege to expect protection from the state in the United States, where settler colonialism and chattel slavery built reproductive coercion into state formation (Theobald 2017). The privilege of legal protection comes into even sharper focus when we remember the legality of the infamous Tuskegee Trials, eugenic sterilization of Black and disabled communities, medical abuse of intersex individuals, forced hysterectomies in the camps on the US/Mexico border, and legislative efforts to ban gender-affirming care and inclusive learning environments for trans and queer youth.
Until very recently, many of us took our theoretical right to an abortion for granted without ever testing the content and limit of those rights. Two generations have grown up “after Roe” but before this post-Roe present. In 2019, one of my medical anthropology students made a short film asking their peers about the status of abortion in the United States, their home state, and the state where they were attending school. Most students did not know whether abortion was legal on demand, whether they had to get parental consent, if there were mandatory waiting periods or other requirements. In the post-Roe present, students do not know the status of laws in their home states because those laws may be tied up in court. Which side of Roe do they live on?
Even before the SCOTUS decision, US-based activists were learning from abortion activists around the world. Feminist networks in countries throughout Latin America, Africa, and Europe already refuse both the back alley and the doctor’s office while providing safe, illegal abortion care. Post-Roe, Mexican activists field calls from US Americans looking for abortion pills. These groups show that abortion itself is safe, but states make it unsafe through criminalization. Self-managed abortion is so safe that the FDA extended COVID approvals for abortion pills by mail. Under this provision, unwillingly pregnant people in all 50 states can access telemedicine to receive care and instructions for at-home abortions.
The internet moves safe, self-managed abortion even farther out of the back alley. Websites like PlanC, WoW, IPAS, Aid Access, and INeedanA provide information and care online. However, the internet comes with proliferating modes of surveillance—in our apps, on our computers, our smart speakers, tagged by our family and friends—that turn care-seeking into risk. Millennials and Zoomers are on it. They are here to crash Texas’s website for abortion bounty hunters. They want you to stop tracking your cycle on your phone while using privacy browsers to get abortion pills online.
Having public, self-managed abortions without “the fucking coat hangers” educates while resisting the Roe time warp. On January 24, 2022, activist Jex Blackmore went viral when they began a medication abortion during a live interview on Fox 2 Detroit. YouTube later tagged Blackmore’s interview with a definition of abortion as specifically “done by a licensed health care professional” and disclaimed responsibility for viewers’ actions. Even before the post-Roe present, abortion stigma turned adults swallowing legal pills into both spectacle and liability. Both Blackmore’s televised abortion and the SCOTUS protest torqued that stigma.
Abortion isn’t the spectacle. The Roe time warp just makes it seem that way. The spectacle is the court—“Fuck These Dorks.” The spectacle is the law that activists vow to break by aiding and abetting abortion in prohibition states. The activism is joyful and in-your-face. It’s an antidote to the silence and stigma surrounding abortion. Activists are having abortions by any means necessary. They want you to know you can, too, but no fucking coat hangers and no Roe time warp.
Cates, Willard. 1981. “The Hyde Amendment in Action: How Did the Restriction of Federal Funds for Abortion Affect Low-Income Women?” JAMA 246, no. 10: 1109–112.
Theobald, Brianna. 2017. “Settler Colonialism, Native American Motherhood, and the Politics of Terminating Pregnancies.” In Transcending Borders, edited by Shannon Stettner, Katrina Ackerman, Kristin Burnertt, and Travis Hay, 221–37. London: Palgrave Macmillan.