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Online ‘aunties’ from Washington offer lodging, abortion pills to people from conservative states

caption: Anna Zwade, center, attends a rally to defend Roe v. Wade organized by councilmember Kshama Sawant on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, at Westlake Park in Seattle.
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Anna Zwade, center, attends a rally to defend Roe v. Wade organized by councilmember Kshama Sawant on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, at Westlake Park in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

“Experienced Seattle Auntie available to help,” wrote Meghan, a Seattle-area woman, on Reddit this week. For two years, Meghan has re-shipped medical abortion pills to people across the country, particularly those in rural areas.

Across Washington state, in Spokane County, Ryanne Jones has offered to host “niblings,” or people seeking abortion assistance, for four years. She decided to advertise her standing offer in Reddit's r/AuntieNetwork community, after processing the news of the leaked Roe v. Wade draft opinion.

“If you are in North Idaho, I live not super far from Planned Parenthood and other clinics,” Jones, 47, wrote in a Reddit post on Monday. “I will even drive over and come get you if needed and take you to your appointment(s). I also have a spare bedroom you can use for a short time.”

Jones and Meghan are self-described “aunties,” an informal network of people, mostly women, who offer their homes, rides to appointments, and more to people who may need to travel for abortions. These aunties operate individually and are not tied to any organization. In the wake of the Roe v. Wade draft leak, abortion rights advocates in pro-choice states are racing to expand access for out-of-towners.

The aunties have taken to social media, to do their part, hoping to make a connection. Sometimes they do: Meghan estimated that she has shipped 20 abortion pills. Jones, however, hasn’t yet hosted anyone seeking an abortion.

Given how close she lives to Idaho, that could change in an instant. As is the case in every state, abortion is still legal in Idaho. But it’s one of 13 conservative states with a so-called “trigger law,” poised to immediately ban abortions in the event that Roe v. Wade is knocked down. The final opinion is expected sometime in June.

These informal networks aren’t new. Jones said she sees her efforts as a continuation of her grandmother’s legacy.

“A lot of her friends had what my grandmother would have called ‘mishaps,’ Jones said. “And there was no really legal way to get an abortion at the time.”

But by getting together for so-called “sewing circles,” in which women would make clothing and chat, they shared information about which doctors would secretly perform the procedure.

“This doctor will do it if you pay him cash and go at this time of night,” Jones recalled her grandmother saying. “You need to say you're here for this.”

Seattle-based gynecologist Dr. Charlie Browne said there’s been an increase in the number of patients traveling to Washington state from Texas for abortions in recent months. He estimates the All Women’s Care clinic, where he works, sees between six and 10 patients from Texas per month.

The rise, Browne said, came after Senate Bill 8, a law banning abortions after the detection of embryonic or fetal cardiac activity (typically 6 weeks) took affect in Texas last September.

He said that if Roe v. Wade is overturned, “it only makes sense that this [number] would increase.”

Jones said that the safety of being an "auntie" is a concern – but she has a vetting process planned for potential guests.

“I can go stalk their Reddit history … before they needed help from somebody, before it paid to play nice,” Jones said. “I could find out the kind of comments they left, the kind of posts they made, and the kind of attitude they generally displayed.”

Meghan, who asked KUOW not to publish her last name because of legal concerns, volunteers her services on Reddit, explaining in coded language what she can provide. Sometimes people reach out to her because they’ve seen her posts. Other times, they’ve been referred to her by word of mouth.

A less invasive alternative to in-clinic abortions, the pills come in twos, each one containing a different medication. The first pill stops a pregnancy from progressing; the second, taken within 48 hours, empties the uterus. Megan explained her process to ship the pills.

The person who needs the medication makes a virtual doctor’s visit, with a provider who can write prescriptions for abortion medication afterwards. The person in need will then pay for the medication, but instead of providing their own address, they provide Meghan’s mailing address.

When the package arrives, Meghan checks the goods, and then uses one-day shipping (she covers this cost) to send it to the person who requested the medication.

These are mostly people who live in southern states where there are barriers to legally obtaining these pills, Meghan said, like Tennessee, Alabama, and Texas.

“It's usually more rural communities,” Meghan said. “Often it's places where theoretically abortion is legal, but telehealth is not and accessing a clinic is just really difficult.”

Meghan said a woman she’s in contact with lives in Tennessee, a state with a 48-hour waiting period, meaning she’d have to make a second trip to visit the physician, which is far from where she lives. “That's not a health concern,” Meghan said, “that's somebody trying to block abortion access and it works.”

Amelia Bonow, a Seattle-based abortion activist and Shout Your Abortion founder, told KUOW she supports efforts like Meghan’s.

“Ideally, we would be receiving medications in ways that we knew to be absolutely legit,” Bonow said. “But in the world we live in now – and the world we're about to live in, in the absence of a Roe – people are going to need to use other avenues.”

She added, “I worry that systems of online provision are going to be flooded and that people are going to end up waiting a long time for their meds.”

For her part, Meghan said that even if there’s a legal crackdown on reshipping medications, she won’t stop.

“It's not like abortions started in 1973 [when Roe v. Wade was first decided],” Meghan said. “This is not a new phenomenon. This is something that's happened for all of time, and it's going to continue to happen for all of time.”

Clare McGrane and Patricia Murphy contributed reporting to this story.

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