Denny spends many days sitting on her bed packing small pills into ziplock plastic bags and then brown envelopes so they can be mailed to people looking for abortion drugs in states like Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio.
The pills are mifepristone and misoprostol – two drugs that are the subject of intense political and legal debate.
Every pack of pills Denny ships puts her in danger. But they won’t stop there.
“It’s a legal gray area where we live,” Denny, who works with the group WeSaveUs and uses the pronouns “they/them,” told The Daily Beast. “What is legal and what is right are two different things.”
If roe Last June, protesters took to the streets by the thousands, some with placards and T-shirts promising to “support and encourage abortion.”
Almost a year later, a small group of dedicated activists have built secret support networks to do just that. Denny is one of a few activists in states with extremely restrictive bans distributing abortion drugs and running the risk of prosecution on a daily basis.
Denny, who identifies as non-binary, lives in Louisville, Kentucky, a progressive urban dot in a deep red state. (The Daily Beast uses only her first name due to concerns about prosecution.)
Kentucky’s withdrawal ban went into effect immediately thereafter Roe vs Wade The law was repealed, banning abortion entirely in the state with few exceptions. Overnight, Kentucky became one of the most restrictive abortion states in the country.
Denny knew they had to do something. They were committed to reproductive rights and were always guided by the principle of bodily autonomy.
“It’s about: What do you want and need? What makes you feel safe? If going to a clinic makes them feel safe, I’ll help them. If taking pills at home makes them feel safe, I’ll help them. Everyone deserves care,” Denny told The Daily Beast.
Despite the new legally precarious environment, Denny started working with WeSaveUs last fall. Since then, anti-abortion activists have targeted abortion drugs, filed lawsuits against the FDA and protested outside pharmacies, making Denny’s work even riskier.
Denny’s bedroom is the end of a long covert network that begins thousands of miles away.
Drug smuggling from Mexico
The underground network begins with activists like Verónica Cruz Sánchez, the founder and executive director of Las Libres, a feminist organization founded in 2000 in Guanajuato, Mexico. For two decades, Cruz and her colleagues have worked to distribute the abortion drug misoprostol across Mexico.
“Abortion has always existed and always will. It will not cease to exist. Even if countries restrict it, even if territories restrict it, that doesn’t mean it stops abortion — it just puts people’s lives and health at risk,” Cruz says of Las Libres’ philosophy of providing medicines for free.
When the Texas legislature passed Senate Bill 8 in 2021, which radically restricted access to abortion in the state, Cruz turned her gaze north to the United States. Mexico’s Supreme Court had just ruled that criminalizing abortion as a crime was unconstitutional, a hugely progressive move in a once fiercely conservative country. While Mexico appeared to be taking a step forward, Cruz says she could imagine the United States moving in the opposite direction.
“We decided to form a cross-border network,” Cruz told The Daily Beast. Abortion pills are available over the counter in Mexico. Cruz organized hundreds of volunteers to bring abortion pills across the border, first to Texas and then when roe fell to other enemy states. Some are elderly expat Americans who have settled in Mexico and are sometimes referred to as “the hippies of old”.
Cruz is careful to protect the identities of activists involved in, or how they do, smuggling pills across the border. The people taking the pills across the border don’t know exactly where they’re coming from or who they’re going to, Cruz says, making every node on the network more secure.
“No one generally knows the woman who is having an abortion. She does not know all the people involved and therefore has a safe abortion. And the people who help her don’t know who’s doing the abortion. That’s our security process,” says Cruz.
Las Libres is committed to bringing abortion drugs to the most vulnerable populations in the United States, including undocumented comers, poor people and immigrants, regardless of any restrictive laws. Cruz sees abortion as a human right that cannot be taken away by lawmakers.
“We don’t support or encourage crime — we support a right that the state cannot currently guarantee in the restricted areas,” says Cruz.
Nonetheless, anti-abortion groups in the United States aim to further restrict abortion drugs.
In April, the Supreme Court received a lawsuit from anti-abortion advocates trying to restrict the drug mifepristone. The lawsuit alleged that the FDA expedited approval of the drug, which studies had shown was mostly safe. A stay issued by Judge Samuel Alito temporarily kept access to the drug, but it’s unclear how the court will ultimately rule.
Activists who distribute and promote abortion drugs continue to operate in this landscape of legal uncertainty.
Once the abortion pills are smuggled into the United States by activists like Las Libres, they’re passed on to people like Denny. But an entire support system has sprung up to support both activists and those seeking abortion drugs.
Connecting pregnant women to medication
“We are not waiting for courts and legislators to do the right thing when it comes to access to abortion. Our model is already based on this: How do we enable access in the face of unjust laws?” says Elisa Wells, co-founder and co-director of Plan C.
Founded in 2015, Plan C is a nonprofit organization that provides information on how to get abortion pills in each state. The group is also testing pills from online sellers and community providers like Denny. In doing so, she screens every vendor she lists and makes sure the drug is authentic and safe.
After the Supreme Court voted to overturn abortion rights, Wells said the site saw a huge spike in traffic, going from around 40,000 visitors in a busy month to over half a million overnight.
“People are realizing that these state legislatures are acting inappropriately and harming people who are seeking access to primary health care,” says Wells. “They realize that this is a solution that gives them an opportunity for physical autonomy.”
Plan C recommends telemedicine providers who can prescribe pills in pro-abortion states, as well as groups like Aid Access, a non-profit based outside the US that ships abortion drugs into the country. But for those in restrictive states or who can’t afford to pay the high prices for some online pills, community groups like WeSaveUs are the only option. According to Wells, Plan C’s job is to review and empower providers like Denny who are on the ground and able to provide pills for free.
Plan C’s ultimate goal is to advocate for full and free access to abortion for everyone in the United States, Wells says. “But while we wait for this to become a reality in the US, we know people need alternative sources of access immediately.”
dr Jennifer Lincoln, a board-certified OB/GYN and executive director of Mayday Health, a nonprofit health education organization, doesn’t mince words about the struggle Americans face.
“We are in a war for our rights,” she says. “The mantra is, ‘We’re going to save ourselves.’ We can’t wait for the Supreme Court or politicians to fix this.”
Like Plan C, Mayday Health provides information on accessing abortion pills. But the group has focused on viral marketing and high-profile stunts. Earlier this year, they deployed mobile billboards around 14 college campuses in restrictive states with abortion pill access information.
The anti-abortion movement has long been known for its billboard campaigns, which often contain misleading information about fetal development. According to Lincoln, Mayday’s billboard campaigns offer a counterbalance.
“You have to grab people’s attention,” says Lincoln. “We’re trying to target people who are also targeted by the anti-abortion movement.”
While groups like Mayday Health and Plan C are nonprofit organizations that can easily receive donations to fund their work, local activists like Denny are in a much more difficult position.
Denny’s principles mean that like Las Libres activists, they do not charge for the services they provide, instead relying on donations from the wider community to survive. But it’s difficult to raise funds if you can’t talk openly about the services provided.
“It sucks not being able to ask for donations publicly,” says Denny, “because of the legal risk involved, a lot of people and organizations that could help, that have resources that they could devote to this, are afraid to come close to me . They’re going to listen and call me a hero and say, “Don’t stop what you’re doing.” But they’re reluctant to actually fund me because they don’t want the possible connection.”
The risk of legal prosecution also takes its toll. Denny says they’re “afraid every day.”
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron is an evangelical Christian who has been vocal about his anti-abortion views. Although Kentucky has no law prohibiting the distribution of abortion pills, Denny and many other activists believe it’s a matter of time before an aggressive attorney general finds a way to pursue criminal prosecutions. (In Texas, it is illegal for anyone who is not a doctor to distribute abortion pills, with the risk of imprisonment.)
“I’m doing my best to protect myself, but it’s not perfect and never will be perfect,” says Denny, “but at the same time I won’t fail to do so.” I have the opportunity and the ability to do it, and people need it .”
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