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Roe vs Wade is dead. Will a new ‘sisterhood of strangers’ help guide women into the future?

Woman holds up sign during abortion rally
As long as there are women seeking abortions, there will be women willing to help them find safe and legal options, columnist Sandy Banks writes.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

It’s been one week since Roe vs Wade protections disappeared, and it’s time to move from rage to resolve. I know how hard that will be. I’ve spent the week in a fog of anger, shock and grief.

I’m proud of the women who have taken to the streets, here in Los Angeles and across the country. The protests are inspiring, but we must not forget that the right-wing powers threatening our autonomy already know how we feel about choice — and they don’t give a whit.

We’re going to have to bring that energy to the election this fall, and build a ground game that piles up wins over the long haul.

Their primeval agenda — decades in the making — is ascendant now. And it will take more than shouting and slogans to subvert a judgment that aims to return us to the last century.

I’m old enough to remember that era, pre-Roe, when abortion was illegal and unwed motherhood a shameful state.

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As teenage girls, we didn’t know much back then about sex or how our bodies worked, except what we gleaned from the groundbreaking book “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” which we devoured voraciously.

But we did know what it meant when female classmates disappeared, inexplicably off “visiting relatives” for months. They’d come back as if nothing had changed, and we knew enough not to question them.

The infants they’d given birth to had been hurriedly “adopted out.” It was like scrubbing a blood stain out of your dress. No one will ever see it, but you will never forget it was there.

By the time we neared high school graduation in 1972, the abortion landscape had begun to change. The binary choice — give birth secretly or risk death in a back-alley medical procedure — was giving way to new options, thanks to extraordinary support from feminists and pro-choice advocates.

That’s how my friend, then barely 18, wound up at the airport in Cleveland near dawn on a school day, waiting to board a flight to New York, one of only four states in the nation that allowed abortions then.

There were billboards lining the highways in neighboring states, advertising abortions, “usually under $250” in New York. Almost two-thirds of the 400,000 terminations performed in New York in the two years before Roe vs Wade became law were for women from out of state.

The trip was the first time my friend had ever been on an airplane. She was met upon landing by a stranger who ferried her to a clinic for a legal abortion, then drove her back to the airport that afternoon. By that evening, she was back at home — nursing her pain privately, and studying for the next day’s trigonometry exam.

We never knew who made the arrangements or paid her expenses. But her experience emboldened her friends politically. We realized there was a network of clinics and helpers willing to educate us, offer access to birth control, and support whatever choices we felt we had to make.

And we all breathed a sigh of relief the next year, when Roe vs Wade affirmed women’s sovereignty over our own bodies by making abortion legal in all 50 states.

We couldn’t have imagined then that we’d be dragged back to the dark ages nearly a half-century later.

I’ve been thinking about that era a lot, as we prepare to navigate a harsh new landscape, one laced with landmines of abortion restrictions, bounty hunters and criminal penalties.

Over the last several years, women have grown increasingly committed to bringing the subject out of the shadows, publicly sharing their own abortion stories to offer other women solace and support.

Now it’s hard to know where the guardrails are. And the uncertainty in the newness of this moment seems to be driving the helpers underground.

In a flurry of posts on Facebook and Twitter over the past several days, “abortion” has become “manicures” or “camping,” by women resorting to the type of subterfuge one might expect criminals to use.

”in north carolina MANICURES are still legal!” one post read. “If you are in need of a MANICURE that is illegal in your state and you’re nearby lmk and I’ll help you with transportation.”

A few states away, in Delaware, the code word was different, but the meaning the same. “I thought it was going camping,” one woman wrote. “I live in a state that allows both camping and manicures. We need a pink underground to help our sisters in need of a camping trip & a manicure.”

The posters were do-gooders in places where abortion is still legal, offering to help desperate travelers from out of state make it to a clinic and recover after the ordeal.

It struck me as much like the sisterhood of strangers I remember from when the abortion rights movement was young.

The rebellion is brewing now. Strangers from all across the country are willing to put themselves on the line, to make sure that pregnant women are not stranded in states that limit their reproductive freedom.

Their passion lifted my spirits. Then I stumbled across an angry Twitter thread that threw me for a loop.

It was from an abortion rights activist, chastising those offering help getting “manicures,” because abortion rights groups were already developing procedures for this — and the amateurs were likely to make a mess of it.

I understood her point. The informal process is replete with risk, for both hosts and vulnerable travelers. I wouldn’t be surprised if anti-abortion infiltrators are already jockeying to create chaos.

My heart sank when I started DMing folks to try to sort things out. The MANICURE posts had disappeared and Twitter accounts had suddenly been suspended or shut down.

I guess the do-gooders’ fears of punishment were real, even when they disguised their motives with pseudonyms.

Still, if this is a harbinger of the war to come, these renegade helpers may be a very good sign. I’ve noticed that for every account shut down, a new one seems to pop up.

Our commitment is clear, and our collective memory is long.

As long as there are women seeking abortions, there will be women willing to help them find safe and legal options.


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