Women develop a code to discuss abortion on TikTok

Rebekah Robinson

 

Over the last few months, many people have taken to TikTok to express solidarity with those seeking support for abortions in what might at first sight appear to be unusual ways. 

“If we go down then we go down together,” a line from the song “Paris” by the Chainsmokers plays in the background while white-lettered captions pop across the screen. TikTok users of varying ages mouth the words to the song while the captions offer a room to stay in. Others offer to drive those who want to go “camping” if camping is illegal in their state. Some use “camping,” others use “learning to knit,” but the intention is the same.

They’re not talking about spending time in nature or taking up a hobby, they’re using coded language to help those on the platform who are seeking support to access abortion-related care. 

Using coded language to talk about abortions isn’t new. In the 19th century, for instance, newspapers would use a variety of euphemisms and supposed cures to stop menstrual cycles to advertise abortion options. 

There’s a growing concern about digital tracking and privacy around abortion access, which has prompted the development of a new coded language. But how effective can such a code be when anyone can access it on an open social media forum, when anyone can see what’s being shared and who is sharing this information. 

These videos, shared thousands of times with hundreds of thousands of likes, feature people offering support to help total strangers. While some get swept up in social media trends to demonstrate their support and generate views, many organizations work diligently with resources to provide the support that keeps individuals’ privacy and health at the forefront. 

Groups like Apiary for Practical Support, a non-profit that trains volunteers to help support those seeking an abortion, advise prospective volunteers that it can take months to complete a training and vetting process to ensure client safety. Additionally, for those wishing to volunteer housing support, the Apiary’s administrative team cautions that “most organizations will not be able to accept it,” to protect individuals’ privacy and based on some requirements from clinics to have patients “stay in a particular radius.” 

The warnings are not meant to dampen the enthusiasm of volunteers but to show that supporting those seeking abortions is a sensitive, complex task that requires a certain level of training and commitment. A thread on Twitter outlines the risks that could come with trusting strangers with such sensitive information, warning those to do their research before connecting with those who may be “putting their hero complex before your safety.”​​

Groups that support communities that need help accessing abortion argue that coded language, however well-intentioned, is less effective than supporting and funding existing networks. An Indigenous Women Rising spokesperson said, “The safety and priority should be focused on the people trying to access the abortion care they need. We can start by destigmatizing the word abortion itself, saying it loudly and proudly and often.” 

Check out our additional coverage of abortion content moderation policies from our newsletter and other ways of combatting censorship and disinformation with coded language on social media.

IN GLOBAL NEWS

An Austrian doctor has taken her own life after she became a target of anti-vaccine death threats. Dr. Lisa-Maria Kellermayr, who was 36, had faced months of harassment and threatening letters from extremist campaigners. Kellermayr spoke to us just a few weeks ago. “This is not going to end soon,” she said. “I don’t know if in a few years, I can live a normal life without looking left and right before going out the door.” On Twitter at the end of June, she said her family practice had had to shell out more than $100,000 on security costs after the surgery was inundated with threats, and that the situation was so untenable that she was closing her practice for the time being. Austria is home to a virulent anti-vax community, which became more hardline after Austria became the first country in Europe to make vaccines mandatory — a move which was later scrapped. If you read one thing today, make it Emily Schultheis’s piece about her here, published yesterday. 


Under President Bolsonaro, academics in Brazil are muzzling their own research, terrified of having their funding pulled. Those who study gender, ecology, and biochemistry — among other subjects — are particularly concerned. The government has tightened its grip on the academic sphere by cutting funding to universities on grounds of ideology. In recent years, Bolsonaro has expanded his authority over the appointment of university rectors, while academics have been subjected to criminal investigations after publicly criticizing him. A new study, canvassing over 1,000 Brazilian scientists, found that almost half of academics now restricted the content of their classes to avoid being punished. 

China is, very gradually, opening up to the world again. The Chinese carrier Hainan Airlines announced this week it would resume a route from Beijing to Berlin next week — its fourth intercontinental route since the outbreak of Covid — after Moscow, Belgrade and Brussels. I was interested to note that the China-Russia route was one of the first to open back up, as well as flights to Serbia, which has an ironclad trading relationship with Beijing. The Chinese capital has been kept sealed off from international visitors for years, and guarded with zealous caution. Those flying into China from international destinations have had to first quarantine in third cities like Shanghai before being allowed into Beijing — a policy which has had disastrous consequences for those who then found themselves trapped in Shanghai’s brutal lockdown

WHAT WE’RE LISTENING TO 

Amazon is buying primary care organization One Medical in a nearly $4 billion deal, as part of its move to expand its reach into the healthcare industry. Slate’s What Next: TBD podcast discusses the purchase and asks: are they disrupting health care, or just collecting more data?

This newsletter is curated by Coda’s senior reporter Isobel Cockerell. Rebekah Robinson contributed to this edition. 

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