WASHINGTON – Michelle Waczak prepared for a post-Roe world by joining an informal network that allows her to offer women in other states who have been locked out of abortion a place to stay, transportation to a clinic and a shoulder to cry on.
Waczak, who lives in a suburb of St. Paul, is among thousands women who have flocked to a Reddit community called the “Auntie Network,” a semi-underground network aimed at helping women who live in states that have outlawed or severely restricted abortion.
The Supreme Court released a long-awaited decision on a Mississippi case Friday that overturned Roe v. Wade, the high court’s seminal decision that granted federal protection to abortion rights. It also overturned another Supreme Court case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, that bolstered Roe’s abortion rights.
“The Constitution does not confer a right to abortion; Roe and Casey are overruled; and the authority to regulate abortion is returned to the people and their elected representatives,” the high court’s decision said.
The prospect of the Supreme Court’s end of abortion access for many women infuriated Waczak and prompted her to want “do something tangible.” After stumbling upon the Reddit group, Waczac did not hesitate in joining.
“I’m in a position to help,” Waczak, 43, said.
Waczak had anticipated the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe.
“I am so angry that things I have taken for granted are going to be taken away from a whole generation,” she said.
The Reddit aunties usually live in “blue” states like Minnesota, where access to abortion is not threatened. The help they offer prospective “nieces” ranges from free apartments and offers to pay bus and air fares to allowing a visitor to crash on a couch.
Waczak, who works as a Starbucks barista, said she anticipates a “an influx of women” in need to the Twin Cities.
Thirteen states, including North Dakota and South Dakota, have “trigger laws” that will outlaw abortion now that Roe no longer applies. Other states have passed restrictions that have been determined unconstitutional, but will be allowed to stand in this post-Roe world.
Iowa, for instance, has approved ban on all abortions after the end of the second trimester unless necessary to preserve the woman’s life or health, something that was considered unconstitutional under Roe. Wisconsin adopted a ban in 1849 on all abortion except to save the mother’s life, but Roe had nullified that ban.
Minnesota, however, has strong abortion rights protections. The state Supreme Court ruled in a 1995 case known as Doe v. Gomez that Minnesota’s privacy provisions protects a woman’s right to abortion
Minnesota aunties are aware the state’s safeguard’s will make the state a safe harbor for those who need help. Illinois is the only other Midwestern state expected to continue to provide legal access to abortion services.
In anticipation of the ruling, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said he has been meeting with assistant attorneys general to plan a response. He said this week he would protect the rights of women to travel to Minnesota for abortion and resist extradition requests from states that might criminalize abortion.
Ellison also said he would resist actions brought by residents of Texas who were granted by a recent state law the right to sue people who provide abortions or assist in any way. His office has created a webpage to give advice about legal protections for abortion in Minnesota.
Because of the threats to abortion rights in many states, a new University of California study determined more than a quarter of abortion clinics in the nation would shut down after Roe was struck. Those 2020 closures, the study said “would decimate abortion access” for women living in the South and the Midwest.
Meanwhile, the number of aunties on Reddit keeps growing. There are now more than 78,000 on a site that was initiated in May of 2019. It had a few thousand members until Texas’s near-total ban on abortions went into effect in September. Membership spiked after that, and soared again after the release in May of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion on Roe v. Wade.
To prevent scammers and other undesirables, the Auntie Network requires users have a “A solid 30-day recent post history” before posting.
Noella, 25, another “auntie”’ who lives in the Twin Cities metro area, is also offering a lodging, transportation and “someone to talk to.”
“I can’t image how stressful it must be,” she said of women who may no longer have access to abortion in their hometowns or home states.
Like Waczac, Noella — who preferred that her last name not be used in this story — said after she posted on the Reddit subsite, she received direct messages from other women in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area offering to help her help others.
“They said ‘if they need meals or a ride, let me know,’” Noella said. “It’s nice to know there are others willing to help, that I am not alone.”
Wacsac said “it was very uplifting to get messages from other women.”
Like Waczac, Noella, who is married and works as a librarian for a corporation, has not yet heard from a prospective “niece” in need of assistance. But she expects she will.
“Things will move very quickly if things go down,” she said just days before the Supreme Court overturned Roe. “We are ready to go.”
There are organizations that arrange and fund travel for those seeking abortions, including the Brigid Alliance and the National Network of Abortion Funds. But the grassroots movement spawned on Reddit shows the level of interest in grassroots activism in the abortion rights movement.
“You have to keep fighting, but you also have to have hope,” Noella said.
The Reddit movement is today’s replication of underground abortion networks that helped women access care before Roe.
One posting, from “a Minnesota social worker happy to help” said she could help “anyone traveling within 100 miles of the Twin Cities.”
“I’m 32 year-old female social worker who would be very happy to offer up my bedroom (I’ll take the living room) to anyone in need,” the post said. “I can offer food, lodging, emotional support, transportation from anywhere within 100 miles, & would be more than happy to accompany to any appointments you may need.”
She also said she lived with her daughter and mother who “makes amazing cookies!” and two “sweet, gentle dogs.”
Another Minnesota auntie said she was located 20 minutes west of Minneapolis.
“Complete discretion, you’ll have your own bedroom & bath with total privacy, and no request is too much to ask — please DM (direct message) me, and we can coordinate on Signal. NOT alone,” the post said.
Still another, who also said she lived near Minneapolis, said she “worried that South Dakota might become one of those states where the laws are about to change soon.”
“If so, I can easily get to Sioux Falls & back on any given weekend (and again the following if you would like to visit the beautiful Twin Cities for about a week. If you live further out (like Central or Western SD), I might have to crash in a hotel out there overnight before bringing you back, and do likewise on the following weekend, but if you are way out West in genuine need of help getting to Minneapolis, I’ll definitely see what I can do,” the posting by someone who identified herself as a “trans woman in her 50s.”
She also said “don’t worry about chipping in for gas. I have a good network of friends who would probably be happy to donate for that.”