Experts Urge Caution on TikTok Offers to Host Abortion Refugees
After the Supreme Court repealed the federal right to abortion last Friday, Jordan Jones, a TikTok creator with 1.5 million followers, decided to post a video. She wanted to help individuals seeking abortion care that wouldn’t be able to get it in their home states anymore.
“Hi besties. Camping is still legal in [Pennsylvania] if anyone needs a week or to come camping,” she wrote in her video, which by Wednesday morning had received more than 51,000 likes and over 350,000 views. “I live within an hour to about 3 ‘camping sites’ and am willing to accommodate new PA campers.”
“Camping” was a winking way to reference abortion, and Jones was one of many TikTok influencers and regular users who racked up millions of views with offers of housing or help for people fleeing their states’ abortion bans in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision. Star lawyer Gloria Allred dubbed these people “abortion refugees” in an interview this week.
Some Redditors also offered help, as did users on forums of home rental sites like Airbnb. While it’s clear that many of these offers of private help for abortion refugees, referred to as “auntie networks,” were made with good intentions, abortion access organizations like Planned Parenthood say staying with a well-meaning stranger is not the right solution and can even endanger those seeking abortions. Jones told Gizmodo that she had not had anyone take her up on the offer.
“Auntie networks strive to reinvent the wheel by doing what abortion funds and practical support organizations have been doing for decades, which is unnecessary. These resources already exist for abortion seekers,” Jaylynn Farr Munson, a spokesperson for Fund Texas Choice, a nonprofit that funds Texans’ travel to abortion clinics, told Gizmodo via email on Tuesday. “The passion, effort, and resources that folks pour into Auntie networks could more effectively be directed towards abortion funds and PSOs, because we’re already experts in this work and can be trusted to provide safe, client-centered care to abortion seekers.”
Legal experts, meanwhile, urge those wanting to help to be cautious. It is simply not clear what legal consequences there may be for those who help abortion seekers get the procedure done in another state with less restrictive laws. Legal implications for platforms like Airbnb, where people are also trying to help, are also unknown.
When asked about the possible legal and safety risks associated with helping abortion seekers or offering them a place to stay, Casey Samples, a TikTok user from Arkansas and stay-at-home mom whose video offering help racked up more than 136,000 views as of Tuesday evening, said she was not swayed. She referenced the line from The Chainsmokers’ song “Paris,” which many influencers and users added to their videos offering to help.
“If we go down, we go down together. I will risk it all to keep safe abortions in place for my family, friends, neighbors, and all else. Women will die because of this, there is no doubt in my mind. I will protest, riot, and go through legal obligations to fight for our rights,” she said.
What to Do When People on Social Media Offer Real-Life Abortion Help
Jones, the TikTok creator from Pennsylvania, told Gizmodo through direct messages that she was surprised at the traction her TikTok video got. She received many comments from individuals expressing gratitude and relief that others were willing to help them find the care they need.
“I also got a lot of people admitting to how scared they were in this moment and for what the future holds in the US so we tried to comfort as many people as possible,” Jones said. “I don’t know how many people will actually take strangers up on offers like this but if it’s something that can bring people to my page so I can share resources or direct them to the appropriate place I’m glad to do it!”
Samples told Gizmodo that she was motivated to post to protect the rights of her young daughter. Samples also recalled her own abortion at the age of 16 after a sexual assault. She has struggled with carrying pregnancies to full-term and now worries that she would face prosecution for losing a pregnancy.
“No woman deserves to go through this, but all I know is I will do everything in my power to make sure they will never go through it alone,” Samples said. Like Jones, She said she hasn’t had anyone take her up on her offer to help but “100%” intend[s] on following through in a time of need.”
While these offers are often earnest and inspiring, they can also force abortion seekers into tough situations, Munson said. Those seeking the procedure will have to trust complete strangers to provide a safe environment and reliable resources. Texas, already a restrictive state for abortion, is set to enact a trigger law over the next few weeks banning most abortions in the state, which will come in addition to its harsh bounty law.
“It’s hard to vet complete strangers on the internet, and the fear that the person you’re trusting will harm you adds an additional layer of stress,” Munson explained. “Someone on an Auntie network might be an anti-choice person who is interested in keeping them from accessing the abortion they need, turning them into law enforcement or collecting on a bounty from their state, or physically harming them. These are unknowns that Auntie networks expect abortion seekers to accept in every interaction.”
Abortion funds and private service organizations, meanwhile, are better equipped to vet their staff and volunteers, she pointed out. They also have the resources to provide patients with private lodgings, help them navigate their own transportation, and ease the financial burden of travel and costs “without the built in power dynamics and dangers that are inherent in Auntie networks,” Munson said.
On Tuesday, Planned Parenthood Toronto directly addressed people in Canada who wanted to offer help to U.S. abortion seekers in a Twitter thread. The organization discouraged people from encouraging individuals requiring an abortion to seek help from strangers and from trying to be heroes.
“There is no room for heroics here! Infiltration by law enforcement and surveillance is very likely and dangerous for people you are trying to help. There are very serious consequences, including poisoning the abortion care network by destroying trust, and potential state violence like incarceration,” Planned Parenthood Toronto wrote, further urging people to support established abortion care organizations.
Amid the surge in offers for help, some creators and moderators who shared Munson’s view sounded the alarm on the potential dangers of meeting up with strangers online for support in getting such a sensitive procedure. Kiki, a Black woman and TikTok creator who spoke to Gizmodo, pointed out that many people who travel to seek an abortion come from vulnerable communities. Kiki asked that we only use her first name after she received threats for speaking out online.
“I know many folks take issue with me saying this. Some people in my mentions have argued with me that people are just trying to help and have tried citing the Underground Railroad to me. However, the Underground Railroad proves my point — it was an organized network of people that ferried enslaved Black people to freedom,” she said, adding: “The underground railroad worked because it was based in community organizing, secrecy, and planning — not individualism.”
Gizmodo spoke to personnel from three other abortion funds in Colorado, Nevada, and the greater Northwestern U.S. The staff expressed concern over these online offers of housing and assistance. All three said they were not the best choice as the safety and the comfort of all involved could not be guaranteed.
Jones, the TikTok creator, said she understands the concerns raised by abortion funds and others online. It’s scary not knowing what consequences helping people seeking an abortion can have, she pointed out. However, she feels that helping these people is fair game until specific legal repercussions are on the books. The TikTok creator added that it also makes sense to be worried about letting strangers into your home and receiving help from them.
“I don’t know these people and they don’t know me but what we both know is our rights are being toyed with and a decision like this is not light hearted or easy to make,” she said. “I think videos like the one I made are *mostly* to show solidarity in this fight with other uterus owners. If it came down to it and someone TRULY needed help, I would do what I could to provide resources or connections. It’s a scary time we’re living in and we have to stand together.”
Jade Pfaefflin Bounds, a volunteer and training coordinator at the Northwest Abortion Access Fund who uses they/them pronouns, said that the fund had seen an uptick in housing offers on social media and within communities. Bounds added that the fund had also received hundreds of emails from folks offering their homes for abortion seekers.
“We have protocols for everyone involved to minimize legal liability, and other risks and potential harm,” they explained in an email. “We exist to do that vetting and connection on behalf of people accessing abortion care, and it worries us if homestays become more decentralized that it will be challenging for people travelling to know who is or is not a safe, accessible person to stay with.”
What Do the Legal Experts Have to Say About Aiding Abortions?
Robin Fretwell Wilson, a law professor at the Illinois College of Law, said that hosting a person seeking an abortion out of state, even with the best intentions, could put both parties in the legal crosshairs of anti-abortion states or individuals. Missouri, for example, is considering two separate bills that would make it illegal for residents to go out of state for abortions, as well as allow individuals to sue those who aid and abet those seeking an abortion. The combination would be similar to Texas’.
The professor likened Missouri’s situation to somebody who travels out-of-state and then hits a person with their car before leaving the scene and sprinting back home. States’ “long-arm” statutes can bring the person back to the state where the alleged crime occurred for prosecution. What might matter most here is whether a person seeking an abortion starts their communications with an out-of-state host while still in the anti-abortion state. Those communications, subject to potential subpoena, could drag even the most well-meaning hosts into a legal mess.
Wilson said the best way to avoid that issue would be to start all communications in a state that doesn’t have any anti-abortion laws on the books. But considering how most of the U.S. middle states are a giant gorge of anti-abortion laws, asking individuals to travel hundreds of miles away before communicating with people willing to help is a big ask.
In a draft article set to publish in January in Columbia Law Review, law professors David S. Cohen, Greer Donley, and Rachel Robouché wrote that states “could use already existing tools to try to limit or completely prohibit people in their state from going elsewhere to obtain legal abortions.” The authors further wrote that Georgia’s conspiracy laws could apply to people who help patients travel to other states to get an abortion. Other states might prosecute abortions in different ways, creating a whole can of worms in any interstate case. So many unknowns leave potential hosts in legal limbo.
In a phone interview with Gizmodo, Cohen — a professor of law at Drexel University law school — said he was concerned about overly-aggressive prosecutors in anti-abortion states who might use every state law available to try and prosecute those who seek abortions or those who aid abortions. Although he said attempts to restrict individuals from traveling over state lines would likely be found unconstitutional, it’s hard to guess what a federal court system that’s been shifting ever more to the right might say on the issue.
“It’s hard to say what will happen without looking at each states’ various laws in-depth, and regular people aren’t likely to have the knowledge or time to do that,” Cohen said. “I think everyone needs to lay out their own risk and do what they need to do with their own moral or medical needs.”
What If You List Your Place as an ‘Abortion Stay’ on Airbnb?
Besides personal liability, there are also big, lingering questions for apps that let users host people from out of town. In at least one of travel hosting app Airbnb’s forum threads, some users have asked the company to include an official way to indicate if a listing is available for those seeking abortions. Some hosts also said they plan to open up their properties for “women who need support.”
Airbnb did not return Gizmodo’s request for comment on how the company plans to handle hosts who want to list their property to aid abortion seekers.
Airbnb is one of a few companies, including Meta, Zillow, Salesforce, and many more that have announced they would pay to for employees to seek abortions out-of-state, drawing scrutiny from anti-abortion states. Texas has already threatened Lyft and Citigroup with legal action for their pro-abortion pronouncements. Lyft CEO Logan Green took to Twitter to say they’d cover the legal fees of drivers transporting people seeking abortion care in states like Texas or Oklahoma, which allow individuals to sue people (and companies) who aid abortions.
But despite these companies’ pro-abortion stance, many will not say whether they’d hand over abortion seeker’s online info to cops and prosecutors. Motherboard reported Monday that after reaching out to most major social and telecommunication companies, none would say whether or not they would hand over users’ data to law enforcement regarding people seeking or aiding others with abortions. These companies often comply with data requests from law enforcement, sometimes under compulsion of a subpoena.
Property rental companies and hosts likewise could be in the crosshairs, according to Wilson. Some states like Connecticut have enacted shield laws that protect abortion providers who don’t operate in states that have banned the practice. Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak signed an executive order on Tuesday that restricts state agencies from handing over any information on people seeking abortions to other states. Fellow home rental app Vrbo and Airbnb provide liability insurance for hosts, but that kind of coverage won’t be available for those who intentionally break the law or assist someone else breaking the law, according to Wilson. Vrbo also did not respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
These conflicting state laws will only create more political havoc, and it’s only the beginning. We could soon see public fights between states on their abortion stance.
“It’s going to be tit for tat in all these different states,” Wilson said.
The Best Way to Help People Seeking Abortions in Other States
Most of the abortion funds Gizmodo spoke to said that the best thing people who want to help can do is to support abortion funds, which often work with nationwide partners, and practical support organizations. Others said that if folks are only interested in offering their homes, it’s important that they do so through an abortion fund to ensure they are vetted for safety.
Bounds said that some people looking to help can cause harm unintentionally. For instance, they stated that not everyone might know about trans people’s needs for abortion care. Amanda Carlson, director of the Cobalt Abortion Fund in Colorado, pointed out that she reminded people looking to offer their homes to others in need that abortion care is medical care. In some cases, abortions require surgery or require patients to be able to quickly access emergency services or the clinic where they got their procedure done.
Munson from Fund Texas Choice recommended donating to funds, volunteering with them, sharing their resources, and boosting their messages. Bounds, speaking for the Northwest Abortion Access Fund, agreed that people can support abortion funds by simply sharing information about them. This can be done by spreading the word at rallies, putting up stickers or flyers, or bringing them up in conversation.
“We believe that our community has the resources to get folks to the care that they need, it just takes a lot of mobilizing to assemble those resources and raise awareness so people who need help from funds can access our help,” they said.