Listen to Witches

Madeline Lane-McKinley

There’s no going back.

“What’s an abortion?” The question rang out from the backseat of my car, from my seven-year-old, as we drove to school one morning. The word had appeared several times on the news, but it would be a difficult one for a young child to track. Its definition seems to depend largely on political identity.

For liberals, abortion is a rite of passage on the way to normative family life. The pro-choice stories we hear are usually quite similar: predominantly white, heterosexual women in their late teens or early twenties who, in a consenting-yet-regretful way, found themselves pregnant, went to Planned Parenthood, terminated their pregnancy, and moved on with their lives. These stories make the pro-choice standpoint more palatable and they are premised on the idea that abortions happen when someone is “not ready.” The abortion becomes understandable only as an investment with future returns: an education, career, marriage, homeownership.

For conservatives, on the other hand, abortion is trauma upon trauma. In the convoluted, paranoiac logic of the lunatic right, you can always double down on a “worst case scenario.” “If a 12 year old is raped by her father and the father takes her to get an abortion,” writes pro-life influencer Matt Walsh, “the evidence of the crime will be destroyed and he will go on molesting his victim for years. If however the child is born, his crime will be discovered and she will be rescued from the abuse.” On behalf of this hypothetical, abused twelve-year-old, violent control is required in order to disclose the original sin of the family. It is not enough, in this mode of thinking, to have been raped by the family—the twelve-year-old must also be raped yet again by the state. In justifying even the most horrific “worst case scenario,” Walsh typifies the kind of thinking we can’t just laugh away, though the temptation is understandable.

The reality of abortion—I might tell my child, if I had the words—spreads far and wide of both the afterschool-special abortions of NPR-listening Ruth Bader Ginsburg fans and the “worst case scenarios” invoked by Walsh. Only 10 percent of the roughly 638,000 abortions performed in the United States each year are sought by adolescents. We hear all the time about those who are “not yet ready for pregnancy.” Hardly ever do we hear of those who have had enough of it altogether. But most decisions to terminate a pregnancy in the United States are made by people who have already given birth— 59 percent in 2015. Fourteen percent of abortions are obtained by people with three or more births. And then there are those who will never “feel ready,” some who are ready but cannot become pregnant, and some who don’t know and shouldn’t have to know. These statistics speak of stories untold.


There hasn’t been room for abortion stories until recently. How our stories may or may not influence legislation is yet to be determined—and this is where much of the liberal feminist energy of the moment will presumably go. In the meantime, however, we have our everyday lives, which we are left to navigate with dwindling social resources and a general sense of hopelessness. This is why we tell stories.

Joan Didion famously claimed that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I’ve always found that reasoning inadequate. We have to tell stories to each other, not just to ourselves, and we have to do so with a purpose beyond mere survival.

Just as we saw with the emergence of #MeToo in late 2016, the recent abortion bans have incited a moment of mass storytelling. This broad circulation of testimonies, under hashtags like #YouKnowMe, points to a different set of possibilities, both within and beyond the liberal framework of pro-choice.

The political possibilities of #YouKnowMe and other social media campaigns have been reduced to a politics of visibility, and the fixation on celebrity spokespersons is one predictable result. Like Alyssa Milano in 2016, Busy Philipps became the spokesperson of a viral social-media campaign with the following tweet: “1 in 4 women have had an abortion. Many people think they don’t know someone who has, but #youknowme. So let’s do this . . . let’s share it and start to end the shame.”

This end of shame and invisibility is not, ultimately, enough. And it doesn’t work for everyone. But it is a spark. It enlivens much more than what liberal feminism has rendered imaginable. Whether it is through its vision of the feminist empowerment of a first woman president or the human rights secured by pro-choice campaigns, liberal individualism has constricted and poisoned the political imagination of feminism. In these moments of mass-storytelling, what we witness, instead, is a collective refusal to obey its narrative framework. Although to identify as one of the “1 in 4” affirms our hyper-individuation, these stories are nonetheless wreaking havoc on liberal feminism. Unstoppable, collectivizing, their narrative logic is not the individual, but the riot.


Today’s battle over abortion has to expand its understanding of the terrain. We need a feminism that situates the struggle for autonomy over biological reproduction alongside all the other struggles against state control over our bodies. This feminism has to link abortion struggles to gender transition, and fully reject pro-choice liberal feminism’s erasure of transgender struggle. It must extend all the way from “worst case scenario” to everyday trauma.

Every year in the United States, there are seven-hundred to nine-hundred pregnancy-related deaths. Compare that to other national statistics: the roughly 950 women killed each year by an intimate partner, the 1,164 people killed by police in 2018. Pregnancy—even the most intentional, consensual, financially privileged versions of it—is extremely dangerous. But it is even more dangerous in poverty. In the US, black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy than white women. More than a third of pregnancies go to term with incomplete medical care, due to the prohibitive costs. The racial and economic disparities we see in the US make it the worst high-income country in the world to be pregnant. And these disparities bring clarity to a global crisis.

In countries without access to abortions or other forms of health care, we see the real implications of abortion restriction: femicide. According to the World Health Organization, worldwide there are approximately 830 preventable deaths each day with causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. That’s more than three hundred thousand deaths per year. More than half of these deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa. A third occur in South Asia.

The “right to choose” has been a crucial instrument of social change for feminists seeking the legalization of abortion, and I do not pretend this has been unimportant, but the framework of choice can never encompass the violence of compelled reproduction. Fighting the criminalization of abortion today will demand a different vocabulary. Individual rights only gets us so far. Instead, we have to start thinking about this in terms of our collective dreams, foreclosed by the individualizing language of white liberal feminism. We need to organize collectively, against and apart from the state.

“There isn’t a moving forward to move backward from. Things can get worse, in ways we’ve never really seen. And yet there’s much we can learn from our feminist past.”

We can see glimpses of what it might take in efforts already begun. For example, in early 2018, The Yellowhammer Fund began work providing funding and support for people seeking abortions in Alabama. There are only three abortion clinics statewide. As part of the National Network of Abortion Funds, the non-profit group takes as its focus forms of immediate care: funding, travel, lodging, as well as solidarity. Often, Yellowhammer Fund volunteers will accompany patients who have no one else. Volunteers drive patients home, take them to lunch, and purchase groceries. During its first year, the fund made possible 313 abortions. Since Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed the highly restrictive bill this May, the fund received more on a single day—one hundred thousand dollars—than it did in its first sixteen months. The fund has received so much attention that one of its key organizers, Amanda Reyes, says she can’t keep track of contributions anymore.

Part of why Reyes isn’t keeping track of the money is because that’s not actually the point. Helping people get safe abortions is what motivates her political work, and that involves a lot more than fundraising, and a lot more than writing letters to local legislators.

Work like this is crucial not just for its immediate impact but for shining a sorely needed light on contemporary struggles. Mutual aid is a necessary conditioning of organizing today, the basic requirement of participation for those whose struggles for survival preoccupy most of their days. When someone gets sick, loses their job, has to move, needs an abortion, or needs childcare, we can find ways of developing a sort of subterranean communism. We can create meal trains, pool funds, bring people together, act in solidarity in ways that are both short-term remedies and part of an enduring communist practice. These are not solutions in themselves so much as ways of making long-term political visions more possible in everyday life.

Care will always be political. Care does not sidetrack us from our struggles; it is what makes our politics and how our politics make us. We support each other how we need to be supported. It shouldn’t have to be more complicated than that.


“WE WILL NOT GO BACK” reads a sign hung with wire coat hangers at a recent protest in Birmingham. Feminist struggles have a history, but it isn’t a narrative of progress. There is not a single track upon which these struggles drive. There isn’t a moving forward to move backward from. Things can get worse, in ways we’ve never really seen. And yet there’s much we can learn from our feminist past.

The year of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, 1973, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English published Witches, Midwives, and Nurses, a history of women healers that brought special attention to the history of abortion before its recriminalization in the late nineteenth century:

For centuries women were doctors without degrees, barred from books and lectures, learning from each other, and passing on experience from neighbor to neighbor and mother to daughter. They were called “wise women” by the people, witches or charlatans by the authorities.

During the witch-hunt craze of the mid-fifteenth century into the sixteenth century, up to a hundred thousand women were executed, and many more brutally tortured. Witches were not only accused of sex crimes, conspiracy, and murder, but of unauthorized healing.

The femicide of the early modern period is reenacted, in later centuries, with the establishment of the medical profession, which formally excluded women. The legitimation of the medical profession effectively reinscribed the earlier edict of the Church: “If a woman dare to cure without having studied she is a witch and must die.”

By the 1840s, the criminalization of abortion in the United States was well underway, formalized by the newly established American Medical Association (AMA). The AMA was instrumental to the establishment of professional regulations that created a medical monopoly over reproduction and attempted to effectively outlaw midwives.

I grew up hearing stories about the years before Roe v. Wade from my grandma, a retired nurse. One of her jobs was in a Labor and Delivery unit in a hospital outside Chicago from 1960 and 1961. A lot was happening in those years. The first birth control pill, Enovid, was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1960. Within two years the pharmaceutical companies were receiving reports of negative side effects, including deaths. By the early ’60s, the American School and Health Association (in collaboration with the AMA) had just begun a nationwide “family life education” program. More than through such programming, reproductive health and methods of contraception were learned by word-of-mouth. Sometimes women would come into Labor and Deliveries, unaware that they were pregnant until the Emergency Room visit soon beforehand. There were often unofficial abortions, procedurally termed “D&Cs” (Dilation and Curettage), done by willing doctors. There is no data on the rate of at-home abortions—only anecdotes and more untold stories.

A few months ago, my grandma shared more memories with me. She told me about nurses and midwives who would provide abortions at women’s homes, safely and effectively, using a catheter through the cervix. Sometimes, these women would open their own homes as spaces of privacy and non-judgment, as well as companionship. These kinds of practices were necessary because women were dying all the time from self-induced abortions, performed dangerously and in isolation. These women knew that abortions would happen anyway—and that abortions should be able to happen with care.

Like the witches before them, these nurses and midwives inhabit the shadows of this history. These are the kinds of stories you can only really know in the abstract until you hear them told. Although I had read about radical abortionists like the Jane Collective—the Chicago-based underground group that provided safe abortions from in the years before Roe v. Wade—it felt different to hear about this history from my grandma. She was emboldened to talk with me, and worried about the world she’ll have to leave us with.

Many people feel emboldened right now, with stories we haven’t heard yet. They are stories about how to care for each other, no matter what. They are stories about how care can be dangerous, and how care can be learned from. Let’s listen to the grandmothers and the witches.