Funding Abortion with Seneca Joyner
Abortion rights are under attack across the country—from “heartbeat bills” aimed at destroying Roe v. Wade to “crisis pregnancy centers” that lie to pregnant people. But Seneca Joyner knows we can fight back—by organizing and paying for abortions.
Seneca is the manager of community organizing at Women’s Medical Fund, the oldest and largest abortion fund in the country. She’s also a Muslim, an anarchist, a parent, a historian, and…a joy to talk with. So listen up for a deep dive into abortion rights and access, what’s happening legally right now, and why Seneca is 1,000% sure that we will win.
Our average pledge at Women’s Medical Fund is $128. And we often talk with people about that because what that means is that before folks call us…they have pooled their resources to bring money to the table, but they’re short, on average—for this extremely safe, regular medical procedure—less than $130.—Seneca Joyner, manager of community organizing, Women’s Medical Fund
We talk about:
- Why organizing for abortion rights is just as crucial to raising money for abortion care. “If we are not organizing ourselves and our communities to ensure abortion access…abortion will be so heavily criminalized that it won’t matter that we have half a million dollars to give away. It will be impossible for folks to access care for any reason.”
- How black women’s real lives aren’t represented by the dominant narrative. “I grew up in the eighties when the dominant discourse was that… black women were literally ruining the black community. And then I looked around and I saw myself, but I saw my mother and her friends. They were so joyful.”
- Why crisis pregnancy centers are really anti-abortion centers—and their goals are to waste your time. “When people decide to have an abortion, they are resolute about it… And a way that our abortion opponents have hit on that has been extremely successful is that crisis pregnancy centers juuuust make it—they’ll add another week or two weeks in the ways that they obstruct people from actually finding a clinic.”
- How Muslim faith and abortion advocacy fit together. “I was more able to live not only my life as an abortion enthusiast, but also as a person who had an abortion that was a parent that loved people and wanted to see good in the world—it was actually coming over to Islam and doing this work as a Muslim woman that enabled me to do every part of it.”
All the links
- Women’s Medical Fund
- National Network of Abortion Funds
- Guttmacher Institute (check out their 2017 abortion stats, fact sheet on abortion worldwide, and stats on who gets abortions)
- What is the Hyde Amendment?
- The fallout from Planned Parenthood leaving Title X
- Tennessee’s attempt to turn its heartbeat bill into an all-out abortion ban
- A Vox explainer on heartbeat bills
- What Americans actually think about abortion
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Katel LeDu Hey, everyone, I’m Katel.
SWB And I’m Sara!
KL And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism—and what happens when you bring them all together.
SWB Today we are talking to our favorite abortion enthusiast and anarchist, Seneca Joyner. And yep, you heard that right! She is the Manager of Community Organizing at Women’s Medical Fund based right here in Philly. We are going to let her tell you all about what Women’s Medical Fund is, and why crisis pregnancy centers need to get shut down, and a whole bunch more. But before we get to Seneca, we want to talk a little bit about the state of abortion services here in 2019. And, Katel, you actually work with a grassroots org that’s helping people who need an abortion get a ride to their services, right?
KL Yeah! So, the group I work with is very grassroots. For folks who need them, we provide rides to or home from an abortion appointment. And we actually also provide hosting, so if a patient is having a two-day procedure, for example, and they are coming from another state to get care at one of the local clinics we serve, we have a few volunteers who will host them for the night so they can get to both appointments. It’s really great! And we’re operating under the radar because we’re just able to help a lot more people that way.
SWB So, how many requests do you get? What kind of volume do you handle?
KL Gosh. Well, when the group first started, we received two or three requests a week, and currently we’re seeing more like seven to ten—
KL Yeah. And as many as fifteen active requests at a time.
SWB That’s a lot!
KL Yeah! And when I joined the group two years ago, there were about thirty or forty volunteers and now we have more than eighty. That probably sounds like [laughs] a lot of folks, but it’s been tough to keep up with that kind of growth and demand.
SWB Yeah, especially because you’re talking about volunteers and you need people available on all kinds of different schedules to show up at different place and have cars. I know abortion care can be so stressful for people because it should be routine—we’re going to talk about that—but there’s so much running around they end up having to do. So, it seems like there must be a lot of unpredictability that can make it hard for your group to plan resources.
KL Yeah, definitely. To me, what that says is that even when abortion is legal, it’s still really difficult for the most vulnerable folks to actually access it. It’s really heartbreaking to me to think about someone getting to the point where they’re like, “okay, I’ve made that decision, I’ve found a safe place to get an abortion, and now this literally life changing procedure might not happen because I can’t get a ride.” And as a group, we’re always watching for any changes in abortion restrictions or laws because we know that could impact how we operate or how many people we can help.
SWB This just reminds me of how huge of a role poverty plays in this conversation. Something like access to transportation being the thing that makes or breaks your ability to get healthcare is just not okay.
SWB And, you know, Seneca talks a bit about this too. Women’s Medical Fund helps people pay for abortions and she says that their average grant is what? $127 dollars?
SWB And people will be short just that amount. That’s after tapping every resource they can and that’s what stops them. And I think about—that’s not that much!
KL No. I mean, I’ve had cavity fillings that were way pricier than that!
SWB Right. And speaking of something like getting a cavity filled, I always just think about, “yeah, okay, this is a normal, everyday procedure, people need it, but we could live in a world where fewer people would need abortions.” Not because there’s something wrong with the abortion itself—just like there’s nothing wrong with getting your cavity filled—but just simply because preventative medicine is usually cheaper and less invasive than getting a procedure. And we don’t make it easy for people to do that. We make it really hard for people, particularly poor people, to reduce their unintended pregnancy risk.
SWB We don’t make it cheap for them to do it, we don’t make it easy to access. It can be such an ordeal to figure out where to get birth control, or how to get it, and how to pay for it. And no matter what you did to increase access to those resources, humans would still have unintended pregnancies full-stop. That just happens.
SWB But I think we would have much fewer of them. And if we cared to treat people who can get pregnant, and especially poor people who can get pregnant, as whole, worthy humans, we could actually handle this issue in a way that was so much simpler and so much more straightforward, no matter what you ended up needing.
KL Yeah! And I’m so glad Seneca also touches on that—creating systems that make getting reproductive care routine for folks who usually, and otherwise, have to jump through hoops to get any kind of healthcare.
SWB Yeah, so speaking of routine care, can we actually talk about the utter normalcy of abortion?
SWB Because I was reading some stats from the Guttmacher Institute, which Seneca mentions in her interview. They’re a research org that studies reproductive rights and they gather just a ton of data. In 2017, they reported that almost one in four women will get an abortion by age forty-five. They also have this slightly older stat from 2011, where they reported that 19% of all pregnancies, not including miscarriages, result in abortion. And that it’s about 40% of all unintended pregnancies. So, four out of ten people who get pregnant on accident terminate their pregnancy. It’s happening all the time!
KL Yeah! And frankly, that’s unsurprising. I got my abortion when I was seventeen—pretty much in no capacity was I ready to have a child. And even though I had a lot of undue shame and guilt about my abortion for most of my adult life, I’ve realized since then that I know a lot of people who have had one!
SWB Right! You know, one of the National Abortion Fund’s slogans is “everybody loves somebody who has had an abortion.”
KL I love it!
SWB And I love you!
SWB Yeah! But, of course, you’re far from the only person I know. And that brings me to another stat. Did you know there is something like 56 million abortions performed globally each year?
KL Oh woah, okay, I didn’t know that! That does seriously make it seem like a very normal thing that clearly happens all the time!
SWB Right! And then another stat that I think is really useful to understand is who is getting abortions because you got one when you were seventeen, and I think a lot of times that’s who we are maybe trained to think about—that it’s this teen pregnancy “oh my gosh, what are we going to do about it” scenario. But it’s actually mostly people in their twenties and thirties. 85% of abortions go to people in their twenties or thirties.
SWB Also, most abortion recipients already have at least one kid. 60% of them already have a child. So, these aren’t cruel, child-hating people. These are just people making super straightforward, practical decisions about what is right for them, and their families, and their lives.
KL One thing I’m grateful for is learning that several women in my family had abortions for those exact reasons—they were trying not to have more children than they could support or afford, or it just wasn’t right for them!
SWB Something I found on the Guttmacher stats that was really interesting was how often religious people get abortions because it is…all the time! Even though being anti-abortion is often considered a religious issue, in 2017 Guttmacher found that 24% of abortion recipients in the US were Catholic, 17% were mainline Protestant, 13% were evangelical Protestant, and then another 8% were identifying with some other religion. So, that was over 60% that identified as religious and only 38% who said that they weren’t. And I think it just speaks to something that has always really frustrated me about this conversation, which is that people will talk about other people’s abortions as bad, and immoral, and due to them just being lazy sluts.
SWB But if they or their partner needs an abortion, well then suddenly they need it for a good reason. Theirs is justified, right? They deserve it, but those other people don’t deserve it. Think about every conservative congressman who has paid for his mistress’ abortion and then gone on to vote against abortion rights.
KL Ughh! Don’t even get me started on the number of times I’ve given a ride to a patient, walked with them into the clinic, and had to resist the desire to tell a clinic protestor to totally fuck off because they’re always from a religious group and ps. they’re only ever out when it’s nice. [laughs]
SWB I always just think, “really? This is how you’re going to spend your days?”
SWB There are so many problems in this world where people could actually use your time and attention. If you have this much flexibility in your schedule—
KL [laughing] Yes!
SWB —do something more productive!
KL Yes! [laughs]
SWB But I feel like there’s some kind of cognitive bias happening here and I don’t exactly know what it’s called or which one it it is, but where you think that your actions are justified, but someone else doing the same thing is not justified. Like if you cut in line because you are in a rush or you speed because you’re late for work, that’s okay because you have a good reason, but as soon as somebody does it to you, they’re an asshole.
KL Yeah, it’s so absurd. And it’s really inhuman.
SWB Yeah, and I think it’s so frustrating to see people who get abortions—which is, again, everyone, all kinds of people all over the place—but to see them so demonized. It just leads to that ongoing shame and secrecy cycle where it just keeps preventing us from being able to actually acknowledge how normal it is. I remember even as a younger person where I was totally pro-choice—I believed in abortion rights—but I still tended to categorize it as this huge deal, this massive moment in somebody’s life where it was this big choice they must have agonized over and had to be whispered about. And that abortions were always this incredibly extreme, or hard, or sad thing. And I know that is sometimes true and if that is true for anybody out there listening, that’s real and that’s your story. But what I didn’t realize was how many abortions were happening that were just like “I was pregnant and I didn’t want to be, so I got an abortion, and I rested, and then that was that”—there isn’t anything else to it.
SWB And that those stories are just as valid.
KL Yeah! For a long time, I think I had a really warped view of my experience because it was exactly that. It wasn’t something I agonized over—I was very sure about it—but it all happened under this very hushed tone. I never talked to anyone about it and I was ashamed for so long because it was seen as a big and unusual thing. And I wish someone had said to me that it’s natural and normal.
SWB Did you feel like you were supposed to be more upset about it than you were?
KL Yeah! And that I was the only one this had ever happened to! [both laugh]
SWB You and 56 million other people! [laughs]
KL [laughing] Yeah, exactly!
SWB So, as many of you know, this whole conversation about who gets abortions and what the facts are is so important right now because we are definitely looking at a moment where there’s a lot of legislation, both state and federally, that’s trying to make it even harder—and you’ll hear from Seneca, it’s already plenty hard—to get an abortion. So, at the federal level, you should definitely know about Planned Parenthood and the gag rule. So, what’s happening is that the Trump administration wants to bar any facility that is participating in Title X, which is a rule that provides federal family planning funding from even discussing abortion with a client. So, that’s what it’s called a gag rule—you’re gagged from even talking about abortions as a thing that exists.
SWB So, Health and Human Services tried to force all participants in the Title X program—like Planned Parenthood—to sign a pledge by August 19th stating that they would make a “good faith effort” to comply with this rule.
SWB And Planned Parenthood refused! They were like, “no, it is morally and medically wrong for us not to provide complete information to a patient; that’s not okay.” So, Planned Parenthood is withdrawing from Title X altogether, which is a huge problem because it means losing millions in grants. Even though none of the federal dollars have been going to abortion for decades, it still means a big impact on Planned Parenthood programs. So, this is going to be in the courts for a while, but one of the things that’s extra fucked up about it is that this is going to divert even more of that federal money towards those anti-abortion faith based providers, which we’re going to hear about from Seneca, are already a huge problem. [KL sighs]
KL Yeah. And then at the state level, we are hearing about heartbeat bills being proposed and passed more and more. So, no heartbeat bills have gone into effect yet and they’re all likely going to be challenged in court, but sixteen states have passed—
KL Yeah. —have passed or are trying to pass these bills, which amount to bans on abortion based on heartbeat detection. In Pennsylvania, currently the state’s law allows abortions up to twenty-four weeks, but there are two conservative republicans pushing for a heartbeat bill here too. Thankfully, Governor Wolf will veto it, but all of these bills and their supporters are trying to make this conservative conversation mainstream.
SWB Also did you see earlier this month, Tennessee started talking about a total ban on abortion? [KL sighs] They tried to pass a heartbeat bill a while back; they actually struggled to get that passed. So, now what they want to do is actually pass something even worse. So, they amended the bill to ban abortion once a woman knows she’s pregnant. [KL scoffs] Right. So, as of this recording, they’re expecting the state’s judiciary committee, which is seven republicans and two democrats, to approve that amendment. And then that means it’ll go out for a vote when the legislature reconvenes in January. And they’re doing it explicitly because they want to get it to the Supreme Court. This is the whole game—
SWB —that is what they’re up to right now. One of the judiciary committee members, Senator Kerry Roberts said it outright. He said, “we want a vehicle to lead the Supreme Court to consider, I hope, overturning or at least chipping away at Roe v. Wade.”
KL Ughh!! Sorry, I’m just going to existentially scream for the rest of this show!
SWB [laughing] I know! And knowing that they’re just trying to get this to the Supreme Court is so scary. I’m already constantly on RBG health watch, right? Even with Ruth Bader Ginsberg on the court, I still feel very anxious.
KL I know. Ruth, do those biceps curls, do not skip your trainer, eat kale; we need you.
SWB And it’s so frustrating because all of this is so entirely out of sync with what Americans actually think about abortion. In September of 2018, six out of ten Americans said they thought abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Only 37% thought that it should be illegal in all or most cases.
KL I mean, how can anyone argue that this isn’t blatant proof of how corrupt and fucked the political system has gotten?
SWB I know. I feel like there’s a parallel to gun control here where most Americans actually support gun control measures—at varying levels, but some level of gun control they would really support it.
SWB But the NRA has such a choke hold on Congress. And the same with abortion! The current legislative climate is just not in sync with Americans’ actual beliefs.
KL Phew, alright. So, I am really glad we’re talking about this and talking to people like Seneca because even though this is a lot to chew on, she left me feeling really optimistic.
SWB Yes! [short transition music plays]
Interview: Seneca Joyner
SWB Seneca Joyner is the manager of community organizing at Women’s Medical Fund, an abortion rights activist, and an anarchist! She earned a PhD in history, led Black Lives Matter Boston, and founded Nousotros, a research and education collective. And that is just the start. Seneca, welcome to Strong Feelings. It is so great to have you here live in the studio with us!
Seneca Joyner Hey all! It’s really nice to be here.
SWB So, first up, I mentioned that you are the manager of community organizing at Women’s Medical Fund, which is the largest and oldest abortion fund in the country. So, can you start by telling us more about Women’s Medical Fund and what you do there?
SJ Women’s Medical Fund was started in 1985. We like to say, “in reference to a moment of crisis.” The most important thing about that narrative is that it has been 35 years of successive moments of crisis. We speak of it specifically that way because we like to call attention to the fact that Women’s Medical Fund was literally created not only in response to the Hyde Amendment, which is a terrible piece of legislation, but Penslyvania also has its own version of the Hyde Amendment. So, the Hyde Amendment prevents people from using public insurance—Medicaid, Medicare—people who are contractors or employees of the federal government, they’re all prevented from using their health insurance to pay for abortion care. And also here in Pennsylvania, we have what was called Senate Bill 181 and that is basically the state version of that. So, once that was passed in 1984, a collection of Concerned Citizens—capital C, capital C [laughs]—got together. The writing was very much on the wall. Folks knew that this legislation was coming, it was a giant deal. Folks who were alive in 1995 will remember many of the public debates about that and they were ready to hit the ground running when the law went into effect. They just immediately instituted a plan of raising money and dispensing that money through folks in the community. Since that time, in a way that is both frustrating on one end and really powerful on another end, that need has not dissipated. And I say that it is powerful on one end because as the need has grown in some years and in some decades exponentially, our supporters, our volunteers, and now our staff has met that need. So, when we talk about Women’s Medical Fund being the oldest, we say we’ve been in operation now next year for 35 years. We also have the largest paid staff, which most people will be surprised to hear that’s five people. [laughs & SWB laughs] That’s huge! We have the largest paid staff and raise a significant amount of money.
SWB So, can I ask a little bit more about abortion funds? Because I think much of what you need to know is right there in the name, right? It’s a fund [SJ laughs] that pays for abortions. But can you tell us a little bit more about how abortion funds work?
SJ Mhmm. Our mission is that we wish to ensure abortion access now and always. We work together as a fund to raise money. And in addition to dispensing that money to folks who call into our helpline and to specific abortion providers who we have partnerships with, we also are committed to the idea that if we are not organizing ourselves and our communities to ensure abortion access, as I’m often extremely famous for saying, it won’t matter a goddamn how much money we raise. As we have seen just in the last decade, abortion will be so heavily criminalized that it won’t matter that we have half a million dollars to give away, it will be impossible for folks to access care for any reason. There is something very grassroots about abortion funds. I was speaking with a homie the other day about how abortion funds and bail funds are really doing a lot of significant work and meeting the needs of communities. Also the meeting of those needs is more in collaboration with the communities that we exist in than in a strictly 19th century philanthropic charity model. So, abortion funds are awesome! And you should not only give consistently [laughs] to your local abortion fund, but also supporting them is one of those things that we feel is really central to every liberation movement.
SWB Yeah, I love that direct action part of it. It makes me want to ask a little bit about the process for somebody on the other end. So, when somebody needs to get an abortion funded, how does that work? How do they get in touch and then what happens so that they can get the funding they need?
SJ So—and again, I’ll speak about our process because it’s both unique in terms of the size and also the demographics of the Philadelphia—and this is metro Philly, so we’re seeing Philly and the five counties. So, for us, we have two models. On one hand, we have relationships with specific abortion providers. We raise money and at the beginning of the year, we give these specific abortion providers a big pot of money. And in those instances, people who walk through the doors of those abortion clinics don’t have to contact us. They go get their care, we pledge a certain amount of money, and then monthly and also at the end of the year we get word of how much money has been used and how we have helped these people. There’s a variety of policies and processes that are related to that, specifically related to the independent abortion providers that we work with. Chief among them is the Women’s Centers. I don’t know if you guys know about the Women’s Centers, but they are an amazing—I hate to say “chain” because that makes it sound like it’s Burger King, [laughs] but it’s an amazing collection of abortion providers that stretch all the way from Connecticut down to Georgia. I actually had my first abortion at the Women’s Center in Atlanta—whoop whoop! ARC Southeast out here. So, our chief relationship with independent abortion providers is with them. Then there’s another funding model wherein folks can, for example, go to the Planned Parenthood that’s down on… is it 12th? That abortion clinic has the largest patient base by volume for reasons directly related to it’s Planned Parenthood, da, da, da. When people go there, there is some money that we give to Planned Parenthood, but mostly what happens then is that individuals are directed to contact us and they speak to an access counselor on our helpline. And our access counselor asks them a variety of questions based on what their resource situation looks like. And based on that conversation, there is a determination of what amount of pledge is made. It’s actually really, really fascinating. We have what are called routine calls, which I think for most people who don’t work in the abortion world or who have never had an abortion, the idea that you can have a routine call with someone who is seeking an abortion is sort of profound. But in case no one has ever told you, it is a completely safe and extremely normal medical procedure that happens all over the world hundreds of thousands of times a day. So, we have routine calls where people, for lack of a better characterization—I hate to say this—just don’t have the money. Depending on your gestational age, an abortion can cost between four and five hundred dollars. And since a significant portion of people living in Philadelphia and the five counties live on less than $12,000 a year. Coming up with that kind of money, especially when you’re literally excluded from using your health insurance if you have it, is just untenable. Our average pledge at Women’s Medical Fund is $128. And we often talk with people about that because what that means is that before folks call us—and this is always discussed on the helpline call—they have pooled their resources to bring money to the table, but they’re short on average for this extremely safe, regular medical procedure less than $130. And for a very quotidian, completely ubiquitous procedure, it is one that actually does, as you guys are probably well aware, shape the lives of people in really profound ways. So, sometimes when we’re discussing with people what is the difference between making this important decision about your life and not being able to, it’s usually $120 for the people that call our helpline. So, yeah! We make this pledge and we have a process where that money then follows the person no matter where they’re going to get their procedure. The Pennsylvania abortion control laws set out a bunch of completely arbitrary, totally punitive measures that make it not only extremely expensive to access abortion care relative to the kind of procedure that it is, but also really onerous. One of the most significant ones is that there is a 24-hour waiting period that people are expected to endure. Despite coming to the abortion clinic with a decision, they have to then wait 24 hours and come back for their procedure. So, that’s not only a time cost—because, of course, as the pregnancy gets further along, it becomes more expensive—but then there’s also a practical cost to that. The vast majority of people accessing abortion care are already parents. And as a parent myself, having to arrange childcare to go to a doctor’s appointment that is fully covered by my health insurance is its own machiavellian, byzantine process. [SWB laughs] So, to try [laughs]—and oftentimes just for that, I have literally brought my son to my healthcare appointments. The obstacles of accessing care in that capacity usually extend the time it takes between when an individual says, “I absolutely want to get this abortion, I’ve decided I want to do it” and when they can actually come in for the appointment. And that usually has a direct effect on how much the procedure costs. So, in order to cut down on people having to call us multiple times or just to make it less frustrating and onerous for folks to get the care that they need, we say, “all right, this is—I sort of have us envisioning a little ticket that we clip on their name and their contact information. So, depending on what other obstacles crop up between the really prosaic and the really difficult—so sometimes people go into clinic, for example, and they find out they’re farther along than they expect. Almost every state in the union has a cap on gestational age except for two states. We have one here in Pennsylvania that is relatively late, but also for some people, they have to go outside of the state for care. And sometimes that can not only dramatically raise the cost of procedure, but it’s also something that has be arranged. So, instead of people having to deal with those things and then also keep calling us back, we sort of pin the money to the person and it follows them wherever they go. Because again, we’re in a situation in metro Philly where there are at least five places to access abortion care. So, people have a little bit more flexibility and choice, and we just want to make it that much easier for them. Because it’s already a soul crushing, needlessly punitive process that the state makes both providers and patients go through. And we just want to say this is just one way that we are hoping that it is less difficult for you as someone making this decision for yourself and your family. And then also it helps us streamline the policies and procedures.
KL So, can you tell us more about what led up to that? How did you get into organizing for abortion rights and reproduction rights?
SJ So, I actually first started as an abortion enthusiast, and I have recently begun to refer to myself as that. As someone who has had multiple abortions, I am a huge fan! So, when I was a tiny, baby anarchist, I saw a flyer when I was living in Atlanta that said that they needed volunteer help at the Women’s Center down there. So, that was where I got started. That turned out to be the clinic that was bombed, which in and of itself was an extremely difficult experience. [laughs awkwardly] Not to put too fine a point on it, but that was where I got going. And then that experience of appreciating that there were people who got pregnant and didn’t want to be pregnant, and then there were other people solely because they wanted to control their lives were getting in the way of this. It really I would say—not overdetermined—but [laughs] definitely had a dramatic influence on all of the work that I would do later in life. So, I eventually became a historian. The history of abortion and accessing abortion care for black women became a central part of my work as a scholar, of Latin American and the Caribbean. So, I had always been supportive of it and doing the work. I became more active in it when I myself had my first abortion. I’ve since then had another one after the birth of my son. And just living my life as someone who can and has been pregnant, all of these various iterations of different levels of support—mainly in terms of because I didn’t have monetary resources, it was mainly in terms of me volunteering. I was a volunteer for two years with the Philadelphia Reproductive Freedom Collective. I was then invited to be on the board of directors for Women’s Medical Fund, which I was for about a year? And then the person who held my position before this transitioned to another job and I applied for it because I was like, “this is the dream job! I get to organize people and also advocate for abortion strenuously? Sign me up.” So, I’ve been with WMF for four years now, but just as a staff member very recently.
KL What was your first experience with crisis pregnancy centers and can you talk a little bit about what those are and in your experience why their existence is problematic and impactful to this whole conversation?
SJ So, I will say my first experience with a crisis pregnancy center, like most people, happened when I was first looking to access abortion care. The first number that actually came up sounded like an abortion clinic, but turned out to absolutely not be that. [laughs] I didn’t figure that out until I had had several conversations with this person. At the end of the day, I was able to access my abortion care, but that was my first experience with it. And then it would be almost twenty years before I would ever think about it again. We like to refer to them as what they are, which is “anti-abortion centers.” There are dozens of problems [laughs] with crisis pregnancy centers or anti-abortion centers, but two of the biggest problems are that they wholly specialize in obstructing people from accessing abortion care. They do that through a variety of ways—they lie to individuals, they shame them. But what we really found out was that they actually specialize in adding to the amount of time that it takes. Most people are not aware because the narrative around who gets abortions and why is very anti-women and anti-poor. But when people decide to have an abortion, they are resolute about it. There is a whole host of reasons why people decide to make that choice, but once the decision is made, they are resolute. And a way that our abortion opponents have hit on that has been extremely successful is that crisis pregnancy centers juuuust take it—they’ll add another week or two weeks in the ways that they obstruct people from actually finding a clinic, which is what we see as being the most frequent reason that people contact them. So, that’s one way; they are literally obstructive to people accessing care. The other way that they are so onerous and terrible is that here in Philadelphia, like everywhere else that they operate, they actually receive millions and millions and millions of dollars. So, here in Pennsylvania, as is the case in I think 17 other states, they not only receive money through contracts with the Philadelphia city government, but they also receive TANF money—for folks that aren’t familiar, that’s the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families—thanks to the Welfare Reform Act. A specific setof guidelines directly meant to encourage heterosexual two parent families gives the broadest latitude for these organizations to operate from the federal level. And the result is they get millions of dollars. One of the things that we found out through the CPC campaign is that they have these storefronts that are overwhelmingly located in predominantly non-white, predominantly extremely poor neighborhoods. They offer resources that seem too good to be true because they are—free pregnancy tests, we’ll give you diapers, we’ll help folks struggling with the pregnancy, we’ll give them help finding housing, jobs, or getting benefits. And all of that is shenanigans. And there’s no oversight to that; there’s no federal agency or even state agency that checks, they just get millions of dollars from New Alternatives, which is another national organization that was started here in Pennsylvania. And it’s expressly intended to do what it has done. So, Guttmacher Institute—which folks may or may not be familiar with, it’s a fantastic reproductive rights and health organization—they just recently published a study and they said that on average, it’s actually a two week extension. So, in those two ways, they are literally siphoning money—we say “taking public money from public good”—to do the evangelical work of these Christian organizations. And also they are successful in just running out the clock in all of the ways that they are shaming and spiteful and unhelpful to people who are in oftentimes the most stressful and desperate parts of their lives. It is, to me, a moral outrage, but also it is rife with corruption, zero oversight, and I would argue a direct affront to our notion of a civil society that isn’t run by an oligarchy of Catholic priests but…that’s just me. [laughs & SWB laughs]
SWB They’re awful and they’re everywhere!
SJ They’re everywhere.
SWB And I’m sure that people listening can probably imagine having driven by those crisis pregnancy centers in their own states that are called “Choices” or something, except they’re often about not choices at all.
SJ And oftentimes—as we see in Pennsylvania—they oftentimes name themselves a name that is identical to the actual abortion clinic where they are. There is a lot of examples from Connecticut. Actually, in a lot of places throughout the country, the anti-abortion center will be in the same, sometimes attached to the same building. Our homies out in Kentucky, we were talking with them about this specific problem. And I have to say this, our opposition is extremely well organized, and well funded, and they have strategies that work. But I will also say this—and this is also a testament to how the communities and the people are stronger than the opposition—folks know that. What we have found is that people know that they are liars, and that they know that—what they have consistently have expressed to us is there’s also no alternative. So, for example, if you don’t have health insurance and you need a pregnancy test. Some people don’t realize you can just get the ones at the dollar store; they’re all the same test, they all work [laughs] totally the same. But folks use these places as resources and one of the things that we say is that you shouldn’t have to. People are forced—either through state coercion or the economic coercion of poverty—to have to confront these people that don’t trust them, they don’t value them, and that they shame them and they punish them for their reproductive choices. And we say, “they shouldn’t have to do that.” Just minimally, that is an outrage. But in Philadelphia, it’s so hard to not have to experience that violence.
SWB But, Seneca, you are an abortion enthusiast!
SJ Yeah! [laughs]
SWB You are also a Muslim.
SWB And I’m not sure that most people…expect that combination. So, I’m curious if you can tell us about how your faith fits into your work?
SJ I feel like my conversion to Islam was one of the most empowering and significant instances of my life, as both a black parent and a black anarchist. And one of the things that helped me know the rightness of that position besides genuinely feeling Allah’s love within my heart was that I was—over the years of living in Atlanta and living in Boston and now living here in Philadelphia—I was actually able to be in community with a lot of really amazing, radical black and Asian Muslims, many of whom identified as neither women nor men. So, extremely radical gender nonconforming and female identified folks. And we were able to be in community and conversation with each other. So, I was able to see not only the direct impact of the teachings of Islam and other activists—literally seeing how do you make this work knowing what your ethics are and what the love that you receive from Allah is in your heart, how do you make this work in your community? How do you make this jibe with people that ethnically and religiously do and don’t fit with you? One of my deepest disappointments with Christianity was that it did not align with the way that I felt about myself as the perfect being [laughs] that was created by a god, but also it just seemed anathema to everything that I saw in the natural world around me. And so I was more able to live not only my life as an abortion enthusiast, but also as a person who had an abortion that was a parent that loved people and wanted to see good in the world—it was actually coming over to Islam and doing this work as a Muslim woman that enabled me to do every part of it. It’s hard because of the anti-Muslim sentiment that exists in the United States that is both anti-Asian, and anti-black, and anti-women. So, it should be surprising that most of the strongest and best beloved voices advocating this—this perspective on Islam as being a religion of peace and equity among all genders—are people who don’t identify as men or don’t identify as white. So, of course, the dominant narrative is that Islam is backward, it’s antithetical, despite that literally being opposite of the case. So, part of my effort is to bring more attention to that. But I personally found, not surprisingly, more freedom as a Muslim abortion enthusiast than I had ever found being someone who was growing up in a Christian evangelical family where none of that was possible.
KL So, you talked a little bit about Boston earlier and you were there for grad school, right?
SJ I was. [laughs]
KL What were you focused on in grad school and what was your experience like there?
SJ My speciality was world history; I got a PhD in world history. We laugh that that means that we are all—those of us with world history PhDs—we are all literal experts on the entire history of the entire world. But for practical reasons, I have a speciality. So, my deep love and my deep interest in the work of world history focuses on Latin American and the Caribbean. I’m an expert on urbanism and I’m also an expert on race and gender as it directly relates to women of African descent. I am deeply interested in how cities, and blackness, and womanhood both are shaped by and shaped notions of modernity. And, unsurprisingly, whether or not you get and stay pregnant has—especially during that period at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century—was a central point of what it meant to be modern and how individuals of African descent relate to the state. As a black woman, I am endlessly fascinated by our capacity to be radical, to be on the cutting edge of liberation, and also—despite being the mule of the world—joyful and generative and exciting and lovely. So, I grew up in the eighties when the dominant discourse was that that was impossible—that black women were literally ruining the black community. And then I looked around and I saw myself, but I saw my mother and her friends. They were so joyful, right? They worked or whatever, but my mom and my grandmother were in unions, they would have these great parties. I saw a life that was not represented by the dominant narrative. So, when I was a tiny, baby historian, I was really interested to see, well, was that different other places? And what I have experienced, and what I have studied, and what I have spoken on in the x amount of decades since I’ve been a scholar, is that it actually is a common thread. And grad school was terrible. I don’t wanna—[laughs] I forgot that part! It was awful, [laughs] it broke my spirit. The experience of doing my PhD, particularly in Boston, which is a city that, like Philadelphia, likes to cloak itself in this white liberalism. And the kind of liberalism that is white supremacy, right? Only in America does liberal mean anything good. [laughs] So, the deep irony of it, actually having experienced that—it was awful. I nearly lost my life, I definitely lost things that were important to me. And that experience in and of itself made me decide that I didn’t want to continue to work in institutional academia; universities themselves are gentrification pumps. And ethically—besides my horrible experience of being an adjunct and being a PhD student—but ethically, as I decided what I wanted my professional life to look like, I couldn’t continue to be an anarchist that also works in a university that is pushing and pulling people in and out of communities.
SWB Yeah, so speaking of being an anarchist. You have brought that up a few times—
SWB —and I would love for you to tell us just a little bit more about what that means for you. Because I think there is a certain conception people might have about what an anarchist looks like. It might be sort of a punk rock dude.
SJ White crust punk? [laughs]
SWB A white crust punk who is—
SWB —throwing a pipe bomb at a car dealership, right?
SJ Yeah, absolutely.
SJ I think we can all agree that we’re supposed to throw them at our elected officials. [KL & SWB laugh] That’s where they’re wrong and we’ve talked about that. [laughs]
SWB So, yeah! Give us the real deal. What is anarchism to you and how does it shape the work that you do?
SJ The idea that people should just have given authority over me, specifically, and then also over anyone was never something I bought into as a tiny, baby person. [laughs] So, I think I always was an anarchist. This idea that power is supposed to be despotic—that there are these very rigid hierarchies, not based on skills or experience, but that we just receive a particular social order that is based on these…I’ll just say it: bullshit social contracts, and that we are given prescribed roles and that it is our duty to live into them. Anarchy disagrees with all of that. At its core, most fundamentally, it disagrees with the notion of the state. As a historian and as an anarchist, I know for a fact that the state is terrible; we don’t need them and we should not have them. But on a personal level, as a black anarchist, I appreciate the notions of self determination and personal autonomy where we are working in collaboration with people, but the objective of society is to endlessly expand the opportunities for liberation for everybody and not to constrict them. Which is oftentimes what people fail to appreciate. The whole point of anarchism is that we should be working towards the individual and the collective liberation of all people through a variety of really orderly principles. Lucy E. Parsons, who is the most famous hardly known [laughs] black anarchist that has ever lived—in her principles on anarchy, she speaks specifically about the necessity of education and discourse among anarchists. So, for me, it was both—like I said with Islam—an opportunity to sort of see a personality conclusion reflected in a way of organizing groups in society. And also as I grew up and studied more about it, I was like, “oh yeah, this is absolutely 100% right on board.” I feel like fundamentally in contradiction to what white supremacy and capitalism say, when you explain anarchism to people, it oftentimes really jibes with how they feel about themselves! Sometimes you have to do a little consciousness transformation because there’s a lot about capitalism and white supremacy that is very negative. It sort of pretends that there is a baseline human nature that is a priori—that exists outside the centuries of white supremacy that we’ve been socialized to. But in my community, what I had been experiencing growing up and then just in casual conversations with people, we were living as stateless people. For black folks living in most of this country during most of the time that it has existed, we exist as the sort of stateless people who are used as a foil for citizenships. For example, when I was organizing this Black Lives Matter, people would say, “well, what are we going to do without police?” And, you know, me and my other comrades would be like, “so the police only come around in our neighborhood to steal stuff and kill people.” [laughs] So, I don’t know! I’ve never ever had an experience where a police officer helped me do anything. So, what I had realized as I continued to mature as a scholar and as an intellectual was that this was the experience of the vast majority of black people, not just in the United States, but also in Asia and Africa and the rest of the Americas. We had an experience of being outside of the body politic and that experienced had trained us up. I think I mentioned before about these traditions of self defense and collaboration. So, when the police don’t come when you call them, what do you do when there’s an emergency? Again, oftentimes, people who don’t have that experience of being a stateless person here in the country that you live in, they’re like, “well, what do you do?” And it’s like, “well, they don’t ever come, so this is what we do to protect our property, to protect our lives, that kind of stuff.” So, that was something that we were—I say we—I was practicing for a very, very long time. That there is a love that some people have of not just established authority, but also state authority that a) I think as a movement, abortion activists need to disabuse themselves of. Again, Lucy Parsons said famously, “we can not seek state solutions to state violence; it will never be possible.” One of the more brilliant conversations I had with another comrade is that in an effort to decolonize abortion activism, we need to join with our comrades and our folks who are also trying to decriminialize sex work. Because if you continue to try to legislate it, you will fail because ultimately, the state also seeks a monopoly on violence. So, what we have experienced, for example, since the passage of Roe v. Wade is exactly an example of what happens. They say that we can have privacy, and then not only is that a myth because poor people living under a fascist state have no privacy, but that also there was plenty of room and space and time to take away our ability to fund it. So, yes, quote-unquote I have my “privacy” before the law, but actually it’s a myth. And also my insurance coverage can’t do it, I can’t go to the clinic down the street. It’s deeply criminalized at every step of the way. So, this experience of rejecting the state, of not trying to ever put them at the center of our solutions for liberation, for me, again has been really really affirming.
SWB So, Seneca, we are about out of time. Before we go, I want to ask you one question—a quick question—for our listeners. Because we’ve talked about a lot of things that are kind of heavy topics—
SWB —but you also bring a lot of joy to the conversation. And you brought that up! Wanting to kind of come to things with joy. And I’m curious—how do you stay motivated and positive and joyful while you’re also dealing with this current landscape?
SJ I find so much joy in my community. Overwhelmingly, the people that I count among my personal friends are also people who do this work. Most of them do abortion work, but across the spectrum it’s a lot of other radical anarchists, a lot of radical academics, and folks who do movement work broadly defined. We find joy in each other. We make it an express practice to not let each other forget how important we are to each other. So, I have these deep, intimate, really supportive and generative relationships with people. We experience similar job categories and titles, but also we laugh and we love each other, and we drink too much, and we goof around, and we’re ridiculous. And, again, I think this is also where Islam has cropped up into my life. I am able to be more generous with myself and other people because that is one of the principle teachings of my faith. And that is the thing that has kept me going. I am also 1000% convinced that we will win. I know that we will. I know it more than anything. Honestly. [laughs] More than anything. So, those things keep me working. And to love my son and to think that this is not at all a lost cause. We joke all the time, we’ll be like, “what? Abortions for everyone! Good meeting, everybody!” You know what I mean? [KL laughs] That amount of levity where we can sort of wink and nod at the task ahead of us, but also the hilarity of feeling like we have already done so much and that that work is really powerful and sustaining.
KL Thank you so much, Seneca, for joining us! Where can folks find out more about the Women’s Medical Fund?
SJ Oh yeah! So, please seek us out on the Facebooks, on the social medias. Go to womensmedicalfund.org—that is our main site. There is information about all of the things that we are up to and also an opportunity to make donations, which I can not stress enough. We need, and we love, and we appreciate you. And for folks who are interested [laughs] in doing more grassroots volunteering, please seek us out on Facebook. It’s the Philadelphia Reproductive Freedom Collective. We are always looking for brave souls and bright minds.
KL Great. Thank you!
SJ Thank you!
Fuck Yeah of The Week
KL So, Sara, what is our “fuck yeah” this week?
SWB Oh my gosh, we have a joint “fuck yeah” for sure!
KL Uhh yes!
SWB By the time you all hear this, we’re going to be out of this country, sorry bye!
KL Byeee! [both laugh]
SWB We’re going to go to Portugal!
KL Oh my god, I can’t wait!
SWB Yeah! We’re going to Portugal with our partners and some other friends. And I’m so excited to sit on the beach with you and drink so vino verde and eat some sardines—okay, a lot of sardines.
KL Mhmm. Lots!
SWB And do not that much else.
KL Yeah, I’m ready for it.
SWB Fuck yeah! Also, second “fuck yeah” to us planning ahead.
KL Uh, that is a great “fuck yeah.”
SWB Oh gosh, we’re so organized! [KL laughs] But no, we’ve worked so well to get the podcast ready so that you all are getting fresh episodes even while we’re out. And damn, I am proud of us because we were kind of hustling through it.
KL I am too! Fuck yeah. See you on vacation!
SWB See you on vacation! Fuck yeah. Well, that’s it for us this week. Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn from Edit Audio. Our theme music is Deprogrammed by Blowdryer, and you can check them out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thank you so much to Seneca Joyner for joining us today and thank you to everyone out there listening. If you liked our show, please give us a rating or subscribe to us if you haven’t yet. And—make sure you get Strong Feelings in your inbox. Get our newsletter at StrongFeelings.co. See you all next week. Bye! [theme music plays for 15 seconds and fades out]