‘Going camping’ or ‘knitting’: TikTokers use codewords to help people in the US seeking abortions

Since Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision guaranteeing the right to an abortion, was overturned in the United States, dozens of advocates have turned to TikTok to try and offer help to those in states where abortion has become illegal. But they don’t use the word “abortion” outright, instead opting to use coded language like “going camping” or “taking a trip”. However, our Observer, who works in an abortion rights organisation, says these videos may be harmful despite their good intentions.

“Camping is still legal in Virginia […] I will do anything to help you.” Since Roe v. Wade was overturned on June 24, messages like that have been circulating widely on TikTok. But they have nothing to do with camping. Instead, the creators of these videos are discreetly offering their help to people seeking abortions who live in states where it has been banned

On TikTok, the videos follow a formula: a person looks at the camera silently, while text on-screen indicates that he or she is ready to help those who want to “go camping”, “go see their family” or “learn to knit” in a neighbouring state or even in Canada.

The videos are accompanied by the song “Paris” by The Chainsmokers, and end with the lyrics “If we go down, we go down together“. The song has become an anthem of solidarity among abortion rights advocates on the social network.

@comebackkaylaurine

good luck stopping what ya’ll started…we will not go quietly! #prochoice #fyp #ifwegodownthenwegodowntogether CALLING ALL #women #men #nonbinary any #human !!

♬ What would you do – Bitch

“I live 45 minutes from Niagara Falls and there’s tons of cool places to go,” this TikToker writes. Niagara Falls is notably near the US border with Canada.

This online solidarity is so strong that on social networks, “going camping” has become a synonym for “abortion”. The message is especially directed at people who live in states where abortion is banned or soon to be banned. 

Le mouvement de solidarité a dépassé les frontières de l’Amérique du Nord. Des gens ont proposé de l’aide depuis l’Australie, l’Europe etc, en solidarité également à d’autres pays voisins où l’avortement est interdit. Ce TikTok filmé en France propose ainsi d’aider les Polonaises qui souhaitent avorter.

Nevertheless, some people who work in pro-choice and abortion rights organisations in the United States say that this kind of coded language could cause more harm than good. 

‘People looking for help with an abortion may miss the message’ 

Max Carwile is a member of the Abortion Access Fund, an organisation that fights for abortion rights nationwide. She lives in Tennesse, a state that is about to sign an abortion ban into law. She told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that using coded language on TikTok may not be the best option if you really want to help someone who is seeking an abortion.

Most people who use this coded language are doing it to help, and I think they think that people who are against abortion won’t find their posts.  But it’s become so common that people who follow this issue know exactly what ‘going camping’ means. 

But people who are looking for help with an abortion may not be familiar with the language associated with the pro-choice community. Therefore, they may not understand what it means and may easily miss the message. 

But these messages can be used to encourage people who know these codes. But I think it’s important to use the word ‘abortion’ because it helps to de-stigmatise it.

“J’habite à 4 heures de la frontière du Montana. Vous pouvez venir, si vous voulez apprendre à tricoter.”
The people who use the coded language are putting the cart before the horse, and anticipating that it will be dangerous to use the right terms. Right now, nothing can happen to you legally speaking if you help someone get an abortion.

But in some states, like in Texas, that could soon be illegal. But even then, if you just offer to help, no one can say anything. It’s more like if you said, ‘I drove someone out of Texas to get an abortion’.

But I think we need to make sure that these kinds of laws never come into effect.

In Texas, some legislators have claimed that the state can criminalise any person who “furnishes the means” for an abortion, even if it takes place out of state. The group of conservative lawmakers also outlined prospective legislation that would allow individuals to sue someone for financially assisting a Texan with an abortion.

Similar bills have been proposed in Arkansas and Missouri. 

‘It’s not always clear who is behind these posts’

The American and Canadian TikTokers offering to help people “go camping” even go as far as to offer accommodations or money to pay for travel expenses for people who need to travel out of state to have an abortion.

In the same spirit, many groups have sprung up on other social media networks to organise acts of solidarity, such as The Auntie Network on Reddit and Facebook.

Carwile continued:

This coded language creates a grey zone and it’s not always clear who is behind these posts. The people offering their help might very well be lying about their intentions. It’s the same problem [for the online solidarity networks that emerged in late June]. I am happy to see this solidarity, but we can’t have total certainty about people online. You don’t know if people out there really do want to help or whether they are trying to trap you. There can be a lot of risk. People who are against abortion might want to use these networks to reach people trying to get abortions.

‘Most of these people sincerely believe they are helping’

Many professionals working in the sector also worry about the inexperience of people who are offering their help on social media, which could in some cases put people seeking abortions in danger.

For example, people have warned about the success of some TikTok videos offering herbal alternatives to induce abortion. Carwile explained:

These remedies [shared on TikTok] are not medically safe. What we need to do is advise and advocate for people to take safe abortion pills, which can be prescribed remotely and shipped in the mail [Editor’s note: the delivery of abortion medications by mail is legal in most states but still an uncertain grey area in the US].

People [seeking abortions] are afraid right now, so they will take all the help they can get. And many people want to offer whatever help they can. I think that most of these people sincerely believe they are helping. 

But they are not professionals. The best thing to do is to send messages to people that you are close to and let them know that you can help them if they need. People also need to look up their own abortion organisations that are aware of privacy matters and know the laws. People need to look for help through abortion funds and organisations, and we need to react before things get even worse.

https://observers.france24.com/en/americas/20220803-tiktok-code-words-abortion-roe-v-wade-going-camping

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