[Photos by Mara Cavallaro; Lead photo: Verónica Cruz, founder of Las Libres, the Mexican feminist organization guaranteeing free abortion pills for people in the U.S., poses for a portrait during a fundraising event at Acción Latina on Dec. 10. The group raised $2,220 to fund Las Libres’ abortion kits.]
Spike Kahn had been fundraising for abortion clinics in Texas when the Dobbs ruling forced them all to shut down. “I’m watching the rights of women go backwards,” the 64 year-old, who celebrated Roe v. Wade in high school, lamented. “I have to do something.” So she followed the clinics she had been funding closely, supporting from afar as they moved to neighboring states where abortion remained legal. At the same time, she began searching for other solutions. “The clinic model is no longer sustainable,” she said, or enough—especially considering how difficult traveling for healthcare can be.
When she was just 22 years old, and making $300 a month working in Visalia, California, Kahn got pregnant. “I couldn’t support myself, let alone another person,” she remembers. And because Visalia had no clinics, she had to travel to Fresno for her abortion. Even with Roe as the “law of the land,” and even in a blue state like California, Kahn saw massive inequalities in abortion access.
A few years later, at the women’s center of San Francisco General, she saw a sign on the door about abortions: Do you need a ride? Do you need childcare? Do you need translation? We can help you, it said. At the time, she was working as a union representative, commuting back and forth between San Francisco, where she now lived, and Merced. “I contacted the number…because I had an empty car and could provide rides,” she explained.
From then on, Spike began hosting girls and women who traveled to have abortions on her couch, a leather sofa in a brick-walled apartment a couple blocks from the hospital. Over the next three decades, up until COVID, she estimates that she hosted hundreds of women—“maybe even 1,000.” Most of them came up from the San Joaquin Valley, when complicating factors like prior C-sections demanded specialized care that local clinics couldn’t offer. Most were already mothers. And because Spike spoke Spanish, most were Latina.
In California, 40 percent of counties—mostly rural—have no clinics that provide abortions. The San Francisco Chronicle calls the broader Central Valley, which is also largely Latinx, an abortion “access desert.” Traveling either north to the Bay Area or south to L.A. has been a common practice for people in need of abortion care for a while now—a reminder that legality doesn’t guarantee access, and that, as is often the case, already marginalized communities are most affected by abortion restrictions. The 1976 Hyde amendment, for instance, famously prevented the federal funding of abortions, leaving it up to state governments—many of them hostile—to decide whether healthcare programs would cover the costs of abortion care. “Even before the fall of Roe, Latinas/xs…didn’t have equal access to abortion,” the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice tweeted in August. Post-Roe, they will also be disproportionately affected.
The contemporary abortion justice movement in the U.S. recognizes exactly that—and seeks to ensure equitable access for people of color and low-income folks to reproductive healthcare. In its mission and strategy, it draws heavily from Latin American feminist groups that have mobilized for decades for abortions to be not only legal and safe but also free.
One of those groups, Las Libres—the Mexican feminist organization guaranteeing free abortion pills for people in the U.S.—started making national headlines post-Roe. Volunteers in its network, known as acompañantes, share stories about their own experiences with “the pill,” and walk pregnant people through what to expect. It’s a model designed to deliver interpersonal care when social structures fail us. And it has been successful.
Today, Las Libres can receive over 100 requests for help daily from the U.S., and in total, they estimate they’ve been able to help thousands of people in the U.S. have abortions. “Before, in Mexico and all of Latin America, the United States was the objective we sought to reach. We all wanted to have our own Roe v. Wade,” the group’s founder, Verónica Cruz, said. But now that Mexico has decriminalized abortion, “the U.S. has to learn from Latin America. And what is still to come needs to be better than Roe. The fight of the next decade, around the world, is for universal access.”
Spike first learned about Las Libres in November, and was immediately inspired by their approach. “The pill is something that can show up at your mailbox that can cut through all of those bureaucracies and draconian laws and get women access,” she told El Tecolote. “Access [for] a woman who can’t get to a clinic, who can’t travel across state lines, who has kids at home [or] a job that they can’t miss.” That same week, she emailed Verónica Cruz a short message—just four lines—with the subject “Hola.” It began, “Somos un grupo de mujeres en San Francisco, California…Queremos apoyarles en su trabajo de distribuir las medicinas para abortos a todas.” The next day, the two women met over Zoom, and by the next week after that, they had planned a fundraising event in San Francisco’s Mission District, where I met Spike for the first time.
She wore a Black Lives Matter shirt and a butterfly-print mask, wasted no time, and spoke her mind, commanding the room with her confidence. But like many others in the ‘post-Roe abortion underground,’ she was worried. When we spoke, we were careful not to mention the name of her fundraising group, or any of its donors. When I offered to delete the recording of our interview following publication, she quickly agreed. It was a matter of safety.
Though the immediate aftermath of Dobbs was the end of medically administered abortions in states like Texas, Alabama, and Oklahoma, a more insidious, far-reaching result has been the U.S. surveillance state expanding into the most private of spaces, and treating them as a battleground—sparking fear about period trackers, text messages, and out-of-state travel. Often, people who reach out to Las Libres for help use fake Instagram accounts, or the encrypted messaging app Signal.
In Texas, mailing pills within the state to “facilitate a self-induced abortion…is a felony punishable by up to two years in prison,” the New Yorker reported. In Mississippi, the same act could mean up to five. It’s with good reason that members of Las Libres’ network, and those who fundraise for it, are cautious. But as far as their organizational model goes, it’s fairly foolproof. When you take an abortion pill, it dissolves in your body without a trace. The pills mimic a natural miscarriage, which happens in about 10-20 percent of pregnancies anyway. “There is [currently] no way for anyone to know as long as [you] don’t say that [you] used pills,” Dr. Eleanor Drey, the medical director of San Francisco General’s abortion clinic, confirmed.
In a country where for many abortions are now either illegal or inaccessible, it’s important we learn how to take care of ourselves and each other. That knowledge, and the tools to use it, are exactly what Verónica and Spike are trying to disseminate. “Whether legal or not, women have to have control of their bodies,” Kahn emphasized. And, as Cruz says, it’s international solidarity among women that is saving lives.
On Saturday, dozens gathered at Acción Latina to hear Cruz speak, and donated a total of $2,220 to fund Las Libres’ abortion kits. Others signed up to be acompañantes.
“The people we accompany when we guarantee safe abortions almost all write us messages afterwards. They always say, ‘You’re an angel. You saved my life,’” Cruz told the audience. Drey nodded, and raised her hand. “This is often very young people who feel like their entire lives have been given back to them, and yet we don’t talk about years of life we’ve given to so many people [the way] we talk about the years of life given to someone when you treat them for cancer,” she added, citing George Tiller, the Kansas physician who was assassinated in 2009 for performing abortions. “So I really thank you for your work, because you’re really saving peoples’ lives.”
To read more about Las Libres, see El Tecolote’s Q&A with Verónica Cruz from our December 1st issue. For more information about medication abortions, visit plancpills.org.
To donate to Las Libres, visit laslibres.org.mx/2022/donaciones/
To request abortion pills from Las Libres, email firstname.lastname@example.org. For SMS, Signal, or WhatsApp, reach out to +524731727025.
Mara Cavallaro is El Tecolote’s Report for America Corps Member who reports on mental health and healthcare inequality in the Latinx community;