Anna Sale: How different does it feel?
Laurie Bertram Roberts: In some ways, it doesn't feel different at all. It's kind of the same stuff. It's just, it's like, it's supersized, right? It's the same fight, but the context has changed. So it's still, it's still navigating, helping people get abortion care outside of the state and, um, helping people understand self-managed abortion, and the harm reduction information that people need to get. But it's just, you know, moving the pieces in different ways.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot....
....and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
In the weeks leading up to, and after, the overturning of Roe vs Wade, which ended almost 50 years of the constitutional right to abortion in the U.S., we’ve heard from many of you about how you’re thinking about what to do next, and how you’re feeling…
LISTENER 1: I have been planning on having a second child, but after the trigger law that just went into effect in Missouri, I'm actually really scared to do so.
LISTENER 2: The last thing that I wanna do is give birth at 20 years old and have to live in poverty.
LISTENER 3: My rights have been violated. They have been taken away.
You told us about the healthcare decisions you’re making…
LISTENER 4: I really don't believe that anyone should have to justify their decision to get an abortion.
LISTENER 5: Although I have another two years left for, um, my IUD to be effective, I opted to have that IUD removed and replaced now, because what if I can't do that in Oklahoma next year?
You also told us how you’re talking about reproductive health with your partners and your kids.
LISTENER 6: We were all in the car and it came on the radio, the preliminary decision. And my son, who's 14, said to my 12 year old daughter, ‘well, don't get pregnant.’ And I, I admit I jumped down his throat and I said, ‘well, don't get someone pregnant.’
LISTENER 7: I am 39 weeks and six days pregnant. I really wanted a boy and my husband didn't understand why? Um, and he is gonna be a boy and when he's born, he's gonna have more rights to bodily autonomy than I will.
Some of you are more certain about not having kids… and others are afraid of riskier pregnancies…
LISTENER 8: Last summer, I was diagnosed with an ectopic pregnancy, which was really devastating because it was a very wanted pregnancy. I had to receive a dose of a drug called methotrexate to end the pregnancy. This was all done really swiftly and compassionately but the treatment is considered abortion.
LISTENER 9: My partner and I have been together for seven years and people are always asking us when we're gonna make it official. And I'm like, listen, honey, it is official. I don't need a ring. He got a vasectomy for me.
LISTENER 4: It's been eight days since my in clinic abortion. I'm 27, recently married, um, have a decent-ish income. But as soon as I learned that I was pregnant last month, I knew that I was absolutely not ready. And to see those rights being eroded while I'm still having side effects from my procedure is incredibly surreal.
LISTENER 1: This isn't just about abortion. It's about… everything to do with reproduction.
Laurie Bertram Roberts: I'm Laurie Bertram Roberts, and I became a reproductive justice activist because my life has been full of reproductive injustice. Like, I came to the work by living through a lot of just bad experiences in my reproductive, not just my reproductive health life, because reproductive justice is broader than that, but in just my right to parent my kids and be recognized as a full, you know, responsible, adequate human being as, not just a teen parent, but as a teen Black parent. And just as a Black parent, single parent at all, um, just not being safe in my community. I don't feel like my stories are all that different than other people's stories. It's just that, you know, it's just the cascade of them.
65 percent of Americans said the Supreme Court ruling on abortion represented quote “a major loss of rights for women in America…” in a Washington Post/Schar School poll taken in late July. And that’s what we heard in your messages… a deep sense of loss.
We wanted to get to know someone who’s lived and worked where this watershed moment in American history originated… in Mississippi, where the feeling is loss, yes, but also… that it’s a variation on a familiar theme.
Laurie Bertram Roberts is the co-founder and executive director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, a nonprofit that serves people who need money, advice, or just support as they figure out their reproductive choices.
LBR: including us disabled people, right? Like, including people like myself, who are disabled and queer and Black, um, and poor.
When I talked to them over Zoom, Laurie was in the midst of moving back to Jackson, Mississippi, after living in Alabama for a couple years for another job. Jackson is where the Supreme Court decision challenging Roe started. The abortion clinic there, the only one in the state, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, has since closed.
Laurie grew up in Minnesota and Indiana, and first came to Mississippi in 2005 to attend Jackson State University.
LBR: I got a scholarship to a four year school when I was 27. And my social worker, like my, like my food stamp social worker who had always been, like, kind of really rude to me, and um, you know, even condescending at times. At the end of our relationship, she was like, you really should go to school. Like you've, you know, like you've done the right things and you deserve to go to school and find out who you are and um, leave them kids with your mama. Like, you know, like, you’ve, you have been taking care of your kids since you was 16. And like, you need to learn who you are. So yeah, I got two years to learn who I, who I was.
AS: Mm-hmm. Before the Supreme Court's ruling, overturning Roe versus Wade, before that ruling came out, if somebody came to you in Mississippi and said, I need help accessing an abortion, what would you say to them differently today than you would before that ruling?
LBR: Well, first of all, the majority of our callers, I would say that like 60% of our callers didn't need to travel outta state.
LBR: Right? So a majority of our callers didn't need to go travel outta state. So let's say that 60% of our, our callers was traveling within a four state range. So they were traveling to the clinic in Mississippi, they were going to Alabama, Tennessee, or Louisiana. So they were staying right here in this very, very manageable, uh, driving area. Now everybody has to go either to Florida, which there's no clinic in Pensacola anymore. So we're talking about Southern Florida, or DC or, you know, Pennsylvania, like the Carolinas, you know, Illinois. And I think for a lot of people, when I say that, that doesn't mean anything cuz they can't visualize geography. So I'm talking about eight hour drives, 12 hour drives, you know, a whole day round trip. Not everyone can take that kind of time off of work. Not everyone can get away from their abuser long enough to do that. Not everyone, you know, can, has that much time to do anything like that. It makes so the barriers are so high and the amount of trouble one has to go through is so arduous that you can't get through it.
MRFF Recording: Thank you for calling the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund…
Laurie, a friend, and two of Laurie’s seven kids set up the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund in 2013.
MRFF Recording: For abortion assistance, press ‘1’. For the diaper and period supply closet, press ‘2’. For the pregnancy and parenting resource center, press ‘3’. For media requests, press ‘4’…
If you’re calling about abortion, the hold music on the hotline is Lizzo’s Truth Hurts. The fund grew out of Laurie’s experience volunteering at the abortion clinic in Jackson, accompanying patients on their way in.
LBR: When I was doing escorting, we had like, some people come who were just a little bit short on money. And they were like, so scared that no one would see them because they were $10 short, or $50 short, or $5 short.
The fund has served thousands of people in the nine years they’ve been operating, sometimes by providing money for abortions, but not always.
LBR: And you can say, listen, I don't even know where I wanna go. I just know that I'm, I think I'm seven weeks pregnant and I want to have an abortion. Can you just tell me what my options are? And we can just say ,like, here are the things that we can do for you. If you wanna have an abortion, like here's the way we can help you. If you stay pregnant, we can help you get a doula. If you decide to have a home birth, you know, like Medicaid's not gonna pay for that. We can help you get a midwife. We can help you with prenatal care. We'll still support you after you have your baby. Also, do you have any other children already, like, do they need diapers? Do you need period supplies or anything after your birth? Do you need anything from our free pantry? Do you need us to mail you something? Those are all things that we can and do… provide for people.
AS: Have you noticed since the Supreme Court decision, and since there's been more attention on the states that now do not have a guarantee to abortion rights, um, are you raising more money?
LBR: I mean, we are, we are. But, and there's a but in there. It's like when the draft decision came out, we saw a big surge, and then now it's a trickle. And it honestly came to me one night when I was up listening to music. And I was up listening to Carole King because Tapestry is one of the greatest albums of all time. And, um, I was listening to, ‘Will you still love me tomorrow?’ And I was just like, this reminds me of coastal liberals and the way they treat the South.
LBR: Like, we need to know are y'all gonna love us tomorrow? Like when the new, like the new bright, shiny object comes along, y'all gonna ride with us? Cuz I don't think y'all are, like y'all never do. Y'all never do. You parachute in for a crisis and then you leave. But we will find another way, like we did when we had a $20,000 a year budget, like we did when we had a $60,000 a year budget. And now that we have a $225,000 a year budget, you know what I'm saying? Like, we're gonna keep, gonna keep keepin' on.
AS: Your budget is, so your budget is less than a quarter million dollars a year?
AS: Um, how many people work for you for the fund?
LBR: Oh, you think people work for us? No. [laughs] We have, so we have two people that we get to pay on contract. Um– [laughs]
LBR: I might get to get paid this year! I might.
AS: So you, you, the money, the $225,000 budget goes to people, the needs that people have, who call?
LBR: Well, yes. And I will say, I've always been very clear about this, that we do give volunteers money for things like food, and cell phones, and sometimes rent.
AS: For doing work. For doing work for an organization that takes work.
AS: And Laurie, how do you, how do you pay for what you need? Who does pay you?
LBR: Who me?
LBR: I'm good. Um, I do like, I do a bunch of assorted odd jobs, like I do writing and and a bunch of other odds and ends.
AS: Mhm. When you think about the money that you could use, like how big, how big would the budget need to be to meet the needs that come at you?
LBR: I've been, I've been sitting here, crunching those numbers. And I used to be really shy and be like, oh, if we could just have, if we could just have an extra hundred thousand dollars, no, I'm thinking more like $1.5 million.
AS: Do you feel like there was enough political effort from centers of money and power to–
LBR: Hell no! Sorry. I didn't mean to cut you off, go ahead.
AS: Please go ahead. I think you got my question.
LBR: Hell no! Hell no. And let me just be clear, progressives and liberals dropped the ball, not on just supporting grassroots organizations that were doing the work in, on the local level, but just progressives and liberals on the local level, like on the state level, were supporting a lot of these garbage bills. I had, I had a liberal lawmaker. I have it in writing when he told me it, who voted for the 15 week ban and told me, Laurie, it's not a big deal. Supreme Court will never reverse Roe. I can safely vote for this without it being a threat. And like, that's how we got here. I'm, I'm angrier. I'm honestly angrier at those people because you were supposed to have our back.
AS: Can I ask you a few personal questions? Um–
AS: Have, are you doing anything differently with how you're managing your body contraception? Thinking about sex since Roe was overturned?
LBR: Well, thankfully I, I, I yeeted my uterus right before I came to Mississippi. Um.
AS: What's that verb you used?
LBR: I said yeet. Y-E-E-T, yeet. Yeet yeet!
AS: Uterus yeeted! Got it.
LBR: I punted it, I, I expelled it from my body. I had a hysterectomy due to, due to very bad fibroids.
AS: Okay. So–
LBR: But I also had seven kids.
AS: Yeah. How old are your kids now? What's the age range?
LBR: Yeah, all my kids are grown. Well, except for my, um, my bonus kid that lives with us. All my kids are grown. I have six kids, 16 to 27. Now what I will say is, um, I am much more, um, in my daughters’ business than I used to be. Like, obviously I'm never gonna coerce them into using birth control, but I'm definitely much more like, Hey, um, Roe is over. You might wanna go get whatever it is that you're planning to get. Let's get on that. You know, I may or may not have said to my daughter's new boyfriend that we were not having any spring babies around here, only summer abortions.
AS: Hm. Mm-hmm. And did, do you, um, so, so that is, that is a new, a new conversation that you're having in a different way, since the Supreme Court decision with your kids?
LBR: Yeah. I mean, I would say so. I mean, I’ve always, you know, told them to make their own best decisions regarding contraception and family planning and all of that, right? But I feel like it's, it's all the more urgent when there's absolutely no... there's no backup.
AS: How do you describe your disability? What are the words you use?
LBR: I would just say that I am, you know, I'm chronically ill. And my chronic illness is disabling would probably be the best description.
AS: Mm-hmm. Do you feel like you had to protect your right to parent as a disabled person?
LBR: All the time.
AS: In what ways?
LBR: Um, I got severely ill and that's why I left school. Like I left school also to help my mother who was ill, but, um, I got severely ill. And so my house went to shit. Like it was dirty. And, um, one of my neighbors apparently noticed and instead of being like, Hey, what's going on? Like, can we help you? Was like interrogating my kids, like how often are y'all eating? And my kids were fed, my kids were clean. My house was just dirty. The next thing that I knew, Child Protection Services was at my door. And the only thing that saved me from my children being taken, and I do mean this, they were about to remove my children. The only thing that saved me is that I had a church community. I called my pastor while I was sitting there crying, cuz this woman was about to take my children. And he called a member who was a police officer who was pretty high up in the city. And he called the case worker and told her, look, we'll put her up somewhere for a week while we help her clean up the house. Will that be okay? And that partially informs the work I do now.
LBR: Because a lot of times it's not that people are bad parents. It's that they're poor, or that they're disabled, or that, um, they don't have support. Because guess what, if I had had money and had money for housekeeping, no one would've ever showed up at my house.
AS: You know, the other thing that that story makes me think about Laurie is that you were in a moment of acute crisis where your entire life could have blown up, and the lives of your kids could have blown up, and you had someone to call. And, you set up a place for people to call.
Coming up, how Laurie talks with people in their life who might not agree with them.
LBR: You can't be friends with me on any social media and not know that I'm a big, ol’ queer abortion supporter. Like, it’s pretty blatant.
As we were finishing this episode, this conversation with Laurie Bertram Roberts stewed in my head alongside all the messages you’ve been sending us about how you’re just beginning to incorporate what a post-Roe America means. And then this morning, my two young daughters tumbled out of bed and nudged next to me to cuddle as I was reading yet another political analysis of the latest abortion news. Minutes later, when I was in the shower, my breath caught. It was just like this heave of emotion, that wasn’t so much sadness as this sense of: I don’t know this world.
Something fundamental about love and sex and gender and agency and what we share as a country has shifted… and we don’t have answers for you here at the show.
But what we do have are episodes about navigating change and uncertainty around sex and reproduction. A few that come to mind are Ellen Burstyn describing her pre-Roe illegal abortion, Jane Fonda talking about her own gender identity confusion as she came of age. We did an episode about paternity that was mistaken and what makes you a father. We did interview after interview with clients at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Brooklyn a few years back about the varied health care reasons they were there, including abortions.
And then we did this funny, enlightening, and horrifying collection of your stories about your misfires when it came to what you were taught about sex. We called that episode: So Many Sex Ed Fails. Really, you’ve had so many.
And as with everything on this show, we can’t give you answers about what’s going to happen next or what any of you ought to do, but we can share stories of what others have and are going through as we chart our way through changing circumstances. You can find all those episodes in our show notes. Thanks for listening.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
Growing up, Laurie Bertram Roberts was a part of an evangelical church community in Minnesota, and now is active in the Unitarian Universalist church in Jackson. But as they set up the fund, they wanted it to be independent of any religious group.
LAURIE BERTRAM ROBERTS: I don't want people to have to depend on their church for assistance. But I'm not saying that you have to be non-church affiliated. I'm saying that your work should not be dependent on whether or not people believe what you believe.
ANNA SALE: In your church community growing up, what were you taught about abortion?
LBR: Ha! The devil! Okay, so I was told a lot, you know like kids, my– your age, my age, and younger were told we were the survivors of the abortion Holocaust. But for me, cuz I was the only Black kid in my church. Um, and pretty much anywhere that I ever went in the IFB church, um, Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church, they used to add the caveat to me being that I should feel immensely grateful that my mother gave birth to me, being that, know, it was 1978 and she had access to abortion and had so much pressure to abort me because I was Black.
AS: So you’re no longer in that church community? Your face, people can't hear your face, but–
LBR: I'm an ex-evangelical, I'm a witch. Like, no! Like, absolutely not.
AS: Laurie, do you still have people close to you who, uh, deeply oppose abortion rights? Are they in your life?
LBR: I only have one person who is still connected to me from, like, my former life as a kid. Um, and obviously she knows what I do because she's friends with me on Facebook But I think that it's interesting that she's never posted anything judging me, she basically just sticks to like posting things to me about my family, and I do the same to her. And I’m quite sure that she does not support my abortion work because I know she struggles with infertility and I know that that very much weighs into her opinion about abortion. And, I just try to be respectful about that. Like, as she's being to me. I'm fine with that. I don't ask everyone to agree with me. What I ask for is that people understand that... it's not your rights. Like, you don't have the right to impose your views on other people. You know what I’m saying, like, not with your coercive crisis pregnancy centers where you lie to people, but honestly, like if you just came to the table with like actual, real, good faith intentions, that does not bother– like the people that I talk to who are not anti-abortion activists, but who are actually just consider themselves to be pro-life usually don't annoy me very much. You know what I mean? We can usually have reasonable conversations about abortion. ‘Cause most people aren’t dramatically to the right on abortion. They’re much more reasonable.
AS: I wanna ask you about access to abortion care. And that term is often, you know, used to mean access to an abortion to end a pregnancy, but in your work as a clinic escort, um, what does it mean to give people access to care, caring when they're seeking an abortion?
LBR: Yeah. It just means support. Honestly, a lot of times it just means listening and not judging. We don't have a preconceived notion about how people should feel, or we don't demand that they feel a certain way. You ain't gotta cry for me. You don't have to be joyful for me. You can feel however you want. Do you wanna do a ritual to grieve? I got you. Christian, Muslim, Hindu, I'll find it for you! I pray with people. If you'd have told me when I started doing this work, that I was gonna be praying with folks as much as I– I do, I spend more time praying and quoting scripture to people, than I did when I was a fundamentalist Christian.
As of July 7, 2022, there is a near total ban on abortion in the state of Mississippi, with exceptions to save the life of the pregnant person, or for a rape reported to law enforcement.
That includes medication abortions, which according to the Guttmacher Institute, made up more than half of abortions in the US in 2020.
The pills that induce abortions are federally approved, but Mississippi law does not allow medication abortion drugs to be prescribed via telehealth. And as this new state-by-state legal landscape for abortion access evolves, it’s not yet clear whether people in Mississippi will face legal consequences for helping people access abortion pills.
But before the fall of Roe, Laurie had a lot of experience accompanying people through medication abortions.
LBR: One of the things I always tell people, regardless of how they're doing in their medical abortion, is like, if you can take the day off or a couple days off, do that, right? Um, just be gentle with yourself, give yourself some time. Take some of that money we gave you, if we funded your medical abortion, to go get yourself a heating pad. Go and place that on your tummy, like, you'll feel better, you know, get you some ginger ale, cuz one of those pills is gonna make you really nauseous, you know? Um, just be prepared for how it's, you know, like for what they're telling you, what people are telling you are gonna be the side effects and just be easy with yourself. That's what I tell people. Is to be easy with yourself, and be prepared for, in case you have to go to a hospital, keeping your mouth shut.
LBR: About the fact like if you are, are a self-managed abortion person, there's no reason ever tell, uh, a hospital or a doctor that you took pills.
AS: Laurie, I wanna go back to that sense of like, you were a hot, shiny thing for, um, moneyed coastal liberals to send money to for a minute and that's already slowed to a trickle. Does anyone who has a lot of money, who’s somewhere where there’s a lot of political capital, do you ever get a phone call where they say Laurie, what do you need? Tell us what you need and we’ll give you the money to do it?
LBR: [laughs] No.
AS: When you think about the best way for somebody who doesn't live where you live, who wants to support the work that you do, um, what does that look like?
LBR: Oh my goodness. And this is honestly, is kind of specifically to white women, but like y'all–
AS: Give us, give us some advice. Give us advice.
LBR: Y'all know y'all superpower is fundraising. Stop playing. Y'all fundraise for every soccer team your kids is on, y’all fundraise for every girl scout troop, every, every ballet group, every softball team, every– y’all fundraise for stuff that don't even need no money. But anyway, if you don't have money to give us regularly, that's fine. Use your superpower. And then the other thing you can do to support us that it doesn't cost anything is just don't bash us. Like when you hear people like shitting on the South, maybe don't do that. Maybe don't, don't do that.
AS: Have you heard that? I mean, has that been something that you have noticed?
LBR: All the time! This is what happens every time something bad in the South happens. People from New York, you know, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, California, Washington, Oregon, get real slick in the mouth, especially on social media, and say stuff like, 'I'm so glad I don't live in Mississippi, I’m sitting here in blah, blah, blah, I’m good.' But I hate to break it to y'all, regardless of whether or not they pass, you know, nationwide bans, or whatever, our people have to come to your states now. And when our people have to come to your states, your wait’s longer. And like there's no getting around, the impact is on everyone, even if that's the only impact. So I would like it if people would stop being very smug. When you talk badly about the South and often it's in caricatures of, of like rednecks and, you know, toothless hillbillies and Trump supporters, you've erased all of the Black and brown people who are down here doing a lot of great, amazing work, and, just out here handling business every day.
AS: What do you love about having your home in Mississippi?
LBR: This is so funny. My therapist last week just asked me, what do you love about Mississippi?
LBR: And I told her, I was like, you know what? Mississippi was the first place where I got to be myself. So I think part of my love of Mississippi is that like, Mississippi is the first place that I ever felt at home. And Mississippi just like accepted me with open arms. And there's just something about the people in Mississippi. It's called the hospitality state for a reason. Like, people have really looked out for me there in ways that nowhere else I've lived, ever have. And I mean, I just love, I love the way the fields and the Delta smell. I love the way that Eddie's fish shack smells around the corner from my house. I love being able to hear the Sonic Boom of the South play. Like, I love Jackson State football, even when we were losing, I, we didn't need Deion Sanders. I mean, I love him, but even before he came, I would've came anyways, ‘cuz the band is the game. You know what I'm saying? I love our nightlife. I love, I just love everything about Jackson. Like except for the potholes.
AS: How are you feeling about, um, what's next in the state of Mississippi? Do you feel a sense of despair? Or do you feel–
LBR: I wouldn’t call it despair.
AS: What is it?
LBR: It's somewhere between… rage. Like, like a rage that's like, makes you stay and fight and, um, a bit of hopefulness. I guess I'm one of those people that stays hopeful because I study history, and I know that pendulums always swing. They swing back, they swing forth. And so the pendulum is gonna swing back. It's just a matter of how long it takes, and how many people are harmed in the time that it takes.
That was Laurie Bertram Roberts of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund.
And I want to shout out the CNN show United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell where I first learned about Laurie’s work back in 2019. The latest season of that show is currently running on CNN.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. This episode was produced by Afi Yellow-Duke. The rest of the team is Julia Furlan, Zoe Azulay, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. Our intern is Lilly Clark.
The Reverend John DeLore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on Instagram @annasalepics, P-I-C-S, and the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Thank you to Emma Katz in Jackson Heights, New York, for being a member of Death, Sex & Money and supporting us with a monthly donation. You can join Emma and support what we do here by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
AS: Um, saying don't be mean to us is a sort of modest proposal, Laurie. You could say, listen to us, we're on the ground here.
LBR: I mean, you know, I would really love it if people also trusted us with the money instead of telling us stuff like we've heard before, 'Why aren't there any white women on your board? Why aren't there any middle class people on your board?' And then like, I tend to drop my code switching at that point. I'm like, 'Cause there ain't! And there ain't finna be! Just, this meeting is over. Like, just get the fuck outta here. Bye! Bye! Go on home now. You get off of my porch.'
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.