In 2016, Jezebel published an interview with a woman who’d had an abortion at 32 weeks; she went by the pseudonym “Elizabeth” at the time. At 31 weeks, she and her husband found out their baby wouldn’t be able to breathe outside the womb. They flew to Colorado at 32 weeks to start the third-trimester abortion process: She got an injection to stop the fetus’s heart, and then, because she’d had previous brain surgery, they flew back home to New York to deliver under the care of her own doctors. The interview—which is heartbreaking, infuriating, and honest—has racked up roughly 2.4 million pageviews since it was published.
“Elizabeth” had to leave New York for her abortion because, at that time, state law banned the procedure after 24 weeks, unless the woman’s life was in danger. So even though Supreme Court precedent had established that states can’t ban abortion before fetal viability, and even though her fetus wasn’t viable, New York’s 1970 law wouldn’t allow the abortion. “Elizabeth” has since publicly identified herself as Erika Christensen, an activist who, alongside her husband Garin Marschall, worked with New York state lawmakers and advocates to help codify Roe v. Wade into New York law. Her Twitter handle, @RHAvote, refers to the name of that bill, the Reproductive Health Act, which passed in 2019.
But now Christensen understands that the 24-week line that Roe and later cases established is insufficient, and she wants states to remove gestational limits that have led to people being thrown in jail. She wants the U.S. to redistribute the billions it spends on policing and prisons and direct it toward families and health care that covers abortion. With Roe all but guaranteed to be overturned this summer, she’s also thinking ahead for her 5-year-old daughter.
Here is my conversation with Christensen, who currently lives in Arizona, a state that recently passed a 15-week ban.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
This week six years ago you were in Colorado for your abortion. How has your life changed since then?
[Laughs] Six years exactly—we were still in Boulder. I have the season anniversary of my abortion. It starts on my birthday, which is at the end of April. We were waiting for critical information over my birthday. So that was kind of, in my mind, the last innocent holiday, or ignorant holiday. Soon after that, we learned the information that led us to choose to have an abortion. It took two weeks to get all the logistics together, which crossed Mother’s Day.
Oh my god.
When we were flying to Boulder, I had TSA agents wishing me a happy Mother’s Day, which I just smiled through because I didn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable, and I was worried they wouldn’t let me fly. We went to Boulder to have the first half of the procedure and then flew back to have a multi-day delivery process. I was in the hospital through what will be this coming weekend. Already parts of it are so fuzzy. I’m grateful to that interview that if I ever forget anything, I can go back. I talked to Jia [Tolentino, who did the 2016 interview] two weeks after, and it was very fresh. I mean, I was still healing, I was still bleeding. Having that as a record is good for me personally to be able to go back and remember and not feel too far from it. I think it keeps me honest, and I’m grateful for that.
Have you reread it and, if so, do you remember the last time you did?
The last time I reread it was the last time it was sort of being shared on social. I guess it was around [Justice Amy Coney] Barrett’s confirmation. When there’s big abortion news, people will share it, which is still astonishing. I have no idea how many people have read this thing. The last time there was a number on it, it was like 2.2 million—which is a lot of people for a long-ass abortion interview.
The last time I read it I winced at some of the language I used. It’s hard to read—it’s why I don’t share it much myself. But I just have to have compassion for how much I didn’t know. I read it and I see a person who was really going through it, who was starting to put pieces together. I can see the sparks of where our journey would take us. I wasn’t yet like “fuck the police, defund them completely, take all their money, fuck capitalism, fuck imperialism”—which is where I am now, it’s been a journey. But part of what was so radicalizing was understanding how many resources and how much privilege was required in our being able to take that trip, and we were making those connections in real time. We were asking our doctors, “Wait, what would people do if they didn’t have government IDs to be able to fly?” And people being like, “Uhhh I don’t know.” That was really the spark.
I think a lot of people have the moments for them that can be portals to understanding a larger struggle and how we’re connected and how, ultimately, we’re fighting the same forces.
And this just happened to be my portal. I don’t regret the whole thing happening because I have learned so much. I cannot regret the education that I’ve had over the last six years.
You have a daughter now. What was it like going through pregnancy again after your experience? In the interview, you said if you ever got pregnant again, you would hide in the cave and not tell anyone, because you’d had a miscarriage before your abortion.
She’s five. I hardly told anyone until she was here, so I did pretty much hide in a cave. I was pregnant with her a month after my abortion. When she was born, I had been pregnant for 20 out of the last 22 months. I’ll be honest with you, I’m only now physically feeling like I’m starting to be on a path to some version of my former self. It just was really brutal. That much pregnancy was really, really hard.
Another learning moment with that pregnancy is that I did not find out about it until I was 16 weeks pregnant. There’s a million reasons why someone might not know they’re pregnant, because pregnancy is a shit show; it’s a hellscape. You can’t possibly know everything, and our bodies present different pregnancies differently, even if you’ve been pregnant before. I discovered it at a doctor’s office at four months. And when I saw that, when I understood that like, “Wow, truly this can happen to anyone,” it just further informed my understanding of later abortion. Later recognition of pregnancy is particularly prevalent in young people for obvious reasons—people who are on birth control, so they don’t think they’re pregnant if they’re kind of feeling off. People who have never been pregnant before who just don’t recognize the signs. And older people, perimenopausal women as well. These are logical reasons. I say this all the time, but our bodies don’t follow legal timelines.
What are your thoughts on people sharing this interview if their use of it furthers the false narrative that all later abortions are because of tragical medical diagnoses?
Yeah, the big myth. This is my greatest regret.
Well, you didn’t know!
I didn’t know. But if it is used in that way, it is a tragedy. It does not support my values. What I didn’t know yet, because I hadn’t met the hundreds of later abortion patients that I would meet over the last six years, is that there are two paths through which people find themselves needing later abortions.
The first path is finding out new information they couldn’t have possibly known earlier. For me, it was this fetal indication and this unhealthy pregnancy that took a real turn for the worse. For most later abortion-seekers, the new information is that they’re pregnant. Later discovery of pregnancy is the number-one reason people need later abortion care. Although caveat, it was maybe the number one-reason before Texas S.B. 8. Now we are seeing a proliferation of the second path, which is barriers to getting care as soon as you would like.
On that first path—we’re always going to need later abortion care because we’re always going to discover pregnancies later, because the human body is fucking complicated and because, for all manner of reasons, there’s always going to be unhealthy pregnancies. There’s always going to be new information you could not have foreseen.
The second path—barriers to getting care as soon as you would like? That is a manmade fucking problem. We could eliminate that path completely. We could give people care as soon as they decide they need it. We could wholly reject abortion bans, which are fucking bullshit, including the viability standard, which is a ban.
Oh, we’ll get there.
Can’t wait. That’s what I didn’t have language for then. There’s a researcher named Dr. Katrina Kimport. Her work on third trimester abortion patients is unparalleled. She’s been doing the work for such a long time. Her papers are very accessible, they’re compassionate. If people genuinely want to learn, Google her. We also have a website, whonotwhen.com, a public-facing resource for later abortion that people can check out—if they genuinely want to learn. And listen, that’s maybe not most people.
I just reread your first interview. Are you comfortable sharing what language you wince at now?
Particularly the language I used around disability, I deeply regret.
The “perfect baby” language?
Yes, that is horrible, I do regret saying that. Even though I think that it was honest at the time, and I think that a lot of people saw themselves in that comment, even if it’s wrong and ableist and terrible, I think people see themselves in it because most of us are deeply ableist. But I have engaged a lot in disability justice over the last six years. I’ve learned so much from organizations like Sins Invalid, Women Enabled, and now I use their recommended language, not just because they’ve asked us to but because I understand why the language I was using was problematic. First of all, I was born with a fetal impairment. I was born with a knot in my brain.
Right, you had brain surgery before the abortion.
Correct. Plenty of people are born with fetal impairments, and a prenatal diagnosis is not inherently a tragedy. Every abortion seeker makes the best decisions we can with the information we have about our own lives and circumstances. That includes the health of our pregnancies but also the support we do or do not have available. A lot of people I know made decisions about their pregnancies with imperfect information, and were often influenced by how they see people with disabilities treated in our society. And each factor carries a different weight for each individual. We all have these scales and we should be the lone keepers of these scales, because we have by far the most information. Not even our doctors have all the information we do. So it’s reductive to me to point to any single metric when abortions later in pregnancy are often so complex.
A lot of anti-choice people have tried to use disability as a wedge, suggesting that people are murdering disabled people through abortion. It’s important to me to understand that it is our culture and our society that disables people. If a person is born with an impairment that affects the use of their legs and the world is covered in ramps, they’re not necessarily disabled. They are disabled by our ableist culture, which was not built for them. A fetus cannot be disabled. There might be some impairments, some physical or structural impairments, but it doesn’t necessarily equate to disability until they live in the world. But please do not take my word for this, follow and listen to the disability justice advocates who speak more eloquently than I can about their own experiences. Ultimately both Reproductive and Disability Justice are rooted in dignity and bodily autonomy and our goals should be the same.
Thank you for talking honestly about that. Something that stood out to me was the phrase “late-term abortion” versus “abortion later in pregnancy” or “later abortion.”
We know “late-term abortion” was created by the anti-abortion movement to make abortion later in pregnancy sound scary. The thing is, it’s how a lot of people describe later abortion, even people who have them. I think that it’s important to meet people where they are. Personally, I don’t have an interest in being a [language] cop. If I want people to find good information about later abortion and they’re going to be Googling “late-term abortion” to find it, then our materials better be optimized to show up in that search.
For me, I’m more interested in the deep education that is required to change people’s relationships with abortion bans. If we have to start with the same language to be able to get them there to hear me…it is what it is.
I want to get into your activism and advocacy, like helping pass the Reproductive Health Act in New York. Prior to the RHA, New York criminalized abortion after 24 weeks, which is why you had to leave the state for your abortion. What were you doing for work before all of this?
I was working at an investment bank in a support position and never went back to that job after my abortion. Basically as soon as we knew that the Reproductive Health Act existed, it just became an obsession to get the thing passed. We started to work full-time on that, and we did freelance work to pay bills.
We engaged in all manner of schemes around that bill. We were schlepping our kid all over New York state. We reached out to every progressive club and organization in every town in New York, asking them for time to address their members, asking them to include the RHA on their list of priorities, and answering their hard questions. It was a slog, but it was cool work. It felt like we were actually doing something. That was when we created RHAvote to be sort of a grassroots hub for it. When they passed it through the State Senate in 2019, a few senators read some of my words on the floor. It was a little bit surreal, especially because by then our evolution was fully in motion, and we were very aware of the shortcomings of the RHA. While we had spent so much time and energy to get this bill passed, by the time we got there it felt complicated.
It is an unequivocal good that we decriminalized abortion in New York State—that is huge. That’s what we’re most proud of. Now we are fucking horrified that we advocated for a viability standard when we didn’t fucking have to, because we had an eight-seat majority. But because of politics, we couldn’t get a stronger version of the bill through at the end. However, advocates in the state have continued to work extremely hard, and the health department just put out really critical guidance that further fleshes out the health exception. So while we do still technically have a gestational limit of potential viability in New York, this guidance helps providers go as far as they can go [to help patients get later abortions]. There’s many pillars to access—the law is one pillar.
There is a new initiative that the repro coalition in New York is supporting—an equality amendment to the New York state constitution that explicitly includes language to clarify that discrimination based on a person’s pregnancy or pregnancy outcome is sex discrimination, which is crucial given the national trend of criminalizing people for pregnancy outcomes.
There is still shit to do in New York. It’s very critical to keep working and moving in New York because it affects 30 million people, and what happens in New York is a big fucking deal. Plus, our police system in New York is the size of like other countries’, and so the more we can limit their power, the fucking better.
Right. We have a pro-choice governor and Attorney General now, but elections can change things, and other prosecutors go nuts like they did with Lizelle Herrera in Texas.
New York cannot be complacent. It’s far more friendly for abortion than the states that are passing SB 8-style bills, obviously. But it’s certainly not a fucking utopia, because there’s hundreds of people getting on planes leaving New York for abortions every year [because there still aren’t providers for third-trimester abortions]. If more states want to help, commit to keeping every person in your state. Right now it’s all about how states like New York can step up to be saviors. Well, what are you doing for the hundreds of New Yorkers who are leaving the state every year, with their abortions costing $20,000 to $30,000? That cost is being largely passed to abortion funds who are barely making it month-to-month.
In order to keep people in New York, would the state need to repeal its gestational limit?
There should not be gestational limits in any state, including New York.
Talk about the limits of Roe v. Wade and its standard that states can ban abortions after viability, which is generally about 22 to 24 weeks. Like you said, people get new information and others face barriers and they’re still going to need care.
To me, codifying Roe is like rebuilding the This Is Us house and including the crock pot. Why would we fucking do that?
I haven’t watched the show, but I did see previews about a huge fire. Doesn’t it burn down the house and people die?
Correct. If you were gonna rebuild the house, would you include the fucking crock pot that caused the fire? It doesn’t make any fucking sense to me. I think a good way to ground the viability conversation is actually, in 1973, when Sarah Weddington was arguing to legalize abortion on behalf of Jane Roe, one of those justices brought up the idea that gestation should matter. They said, further into a pregnancy, shouldn’t we be giving weight to the fetus? And Sarah Weddington said it’s an emotional issue, it’s not a legal one.
If people have feelings about abortion later in pregnancy, if it feels different to them, I think that’s okay, because it certainly feels different to a lot of pregnant people. Pregnant people care about the gestations of our pregnancies. We celebrate milestones, we follow along with the websites that tell us whether we’re an avocado or a pineapple. Which by the way, is hilarious, like, let’s please infantilize the pregnant person when we actually want to keep our pregnancies and compare our babies to fucking vegetables. But then if we want to have abortions, they’re fully formed human beings.
The way we are just constantly infantilized and gaslit is maddening. I don’t need to like “clumps of cells” this, I don’t need to downplay human development. It is extraordinary, we are complex beings. Like having been pregnant three times, it is wild, it is fascinating. [Fetal development] is weaponized against us to criminalize us and to assert state control over our lives and decision-making. I think that viability is a shit standard and a shit reason to limit our civil rights. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has a public abortion statement that says: “ACOG is opposed to abortion of the healthy fetus that has attained viability in a healthy woman.”* As if pregnancy could ever be healthy absent consent. You would think given the history of gynecology, they would center consent without equivocation.
I think that if you have certain values about abortion—that abortion is health care, that pregnant people are people, and that we should have bans off our bodies—if all of those slogans include an imaginary viability line in your head, they are not values, they are slogans. I would even go so far as to suggest that you might be pro-life with exceptions. Either you support pregnant people and you think abortion is health care or you don’t.
I couldn’t help but notice in my case, that I remained a sentient being throughout my pregnancies. When it came time for me to make my decision in the third trimester whether to have an abortion, let me tell you how long I took to consider what Samuel fucking Alito thought. That motherfucker doesn’t know me. These fucking assholes don’t know me. I think the way we’re okay with some oppression is nuts. For medical associations like ACOG to support legislation that contains a viability standard—which has criminal implications for your own members? Make it make sense. It’s carceral as shit. It’s a carceral feminism.
Their doctors could get thrown in jail.
Correct. Why would you, as an organization that represents doctors, be okay with a standard that has criminal implications for your own members? Because people have fundamentally different understandings about the role of the government. The government is not a benevolent actor to me. I don’t need a state daddy to decide what is the appropriate amount of rights and autonomy for me. Unfortunately, there are too many people and well-funded organizations that still think the state is our friend. Please, point to your evidence.
Women are the fastest-growing prison population already, before this mass criminalization event [overturning Roe]. This should be terrifying for everyone. We have Joe Biden not even saying the word “abortion” out loud, which, whatever, but he uses his platform to advocate for more police before Roe v. Wade is gone. They’re telling us who they are. What do we expect?
Is there a progressive or leftist answer to the bill that would codify Roe, the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA)?
Still working on it. It’s hard. We don’t have a lot of examples in American history of effective methods to remove the power of the state. It’s very easy to add to their power. It’s very easy for us to give our power away, as we are so happy to do, but it is very hard to find a constitutional mechanism for removing the state’s power. Your right to an abortion doesn’t come from the state, it can only be limited by the state.
There’s a lot of good parts of WHPA that are useful that we should have. My concern is that it codifies a limitation. Here’s an example. We passed the RHA in New York, a law that protects abortion up to a point but after that still allows the state to have a compelling interest in pregnancy, and people are still getting on planes for abortions. A woman was at a Long Island hospital in 2011 and they forced a C-section on her that she explicitly said she didn’t want, and she sued the hospital and the doctors. They used the RHA and Roe v. Wade as proof that the state does have a compelling interest at a point, as does the hospital as actors of the state, and therefore it was okay for them to force that C section on her. They cited Roe and they said the RHA was proof that New York was re-enshrining that standard. This is what I’m talking about. Pro-choice laws that contain the viability standard create other problems that are just being largely erased.
Many more people are going to be compelled to self-manage their abortions, because we have made clinic care almost impossible to access. Activists are going all-in on self-managed abortion (SMA)—and I understand why, because it’s safe, effective, and what’s available. But with activists going all in on SMA and WHPA enshrining the viability standard, what do we think’s going to happen?
Hundreds of people have already been criminalized for using SMA, and they have been people who were basically having later abortions at home. Self-managed abortion is only illegal in three states, and yet people have been criminalized in like 30 states. Why? Because they’re being charged with laws that are meant for living human beings. By re-enshrining the viability standard, you are essentially saying that the only way we can protect abortion up to a point is by trading away the most desperate people who have no other fucking option. We’re saying it’s okay for the state to criminalize them at a certain point, instead of saying there is no role for the state in pregnancy and pregnancy outcomes. Pregnancy is human, it is messy, it can even be grotesque. People should not be further punished for a natural function of their own bodies.
There are a few states without gestational limits, right? It seems like this is going to be more of a state-by-state fight.
Seven states and Washington, DC, don’t have a limit. But just because you have no law restricting it, doesn’t mean there happens to be a provider there. And hospitals are notoriously risk averse, so hospitals won’t even let their providers go as far as they can legally go.
I do think we need a federal response. I don’t think we’re anywhere near being able to pass such a piece of legislation, but I do think that federal legislation should be one tool. It should be a vision for what we actually want with no one left behind. It should be how we make our case, it should be an organizing tool.
The Senate is going to present a stripped-down version of WHPA. It’s not gonna pass. It is gonna give a lot of these Senators a chance to stand up and waffle on and say some stigmatizing bullshit. I think it’s important that we all talk about and argue and hash out what our goals should actually be, and not accept that there’s one way.
Ultimately we may have different goals. I don’t want to go down fighting for carceral nonsense that co-signed state control over the most vulnerable. Look at the ‘90s, where the carceral system was quickly and vastly expanded because of the Violence Against Women Act. At the time, there were people, mainly Black feminists, saying if we do this, if we expand the carceral state, it is going to come back and hurt our people. They were begging people to hear them. And sure enough, everything that they predicted has come true. And now we have this completely…like, people can’t even wrap their brains around the money this country spends on policing.
Including prisons, the whole carceral system.
Prisons, policing, surveillance—this is all money that should be going to people.
It’s not good that people feel sometimes like they need to seek abortions because they have no money. I don’t want people to feel like the only reason they’re having an abortion is because they can’t afford to care for a child. If we took all the money we spend on policing and put it into Universal Basic Income, then maybe you’d get your birth rate you want so badly.
And people would get to keep their fucking kids. In this country, we will take a person’s child through so-called Child Protection, family regulations, largely for crimes of “neglect,” which are from poverty, but then we’ll give the foster family $2,000 a month to care for them instead. That is fucked.
Should a federal response to the fall of Roe entail decriminalizing pregnancy outcomes?
We should completely decriminalize pregnancy outcomes, including access to abortion throughout pregnancy. We need a federal response. But of course, another big barrier to that is addressing the culture of punishment that is America. We are obsessed with punishing people—obsessed. When bad things happen, the response should be, “Wow, that is terrible. What resources do they need? Let me reach into this vast pot of resources we have because we stopped giving so many fucking billions of dollars to the police.”
We can’t support the carceral system and then say “but please leave us out of it.” We are an opportunity to the carceral state. There is no path to protecting ourselves without dismantling it.
As we wait for the Supreme Court decision, I’ve seen more people talking about how you can’t have reproductive freedom when there’s a carceral state.
It’s literally incompatible. Prisons themselves are sites of reproductive oppression. You are locking people up during critical years, when they could be procreating if they want. You’re forcing people to stay pregnant in prisons, you are forcing pregnant people to be shackled. You are exerting oppression through gender. We should understand that they’re our adversaries if what we want is reproductive justice, reproductive freedom.
And speaking of our country’s funding priorities, I want to talk about health insurance. You paid $10,000 cash for that injection in Colorado to induce fetal demise. Did you get any of it back from your insurance?
I did, after six months of appeals, long phone calls, letters. We were able to get a third of it back.
Oh my god. You still had to pay almost seven grand?
If time is money, the hours we spent getting that third back... And, that’s the most I’ve ever heard anybody getting back [for an out-of-state abortion]. We were obsessed with getting money back mostly just for the principle of it.
Let me read something from 2016 back to you. You said, “If I ever have a daughter the way things are currently going, she’s going to be fucked if she ever goes through this.” What is your reaction to that now that you have a daughter?
On one hand, she’s in the best possible position because of who her parents are. We will do anything possible within our power to make sure she has any health care. People travel for health care if they can, obviously for abortion and have for a very long time, but for health care more broadly. We’re living in Arizona right now, and people go to Mexico for the dentist. Our kid is lucky because we know abortion providers and we’re lucky enough to have the resources and the information. If care is available anywhere on this planet, we’ll do everything we can to get her to that care. But at the same time, that is not true for most of her peers and the window is so radically moving.
And it’s not just abortion care that I’m worried about. I’m worried about all these fucked-up narratives that are happening around this to try to justify the radical rollback of our civil and human rights. Oh my god, pick a thing and there’s some moral panic that is constructed to justify fascism. It’s like, critical race theory, let’s use that as a smokescreen, then now they want to abolish public education.
What do you want people to know as we wait for this terrible Supreme Court decision?
This is an incredible opportunity to get educated and to start connecting the dots. Read Dorothy Roberts. Read Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Read Mariame Kaba. Start to get comfortable with making demands. Contemplate mass civil disobedience, because that’s what this moment requires. That’s easier said than done. I’m a white lady advocating for mass civil disobedience, I understand that isn’t available to everyone.
Though having white ladies in those protests can be helpful in terms of using privilege for good.
I agree, use what you got. If what you have is money, you can actually be extremely useful right now. It’s very important that people with money give to abortion funds. It’s very important to give to independent clinics.
Since the pandemic, something like 45 independent clinics have closed. It’s important to know how 100 percent of third trimester care in clinics is provided by independent clinics—that is, not Planned Parenthoods. We must protect this care. There’s a new all-trimester clinic trying to open up Maryland, Partners in Abortion Care. They are two board-certified health care providers, an OBGYN and a midwife who are abortion providers. They’re not rich and they’ve called on their community to help—that’s all of us.
Maryland is going to be critical for the Southeast as an access point. They have airports, they have more affordable places people can stay. The Maryland and DC area is relatively accessible, and they’re going to be able to absorb some of the need at a critical time, when the need for later abortion is growing as a direct result of these bans.
Literally just from the Texas six-week ban, and it’s going to start from the Oklahoma ban soon. And that’s all before the Supreme Court decision drops.
Yes, currently last stop clinics are already reporting three-to-five week waits. That puts Partners in a very critical position. I know there’s so much to give to—there’s abortion funds, there’s bail funds, the Repro Legal Defense Fund—but we have to support this clinic.
Update 5/23/22: ACOG updated its statement of policy on abortion to remove references to fetal viability. The statement now says that “ACOG supports every person’s right to decide whether to have children, the number and spacing of children, and to have the information, education, and access to health services to make these decisions.”