When the Reddit user AbortionDoula became a moderator for the subreddit r/abortion a few years ago, they had already had years of experience working with abortion funds and abortion hotlines. A trained abortion doula and a member of the Online Abortion Resource Squad, AbortionDoula understood the value of online support and aid groups like r/abortion, especially for people in states where abortion access has been severely restricted or for people living in abusive situations. R/abortion, AbortionDoula told Jezebel, “is pretty much one of the only places that I can think of that people in all kinds of situations can get unbiased, confidential, anonymous advice.”
Like most of the other moderators, AbortionDoula offered a mix of both practical tips and emotional support to people who posted in the subreddit. The moderator answered questions on how to pay for an abortion without health insurance, whether it’s safe to smoke weed before getting an abortion, how much misoprostol to take for a medication abortion. Other times, they provided sympathy to those who needed it. “I’m really sorry you are going through this. There is nothing wrong with needing an abortion,” they recently wrote in response to a frantic 23-year-old who found out they were pregnant after believing they were unable to conceive again. As TrustedAdult, another moderator and an abortion doctor who frequently shared medical advice on the subreddit, told Jezebel, “People come to r/abortion from around the world, and they arrive in need.” For those people, r/abortion is a place where they can anonymously ask questions about their reproductive health.
According to AbortionDoula, the small team of moderators had been operating for years almost seamlessly, and with little friction. But then on a Sunday evening at the end of May, AbortionDoula logged on to their Reddit account, and there was a message waiting for them: they had been removed as a moderator from the subreddit. But AbortionDoula wasn’t the only one. Several of the other moderators they worked with, including TrustedAdult, had been kicked off too.
It was the top moderator for the subreddit, a user with the handle CedarWolf, who had, without warning according to both AbortionDoula and TrustedAdult, removed them and others, a move that came after weeks of increasing tension between CedarWolf and the majority of the other moderators. “The sub is essentially being held hostage,” wrote abortion_access, one of the other moderators who had been kicked off, in a post about the situation.
What followed after what AbortionDoula described to Jezebel as a retaliatory purge was the kind of mini-drama that long-time Reddit users have become accustomed to, given Reddit’s largely hands-off attitude towards the volunteers who run the sites. Days of private, contentious debate that then spilled out into the public and onto other subreddits like r/prochoice, where CedarWolf and TrustedAdult had at least one contentious exchange during which TrustedAdult said that CedarWolf was “dictatorial” and CedarWolf claimed that TrustedAdult was “entitled” and “trying to hijack” r/abortion. The former moderators claimed CedarWolf had rarely contributed (a charge that seems to be born out by their activity history); knew little about abortion care; and had retaliated against them, abusing their authority as a top mod. CedarWolf told Jezebel that they believed they were acting in the best interests of the subreddit’s users by removing moderates that they believed were not only backstabbers but claimed (with little evidence) were transphobic and sexist against men.
The future of r/abortion—one of the few places people who are seeking or have had abortions know and trust they can turn to for anonymous, medically sound advice—felt up in the air, all the more worrisome during a time when the anti-abortion movement is ascendant and getting an abortion, even for those with resources and knowledge, can be a complicated journey involving several doctor’s visits and a long car ride in the best-case scenario. And in states where abortion access has been severely curtailed, Republican lawmakers have made it deliberately difficult and confusing for abortion seekers to navigate the seemingly endless restrictions and rules.
As AbortionDoula put it, “Of all the Internet drama I’ve ever been a part of, and I’ve been on the Internet since I was like 12, this is the weirdest.”
Both TrustedAdult and AbortionDoula (Jezebel is using their Reddit handles to protect their privacy) believe that they were removed as moderators after they and other moderators raised concerns to CedarWolf about their role in running the subreddit, as well as that of another largely inactive moderator who they claimed lately would pop up on rare occasions only to post what TrustedAdult described as “misleading and hurtful comments.” In recent weeks, they and other moderators had also clashed with CedarWolf over the direction of the subreddit, which had under the leadership of the newer moderators, and not CedarWolf’s, not only grown in numbers, but become almost exclusively a support group, and a place to seek practical advice.
Successfully getting Reddit to remove a top moderator can be challenging, as well as confusing. According to TrustedAdult, they had tried and failed to get Reddit to remove CedarWolf as a top moderator in 2020 due to their inactivity. As TrustedAdult put it, “We were concerned to have inactive top moderators because it’s unnerving to build on something a person you don’t know can just choose to destroy.”
After the purge, which CedarWolf claims was only meant to be temporary, discussions among all of the moderators, both former and present, became heated. It was during these conversations that CedarWolf claimed some of the other moderators were, as AbortionDoula recalled, “sexist against men” as well as transphobic, claims that both AbortionDoula and TrustedAdult disputed. (When Jezebel asked CedarWolf to share instances where other moderators exhibited “sexism against men” as well as transphobia, they offered only one example, when someone had said in a moderator chat that it was, as they put it, “okay to discard all men’s opinions”; according to AbortionDoula, it was an offhand comment they had made in response to a man who had posted on r/abortion asking how to coerce his wife to get an abortion.)
CedarWolf, unsurprisingly, has a different take. The request that upset CedarWolf the most was the ask to remove the other largely inactive moderator. “I’m not going to go behind people’s backs and remove them,” they said, seemingly unaware of the irony of that statement. To them, their subsequent removal of several other moderators wasn’t retribution, it was cleaning up the problem-makers who didn’t want to be team players. “If you have to remove a moderator, you don’t want to let them know in advance,” they explained. “If someone is acting up and causing trouble and causing problems and someone you can’t work with anymore, you can’t just let them know.”
CedarWolf became a moderator of r/abortion about eight years ago hoping, they said, to keep anti-abortion activists out of the space. “We didn’t want anybody who was going to troll and cause trouble to get a hold of it,” they explained. But they admitted that their role in the subreddit was minimal. “I’m not as active as I should be,” they told Jezebel, partly due to all of the other subreddits they help moderate. CedarWolf is listed as the moderator of more than 100 subreddits, but stated that of those, only about 30 are active, still a substantial number of sites. To the other moderators, it seemed a reasonable request to ask CedarWolf to step down, given their role in so many other subreddits.
CedarWolf didn’t see it that way. “I would have handed it over,” they said. “But the problem was the people that I would’ve handed it over to were the people who were causing the problems.”
But then they shared something surprising. “I’m probably going to retire,” they told me suddenly as if just coming to the decision. “As long as people are getting the support they need, that’s more important.” CedarWolf added, sounding morose, “I let people down. I didn’t get it right. It didn’t work out this time.”
Shortly after we ended our conversation, AbortionDoula texted me. “We got our subreddit back!” they wrote. By the morning, both they and TrustedAdult—as well as others who had been kicked off—were back and CedarWolf was gone.
To TrustedAdult, resolving the moderator issue should never have required a public campaign. “I’m disappointed in the Reddit system for top moderator removal,” TrustedAdult wrote in an email. They added of their decision to publicly air out what was happening behind the scenes, “It worked, which I assume is the preferred outcome for Reddit administrators too, not to need to take action. But it was very stressful for everybody involved.”