August 11, 2022

‘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.

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. 

@anxiousandfabulous ✨Discover PARIS✨ safely #ifwegodownthenwegodowntogether ♬ What would you do – Bitch 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 Front, an organisation that fights for abortion rights nationwide. She lives in Tennesse, a state who voted an abortion ban trigger 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.

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 post online about wanting to 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 prosecute 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.

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