Meet the Group Fighting Abortion Misinformation, One Reddit Post at a Time
Volunteers from the Online Abortion Resource Squad are vital in providing accurate and supportive information in the abortion subreddit.
UPDATE, April 13: This article was updated to reflect Messing’s current title.
Imagine you just discovered that you’re unexpectedly pregnant. Maybe you’re a teen living at home in Texas, where you’ve heard abortion is illegal. Maybe you live in California, where abortion is legal, but don’t have anyone you can talk to. What do you do?
For a large and growing number of people, the answer is: ask Reddit.
Fortunately, if you find your way to r/abortion, you’ll be greeted by a supportive community of people who’ve had abortions, as well as trained volunteers who know the answers to your questions—or where to find them. This is thanks to the work of Online Abortion Resource Squad (OARS), a volunteer organization that brings accurate and supportive information to r/abortion, fighting the abortion misinformation that runs rampant online one post at a time.
OARS was founded in 2019, after Ariella Messing—then a Ph.D. candidate in bioethics and health policy at Johns Hopkins University and abortion fund volunteer—found her way onto r/abortion and noticed that the information being shared there was “uneven.” Sometimes it was helpful; often it wasn’t. Her initial thought was that a big organization should be compiling resources and responding to questions in the subreddit. But a friend also involved in abortion access encouraged her to go ahead and get started, and helped recruit volunteers.
“From that day on, we committed to making sure every post had a good answer,” said Messing, now OARS’ executive director.
OARS currently has about 25 active volunteers who handle a volume of roughly 1,000 posts per month. However, this number doesn’t fully capture the amount of work they put in considering that helping some users can require days of back-and-forth communication. And the group’s reach goes beyond its active volunteers, who aren’t the only knowledgeable people in the subreddit: Many past volunteers are still active in the forum, and those who’ve sought help there often stick around to offer advice and support to newcomers. A few of those people have even become OARS volunteers. For Messing, that’s the point.
“Our goal was never to have OARS-identified people in the forum answering your posts like a peer education website,” Messing said. “It was always about teaching people how to identify resources that are or aren’t trustworthy, and then how to use them. To elevate the general level of knowledge and familiarity among everyone there.”
Recently, OARS volunteers intervened to stop one poster from going to an anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy center.” They provided her with links to legitimate clinics in her area and information about an abortion fund that could help cover the cost of the ultrasound she was seeking. A few months later, she replied to a post from another user in her city with a link to the same clinic and the name of the fund.
Oftentimes, people who’ve had abortions return to the subreddit and post minute-by-minute accounts of their experience to demystify the process for others. These seemingly mundane details are exactly what a lot of people want, Messing said. Abortion is highly stigmatized and can therefore seem scary. Knowing, for example, that clinic wait times can be long simply because they’re busy—not because abortion procedures are themselves long or complicated—is the kind of detail that can set a person’s mind at ease. Other users are looking for emotional support, especially when they’re not receiving it from friends, partners, or family members.
“I’m looking for support since I seriously have no one else to talk to about this,” wrote one user, who said her partner had repeatedly postponed a vasectomy and refused to accompany her to her abortion appointment. She wanted to break up with him, she said, and expressed regret for staying in the relationship as long as she had. “I feel so stupid. Please I just need some kind words.”
Her post received dozens of comments. “I see a woman who is in a tight spot and knows how to get out of it and is brave and strong enough to survive this … holding you with love and dignity,” wrote one user. “Please don’t shame and blame yourself for your pregnancies,” wrote another. “You are being wise in managing your reproduction … You are not stupid for loving someone and trying to make the relationship work.”
A few days later, the original poster followed up. “I went to my appointment by myself like I told you, and seeing the partners of the other gals waiting for them, made me feel soooo lonely,” she wrote. “I took out my phone and checked my post just to find even more supporting comments. Reading all those kind words made me feel accompanied and less nervous.”
“That’s really when I’m happiest, is when people who are not repro people, are not volunteers, but just regular people who may have had very little knowledge of this super stigmatized experience, are then able to help other people in similar situations,” Messing said.
OARS members saved the subreddit from near collapse two years ago after the former top moderator kicked out—but eventually reinstated—some OARS volunteers. A quirk of Reddit is that whoever claims a subreddit first becomes the “top moderator.” Top moderator privileges include the power to boot other moderators out, which is what happened after OARS members asked the largely inactive top moderator to step back. After they went public with the drama, though, the top moderator relented and stepped down. As a result, r/abortion is now moderated and run entirely by OARS volunteers.
These volunteers take six-hour shifts, and a member of the group is available more or less 24/7.
Based on traffic numbers Messing shared with Rewire News Group, r/abortion gets anywhere from 600,000 to over 900,000 hits in any given month, with the number of unique visitors in that time ranging from around 45,000 to over 70,000. Though it’s impossible to know exactly who is visiting the subreddit and why, these numbers certainly suggest that in addition to the people who receive direct answers or support on r/abortion, many more may be learning from simply reading the questions and replies.
Demand is also certain to continue growing as more states ban or severely restrict access to abortion, especially in the wake of a federal judge’s ruling last week that has the potential to halt sales of mifepristone, one of the pills used in medication abortion, nationwide. However, when it comes to OARS’ operations, everything from fundraising, to communications and social media, to training and supervising volunteers currently falls on Messing. What started as a side project for her in 2019, has, for the last two years, been a more-than-full-time job that she does without a salary. Asked what the organization most needs to move forward, Messing said the answer is capacity—and capacity costs money.
“I literally need more of me,” she said. She needs to be able to hire herself, and more employees after that. “The thing is that Reddit doesn’t close,” Messing said. “And so, we don’t. The only way for the organization to be sustainable and to keep meeting the growing need is to become much more systematized.”
Messing wants to be able to keep helping people on Reddit. But she also wants to transmit everything she and the other OARS volunteers have learned there out to the broader movement. After all, through fielding hundreds of Reddit posts per day, OARS members gain a keen sense of what the most common misconceptions or points of confusion are when it comes to accessing abortion. There’s disinformation perpetuated by the anti-abortion movement, of course, but there’s also a lot of misinformation spread by well-intended sources.
“The people who are coming to Reddit are teaching us so much, and their voices aren’t being heard in service provision, in research, in all sorts of places,” Messing said. “They’re coming to Reddit because they’re not getting the information and support that they need, and they’re clearly laying out exactly what those needs are. So now it’s time to take those lessons and relay them to other groups, and help them implement changes or to rethink things. Some good should come from all this work that people are doing to advocate for themselves.”
On the internet, information gaps will always be filled—the question is, with what, and by whom.
“I think the biggest problem isn’t the trolls or the antis, it’s more people who are really well-intentioned and are sure that they’re correct when they are super, super wrong,” said Alex van Vliet, another OARS volunteer.
Van Vliet lives in the Netherlands and has been involved with Abortion Network Amsterdam since 2018. Abortion Network Amsterdam is part of Abortion Without Borders, a coalition geared toward helping people in Poland get abortions. However, its member organizations also help people from across Europe, especially those who need care beyond the first trimester due to the fact that most European countries ban abortion at some point in the second trimester. (The Netherlands, where abortion is legal until 24 weeks, is an exception.)
U.S. advocates have been vocal in criticizing “Auntie Networks” and other efforts that, at best, poorly replicate existing organizations like abortion funds and practical support networks, and at worst mislead people and mishandle sensitive information. This is not just a U.S. problem, said van Vliet, who said she’s seen similar issues in Europe—most recently around the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which sparked sudden but uninformed concern among many Europeans about victims of sexual violence in the war.
“In those sorts of situations, I see that people are genuine,” van Vliet said. “But sometimes they are so obsessed with the idea of being a helper that they forget that you need to provide help that is actually helpful.”
Helpful but uninformed people aside, there’s also a lot of confusion resulting from things like out-of-date clinic websites or advocacy organizations that provide slightly conflicting information. The list here is long and can seem nitpicky, but small inconsistencies are exactly the sort of thing that send people to Reddit panicked and looking for help. This is especially true for people who are self-managing their abortions, particularly if they live in states where abortion is illegal.
For example, thanks to public information campaigns about self-managed abortion, lots of people may know that if you have both mifepristone and misoprostol, you take one mifepristone followed by four misoprostol. But they don’t necessarily know how long you’re supposed to wait in between (the answer is 24 to 48 hours), or that if you’re nine or more weeks pregnant, you should take a second dose of misoprostol four hours later. Many sources leave out information about additional doses of misoprostol entirely; those that include it often have conflicting information about how to time the doses because some providers follow different protocols that may or may not have been updated based on the latest research.
Given the looming possibility that legal sales of mifepristone could be halted in the United States, many abortion providers have said they’re ready to switch to misoprostol-only protocols. However, some sources share conflicting information about dosage and timing with this method, too.
Another common source of confusion with both protocols: Misoprostol is taken by placing the pills against a mucus membrane for 30 minutes, during which time the body absorbs the medication. This can be done by placing pills in the cheeks, under the tongue, or in the vagina. People often come to Reddit panicked that their pills didn’t visibly dissolve. This is actually fine, as long as the pills stayed in place for the full 30 minutes—but no one has told them that. Some research indicates that taking the misoprostol vaginally leads to fewer side effects; however, pill fragments can also be detectable to a health-care provider that way. Putting the pills in the cheeks or under the tongue is therefore safer for people in restrictive contexts, but that’s another nuance that is often left out of infographics and social media posts.
Even fewer sources explain that urine pregnancy tests typically remain positive for several weeks following an abortion, and that some people will still have a false-positive test more than a month later—yet another source of unnecessary panic for many people.
Messing understands why resource pages often leave out this information: Advocates worry that if the information isn’t straightforward enough, it won’t be accessible to all. But “oversimplifying can lead someone to do something that’s really not safe, medically or legally,” she said, adding that it’s paternalistic to assume people can’t handle nuance.
“I think we have to respect people enough to understand that when given clear, accurate, and thorough information, they are fully capable of making the best decisions for themselves in the context of their lives and their priorities,” Messing said. “We owe that to them.”
Reddit is a place where abortion seekers are asking directly for what they need. Rather than guessing at which details are the most important to include in public-facing resources, Messing wants advocates to be able to access this existing trove of information.
“When people give us feedback on their experience, that’s so kind of them. And it’s also something they shouldn’t have to do,” she said. “And then not to have a vehicle for relaying it, or the capacity to do so, is a failure of this terrible system that we’ve got.”