‘Funding Abortion? It’s a Good Idea, Right?’

Even though Right By You had to stop providing emergency contraception at Olivia Rodrigo’s concert, the group is still getting creative to provide reproductive care in Missouri.

Olivia Rodrigo and Plan B pills
Right By You continues providing reproductive health care to Missouri teens. Flickr/Austen Risolvato/Rewire News Group

When 21-year-old pop superstar Olivia Rodrigo’s sophomore tour came through St. Louis, Missouri in mid-March, everyone wanted to be there. Teens and adults alike dressed up in sparkly outfits and the Guts album’s signature pastel purple. It was, to put it mildly, a big deal.

Rodrigo had some special guests at the show: The reproductive access groups Right By You and Missouri Abortion Fund were at the concert to host an information table and hand out emergency contraception and condoms to those who might want them—along with sparkly sticker packets, featuring slogans like “Funding abortion? It’s a good idea, right?” (a play on one of Rodrigo’s songs).

A few days later, rumors started swirling online, accusing Rodrigo and her team of handing out abortion pills to impressionable tweens at her concert. Conservative commentators basically called Rodrigo a Satanic corrupting force on the young people of Missouri and falsely claimed she was distributing contraceptives that end a pregnancy. (In one poll, as many as 73 percent of people surveyed incorrectly think emergency contraceptives can end an early-stage pregnancy; it is taken after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy.)

While that wasn’t the truth, the damage was done. Abortion organizations told Variety that while Rodrigo’s fundraising program for abortion funds, Fund 4 Good, would continue, her management said they could no longer provide emergency contraception for the remainder of the tour.

Stephanie Kraft Sheley, who founded Right By You to help Missouri teens access reproductive health care, said the media response wasn’t proportional to what actually happened.

“It’s not what people seem to have imagined, which is literal children wandering off and like grabbing the dangerous medication off the table,” Sheley told Rewire News Group. “That just doesn’t happen.”

To Sheley, the concert was an opportunity for her organization to reach an underserved group: teens in need of medical care, sparkly-stickered or not. Right By You had previously tabled at a number of community events, like Pride festivals, and those crowds understood the organization’s purpose and presence there.

Those teenagers are Right By You’s core demographic, though it also serves adults. Sheley founded the group in 2021, about a year before the fall of Roe v. Wade, to operate a text line that would provide anonymous reproductive rights counseling to young people.

“We have not experienced this confusion of, ‘Is it abortion?’ or ‘Is it inappropriate around children?’ This did not come up for us until Olivia,” Sheley said.

Right By You volunteers know what they’re talking about: They’ve been getting creative to provide reproductive health care to young people since years before the Rodrigo’ concert, and they plan to do so afterward, too.

Navigating an abortion-hostile state

Sheley is no stranger to innovating around reproductive health.

When she founded Right By You three years ago, abortions were already incredibly difficult to access in Missouri, especially for teens. If someone under 18 needed a procedural abortion, they’d first need parental permission or a judge’s approval. Then, they’d need to go to St. Louis to visit the only clinic providing abortions in the entire state. Medication abortion was illegal to distribute in the state even before Roe’s reversal.

Within minutes of the Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs decision, Missouri declared all forms of abortion illegal in nearly all cases thanks to a “trigger” ban that the attorney general at the time quickly certified. This year, an attempt by some Republican state lawmakers to add exceptions for rape and incest to Missouri’s abortion ban was struck down in the state legislature.

Missouri is also a state whose lawmakers have a vested interest in preventing young people from accessing reproductive health information: The state had the third-highest number of school book bans in the 2022 to 2023 school year, school sex ed classes show videos from anti-abortion groups, and the state Attorney General Andrew Bailey has a record of suing school districts he thinks provide inappropriate materials to students. So reproductive rights organizers like Sheley are trying more creative strategies than ever, like tabling at Rodrigo’s concert, to get young people the information and resources they need.

“This is about making resources available to people after the fall of Roe v. Wade, and the diminishing access to clinics,” Sheley said.

As I spoke with Sheley by phone a few days after the St. Louis concert, she was already receiving texts on the Right By You line—someone needed information about where to get an abortion, or a morning-after pill, or even supplies for a birth.

Sheley passed the request off to one of Right By You’s 21 volunteer text line operators—the line hadn’t even opened yet. The concert distribution was only one small part of Right By You’s emergency contraception distribution network, Sheley said. In fact, since July 2023, the group has partnered with local mid-Missouri businesses as morning-after pill pickup spots.

Getting involved with college students

A student group at the University of Missouri spent the better part of a year pushing the state’s flagship public university—and its largest—to offer free morning-after pills on-campus, Sheley said. That campaign was moving slowly, despite a year of dedicated organizing by the group, which called itself the Coalition for Bodily Autonomy (CBA).

“An emergency contraceptive like Plan B, it’s expensive … It’s like 40 to 50 bucks,” CBA organizer and student Mel Tully told student publication the Maneater. “And for college students, that’s a lot of money.”

The students eventually connected with Right By You, which had access to a steady supply of emergency contraception called Julie, thanks to a donation from the company.

The students also reached out to local businesses, three of which agreed to a plan: They’d keep a box of the pills in their bathroom at all times for anyone to get. They could walk out of the bathroom with a small, brown-paper package, as anonymous as a box of menstrual pads.

Right By You, meanwhile, would use its text line to direct people to the businesses in question. The University of Missouri in Columbia, located in the middle of the state is about 130 miles from the nearest abortion clinic over the river in Illinois. (The last abortion clinic in Columbia was forced to close in 2018.) The businesses participating in the contraceptive-distribution program wanted to remain anonymous due to fear of targeting by local anti-abortion groups. But, Sheley said, the response was uniformly positive.

So positive, in fact, that when another town wanted to launch a distribution program like the one the Missouri students had created, they went public with it.

Each involved business announced its location, its hours, and where, exactly, someone would need to go to pick up the Julie pills. This was in Hannibal, Missouri, a significantly smaller town than Columbia: The population is only about 17,000.

Sheley said the program in Hannibal started with a bar and grill. Customers could come up to the bar, ask for contraceptives, and get some straight from the bartender. Another bar in town saw what was happening, and it wanted in, too.

“We launched on Monday, and by Friday, we had a second location up and running,” Sheley said.

Then a third business, a hair salon, asked to participate. Even in one of the most conservative states in the country, the in-person response to this kind of creative emergency contraceptive access program has never been negative, Sheley said. “People are really into it.”

Other Missouri nonprofits are engaged in similar projects—the Missouri Family Health Council, which provides free and low-cost birth control, has expanded to over 40 emergency contraception pickup spots, and have distributed over 23,000 emergency contraception kits since the program’s launch in June of 2023, according to executive director Michelle Trupiano. And other reproductive rights groups in red states have adopted similar models: Jane’s Due Process, for example, which runs an abortion access text line in Texas, also has a free Plan B delivery service.

Showing up and meeting people where they are

The move toward broader contraceptive access has come alongside a slate of attempts to limit that access as much as possible. Back in 2021, some lawmakers attempted to cast Plan B and similar medications as “abortifacients” because they prevent sperm implantation, leading the FDA to release a memo a year later saying that is not the same as an abortion. That same year, Missouri Republicans attempted to remove intrauterine devices from Medicaid coverage, along with some types of contraception, including emergency contraceptives (and just last month, they passed a bill preventing Planned Parenthood from receiving Medicaid reimbursements). One Missouri hospital briefly stopped offering Plan B after abortion became illegal in the state. But the worry—that somehow, the use of emergency contraception would legally qualify as an abortion—remains.

On a health-care omnibus bill introduced in the Missouri House just last month, several lawmakers proposed amendments that would regulate “abortifacients,” though actual abortion pills are already banned in the state, rendering such regulation unnecessary. Those amendments did not make it into later versions of the bill.

As of mid-March, a survey by the Missouri Family Health Council suggested that most Missourians were still concerned about lack of access to birth control, with around 59 percent of respondents worried that lawmakers would enact laws restricting that access. That same survey a year prior indicated that about half of Missourians were uncertain whether birth control was legal in the state. (There has been a slight increase in knowledge of the legality of birth control since then.)

Trupiano attributes those results to a deliberate misinformation campaign.

“There still is a knowledge gap—and that just goes to show that there continues to be so much purposeful misinformation that confuses people, creates fear and uncertainty, and limits access for people,” she said.

Despite that misinformation, birth control access is one of the few issues in Missouri that receives some bipartisan support.

“Folks across political ideologies want more to be done to secure access to contraception,” Trupiano said.

Beyond that, while abortion itself remains a partisan issue in the state, a group working to put the issue to voters—and, potentially, enshrine abortion and contraceptive access, in the state’s constitution—said it got twice the signatures needed to get on the ballot in the upcoming election. Conservative groups have said they intend to push back against the initiative.

To Sheley, the Rodrigo concert backlash ties back into these broader issues and indicates a right-wing discursive shift.

“I do think that this reaction to us handing out EC at [the concert], equating it with abortion, splitting hairs around whether preventing implantation constitutes abortion—that signals to me that argument is going to be advanced, and that their view of emergency contraception is as a middle ground between straight up contraception and abortion,” Sheley said.

Sheley believes that eventually, all forms of birth control are likely to be targeted. In that, she agrees with the Missouri survey respondents.

“I don’t know what the time frame for that is going to be, but it seems clear that that’s where we’re headed,” she said.

“So many dads with their kids”

As the Guts tour continued to other states, abortion funds continued to table, though they didn’t pass out Plan B.

Avery Lumeng, a volunteer and board member for the Eastern Massachusetts Abortion Fund, was at one of those concerts. Like Sheley, Lumeng said the best interactions she has had while tabling at concerts are parents, “who tell us they want to build a safer world for their children, or young people who ask questions about our work.”

The Rodrigo concert had the youngest crowd of any Lumeng’s tabled at (“So many dads with their kids! So fun.”). For them, she “toned down” the pitch somewhat.

“If someone needs an abortion, birth control, or Plan B, we give them the money and the support so they can get it,” Lumeng tells them.

Back in Missouri, Sheley said she’s following the same plan she did at the concert: to show up, and meet people where they are.

“That is what I think is so needed—to make sure that the people that are actually living in the community are leading,” she said. “People generally seem to appreciate that this is available. They feel they’re being cared for in a meaningful way.”