Very OnlineOn TikTok, Teens Reshape Abortion Culture

A pregnancy test with the text,

Photo credit: viralbus/Flickr/Creative Commons

On September 23, 2020, TikTok user @dazhariaa posted a video to Che Ecru’s “Before I Die,” which begins, “Before I die I’m tryna fuck you baby.” She records herself in the mirror, turning her body to the side to highlight the fact that her stomach is rounded. The camera shifts, and we see that she’s in a doctor’s office, a mask around her neck, and, in time with the song, she mouths the next line of the song: “Hopefully we don’t have no babies.” The video, which is captioned with the phrase “abortion check” and a kissy-face emoji, has 1.2 million likes. The 54,000 comments below it offer a predictable array of responses. One commenter writes, “[I]t’s good she posted it, abortion is fine so many girls have babies and struggle to support it. It goes into foster care, left, neglected, hungry.” The comment has 27,000 likes. Another writes, “Bruh, at least keep it private,” to the tune of 20,000 likes. Though some users encourage @dazhariaa to keep the pregnancy, that life is sacred and that abortion is wrong, most respond with support, many arguing that young parenthood is hard, babies are expensive, and nothing is more important than freedom.

For its largely Gen-Z users, nothing is off limits on TikTok, so why would abortion be any different? The language of “abortion check” isn’t a rarity; rather, it’s the platform’s native tongue, playing on trends like “famous relative check” or “private school check.” About a month after @dazhariaa’s video, a user, @megatapz, posted a video on October 20, 2020, writing, “Abortion check,” followed by “Sike. Stop glorifying abortion. Abortion is murder.” The back and forth is intense, with both pro-life and pro-choice teens dominating their corners of the platforms in a fight that is further heightened by the hunger for more views and more followers. Unlike platforms like Twitter and Instagram, on TikTok having a few tens of thousands of followers is little to write home about; to be a true influencer, you need to get closer to the millions. And there’s no easier way to get them than by lip-synching yourself into one of the most divisive arguments of our time.

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On February 26, The Daily Beast published a piece called “Women Are Putting Their Abortions on TikTok—but Is It Real?” in which Gender Reporter Emily Shugerman looks at the trend of young women seemingly filming their abortions. The videos, she notes, are in most cases fake, “playful, transgressive” provocations meant to piss off abortion foes. And they hit their targets perfectly. Despite continued evidence that abortion rates in the United States have declined in recent years, the pro-life movement depends on the existence of an imaginary culture of young women constantly getting “irresponsible” abortions. These inherently controversial videos offer easy fodder that prominent anti-choicers can hold up as evidence of a poisonous pro-abortion culture among young people; for advocates of choice, however, they are the perfect way to troll people who have built and sustained their own movement on outright lies and manufactured panic.

It’s not surprising that pro-choice advocacy is flourishing on TikTok, the app once famed for fun, trendy dances but now better known for tanking Trump’s Tulsa event last summer and for a brief, niche love of sea shanties. Much like the early forums of gURL.com and the sleepover exchanges of American Girl’s The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Younger Girls, TikTok is, for tweens and young teens, a unique space for wide-ranging conversations about bodies. Young people talk about discharge, coming too often (or not enough), if you really need to do kegels, and how to know if you’re a lesbian, or bisexual, or straight. Some of these videos are made by experts and gynecologists; others are made by 14-year-olds who want to know if they’re “normal.” These conversations are swift and they’re fleeting, but they’re happening on an extremely popular app in which users can be anonymous and find the information they might not even know they need (but that, given its extremely targeted and invasive algorithm, TikTok certainly knows they need to hear).

Whether their videos are meant to educate or to troll, teens are using TikTok to reshape abortion culture for themselves.

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Whether their videos are meant to educate or to troll, teens are using TikTok to reshape abortion culture for themselves. People hop on and share videos about their abortions to fight the stigma attached to the procedure, or they push back against anti-choice arguments. Some of these videos are real and some aren’t; at their best, they are a combination of both. After all, abortion isn’t always a stressful, serious thing—sometimes, as we’ve seen on screen and in young-adult novels, it’s not a huge deal. The procedure doesn’t need to be either shameful or sacred, but can simply be a medical intervention like ant other. By infusing the abortion debate with humor and absurdity, teens can make the subject easier to talk about and less scary. Young clinic defenders wield rainbow flags and hand each other baby-shaped cookies to troll anti-choice protesters. They joke, “[S]he really yeetus the fetus” and refer to “fetus deletus.” Is it all great, ethical, above-board discourse about reproductive justice and access and stigma? No. But it doesn’t have to be. TikTok is an app primarily for nonsense; as such it’s a first step, not a final step, for teens who want to learn about reproductive healthcare. Just as they might learn from a 30-second clip that their boobs are normal or that blue balls are bullshit, they can learn that abortions exist, aren’t sinful, and, if they need one one day, it’s okay for them to have one.

Instead of trying to argue with the sort of people who devote hours every week to harassing and tormenting patients who might be entering a clinic to terminate a pregnancy but are just as likely to be going there for a check-up or cancer screening, the denizens of TikTok are happy to mock them. They aren’t quieting themselves with liberal softness and seeking to take the high road. They don’t expect to find the mythical empathy that decades of activism has failed to unearth from anti-choice moralists. These young people know that forced-childbirth diehards are on the wrong side of this fight in spite of both good-faith arguments and ample information; the rest of us could stand to learn from them.

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Rachel Charlene Lewis, who has light brown skin and dark brown curly hair, wears a white button up and gold jewelry and gold glasses.
by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Rachel Charlene Lewis has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Greatist, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.