Anonymous Woman

Speaking with the press, an abortion fund worker faces an impossible dilemma

December 6, 2022
Darrel Frost

At first, she told herself she was being paranoid. The car she’d seen idling outside her home might have belonged to an Uber driver, a food delivery person, a friend of a neighbor. There could be perfectly good reasons for someone to sit in a car on her street, engine running. The second time she noticed one, her spine felt prickly, every nerve at attention. But then she swallowed her fear and went about her evening. 

About a week later, she climbed the concrete stairs that led to her door. When she slid her key into the lock and turned, the key rattled; there was no click, no resistance. It had been opened. Strange—she was always meticulous about those things. She had to be: she lives alone, she’s a woman, she helps run an abortion fund in the Southeast. Once inside, she locked the door behind her and looked around. Nothing seemed to be missing. Again, she shook it off. She’d been out of sorts lately; ever since the draft of the Dobbs ruling leaked, her life had been chaotic. She told herself that she must have been in a rush heading out and forgotten, just the once.

When the sun rose the next morning, daylight flooded her with assurance that everything was fine. She went about her routine and prepared for her day job, in childcare. She closed the door behind her and made sure to lock it. Slinging her bag over her shoulder, she descended the steps, unlocked her car, and settled into the driver’s seat. As usual, she turned the key in the ignition; as usual, when she pressed lightly on the gas pedal, the car began to ease forward. But as the stop sign at the end of the street drew closer, and she moved her foot to the brake, a shriek pierced the air. She jumped, then leaned into the pedal, hard. Finally, the car came to a stop. She turned off the engine and took a deep breath. With caution, she restarted the car and steered it back to its parking space. She called a tow truck, and then her boss, to say that she’d be late to work.

Later, when she talked to a mechanic, he told her that she needed to replace her brakes—even though her brakes had been fairly new. The repair cost her a thousand dollars.

The next day, she headed out to her car again, and found the windows shattered. Her first thought was that she shouldn’t have left her AirPods on the dashboard. To her surprise, the AirPods were still there; her registration and insurance card were gone. She went back inside. Maybe she’d brought those documents in? But looking through her belongings, she realized that there were, in fact, items missing from the day her door had been unlocked.

The woman I’m describing is in her early thirties, smart, slight, strong, with cool-girl hair—that effortless waviness with texture that cannot be found in a bottle. She is a film buff, she loves kids, she has great fashion sense. When we met up the other night, she wore an off-shoulder white top with black overalls that would have been insane on anyone else; on her, it was a look. Under her eyes there were dark circles; she’d started staying in a friend’s basement as a safety measure, and hadn’t been sleeping much. We ordered orange wine and cheese. I’d gotten to know her over time, as a source in stories I’d written about abortion rights. There is more I want to tell you about this woman—her name, for starters—but she spoke to me under the condition of anonymity. 

Over the past several months, the situation in her state had become crushing. She was used to outraged emails from antiabortion activists—“antis,” as she calls them—demanding to know why she was killing babies. But the risk of a break-in felt new. She couldn’t know for a fact that it had been antiabortion activists harassing her; she’d called the police, and they were unhelpful. The ambiguity left her deeply unsettled. “I think it’s just about fear,” she said. “We want you to know that we’re here and we’ve kept tabs on you. Like fucking with my car. I don’t think that they were trying to sabotage my brakes so I would drive off the side of a cliff. I think it was so that I would have to pay a thousand bucks for a repair.” Then she added, “At the same time, these could be the same people that firebombed a clinic.”

Across the country, the Dobbs decision has heightened the stakes of interviews with people who work in and around abortion care; how the press should handle cases like this, and consider granting anonymity, has become a matter of critical concern. “It’s a tough situation,” Elise De Los Santos, a lecturer at Northwestern University’s Medill School, told me. “We’re in this era of change where we’re trying to figure out: Okay, so the old rules don’t workwhat are the new rules?” She advises young reporters to initiate conversations with sources about how the reporting process works—“Media literacy is part of the job now,” she said—and to be clear with readers when deciding to grant anonymity. A journalist shouldn’t assume that people are familiar with press jargon. Or care about its rules.

This woman’s worry—that publishing personal details, or elevating her public profile, might put her in danger—came at odds with the interests of the abortion fund, which was in dire need of resources. Fundraising is hard work; media coverage can help. Once abortion was made illegal in her state, calls came pouring in from all over: local TV stations, national publications, radio. The attention stirred a cocktail of grief and adrenaline. Suddenly, a grassroots abortion fund with about ten people, most of them part-time, was trying to keep up with an avalanche of reporters, plus well-intentioned influencers and celebrities urging followers to support their work. They’d had no media training; there had never been the time or resources to devote to something like that, which seemed so distant from their mission. Besides, until Dobbs, the press tended to go straight to Planned Parenthood for reactions to abortion-related news. 

The influx of cash was a boon, but the coverage was dizzying. “I do think journalists think we have that training,” the woman said. “I think that they don’t understand the difference between an organization like ours and an organization like Planned Parenthood, really.” As the requests mounted, she began to weigh the value of publicity for her abortion fund against the potential harm to herself.

Back in the city out West where the woman grew up, she and her family—white, comfortable—had arranged their life around their faith. They were Catholic. Her father was particularly devout; his mother had been referred to in family lore with a reverence usually reserved for saints. She’d died while her granddaughter was in utero, and it later felt to the woman as if somehow, while they both lingered in the limbo between life and death, there was some sort of spiritual transference between them. The first name of her grandmother became her middle name, and it’s now tattooed on her wrist. Her family often praised her for her “servant’s heart,” a virtue inherited from their matriarch. 

From an early age, the importance of tithing was impressed upon her and her sister. In their church’s youth group, she was an eager participant. She showed up for community service at local animal shelters and nursing homes. (It didn’t hurt, she told me, that there were boys she liked in the group.) She spent summers traveling to Mexico, helping to build shelters, freshen up the paint on old buildings, feed the hungry. As a teenager, she dabbled in antiabortion activism at her school and attended demonstrations. She pressed tape over her mouth to symbolize her role protecting fetuses who could not speak for themselves. At eighteen, when she became eligible, she was confirmed as a believer in the church. The choir sang “This Little Light of Mine.” She could feel her grandmother in the sanctuary.

She juggled these activities with her studies at a performing-arts high school, where she worked behind the scenes on theater productions. She also dreamed of becoming an actor. Her mother had introduced her to classic movies, but what really inspired her was a viewing, at the age of eight, of E.T.—a story at once totally impossible and utterly compelling. It was magic, and she wanted to be a part of it.

After graduation, she left home for college in Los Angeles, where she studied film. “All of a sudden,” she said, “I was surrounded by all of this art that, to me, felt like God.” She finds it difficult to describe what happened next: it was as if her faith started slipping through her hands slowly, like sand. She was in an entirely new setting, exposed to entirely new ideas. She took feminist-studies courses; she learned about the male gaze, the Bechdel Test. She started to examine the ways women had historically been disenfranchised, and she thought of all the times she’d felt dismissed, made to feel inferior because of her gender. The reasons for those things always seemed to lie somewhere with the Word of God.

She moved to New York, where she did a bit of acting and worked in childcare to make ends meet. She found herself missing the service aspect of the religion she grew up in, the feeling that there was something more to life than the churn of paying bills. Her time in New York was short; a relationship got bad. She decided to travel somewhere far away. Her sister had recently settled in a small city in the South, and had a spare room. So there she went.

It was a place unlike anywhere she’d lived. When she arrived, it was 2016; Donald Trump was a serious contender for the presidency, and a radicalizing spirit was in the air. There was a feeling she’d never experienced in her “coastal bubbles,” as she put it to me. “I don’t really know where my brain or my heart or my mind would be at if I had experienced the political climate we’ve had over the last however many years in one of those bubbles.”

The woman began volunteering at an abortion clinic. “I didn’t realize it consciously at the time, but I was looking for something that felt like I was doing what I had been raised to do, which is Christ’s work,” she said. “If you want to see God, go to an abortion clinic.” The people she helped were coming out of complicated, sometimes traumatic situations. Just as she’d been wrestling with a feeling that she’d lost power, she relished the opportunity to help others find theirs. At the clinic, she saw “the nitty-gritty,” she said. “It is the mess of life. It’s terrible and beautiful and profound.” She fell in love with the work and was eventually hired there full-time. But the clinic was part of a network, which went through a merger, and in December 2018, she was laid off. 

By then she was committed to the cause of reproductive justice. She wanted to continue working with patients to fill what she saw as a clear gap in the healthcare system. Along with some friends who had also been laid off from the clinic, in 2019, the woman helped start an abortion fund. She envisioned herself forming a worthwhile organization. She never anticipated becoming a spokesperson.

In 1954, a journalism professor named Frank Fraser Bond published a textbook called An Introduction to Journalism: A Survey of the Fourth Estate in All Its Forms. Anonymous sourcing was rare, he wrote, used mainly for journalists passing on information from the president of the United States. The “Lindley Rule”—named after Ernest Lindley, who covered the US military for Newsweek during World War II—established standards for sourcing on “deep background.” Matt J. Duffy, a media scholar in Georgia writing for American Journalism, later summarized the ongoing influence of the Lindley Rule, through which “any information culled from the source cannot be attributed to the source or even a nameless official.” The origins of anonymous sourcing, in other words, served to protect the identity of the most powerful person in the world, and his lieutenants.

In time, the use of anonymous sourcing spread to different beats, in various contexts. By the sixties and seventies, according to Duffy, it had become a “fixture” in the American press. The powerful coverage of Watergate in the Washington Post, which relied on anonymous sourcing to expose presidential corruption, convinced the public that talking to people on “deep background” was justified. “Post-Watergate,” Duffy wrote, “journalism textbooks found merit in anonymous sourcing.” News organizations had policy guidelines (“independently verifying information, showing that anonymity must be granted to avoid harm to the source”). But ultimately, the use of anonymity came down, as it always does, to a journalist’s judgment. In 1978, according to research by Duffy and Ann Williams, an associate professor of communication at Georgia State, “the Washington Post and New York Times employed unnamed sourcing in nearly half of their front-page articles.”

By 2008, however, the appearance of anonymous sources on the front page dropped to one in four stories. The explanations vary. Among them: the embarrassments of Janet Cooke (who fabricated anonymous sources for the Post, in a piece that won a Pulitzer Prize), Stephen Glass (who wrote what turned out to be fiction for The New Republic, some of which was attributed to anonymous sources), and Jayson Blair (who published false quotes, often from anonymous sources, in the Times). News organizations lost credibility, even when they admitted to their mistakes. Editors, looking over their shoulders in an increasingly competitive market, became less tolerant of quotes from unnamed figures. When a USA Today columnist was discovered to have invented quotes and sources, Al Neuharth, the newspaper’s founder, called anonymous sourcing “an evil of journalism.” Newsrooms updated their standards, which they publicized, in an effort to earn back public trust. Today, the Times website proclaims a “distaste for anonymous sourcing.”

In trying to balance the approval of our audience with that of our sources, perhaps we’ve stigmatized a practice that could be used thoughtfully, and as a form of compassion. Debate over anonymity returned to the fore with the rise of the #MeToo movement, and it featured lots of hand-wringing over the feminist catchphrase “believe women.” There is still no consensus, however, on the responsibility of a journalist dealing with a source at risk. Erica Hensley has been covering abortion access in the South since 2016, mostly in Mississippi, and now writes for The Fuller Project, a nonprofit newsroom focused on women. “When I started, I was thinking and trying to respect sources’ autonomy, and certainly their time and their expertise, but I was not as concerned as I am now,” she told me. “I should have been more concerned then about their safety, about news literacy and what it means to talk to me honestly and candidly about abortion in a state where it’s very hard to access.” Anita Wadhwani, a writer for the Tennessee Lookout who has been covering abortion in her state for twenty years, has interviewed doctors, lawyers, and activists by name, all with their approval. “But I definitely foresee a scenario where I’m going into my editor and saying, You know, this person’s voice really brings value to the issue,” she said. “It’s important for people to hear: they potentially face x, y, and z consequence. And I’d like to respect their request to be anonymous.” The burden of deciding who should be granted anonymity falls on busy, resource-strapped newsrooms, she added. “I think sometimes reporters make decisions for their sources.”

In June, Paige Pfleger—a reporter for WPLN, Nashville’s local news station and an affiliate of National Public Radio—profiled two sisters who both became pregnant at young ages. One got an abortion, one didn’t; their lives took divergent paths. After a few rounds of interviews, they told Pfleger to go ahead and use their names; they said that speaking openly felt empowering. “I know that no one owes me their story,” Pfleger told me. “Sometimes I think that there’s a fine line between being persistent—and making sure that people know that you’re interested, why you’re interested—but also giving them the space to make that decision and come to it themselves. Which is tricky. When you’re in a rush, especially.” On the radio, voices can make sources identifiable; that challenge is compounded on TV. “We’re having conversations about what our role is, as far as anonymity goes, and how, in some ways, that’s more complicated now.”

Tony Cavin, the managing editor of standards and practices at NPR, described his newsroom’s process for granting anonymity, which requires a reporter to receive approval from an editor and a managing editor, and is conditional on confirming the account of the anonymous source. They run through a series of questions: “Do we need to know that person’s name? What do we gain by knowing it? What do we lose by not knowing it?” Pseudonyms are not an option; according to NPR, they present an inherent falsehood. Sometimes only a first name is used, or no name at all. There have been revisions to the policy post-Dobbs, he told me.

These days, among people who work in abortion care, the woman at the fund said, “a lot of us are not feeling comfortable putting our faces or names on anything.” Granting anonymity—and making clear the stakes for the source—may be the only option for reporters seeking to include those voices. And still, people involved in abortion care and support services require a baseline of trust to even begin a conversation with a journalist. Some won’t bother at all. “It’s not really worth our time,” she told me, “especially if there’s going to be a risk to us.”

After the Supreme Court decision was made, the first media request the fund received was for a local public radio appearance. The woman handled it, and the interview went well. She said she was game for more. She took questions during downtime at her job, in between shifts at the fund; sometimes, she responded to reporters late at night. Press relations quickly became a third job. She began to feel overwhelmed, but patients were having to travel farther and farther for care as more states banned abortion, and rising gas prices and airfare added strain.

The woman found the journalistic process strange. It seemed to vary according to the medium and the interviewer. Some reporters had a lead time of days; for others, it was hours. Some of them sent detailed questions; others sent emails that were short and vague. Many asked casually for information that she knew would be inappropriate to share given the uncertain and fast-changing legal context; they sought connections to patients the fund had helped, without acknowledging the dangers. No one outlined the differences between on the record, off the record, on background—these were terms she was aware of but didn’t know how to navigate. Anonymity, or protection of her identity of any sort, was never offered; she didn’t know to ask for it.

At one point, a TV reporter conducted a Zoom interview with her; only after the segment had aired did she realize that the conversation had been recorded for use in the broadcast. The final product misrepresented much of what she was trying to convey, she felt, because of the way the segment had been edited. The woman sent an email to the reporter, asking to talk about what happened and correct some errors. The email went unanswered. Weeks later, the reporter reached out again, asking for another interview, without any acknowledgment of the woman’s note.

Around the same time, word was going around that other abortion fund employees and care providers had become targets of antiabortion terrorism. In the late summer, the woman attended the annual conference of the National Network for Abortion Funds. (She wouldn’t say where it was; attendees are not even allowed to take notes for fear of something falling into the hands of antiabortion activists.) People discussed unnerving encounters that felt familiar to the woman; a few mentioned instances in which their personal information had been stolen by antiabortionists and posted online. All were apprehensive about the ramifications of talking to the press. Some funds decided to stop talking to reporters entirely. The woman wasn’t sure whether to feel relieved to be able to commiserate or frightened by the prospect that her personal details could be posted to the internet. 

The problem was about more than press coverage, of course. The week of the lurking car, the smashed window, and the missing documents coincided with an antiabortion demonstration near the woman’s home. Across the country, according to the Department of Homeland Security, the Dobbs leak “prompted a significant increase in violent threats” from extremists targeting health care providers and reproductive care facilities. If the situation was spiraling out of control, declining media requests seemed like a tangible way to reclaim some sanity. By September, the woman and her team decided to turn down all interviews with the local press. It was unfortunate, they knew, but those requests, coming from the most under-resourced newsrooms, were the most rushed, and resulted the most often in erroneous reporting.

The fund also started to take a step back and consider what a long-term post-Dobbs future looks like, including when it comes to privacy protection and media relations. “One thing that a lot of funds are talking about—we’re definitely talking about—is trying to find a balance between the urgency culture of journalism and understanding that it’s necessary, but how much that is opposed with abortion funds’ work and the views that we have,” the woman said. They bought Ring cameras for board members and a few volunteers who tend to be public-facing. They began working with the Digital Defense Fund, which specializes in tech security for abortion access groups, taking stock of everything from internal communications to the safe management of their fundraising platforms. And the fund secured a grant that went into setting up everyone on staff with DeleteMe, a service that trawls the internet for personal information and systematically erases it.

Before the Dobbs leak, the woman had thought she might take some time off and head up to New York to reconnect with old friends. Over the course of the period in which we spoke for this story, she decided to make that trip a permanent move. She had missed the pace of life in New York—and the sense that she could move through the city without fear of being recognized. With all the new money the fund had received, the woman was given a staff position, which enabled her to dedicate herself to the job full-time, and she figured she could work remotely. She’d continue to travel back to the South sometimes, though she still wasn’t sure how she’d make the arrangements in a way that seemed comfortable. “I guess it’s never going to feel fully safe,” she said. Eventually, she hoped to find a way to split her time between the two towns she loved.

It was infuriating, she told me, that she wasn’t choosing to leave on her own terms. It nagged at her as she made the social rounds in the last weeks of summer, saying goodbye to the community of activists and artists who had helped to make the city her home. But if, in the recent past, she couldn’t imagine living under the threat of violence because of her work and her convictions, now she couldn’t stop imagining it. She sold most of her belongings, packed up the rest in her car, and headed north. 

In Allentown, Pennsylvania, she stopped to get some food, stretch her legs, and give her eyes a break from the road. An old cemetery caught her attention; it struck her as a nice place for a walk. As she wandered among the tombstones, she took in the crisp air, the crunching leaves, the early-fall breeze. Here, no one knew that she worked for an abortion fund. And if they did, they might be less likely to care. For the first time in months, she realized, she felt safe.

Becca Andrews is an investigative journalist with Reckon Media based in Tennessee and the author of No Choice: The Destruction of Roe v. Wade and the Fight to Protect a Fundamental American Right.