“Did You Love The Daily Show? Thank Abortion.”

Lizz Winstead on the frontlines of reproductive justice, her new event Operation Save Abortion, and the power of making someone laugh.

// photo by Mindy Tucker

II started having sex when I was 16 — blissful, loving, fledgling sex — with my ruddy-cheeked boyfriend. I was acutely aware that this newfound naked joy was in stark contrast to my mother’s experience, who was raised Irish Catholic, praying to a cruel and angry God that rendered her body a vehicle for little more than punishment and shame.

Her commitment to raising a daughter without sex being a shadow self is a gift I didn’t and don’t take lightly.

And yet I was still tormented that I would get pregnant. And then I would most certainly have to have an abortion. And then convinced that this tiny baby soul — which would often hover in my peripheral vision at the edge of my mind, flying this way and that — might haunt me forever and ruin the rest of my days.

And I was one of the happy, healthy, well-adjusted (at least in regards to her body) girls. Which is to say, it’s hard to overstate the power of the word abortion, the palpable shame and fear that still endures in its three syllables.

Lizz Winstead is aiming to change that. And she has been for a long time.

The co-founder of The Daily Show and Air America Radio (where she co-hosted Unfiltered with Rachel Maddow and Chuck D) Winstead has graced stand-up stages across the country, produced myriad shows brilliantly mincing politics, and has been leveraging her unique frequency of satire and media to move the needle for four decades.

The youngest of five kids in a Catholic family raised in Minnesota — “my mother calls it a Lutheran police state” — Winstead says her activism was born out of trying to find a way to be heard when you are the baby in a family of people dominating conversations.

“That’s what led me to stand up. It’s like, ‘oh, a stage is a place I can stand and say, no one can interrupt me!’”

Winstead was part of a church where the leadership of women was, “either in service of the men or in the service of the men,” she laughs. “I wasn’t invited to have opinions. I didn’t understand why being born a girl wasn’t enough. It’s like, ‘what are you talking about? Why shouldn’t I be able to pursue any of these opportunities that all of you have?’ So I said I’m gonna try to carve my own path.”

Then she found herself pregnant the first time she had sex.

“Because I was brought up Catholic, I was like, ‘Hey, you know what? If I don’t use birth control and have sex, I’m only committing one sin! So I’ll have unprotected sex.”

Winstead found herself at a fake clinic that told her the options were mommy or murder.

And something just snapped inside. “I just thought, this seems wholly unbelievable that you would force somebody into parenting and pregnancy while not even allowing them to be a paper boy,” she says.

“And then when I saw how it was affecting people who had no privilege or way less privilege than I had, I thought, I can’t just have my abortion and check out and say, well I got mine.”

“It felt crucial that I fight for this thing that allowed me to be on a path to self-determination and I felt like everybody else should have that.”

Around 2011, she says, Winstead had headed back home to Minnesota to work on a book (Lizz Free or Die, published in 2012) — and was hawkishly watching the nightmarish introduction of 92 new laws that restricted safe, legal abortion and targeted abortion providers.

“I had my two dogs and I rented a van to drive back to Brooklyn,” she recalls. “I called up clinics and said, ‘I wanna come and do fundraisers on my way home. And they were like, ‘you seem nuts!’ ” Winstead says the part that really hit her was the clinics saying, no one comes here to visit us. People come, get their procedures and then they leave.

“And I realized that in order for them to do their jobs, they need to have reinforcement from the community that tells them that the community’s happy they’re there and recognizes their work. Otherwise, their work every day is walking through a throng of people screaming at them, but providing care they know is changing lives.”

“I would venture to say everything that you enjoy in your life, you could trace it back to somebody being able to make a choice about their reproductive life. Hey, did you love The Daily Show? Thank abortion.”

Knowing how many people she worked with in the creative field who owe a big thank you to birth control and abortion for making their projects possible, Winstead says when she got home she made a “big ass pot of chili,” invited her comrades over, and said, “y’all, this is bigger than all of us. And we are all here and have platforms because of our access to these things. So we need to protect them. And so I founded an organization.”

Abortion Access Front is a place to push back and a platform to center abortion where it rightfully belongs—as a lynchpin in our collective equality that traverses gender parity, economics, and healthcare.

“Everybody thought we were being hysterical from the get-go. When we said they’re coming after other things — they’re coming after our birth control! — they said, oh no they’re not. And I’m like, there was a Supreme court case called Hobby Lobby! Yes they are! And when you look now at the underestimation of how dedicated they were to destroying every freedom — that’s on all of us.”

But so are the solutions.

Abortion Access Front functions as a hybrid of a classic USO show — there’s a traveling van plied with performers doing stand-up, skits, and music to raise money for clinics across the country — and Habitat for Humanity. (And scathing social commentary, follow them!) Before they ever arrive at the clinics they ask them what they need — maybe it’s landscaping, a new fence, or home-cooked food.

Then AAF invites local providers and activists onto the stage to have a conversation about what they need in order to keep going. And within that same room, people can sign up and participate locally in what needs to be done.

Winstead believes these small potent acts of activism are absolutely vital in keeping the movement alive.

“If you’re super busy and raising kids and have two jobs and are just, having the world happen to you. And then you add the elements of, you’re Black and brown or you’re queer, or you’re an immigrant or you’re poor — sometimes you’re barely keeping up.

And so to be able to say to somebody, ‘if you have five minutes a month, I can give you something meaningful to do. And you can feel really proud that you’re doing something.’ What is it that you do that you could bring to the fight?”

On Sunday, July 17th, Abortion Access Front is bringing together 25 activists from around the country — all specialists in the scheme of reproductive justice — to New York for Operation Save Abortion, a full day of training designed to educate and empower everyday Americans to protect abortion.

“This is not a zoom call,” says Winstead. “It’s a three-camera shoot. It’s a beautiful conversation setting.”

AAF recommends live-streaming it with friends at house parties — “it’ll really help you break down what you’ve heard” — and then between each session, utilizing the toolkit to take it further. How can you take all this information and apply it to your community?

And then when the training is over…

“We’re vetting every single person who watched, who actually wants to get involved and then connecting them locally with the people in their communities. And then we’re connecting them to an activist calendar that has nationwide events and local events so that they can always be plugged in. And if their group decides to create something, they can put it into that activist calendar and they can grow community.”

And if you can’t join on the 17th the videos and the toolkits will be up — for free — on AAF’s website, Operation Save Abortion.

And if you’re looking for a crucial break-down on what’s going down on the ground of reproductive justice and policy? Look no further than the Feminist Buzzkills Live! podcast that Winstead hosts with Marie Khan and Moji Alawode-El every week, centering activists doing the work, not pontificating pundits.

“And it’s funny!” Which is a beautiful and disarming weapon.

“If I make you laugh, it is an involuntary joy that I have brought you,” says Winstead. “And you do not dislike people who bring you joy. And so you open up to them in a way that’s different from any other emotion. It helps you reevaluate preconceptions of a person and maybe allows them into your life a little further. It’s a shared humanity and shared humanity is where you have trusted narrators.”



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Katie Tandy

Katie Tandy

writer. maker. editor @medium.com/the-public-magazine. Former co-founder thepulpmag.com + The Establishment come for adjectives stay for justice