Making Our Bodies Ungovernable: An Interview with Chava Shapiro of the Hysteria Study Collective

An interview with Chava Shapiro of the Hysteria Study Collective. The following article was originally published in the first edition of the Living and Fighting Journal. Support our project by purchasing a copy here. Sales of the journal make it possible to print future journals. You can download a zine version of this interview formatted for printing here and view the entire Hysteria curriculum here

Chava Shapiro

Living and Fighting: Talk about the history of the Hysteria Study Collective. How did it start? And then tell us a little bit about how it's working. What are the goals? How do you structure your work with each other?

Chava Shapiro: So the Dobbs decision was leaked in May 2022 by an unknown person within the Supreme Court. It's interesting that the Supreme Court is the only branch of the government [in the U.S.] that's never had any kind of leak. That's never happened before. Just a few days ago, actually, Justice Alito, who wrote the majority opinion that was leaked, said that it was not only incredibly dangerous, but that it put the literal lives of Supreme Court judges at risk. So that happened in May, and then the decision, when the Supreme Court actually released their opinion, didn't happen until late June. So there was this interim time period beginning in May, running through the early part of the summer where there was I would say, a flurry of activity nationally, of people wanting to respond.

And of course, I want to go to where the people are gathering at a public protest or demonstration, but I was also wanting to do something that felt more tangible and lasting that could build some popular power or autonomous action. I have in the past worked as a full spectrum doula, so I have experience supporting people who were choosing to end a pregnancy, or supporting people who were choosing to carry a pregnancy to term and supporting them through that process, both with resources and education and also physical accompaniment. Because I had that background and had a lot of knowledge around reproductive health and reproductive autonomy, it seemed like a way that I could potentially intervene.

So the idea occurred to me to first host a public film screening of the documentary about the Jane Collective. At that public film screening, I announced that there would be a study group that would happen. And the idea of the study group as a model was really inspired by two things: First inspired by a program that I had encountered in Denver started by a group of Chicana women in the community to have neighborhood-based and hyper-locally based groups–they called them “promotores.” So women who would be informed about health issues, particularly reproductive and sexual health issues in their community. And be provided education around those topics and health issues. So then they could be a resource within family, their kin network, their neighborhood, etcetera. Because I had already seen that that model works really well, that came to my mind.

Then I also was inspired by having read a zine and done a discussion about an essay called “Vital Cells.” [1] The idea of creating small groups with a specific purpose that then do not become a permanent formation, but evolve into new groups. You know, the idea is that you would divide on a cellular level, evolve into new things or different formations. And so those were the two foundational inspirations. And with the study group, my goal was to combine those two models.

So the study group launched with a small group of people meeting once a week. And then at the conclusion of the study group, the goal was to have those people do public presentations, public workshops talking about self-managed abortion, talking a little bit about abortion safety when it comes to these new restrictions or changes in laws.

The idea is that with each study group, it then becomes a new study group or a set of new study groups. So the first one, the goal was that at the end of the conclusion of the six-to-eight week curriculum, then those people who participated in the group would do one or more public presentations or workshops, and then they would start their own study group that they would facilitate after completing it, they would facilitate another one happening. And I will say that in Tucson, there's a summer lull. It's a very seasonal city. Having lived elsewhere in the country with a different climate, when people talk about, “Oh, everybody's hibernating for the winter,” people hibernate for the summer, or they flee for the summer here. And so the study group happened, the workshops happened, and then we'll be starting another round of study groups now that the fall has set in. Now that more people are ready to participate in things or have returned from travels.

L&F: Why did you choose that organizational model? Alternatively, people create institutions or non-profits where there's a center of skills and information and people access those resources or that institution consistently over time. But you've chosen a model that's more viral or intended to be more grassroots. Can you explain why you made that decision?

Chava: Reproductive health information, information about our human bodies and how they work is something that shouldn't be behind a closed door. It shouldn't be institutional knowledge. It's simply knowledge about the body that you're, you know, walking around in, breathing in, inhabiting all of the time. And so I think removing as many barriers as possible to good, solid information is important when it comes to our bodies and our health whether it's about abortion, reproductive health or something else. I also think that in some ways it's been necessary because of the last, particularly three decades of this anti-abortion movement in the United States chipping away slowly and methodically at abortion access. It's been really important for people to not rely upon a nonprofit or a large scale institution for information and access to abortion care.

What stands out to me, you know, over the course of the last few months, in this kind of post-Dobbs decision landscape that we're living in is the largest abortion fund in Texas, Frontera Fund, their executive director was quoted in The Washington Post this summer saying that they were no longer dispersing funds to people seeking abortions because they needed to make sure that their staff didn't go to jail. [2] I found that absolutely enraging. The Frontera Fund probably received more financial donations than any abortion fund in the country over the course of the last year and a half. And they're holding that money because they have a legal obligation to their employees, to their staff to keep those staff out of jail. And I empathize with that. But those funds were given to support people, women and others who have the capacity to get pregnant, to be able to have freedom in their lives to do what they want. So by creating a way of promoting the sharing of information and support for access that's community based, people can also choose what risks they're willing to take. I might be willing to take a risk that the executive director of a non-profit can't take and probably shouldn't take. And so I think it gives people agility to do things in a way that is more grassroots, I guess.

L&F: You call yourselves the Hysteria Study Collective. Where did that name come from?

Chava: I will ever so slightly date myself and say that an early influence in my political trajectory is Riot Grrrl music and the book Cunt. I think that might have been the first realm in which I had heard of “hysteria” as a teen.

I want to just read what the definition is on Wikipedia: “Hysteria is a term used colloquially to mean ungovernable emotional excess.” [3] And this was a popular nineteenth century diagnosis for women who exhibited, yeah, “ungovernable emotional access.” These women were subjected to all kinds of horrifying treatments. A lot of attention was paid to it by early psychoanalysts, people like Freud. But what I like about it is, baked into its definition, despite its misogynistic and patriarchal history, I think the definition is actually totally delightful that it's an ungovernable emotional excess. I'm interested in promoting the ungovernability of our bodies through the work that we're trying to do.

L&F: People are talking a lot right now about reproductive justice. I hear you all drawing on that framework and also talking about “reproductive autonomy.” Can you talk about those two approaches, what they mean in substance and the difference between them if there's important distinctions?

Chava: So the reproductive justice framework, that term was coined by Loretta Ross, who's a black woman and one of the founders of Sister Song.[4] That was in the nineties. The goal with that framework was to really center, particularly Black women and other Black folks who have the capacity to become pregnant and broadening out from the kind of mainstream, pro-choice NOW-style of approaching abortion access, which is really centered on ending pregnancies. But what Loretta Ross was introducing and what Sister Song introduced through the reproductive justice framework is the idea that people who have the capacity to become pregnant should be free to choose to have a baby or to not have a baby. And if they choose to have a baby, that baby should also be free and safe from racialized violence or gendered violence, et cetera. So it was introducing something that had been missing in the mainstream feminist discourse in this country around abortion.

Why I think “autonomy” is a good word to introduce in this moment is probably a little bit of semantics. I think that the justice framework becomes less viable, just that language becomes less viable, when the government is setting the terms of quote unquote “justice.” So we have a Supreme Court where–borrowing language from the group Shout Your Abortion–a Supreme Court where a bunch of dorks, just total jerk-offs, are sitting on a bench and legislating about what's happening to not just, you know, an amorphous blob of humans, but our literal individual bodies, what's happening to them, what we are and are not allowed to do with our own body and our own bodily processes. So that language of “justice,” is flawed, right? And it's actually an exciting point of intervention that this language is flawed because it calls into question the legitimacy and the authority of the government in general. Average people who maybe love the democratic process of this country, now the veil is lifted, and they can see. It doesn't matter that here in Arizona, more than 90 percent of Arizonans support safe and legal abortion, which is what the ACLU states in a recent lawsuit that they filed. It doesn't matter that that many people support safe and legal abortion in this state or in this country because thesenine randos on a bench somewhere can decide what happens.

So this idea that we can appeal for justice is called into question in this moment. And then I think it's really highlighted that this is about an individual human being's autonomy over and their authority over their own bodies and their own selves. That to me is, you know, it's an intervention of language, but I think it's worthwhile to parse out, well, if we're looking for justice, who are we looking for justice from? What is justice? To me, it means almost nothing now, right? It's a vague term that has little bearing on anything. And I'm certainly tired of standing around in the street after some horrible thing has happened. Maybe somebody's killed by the police, maybe the government has passed some horrific law and yelling, “No justice, no peace.” We aren't gonna receive justice from those people, but we can claim our own autonomy. And so that's the difference of language for me.

L&F: As things continue to be perilous as we move forward in terms of access to reproductive autonomy and the ability to make the decisions that people need about their own bodies, how do you think people should begin to prepare themselves?

Chava: I don't know exactly what the laws look like on a day to day basis in other states right now around abortion, but I do know that in Arizona we have had a flip-flop. Abortion is legal one week and then the next week it's not legal. And then right now it's legal. Whether it's legal anywhere is irrelevant. People will continue to have abortions. People have been having abortions time immemorial. People have been controlling their fertility for as long as humans have existed. I don't mean that as an exaggeration. There are other animals in the world on this planet that control their fertility. And so it's a normal behavior to control fertility and its legality to me is irrelevant.

What I want to see people do to prepare is, I want everyone to make themselves knowledgeable about reproductive health. Whether you have the capacity to become pregnant or not, you should know about these basics of reproductive health and autonomy. You should know what's a safe place to get information, who's a safe person in your community to talk to about information or access. And I think that people should prepare to break the law. I think people should be prepared to violate the law. I also think that it's not only important to make sure that people can have the lives that they deserve to have, meaning the person who wants to terminate a pregnancy or the people that their pregnancy immediately impacts, you know, their friends, their family, their lover or partner. I want those people to have the ability to make individual decisions to improve their lives, but I also think it's a powerful political intervention. Like I was saying before, there are moments in which the government's legitimacy is called into question. And actually those moments when that’s happening on this widespread of a level, when there’s this heightened of a question for the general public, those moments are rare. So I think it's a powerful political intervention. I think people who are involved in anarchist or radical or leftist politics that this is a moment where people can really have a big impact on helping these people, these 90 percent of Arizonans who think that abortion should be safe and legal. And yet a handful, a couple dozen, mostly men in Phoenix at the capital are deciding for the 90 percent of us that we aren't allowed to have that option. That's a huge number of people in this country who are like, “Oh wow, this is a deeply flawed situation and this government is not as legitimate as I believed that it was.” And that is an opening to building different types of power. So I think that it's important to center, of course, individuals who need abortion access, but I also think that we should be looking at it strategically as a point of intervention to build all kinds of power at the individual level and on communal levels.

L&F: Tell us about the curriculum that you developed.

Chava: I put together a curriculum using obstetrics and midwifery texts that people use in medical programs. And really starting with foundational information around even just basic anatomy and physiology. I think you could get a group of ten people who have a uterus in a room, including people that we would think would be very well informed about their own bodies, and probably they feel they're very well informed and actually know very little about their reproductive physiology and how the mechanics of their body function.

The idea was to start with those foundational pieces, those basics of anatomy and physiology. Then from there, move into a unit of study on fertility awareness as a model. I'll come back to why that is important. And then self-managed abortion methods with a hyper focus on that as opposed to surgical abortion methods, which you would need the direction and support of, a medical provider ideally to perform. And so focusing on forms of self-managed abortion, particularly looking into giving people a strong understanding of abortion pills.

With the restrictions happening around abortion, not only in the state where we are in Arizona, but also across the country, abortion pills give people a way to privately and safely administer and manage their own abortion. And if you don't have a clinic where you can get to access to these pills, which is very hard even in a state where abortion is illegal, it's very hard to monitor the mail of an entire state of humans. People are able to order these pills by mail, so they are accessible to people. Living in a border state, they are available over the counter in Mexico at pharmacies. And so for people living in the border region, it's also possible for them to obtain them by crossing the border, which people do all the time for all kinds of medications. So it's a very normal practice that people have in this area.

But going back to the fertility awareness part of the study group curriculum, the reason that I wanted to include a pretty significant unit of study on that is because the earlier that you know you are pregnant, the more options you have. If our options are being limited by force of the government, then maintaining as many options as possible is what's gonna be healthiest, safest and best for people who may want to end a pregnancy. A lot of people have the impression that because they take birth control or maybe they have irregular cycles or they might have a hormonal condition, like something like PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome), various factors… a lot of people who have a uterus and have the capacity to become pregnant think that fertility awareness is only for people who have regular cycles or people who are trying to get pregnant. And it's actually not true. It's just a basic measure of health for your body that everyone should be aware of anyways. Then it also has the benefit of knowing when you are pregnant as early as possible, which is also great, whether you're wanting to potentially end a pregnancy or carry it to term, it continues to give you the most options and put you in the best position for all of your choices. And, you know, also share with people a little bit about what period tracking apps are safe to use and aren't gonna sell your data to bad actors or share it with the government. So that was the idea of the curriculum for the study group.

L&F: At the end of the study group, you then presented what you’d learned publicly. How did that go?

Chava: At the conclusion of the first study group, we did two public workshops, one at a community center and one in a public park, and we advertised those widely–we put an announcement on the community radio station. And the purpose was to really try and not only share the information, but set a tone that this is safe and legal information to share. It's okay for us to talk about abortion, and it's okay for us to talk about it publicly. And we shouldn't be afraid to share this information as widely as possible because if we're only sharing it through friend networks or whisper campaigns, the people who need that information are likely to not get it if we make it hard for them to get.

There are concerns. I think people have concerns legally around the safety of speaking to the broad public about self-managing abortion, how abortion pills work, how you can access them. But there is legal standing for talking about birth control, which abortion is a form of birth control that goes back to the long battle and fight for legal birth control access in this country. These are issues of free speech. If I'm just giving people information that's publicly available, and it's not me who wrote all of the content on Plan C pills [], where you can get abortion pills through the mail. If it's not me who wrote that information, but I'm merely sharing that that information exists, it's publicly accessible, and it's on this website, that's me exercising a protected right, which is to just share information that's publicly accessible. Now, if I tell someone exactly what they should do to have an abortion, that's where it starts to get into tricky legal ground.

Everyone who is in a study group also participated in a workshop on self-managed abortion and teaching people about self-managed abortion that was provided through SASS, Self-Managed Abortion Safe and Supported. They're national and they have another co-organization that's international. But SASS is the U.S. branch of this organization that trains people to essentially become trainers around self-managed abortion. And so they not only work here in the U.S. but they're also working in places where someone receiving an abortion is fully criminalized. So someone who's actually the person who's terminating a pregnancy is being criminalized. They have a lot of experience and knowledge and access to really fantastic legal support and attorneys to make sure that their trainings for trainers are in tip-top legal shape.

L&F: How can the work of the Hysteria Study Collective be replicated in other places by other people?

Chava: There is an illusion right now that you have to be the right person. That you have to have been“doing the work” already. You don't. You don't have to have been doing the work. You could have never thought twice about abortion in your whole life and right now be motivated and step into action. There's not someone better than you to do it. There's not a moment that's better than now to do it. You are the right person and I think people should believe that the thing that we've created here is entirely replicable. Anyone could look at the curriculum that we put together for our study group and use it as a model. The link to the curriculum will be included, right?

L&F: Yep.

Chava: Or honestly, you could just use it as a building block. There might be other things that you want to include. A lot of the materials included in the Hysteria curriculum are publicly accessible through a website like Z Library or LibGen. Like medical textbooks. You can get PDFs of almost any book in the whole world, you know, for free. And I think people can access a lot of information that way. You don't need to run out and buy a bunch of things. I think that the Hysteria model, the study group model is particularly useful and replicable, because you could start tomorrow with three friends and that's enough. A handful of people learning this information together and becoming versed in the basics of reproductive health and abortion access information and self-managed abortion information. Then if you're adhering to the idea that it spins off, it separates and you create new groups.

It's also something that you can tailor. You could just decide, “We only wanna learn about self-managed abortion, we're not going to learn about these other things right now.” You could do that and you could make it a shorter time commitment for people who just want a little bit of information that then they can share within their friend and kin networks and community. But I think the main way that people can replicate the work is just to start, just to try and do it.

Going back to what I said before about the people who have been “doing the work.” Those people are important, and they have been doing a tremendous amount of work, some of them for many years. Some of them, decades of their life have been committed to the issue of safe and legal abortion access for anyone who wants it. We are deeply indebted to those people. And also there are not enough of them. There are simply not enough people who've been already “doing the work.” In this moment we necessitate many, many more people to do the work. This is a moment for things to become much more widely dispersed and it's necessary and it can feel hard for people who have been slogging away at hard and difficult and underappreciated work to suddenly see new people step into it. If you receive pushback from those people, just know that you're still doing the right thing. That it's the right thing for you to act in this moment and you don't need people's permission to do it.

L&F: Is there anything else you wanna add?

Chava: I guess the last thing that I would want to add is that we have largely allowed for the extreme right or conservative Christian people to set the terms and the language around abortion. But the reality is that abortion is simply a form of birth control. It's not a deeply fraught thing. It's a thing that actually if we removed all of this Christian, right-wing language from our discourse, we would experience a lot less guilt about it. People would have a lot less stress about it. And I think it's important that we talk openly about having abortions and particularly we talk openly about having abortions that went well, that improved our lives. It's not a sob story, we're not crying about it. There are abortions and there will always be abortions that are hard, that are difficult, that were in the moment a sob story and continue to be that for that person and the people that their situation impacted. But there are many, many, many abortions, including my own abortions that were simply a form of birth control. I was pregnant, I didn't want to have a baby and I had an abortion and I had access to a safe and legal abortion and it was great. And those were two of the best decisions I ever made. They were just as good as the decisions I made to have children and I feel just as positively about them. So I hope also that people will just speak really openly about their own experiences with abortion and try and strip that pernicious language that has seeped into even our own discourses as people who want safe and accessible abortion. To strip away those kind of Christian and conservative and really right wing extremist views about abortion, that language. Just get rid of it. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.  You can also listen to the full, unedited audio version of this interview here.

[1]  Suemnicht, Kevin, “Vital Cells.” Ill Will Editions, 2021.

[2] Rowland, Christopher, “Groups that aid abortion patients pull back, fearing legal liability.” Washington Post, July 15, 2022.

[3]  “Hysteria,” Wikipedia, Accessed 17 November, 2022.
[4]  Ross, Loretta and Rickie Solinger, Reproductive Justice: An Introduction. University of California Press, 2017.


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