A Comedian in the War on Abortion: The Ms. Q&A with Lizz Winstead and Ruth Leitman

“The anti-abortion movement is based on abuse of power, creating lies about how birth control, abortion all actually work,” said Winstead. She’s using humor to point out the hypocrisy and bring people in. 

Lizz Winstead, comedian and founder of Abortion Access Front, teamed up with director Ruth Leitman to create the documentary No One Asked You. (Dave Kotinsky / Getty Images for The Webby Awards + Instagram)

After the 2016 election, Lizz Winstead and a band of comics embarked on a journey across the country, visiting abortion clinics and doing abortion comedy—with a film crew in tow. 

The project was run by Abortion Access Front (AAF), an advocacy organization founded by Winstead, co-creator of The Daily Show, in 2015 to wield humor in the fight for reproductive justice. The film crew, led by director Ruth Leitman, continued following AAF and Winstead through 2022, chronicling their efforts to sound the alarm pre-Dobbs, support independent abortion clinics and undermine anti-abortion extremists.

The resulting documentary, No One Asked You, premiered in November of 2023. Now screening across the countryNo One Asked You highlights the transformative power of comedy and joy at a moment when abortion is less and less accessible and extremists are more and more emboldened. 

Winstead and Leitman spoke with Ms. last month about the making of No One Asked You, how comedy works in an activist’s toolkit, and the film’s call to action.

You can hear more from Lizz Winstead on the latest Ms. podcast episode: “Our Abortions: No One Asked You,” part of On the Issues with Michele Goodwin. Listen below—or head to the episode landing page for a full transcript, background reading and more.

Morgan Carmen: No One Asked You is a massive undertaking, filmed over the course of several years. What made you embark on this project?

Lizz Winstead: Before I formed [Abortion Access Front], I was touring the country in a van with my dogs, going to clinics and meeting providers and activists on the ground. And every time I would go to a clinic, they would say…“We’re the ugly stepchild in everybody’s life that has made their lives better,” [and] “Thanks for coming. No one comes here. We really appreciate that you see us for the queens that we are.” And I was like, oh my god. These people literally every day put people back on a path of self-determination. And they’re not being looked after and taken care of, like you would stand up for an old bookstore in your community or a vintage record store. …

[Ruth] saw me speak about this journey and said, “I really want to make a documentary film about your work.” … For seven years, they followed us around, and what you saw was that. 

The other catalyst for me to do it was that when the 2016 election went with Trump. We weren’t allowed to advertise on Facebook or Twitter because we were about abortion, so we couldn’t tell people about our shows … and the media still was not writing about this massive path … that we were trying to tell anybody [about]: that the goal is to overturn Roe v. Wade. They would tell us we were ridiculous. They would tell us that we were hysterical.

With nobody amplifying our work and what we were doing, this film was a way to do that. And that was also a really big impetus for us to say yes.

Ruth Leitman: Abortion access has always really been important to me. I understand that I would not have had a life [and] a career as a photographer and filmmaker had I not had an abortion when I was 17 … followed by another abortion when I was 18. It gave me the opportunity to pursue the things, a career path, that I cared so deeply about and decide to become a mother many years later after my career was already established. …

I wanted to show the people who were sounding the alarm in a way that no one else was, and that’s what [AAF was] doing. … So many of these documentaries that are about abortion access are amazing and horrific and sad and talking about how our human rights are being stripped away without the true call to action, about what to do—and without the levity. So we wanted to make this film about the people who knew that this was going to happen, in a way that would make people engage instead of shutting off.

After we reached out to Lizz and her team and floated the idea to them, I think they were really set. … They were really generous with their accessibility and time and allowing us to organically follow the story. And once I learned at that time, that they were planning the Vagical Mystery Tour in 2017, that was an automatic sort of framework to start the film—to sort of use Lizz and her team at the center to take us to all of these different places so that we can get to know the people who were on the ground.

Every time I would go to a clinic, they would say, ‘Thanks for coming. No one comes here. We really appreciate that you see us for the queens that we are.’

Lizz Winstead

Carmen: For our readers, can you talk a little bit about what the Vagical Mystery Tour entailed? 

Winstead: I like to say the tour is a cross between a USO show, which is what people do for the troops, and Habitat for Humanity.

What we do is [take] a series of people who work at Abortion Access Front, some comedians, [some] musicians, and we’d get in a van. We drove around the country doing these two particularly massive tours. … We planned our tour based on the needs of the clinics and based on how hostile the states were [to abortion]. So before we even hit the ground, we established with each clinic, when we showed up in their town what they would need at their clinic. And that could range from, “We need our whole clinic painted on the inside,” to “We can’t get a gardener,” to “Can you fix a fence?” to “Can you provide an afternoon out for a morale boost for our staff?”

Every community has a hard time getting services if they provide abortion. The anti-abortion movement will protest and boycott a company that might do their lawn care or paint their fence if they find out or see [the company’s] van parked out in front of a clinic. … We would end up in a town, put on a big show—comedy music show—and [as] part of the show, we would incorporate a conversation with the clinic and with the local activists, so that our audience could hear all about the ways that they could help out locally. And then if the clinic had asked us, let’s say, to do their landscaping, we would do it, but then [at the show] we would say, “Are there any landscapers tonight that would like to take on this clinic, not as a donation, you get paid, you take on a new client?” That’s activism. People were blown away.

You see how, throughout the film, you see how we build community, and then you see all the different ways that clinics need support. And then hopefully, you as a person watching this will say, “Oh my god, my skills are XYZ, I’d love to plug in with my skills. And I’d be able to do that at my local clinic.”

The cool thing about that is, if that light bulb goes off in your head while you’re watching the movie, we have people at the screening from Abortion Access Front, who will connect you with your local clinic.

Carmen: As you described, and as the film shows, clinics and providers are so isolated—whether it’s because of the denial of services or an emotional rejection from the community. Do you see that isolation as punishment for the work they do? And how do you see your role in combatting that isolation? 

Winstead: I love that question. The isolation happens for a couple of reasons, and part of it is there’s so much stigma around abortion that sometimes people who provide the care don’t even want to tell their own doctors or their family what they do because they don’t want to be shunned.

Also, the isolation comes because it’s so unsafe because there’s so many people who have threatened violence [and] show up violently outside of their clinics that a way to protect themselves is to isolate. Providers would tell us about the self-preservation they have to go through—like they can’t drive home the same way every night from a clinic.

That isolation piece was really the catalyst for doing these tours and doing this work because the more that we can help bring community to them and then have them explain to community how they can … is a complete game-changer for how they can be in the world. 

And for me, if someone is dedicating their lives to this, with all of these hurdles in front of them, with all of this emotional garbage heaped upon them, [this is] the least we can all do. And all of us have used these places for birth control, or abortion, or health care when we didn’t have insurance. To not feel a sense of obligation to give back is really white privilege at its core, and to realize that if we used the services, and we were set free on our path, we should make damn sure that anybody coming up behind us gets to have that.

In order to do that, we have to help sustain them—not only through helping them with their lawn work, but by really helping them.

Leitman: In true Mr. Rogers form, we wanted to make a film about the people who were helping the people who help people. Go to the go to where the helpers are. Find the helpers. That is at the core of what Lizz wanted to do when she started [AAF]. So much of the work that [the helpers] do is nurturing the people who are really helping to give all of these people, women and people with uteruses, a chance to achieve their greatest life goals. …

I do see [clinics and providers] as people who have had to be somewhat isolated in terms of their families not necessarily liking or knowing or supporting the work that they do. And, so, what I think was so important about what Abortion Access Front does is they provide more allies. They help to provide more allies. They go to a clinic in Detroit, or in Jackson, Mississippi, or Little Rock, Arkansas and say, “What exactly do you need right now?” So that is an attempt to lessen some of that isolation…Documenting that isolation is for me, the filmmaker, is documenting that intimacy between Lizz and AAF and the clinic escorts and providers and staff. It’s really an honor to be able to observe and document those interactions.

Carmen: Throughout the film, we see comedians committed to healing abortion stigma by talking about it. Can you talk about your thoughts on clearing that stigma?

Winstead: Every time we don’t say the word abortion, or every time somebody is talking to those of us who provide care or those of us who have had abortions, and they dance around it, and they say reproductive freedom, or we have to ‘protect choice,’ or they never include abortion—what that does is it makes the people who provide the care, or people like me who’ve had abortions, feel like they have judgment about a choice that I made.

I don’t want to feel like somebody looks at me like that was a necessary evil and that there was some sort of fault of my own that I that I needed to have an abortion. Or that abortion providers are doing this ugly thing that is just part of what they have to do because people out there are slutty or terrible or whatever. …

When people are running away from it, and politicians are running away from it, and they don’t talk to us about how it makes us feel, they themselves sound like hollow narrators and hollow advocates. Because there’s nothing shameful about needing to have an abortion. 

Leitman: It’s a medical procedure that people need to help them achieve their life goals, and to help them have the life that they want to have. And so many people have been under such adverse circumstances in order to have that abortion, that the stigma part of it has always been something that has been really important to me to eradicate

And I think that the tone of the film, and the way that we crafted the film, for me needed to be really about the joy and the camaraderie and the importance of storytelling in a way that destigmatizes and normalizes both the word and the procedure and the outcome of abortion…And so making a film that brings the joy of storytelling and destigmatizing, and bringing together comrades of people who have all experienced [abortion], or who know or love someone who has experienced abortion and are better for it, I think that’s the message that we really wanted, we really wanted to get across…I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t had an abortion. 

Carmen: I want to ask about humor and comedy.

Lizz, you’ve had this blockbuster career as a comedian, from being a co-creator of The Daily Show to doing political and abortion-related stand-up. And this entire film is about using those comedy skills as an activist. How do you both think humor functions as a particularly good vehicle for this kind of activism?

Winstead: I think it serves a couple of different purposes.

First of all … I’ve tried to expose hypocrisy through humor through my entire career, and I’ve been successful at doing it, and I’ve watched it change people’s minds … so putting it to abortion and using it to expose the bad guys in abortion, especially the conspiracy theories and the lies. The entire foundation of anti-abortion movement is based on abuse of power, trying to retain a patriarchal system, and then creating lies about how birth control, abortion all actually work. And so using humor to dispel those myths, and point out the hypocrisy, has been really great. 

The second part is using humor, and using pop culture and entertainment as a whole, as a vehicle to get people into the conversation is also really helpful. So, when we go out on tour and do our shows, the comics aren’t necessarily telling all these jokes about abortion, they’re just comics doing their shows, but they’re comics who have audiences. It’s much easier for us to put on a show with a bunch of really great comics who can draw 300 or 400 people into a room…and then give the activists the stage and the platform and the mic to talk about what they need. …

Lastly, bringing a bunch of people who are just fun and funny into a clinic to visit with the staff is levity. They need to laugh, and they need joy. … When we do our shows, and the entire staff of a clinic is in that audience, it’s the first time they’ve ever heard anyone clap for them. It’s the first time they’ve heard it, when they heard the name of where they work, be celebrated by the community. It’s very powerful.

Members of the Vagical Mystery Tour taking a selfie at the tour’s last stop. (Courtesy of Lizz Winstead)

Leitman: There is so much activism fatigue, and people are checking out. Using humor as a way to reengage people, both in the work that Abortion Access Front does and in the filmmaking process, is critical to reactivating people. This film is less likely to change people’s minds about abortion, if they are not already pro-abortion, but it will open their heart and mind to being more vocal about it, and to getting involved. …

There’s a strength in using comedy because it touches on a part of our empathy and our attention in ways that just being inundated by something…that is only facts and shows how dismal things are in a way where there’s no redemption [can’t]. There’s redemption in this [film]. There are a lot of people who are working towards the redemption of humanity through trying to rally together to restore our democracy.

At the center of the of the erosion of our democracy at the moment is the idea that we’re taking away bodily autonomy from anyone who is not a white male. … When you shine a light on this hypocrisy, no matter how bad the situation is, which this is, I think it enables people to say, “Yes, this is really terrible, what are we going to do about it? Oh, here’s what we can do about it.”

The film needed to be about the joy and the camaraderie and the importance of storytelling in a way that destigmatizes and normalizes both the word and the procedure and the outcome of abortion.

Ruth Leitman

Carmen: I want to ask more about the joy, because it seems like a really potent way to fight against these dogmatic and controlling anti-abortion forces. So much of the film is about spreading joy, whether it’s through comedy or just through being there with providers. What are your thoughts on the power of that joy in fighting anti-abortion extremists?

Winnstead: Our side has ceded the narrative to the anti-abortion movement for a really long time. And that meant hiding from them. That meant pretending like they don’t exist. And so they got to over and over and over again talk about, “Look at them hiding in the shadows, they won’t come out. You’re not proud of what you do. You don’t say abortion, so you must be ashamed of it.”

So to bring joy, first of all, it was jarring to them. They don’t know how to react to joy because joy means that their bullshit isn’t affecting us. And joy is really infectious and it’s disarming to them, and it’s galvanizing to us. 

Also, if you bring simple acts of joy [to clinics], and this is the part that’s really important, when you leave, they can replicate that: “Why don’t we do it every six weeks, just go to a park and grill and get to know each other?” It gets people to continue that for themselves. And then that strengthens their bond and their resilience and also strengthens how they feel in the fight.

Kim Gibson (left) and Derenda Hancock (right), clinic escorts at Jackson Women’s Health Organization—before Dobbs forced it to close its doors—featured in the film, laughing.

Carmen: As we watch the film, we see the tour followed by anti-abortion extremists (a group called Abolish Human Abortion, or AHA, which Lizz calls “Aha”) who are known to be violent. What was it like to encounter these extremists on the road?

Winstead: It’s so funny because I’m so used to them, but it is really jarring when people see them for the first time, because they show up with gigantic placards that have fetal remains on them. And then oftentimes they’ll have the name of the doctor that is performing, or that works at the clinic, on the poster—sometimes with their phone number. And they’ll scream epithets, calling patients whores, saying they’re sidewalk counseling [when they say patients are] doomed to hell. Sometimes there’s hundreds of them.

When we were on tour, not only were they protesting at every clinic we went to, they started following us around and coming to our shows. And they and they occasionally still come to our shows. But it’s a stark reminder. … There’s a lot of people that did not realize that that’s what it was like outside of a clinic. And it was a good awakening for a lot of people.

But it’s really terrifying when you think about a lot of vulnerable people, and when you’re talking about people in the South, that maybe are coming from rural communities who come from religious backgrounds, and then they walk through this gauntlet of men that look just like the men that go to their church, reminding them or telling them something that they may be thinking about for themselves, because they’re religious people. Having them try to engrain that into somebody who’s going in for a procedure, it’s about the cruelest thing I can think of.

Also … many of them are directly involved in clinic violence, or adjacent to clinic violence, and that’s everything from locking themselves to the front door of a clinic and not allowing patients in, to putting explosives in a clinic, or arson at a clinic. And many of them were at the insurrection in on January 6, so there’s a big intersection between the white nationalist movement and the anti-abortion movement. There’s very little space in a Venn diagram in difference between the two.

Leitman: There was an important balance. I knew that it was really important to show these religious extremists, Christian nationalists … but not to give them too much airtime. But to let them speak for themselves so that we understand who they are, and what they stand for.

At the same time it was really scary to be in their presence, it was scary to be around them, to watch them pretty much stalking the people that we were making a film about. … We’re watching that happen, and at any point you might want to step in, and you don’t, because it’s your job to really to film it and to craft the story in a way that gets the audience to understand, that enables an audience to understand just how dangerous it is.

America does not know that they exist, and yet, they are so influential with state legislatures all over the country. I was shocked to be in Mississippi and to see these politicians in the state legislature show up at a clinic in support of a Christian nationalist, plain as day. Like I would have thought that those things would have been behind the scenes [but] that’s not what it was. They were proud of it. … We can add a little bit of humor to that. But at the same time, I wanted an audience to see that. 

Carmen: Towards the end of the film, Lizz, you’re at a protest and you ask, “What the fuck America? Where are you?”

Why do you think there’s such an absence from this movement fighting for reproductive healthcare and abortion access?

Winstead: There are people who are privileged, who don’t care about the bigger picture of how will somebody else be able to access care because “I have the financial capacity to access mine.” I think that people land in a really self-centered place when it comes to what their role is in the fight.

I also think that people somehow think that voting is enough when voting is the bottom. Voting is the starting line. And I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me, “Wow, y’all need to really fight harder, because this seems terrible,” and it’s like, we only win if we all understand our roles in this. So when somebody says, “What are you going to do to protect this, that, some aspect of reproductive healthcare?” I’ll be like, “I think the better question is, what are you going to do?”

Winstead with AAF in front of the Supreme Court in 2021. (Courtesy)

Carmen: What keeps you going doing this work?

Winstead: This is just a small reminder to everybody who works in activism no matter what their field is: Always make sure you are in community with the people that are most impacted, because they will fuel you and remind you why you do this every day.

Every day that I wake up, and every day that I get to go to a clinic, or I get to work with patients, or I get to be in the business of learning what people need and being able to help solve tiny parts of their problems and remind them that they are part of a larger community that has their back, gives me that inspiration to get up every day, and do it again. 

Carmen: Of course, readers should be watching No One Asked You. But what else can readers do to get involved? And what should they be thinking about as they watch the film?

Winnstead: If you want to stay informed and hear from the people working on the ground and the experts in the field and hear meaningful conversations that aren’t just three-minute sound bites on the news, listen to our podcast. It’s called Feminist Buzzkills. It’s a weekly wrap up of what’s happening in the entire landscape of reproductive health rights and justice with incredible guests. 

But if you want to get more tangible action, we have an entire training series called Operation Save Abortion. … I suggest watch them with your friends, do the workbooks. And then we’ll help get you hooked up locally, wherever you live, with a clinic or an activist group, so that you can be part of the solution.

The easiest, easiest, easiest thing is if you just sign up to volunteer at our website, aafront.org, then you can get our weekly programs, emails that help you out with stuff. And that way you can contact our team. And if you feel like [you] really don’t know what to do, all of that seems overwhelming, somebody from our team will talk to you about where you live, what your skill set is, how much capacity you have, and we can help you figure out a plan. 

Leitman: As we head to this election, there’s so much apathy. And I think that the humor, and activism combined with humor can really help to eradicate that apathy. And that’s what we’re trying to do with the film. …

Right now, we’re working really hard on an impact campaign to get the film out there in the best ways to help support the work that Abortion Access Front has already done to continue to help their work, to draw attention to the work and the issue … so we’re working really hard to raise the funds to get the film out there. And we’re going to be on college campuses. …

One of the things that I think this film following this team really does, I think it shows the true intersectionality around abortion access, and is very mindful of the differences between reproductive access to reproductive justice and sort of carving out those areas in a way that we educate a public, we entertain a public, and we energize them to get out and do what they can to fight for bodily autonomy and to be unapologetic in that fight. To not back down.

Up next:

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Morgan Carmen is in her third year at Harvard Law School, where she is the president of the Alliance for Reproductive Justice. She is an intern with Ms. Studios and is based in Cambridge, Mass. Find her on Twitter @morgancarmen_.