The email sent to hundreds of reproductive rights organizations last year contained an urgent warning: Anti-abortion groups had seized on TikTok and were gaining “extreme traction” with the platform’s young audience.
“There is serious, untapped potential here, and you should capitalize on it,” it read.
Perhaps even more surprising than the message was the identity of its author: a 15-year-old California high school student who was stuck home because of the pandemic and had, like many Americans, gotten sucked into the app.
Another surprise: The abortion rights movement listened to her.
Now, a year and a half after sending that email, Mehtaab Kaur is a high-school senior who juggles homework, equestrian polo practices, and consultations with advocacy groups on how they can harness the power of the video-sharing service.
“The way I had planned it out initially was that they would just get on the app,” Kaur told The Daily Beast. “But something I realized is a lot of these organizations don’t understand TikTok.”
“And that’s where I came in,” she added.
“AbortionTok”—the term pro-choice advocates use to describe their space on the app—has grown steadily in recent years as abortion access in the U.S. has waned. The most popular accounts have more than half a million followers and regularly garner tens of thousands of likes. Last month, when an anti-abortion group set up a tip line to catch violators of a restrictive Texas abortion law, activists on TikTok flooded it with false reports and Shrek memes. The site was taken down within a week.
But it wasn’t always that way. Before Kaur and other advocates joined the app, anti-abortion organizations like LiveAction had an outsized voice among TikTok’s predominantly young, liberal audience. At the time of Kaur’s email, Live Action had more than 80,000 followers; the anti-abortion clothing line A Chance at Life had nearly 48,000. (They now have more than 477,000 and nearly 125,000, respectively.) Explaining the breadth of the problem in her email, Kaur wrote: “Not saying you should be concerned, but you should be concerned.”
But the teenager also knew that pro-choice accounts gained traction on TikTok much faster than pro-life ones—“that’s a literal fact,” she wrote. She urged the organizations she emailed—which included the Guttmacher Institute, multiple abortion funds and every branch of NARAL and Planned Parenthood she could find—to create accounts and start posting videos. (Thirty- to 40-second videos were best, she wrote, 15 was acceptable; it was probably a good idea to put a younger staff member in charge of the account.)
“I don’t mean to push a sense of urgency, but I cannot allow pro-life organizations to blatantly spread lies on an app that is comprised of so many younger, and impressionable children/teens,” she wrote.
At the same time Kaur was doing her outreach, some other advocates were slowly coming to the app on their own. Denise Rodriguez, the communications manager at the Texas Equal Access Fund, noted the hundreds of millions of people who joined TikTok during the pandemic, and hired a class of interns exclusively to make content for the app. A group of clinic escorts in North Carolina went viral several times for their videos mocking anti-abortion protesters.
Eleanor Grano, the program manager at abortion-rights advocacy group Jane’s Due Process, set about creating a pro-abortion “hype house”—Gen-Z-speak for groups that get together to make TikTok content. But every time she reached out to an organization about joining, she said, she got the same response.
“Everyone was telling me how they got this email from this bossy 16-year-old who was like, ‘Why aren’t you on TikTok?’” she said. “And I was like, I need to find this teen.”
Kaur sticks out among her peers for her gumption and for her single-minded focus on abortion. A New York Times article last summer detailed the apathy some teens feel toward the issue; a survey it cited found Gen Z women consistently ranked mass shootings, climate change, education, and racial inequality as more important to them than abortion.
But for Kaur, the issue is personal: When she was 13, an aunt in India was impregnated by a man who did not want to marry her; she wound up killing herself by ingesting arsenic. The incident impressed on her the weight of the stigma around abortion and unwanted pregnancy, and reminded her that these issues are closer to home than you might think. “There’s this huge campaign: ‘[Everyone knows] someone who’s had an abortion,’” Kaur said. “It’s the same for me, but I know someone who couldn’t get an abortion and had to deal with the consequences of that.”
Despite her obvious passion, Kaur’s cold-email campaign didn’t take off instantly. Many organizations said they didn’t have time for another social media app; a few said they wanted to join but didn’t know how. One of those people was Whitney Shanahan of ProChoice with Heart.
Shanahan’s group, which was started in response to a proposed six-week abortion ban in Ohio, often staged protests in which pregnant people scrawled the words “pro-choice” across their stomachs with lipstick. Footage from the protests had gone viral on other social media platforms, but Shanahan knew nothing about Gen Z’s favorite app. “When [Kaur] reached out to me and was like, ‘We need pro-chociers like you on TikTok,’ I think I said to her, ‘What’s TikTok?’” Shanahan recalled.
At Kaur’s urging, Shanahan agreed to download the app and uploaded some of her old protest footage. It took off instantly. From there, Shanahan set about mastering TikTok, with Kaur as her consultant. Almost entirely through Instagram DM, Kaur walked her through TikTok basics like sounds, dance moves, and hashtags, “She was basically a tour guide,” Shanahan said.
Today, Shanahan has one of the most popular pro-choice accounts on TikTok, with more more than half a million followers. She estimates 99 percent of her advocacy is now done through the app, where she often uploads multiple times per day. And she says she owes it all to Kaur. “I would never have even gone to TikTok if I hadn’t gotten an Instagram message from her,” she said.
Grano, the Jane’s Due Process manager, did eventually get in touch with Kaur and convince her to join her hype house. There, the teenager functioned as the resident Gen-Z correspondent, reporting back on what sounds and styles were trending and how they could tailor it to pro-choice content. She and Grano also developed several lectures about how to use the app and presented them to abortion funds and at reproductive rights conferences.
Some of their recommendations are at odds with traditional pro-choice tactics. While older generations were taught to treat abortion as a serious, personal issue, TikTok activists often joke about it and even record fake abortion appointments. And while many pro-choice groups adopt an argumentative tone to persuade skeptics, Kaur tells her clients that the point of TikTok isn’t to convince the viewer, but to make them feel something.
“I tell people, ‘If you want to get people hooked, try making them feel hopeful, try making them feel proud, and try making that emotion come through in the video you’re making,’” she said.
“If they feel the right way, they’re going to remember it, and they’re going to continue having that conversation with other people they know, and it’s just going to spread like wildfire.”
Grano said her biggest struggle is convincing millennial activists to let go a little. The generation raised on Instagram is often overly concerned with aesthetics, she said, and forgets that the way to connect with younger viewers is through authenticity. On TikTok, she said, “you can have uncombed hair and talk about something and Gen Z will listen.”
But they can get their older clients to cooperate, both Kaur and Grano say getting them on TikTok is always worth it. The beauty of the app, Kaur explained, is in its largely captive audience: Viewers don’t have to follow your organization or search for it to find your content—if you work the algorithm right, it will simply pop up on their “For You” page. Once it’s there, she said, “Everyone will guaranteed give you at least five seconds before they scroll.”
Today, Kaur is balancing her social media consulting with a more typical high school activity: applying to colleges. She says she wants to major in marketing and apply it to work at nonprofits. She is writing her college admissions essay about her passion for activism.
Even when Kaur moves on with her life, her legacy in AbortionTok will live on. Paige Alexandria, the creator behind the popular pro-choice account @abortioncounselor, called Kaur a “catalyst” for AbortionTok, and even gave her a shout-out during a presentation last year.
Amelia Bonow, the founder of Shout Your Abortion, credited Kaur with inspiring her to launch an artists residency for pro-choice TikTok creators. She still remembers the email she received from the self-confident teen.
“She wasn’t just like ‘You should do this,’” Bonow said over email. “She was basically like, ‘If you are calling yourself a pro-abortion culture change organization and you’re not on Tik Tok, please take several seats.’”
“And based on her cold email game at age 15,” she added, “I have decided to endorse Mahi Beth for President of the United States of America in 2040.”