Women, especially young women, are coming out of the closet and talking openly about how access to abortion has empowered their lives. On November 20, a reproductive rights nonprofit, Advocates for Youth hopes to take that to a new level with an eight-hour live broadcast they are calling the 1 in 3 SpeakOut. Celebrities including comedienne Lizz Winstead, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, and author Jessica Valenti will “speak out,” telling their abortion stories in an act of defiance against stigma and shame.
As a woman who went public with my own abortion story after the murder of Dr. George Tiller, I am grateful and deeply optimistic about the rising chorus of voices.
The speakout event will be hosted and organized by the 1 in 3 Campaign, so named because 1 in 3 American women has an abortion at some point before reaching menopause. It is being promoted by a coalition of women’s groups including Advocates for Youth, Planned Parenthood, and Lady Parts Justice. And the 100 participants are part of a growing number of women who are saying firmly and publically, Stop telling me how I should feel about my abortion—guilty, conflicted, grieved, relieved—my experience is my own.
In 2000, a group called Exhale pioneered what they called the pro-voice approach, offering non-judgmental support for women (and men) who wanted to talk about their experiences. The safe space they carved out for people who reached their call line has been a small bubble in a wide sea of shame and stigma. Surrounded by shrill public debate in which any woman’s reproductive decision is a political act that perfect strangers feel entitled to judge, most women choose to remain silent.
Silencing women is a core tool of abortion opponents. That is because when the voices and faces of abortion seekers and compassionate providers vanish, the right to end a pregnancy become a legal or theological abstraction. When opponents don’t have to look into the eyes of real women who are managing full, complicated lives and families, they feel free to manipulate emotions by focusing on gritty details of the surgical procedure itself. The big picture—a young person’s hopes and dreams, our responsibilities to the world around us, the fiercely intense challenges and joys of parenthood, the human flourishing made possible by family planning, the medical and psychological risks of an ill-timed pregnancy, the mercy of a fresh start—all of these powerful and personal dimensions of childbearing fade from view, papered over with pictures of gestation sacs and fetal remains.
Even conversation among friends and family members gets muted. Today abortion need is dropping fast thanks to better birth control technologies. Even so, abortion is more common than recognizable miscarriage. (Most miscarriage simply takes the form of an odd period.) And yet, according to sociologist Sarah Cowan at NYU, only 52 percent of people say they know someone who has had an abortion, while 79 say they know someone who has had a miscarriage. In reality, virtually all adults are close with someone who has had an abortion. They just don’t know that because they haven’t been told.
But times may be changing.
In 2012, the 1-in-3 Campaign offered a platform for women and men who wanted to tell their stories more publically, and over 500 responded. Then a young woman who called herself Jane published photos online of her first trimester abortion. They were seen by millions and ultimately covered by mainstream news outlets around the world. Jane chose to stay anonymous because, as she said,
“The power in anonymity is placing my little story in a much larger context and making it relatable to anyone and everyone. I could be from the deep south or live in your neighborhood. I could be a minor or perimenopausal. I could be a high school graduate or a PhD professor. I could be Christian or Muslim. I could be your daughter, your mother, your sister, your boss, your friend. I could be all of these things to this audience. This isn’t about me. This is about all of us.”
In January of 2014 another young woman took the opposite approach, going public with her own name and face. Emily Letts chose to be filmed as she reacted to the news of her unintended pregnancy, then during the abortion procedure and a month later. Her three minute video has been played over a million times.
In the months that followed, Cosmopolitan Magazine, better known for fashion and sex tips than advocacy, made waves by leaning into the conversation about reproductive choices rather than leaning away. One story featured a young Texas ob-gyn, who told of performing a hysterectomy on a 16-year-old after a botched self-induced abortion. Another interviewed Kate Cockrill and Steph Herold, the young founders of Sea Change, (tagline Stigma divides, isolates, hurts. Lets make shift happen).
In October another mainstream women’s magazine, Elle, took up the torch, publishing “I had an Abortion—Real stories from real women,” followed by an article in which Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, spoke openly about her own abortion. Despite screams from the Right, the Elle editorial team hasn’t backed off. Most recently they have showcased award-winning poet and columnist Katha Pollit, who is on tour with her new book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights.
In the book and related interviews, Pollit goes beyond shame and stigma to embrace the other end of the moral spectrum, honoring women who make childbearing a thoughtful, intentional decision regardless of when and how they find themselves pregnant. She is unflinchingly pro-choice and unflinchingly critical of the Religious Right.
Pollit embraces abortion with the same confidence that she might hold forth on the benefits of appendectomy, knee replacement, or antibiotics. She points out that abortion is normal, that nature itself eliminates many conceptions that are off to a poor start. (More than half of all fertilized eggs and 30 percent of early pregnancies self-abort, including many that are defective.) And she reminds us that induced abortion has been common through history as it is today in the US, where 1 out of 3 women choose to end an ill-timed, unwanted, or unhealthy pregnancy. More importantly, she talks about the ways in which abortion enables families to thrive psychologically and economically.
Pollit is far from the first to explicitly endorse abortion as a social good. In 1978, five years after abortion was legalized nationally via Roe vs Wade, the Washington Association of Churches published a six page document in which members articulated, in religious language, some of the issues at stake: freedom, justice, balance, compassion, responsibility—and humility. The document opened by acknowledging that earnest people, including earnest Christians found this issue challenging:
Clearly there is no Christian position on abortion, for here real values conflict with each other, and Christian persons who seek honestly to be open to God’s call still find themselves disagreeing profoundly.
Given the competing values at stake, member denominations (save Catholics alone) asserted that whether to keep a pregnancy was a decision best left to a woman and those from whom she sought guidance. Alas, Evangelicals and conservative Catholics decided they knew better. They affirmed a traditional set of beliefs that value women as incubators and men as deciders. Then, from their position of “male headship” church leaders pronounced that the personhood of fetal life (however microscopic or malformed) and female life (however cherished or self-actualized) were equivalent.
But they are wrong, and therein lies the power of telling our stories.
When women come out of the shadows, the world is reminded that we are as individual as snowflakes, each with a life story that has its own intricate pattern and beauty. We are playfulness and big dreams, confusion, creativity, complexity, maternal love, wisdom, responsibility, partnership, sensuality, sexuality—all qualities that are utterly absent in an embryo or fetus. Our decisions to bear or not to bear children, to carry pregnancies or end them, are inseparable from the gloriously tangled web of our loves and our lives.
When women come out of the shadows, the world sees the self-aware determination that leads almost a third of us to end an ill-conceived pregnancy despite the toxic culture of stigma that condemns our decisions rather than honoring the wisdom of a woman who knows her own limits, responsibilities, and dreams.
When we come out of the shadows, the purveyors of shame are exposed for who they are—bullies who are frightened of change and who have been wielding self-righteous judgment as a weapon for far too long.