The Right to Privacy and the Right to Speak Out

Sarah Seltzer

Feminists stand firm on never telling women what they should do, allowing them full choice about their bodies and lives.  But we need to better support women when they speak about their experiences. 

Our right to abortion is couched, legally and often socially, as a right to privacy, the right to keep our medical decisions to ourselves. This appeals to a certain American libertarian streak, and so it perhaps can be effective politically. But does the fact that the decision must be allowed to be made in a personal, private context mean that women ought keep their experiences with abortion to themselves?

Clearly, some people think so. Those are the terms with which many wavering people are comfortable being legally pro-choice. Your body, your choice, leave me out of it. In our age of “TMI,” live-tweeting births and deaths and general over-sharing, the idea of public discussion of abortion may seem to some folks to be a herald of an era in which privacy no longer exists.

The #livetweetingabortion controversy which we covered last week attracted its share of rabid anti-choicers declaring Angie Jackson to be a pawn of Satan– and now threatening her in alarming, serious ways but there were also plenty of people who just said ewww. That’s private.

But that’s the point, explained Jackson, who has blogged and tweeted about a number of intensely personal issues:

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I think that secrecy is unhealthy. We don’t get help when we don’t talk about things. For women who do need counseling or support or love or understanding after an abortion, if they have to stay quiet out of shame, then they won’t get that help. I think talking about things really can make a huge difference.

Legally, privacy and bodily autonomy remain the standards we promote as pro-choicers. But socially and culturally, the pushing of abortion into a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” limbo has been truly damaging for women. Whether it’s shows like “16 and Pregnant” which ignored the truth of teen girls who abort, movies like “Knocked Up” which can’t even say the word “abortion”, and more, our prevailing attitude of it’s your choice, but keep it to yourself has had a direct link to the chipping away of our rights. When people don’t see their friends, neighbors and selves as being hassled, inconvenienced or threatened by mandatory ultrasounds, counseling and waiting periods, these things don’t seem like a terrible idea.

So yes, it’s a private decision, but it shouldn’t be a silenced decision. That’s the difference. Women should feel free to mourn or rejoice, breathe a sigh of relief or cry from exhaustion, keep it to themselves or blog or tweet about it, as they do with other personal choices–where to send kids to school, when, where, how and if to get married, whom they’re dating and how they survive cancer, motherhood, or bereavement.

Unfortunately, as Robin Marty’s touching story shows, without other women’s stories, without the reality of abortion being portrayed in the media, the extremely common procedure can be incredibly isolating. By sharing her story, Angie Jackson is a  heroine, because she chose to tell her story to help others, and she got so much invective for it, just as women who tumbled and blogged about their abortions have gotten before.

Just as gay rights have advanced by people coming to know their gay relatives, friends and neighbors and no longer seeing people without rights as a “them” so abortion rights can benefit hugely by the acknowledgement that these women are all of us. And there’s a more practical side to it as well, which was Jackson’s original intention. In her now-infamous Youtube video

I am doing this to demystify abortion so other women know that it is not nearly as terrifying as I had myself worked up thinking. It is not that bad. This is nothing compared to child birth, compared to labor for me. This is the best choice. It is not that bad and I want people to know that it is out there if you need this.”

Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory wrote that this sharing on Jackson’s part has a useful, practical side to it, which the abortion tumblrs also fulfilled: helping women understand what’s happening to them, medically, physically, psychologically. If anyone has looked up birth control on the internet they can see that women’s ability to share the side effect, advantages, and reactions to different contraceptives has the kind of benefit that even a doctor can’t give you, the benefit of crowd-sourcing. Clark-Flory notes:

In fact, before I went in for what felt like terrifying oral surgery…I went on YouTube and watched footage of similar procedures and video blogs of people’s recovery process. It replaced all of my far-fetched nightmarish visions with concrete, factual information. Without that, I might have gone running for the hills — or at least passed out in the waiting room. Considering that abortion is so prone to politicized distortions and outright lies, Jackson is doing women a real favor. This isn’t another case of overshare-itis, it’s an example of how amid all the frivolous cacophony of Facebook, Twitter and the like, some folks are, like, actually doing good.

As feminists we stand firm on the side of never telling women you should, allowing them full choice about what to do with their bodies and then what to say about what they’ve done. But we need to really support women like Jackson and the others at websites like I’m Not Sorry and publications like Exhale’s Our Truths express our undying gratitude and tell them how proud we are of them. It shouldn’t take a tragedy the death of Dr. Tiller to make these kinds of stories public–we need positive motivation to bring more stories out of the shadows.
Live-Tweeting Abortion from Feministe

Internet Reacts (Predictably) To Woman Live-Tweeting Her Abortion from Jezebel

Topics and Tags:

Abortion, Contraception, pregnancy

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