Analysis Abortion

The New Public Face of Abortion: Connecting the Dots Between Abortion Stories

Steph Herold

Over the last few months, there's been an electric energy around abortion story sharing.  What's going on here? Why are so many people "coming out" now? And what are the similarities and differences in their experiences?

Over the last few months, there’s been an electric energy around the sharing of abortion stories. We’ve seen two stories in the New York Times, a Jewish abortion story on Kveller, a continuation of an abortion story on Thought Catalog, an early abortion story on Boing Boing, and a piece by a woman reflecting on the consequences of telling her abortion story in the Texas Observer. One woman even documented her abortion in photos. And that’s just recently.

What’s going on here? Why are so many people “coming out” now? There are no simple answers to this question. Are women responding to the onslaught of anti-choice legislation? Has the uptick in media reporting on abortion policies eased some of the stigma around speaking about abortion? Are the calls to come out about abortion from pro-choice activists, politicians, and advocacy organizations actually working?

Without asking every person who’s shared her story, we won’t know the answers to these questions. By looking at what they’ve decided to publish, we can consider more basic issues: what are women saying when they come out? What kinds of experiences are represented? Who is coming out about their abortion experience, and who is silent?

To map the patterns and gaps in these published narratives, I created a tumblr to collect these stories: ihadanabortion.org. Here’s what I’ve found so far:

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  • Some women had wanted pregnancies. Some did not.
  • Some women had illegal abortions. Some women had abortions after Roe.
  • Some women went through their abortions with no support. Some people had the support of friends, partners, or family members.
  • Some women had abortions by pill. Others had surgical abortions. Some attempted to perform their own abortions.
  • Some women talked about having one abortion. Some women disclosed having multiple abortions.
  • For some women, the decision to have an abortion was a decision about motherhood. For others, it was a decision about emotional or financial circumstances.
  • Some women experienced emotional difficulty with their abortion. Others experienced relief. Others experienced a mix of emotions.
  • Some women had explicitly pro-choice, pro-voice, or feminist takes on their abortion experience. Others divorced politics from their abortion experience.
Poster by Faviana Rodriguez.

Poster by Faviana Rodriguez.

Though there is great deal of diversity in the stories told by the women in these published accounts, there are also several similarities.

Many of the published stories focus on first trimester abortions. This may be slightly misleading, though, because many stories didn’t indicate at what gestation the author had an abortion. Still, the fact that so many of the stories are about first trimester abortions makes sense, since 90% of abortions take place before 12 weeks.

All the published stories that explicitly say that they are about abortions after the first trimester are about ending wanted pregnancies. Research tells us that a majority of those presenting for second trimester and later abortions do so because they were delayed in seeking an abortion, not because they had a wanted pregnancy gone awry. 

Three stories discussed multiple abortions. According to the most recent Guttmacher data, about half of women who’ve had abortions have had more than one. Does stigma keep people from sharing their experiences of having multiple abortions? Or do women who talk about their abortions publicly only feel comfortable mentioning a single abortion, even though they’ve had more than one?

Several of the published stories are by self-described middle class, young, white women. White women do make up the highest percentage of abortions by race. However, as compared to their proportion of the population, younger women, low-income women and women of color have higher abortion rates than other groups. There are multiple explanations for why these low-income women, young women, and women of color may be less likely to come forward or have their stories published. These women may have less access to media than women with more privilege or education. Additionally, coming forward may place them at risk for multiple stigmas associated with their age, race, and class as well as with their abortion experiences.

One story mentioned difficultly paying for the abortion (and specifically mentioned an abortion fund). This might suggest that those who need help paying for their abortion may be different from those who reach out to the media to publish their stories. People who need financial assistance for their abortion likely do not have access to the media to share their experiences.  It’s also possible that there is stigma around asking for help to pay for an abortion, and that this specific stigma coupled with abortion stigma increases the chances that a woman will not publicly share her abortion story.

Sharing an abortion story, whether with one person or with an online community, always comes with risks. For some folks, especially those who do not inhabit privileged identities, that risk might be greater. Looking at these abortion stories all in one place makes it obvious that certain voices, among others, are missing from the archive of public abortion stories: the experiences of low-income folks, people of color, people who experience emotional difficulty with their abortions, abortion stories from queer, gender non-conforming, and trans* folks, people who wanted an abortion but weren’t able to get one, and people who had elective second trimester (and later) abortions.

In discussing the implications of sharing her abortion story, Carolyn Jones writes,

As a white middle class woman, I’ve seen how powerful my voice can be. Not to share that power with those who’ve had equally valid experiences of abortion is like stopping a story half way through. But how do we hear the voices of the marginalized when they’re drowned out by the noise of our race, class and gender-riven world? And how, from our eyries of privilege, do we draw those stories out while respecting the political context from which they came?

“Coming out” about an abortion experience is a form of personal and cultural risk-taking. You’re exposing yourself to judgment and stigma from your friends, family, and community. By documenting published stories at ihadanabortion.org, we’re supporting the people who choose to take on this risk and unearthing the gaps between these narratives. We’re figuring out how to create a culture that supports people who’ve have abortions and allows for sharing diverse, multidimensional abortion stories. We know the danger of the single story. Let’s connect the single stories that create the dominant narrative about abortion, and map out ways to expand the frame. 

Commentary Sexuality

Black Trans Liberation Tuesday Must Become an Annual Observance

Raquel Willis

As long as trans people—many of them Black trans women—continue to be murdered, there will be a need to commemorate their lives, work to prevent more deaths, and uplift Black trans activism.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

This week marks one year since Black transgender activists in the United States organized Black Trans Liberation Tuesday. Held on Tuesday, August 25, the national day of action publicized Black trans experiences and memorialized 18 trans women, predominantly trans women of color, who had been murdered by this time last year.

In conjunction with the Black Lives Matter network, the effort built upon an earlier Trans Liberation Tuesday observance created by Bay Area organizations TGI Justice Project and Taja’s Coalition to recognize the fatal stabbing of 36-year-old trans Latina woman Taja DeJesus in February 2015.

Black Trans Liberation Tuesday should become an annual observance because transphobic violence and discrimination aren’t going to dissipate with one-off occurrences. I propose that Black Trans Liberation Tuesday fall on the fourth Tuesday of August to coincide with the first observance and also the August 24 birthday of the late Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson.

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There is a continuing need to pay specific attention to Black transgender issues, and the larger Black community must be pushed to stand in solidarity with us. Last year, Black trans activists, the Black Lives Matter network, and GetEQUAL collaborated on a blueprint of what collective support looks like, discussions that led to Black Trans Liberation Tuesday.

“Patrisse Cullors [a co-founder of Black Lives Matter] had been in talks on ways to support Black trans women who had been organizing around various murders,” said Black Lives Matter Organizing Coordinator Elle Hearns of Washington, D.C. “At that time, Black trans folks had been experiencing erasure from the movement and a lack of support from cis people that we’d been in solidarity with who hadn’t reciprocated that support.”

This erasure speaks to a long history of Black LGBTQ activism going underrecognized in both the civil rights and early LGBTQ liberation movements. Many civil rights leaders bought into the idea that influential Black gay activist Bayard Rustin was unfit to be a leader simply because he had relationships with men, though he organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Johnson, who is often credited with kicking off the 1969 Stonewall riots with other trans and gender-nonconforming people of color, fought tirelessly for LGBTQ rights. She and other trans activists of color lived in poverty and danger (Johnson was found dead under suspicious circumstances in July 1992), while the white mainstream gay elite were able to demand acceptance from society. Just last year, Stonewall, a movie chronicling the riots, was released with a whitewashed retelling that centered a white, cisgender gay male protagonist.

The Black Lives Matter network has made an intentional effort to avoid the pitfalls of those earlier movements.

“Our movement has been intersectional in ways that help all people gain liberation whether they see it or not. It became a major element of the network vision and how it was seeing itself in the Black liberation movement,” Hearns said. “There was no way to discuss police brutality without discussing structural violence affecting Black lives, in general”—and that includes Black trans lives.

Despite a greater mainstream visibility for LGBTQ issues in general, Black LGBTQ issues have not taken the forefront in Black freedom struggles. When a Black cisgender heterosexual man is killed, his name trends on social media feeds and is in the headlines, but Black trans women don’t see the same importance placed on their lives.

According to a 2015 report by the Anti-Violence Project, a group dedicated to ending anti-LGBTQ and HIV-affected community violence, trans women of color account for 54 percent of all anti-LGBTQ homicides. Despite increased awareness, with at least 20 transgender people murdered since the beginning of this year, it seems things haven’t really changed at all since Black Trans Liberation Tuesday.

“There are many issues at hand when talking about Black trans issues, particularly in the South. There’s a lack of infrastructure and support in the nonprofit sector, but also within health care and other systems. Staffs at LGBTQ organizations are underfunded when it comes to explicitly reaching the trans community,” said Micky Bradford, the Atlanta-based regional organizer for TLC@SONG. “The space between towns can harbor isolation from each other, making it more difficult to build up community organizing, coalitions, and culture.”

The marginalization that Black trans people face comes from both the broader society and the Black community. Fighting white supremacy is a full-time job, and some activists within the Black Lives Matter movement see homophobia and transphobia as muddying the fight for Black liberation.

“I think we have a very special relationship with gender and gender violence to all Black people,” said Aaryn Lang, a New York City-based Black trans activist. “There’s a special type of trauma that Black people inflict on Black trans people because of how strict the box of gender and space of gender expression has been to move in for Black people. In the future of the movement, I see more people trusting that trans folks have a vision that’s as diverse as blackness is.”

But even within that diversity, Black trans people are often overlooked in movement spaces due to anti-Blackness in mainstream LGBTQ circles and transphobia in Black circles. Further, many Black trans people aren’t in the position to put energy into movement work because they are simply trying to survive and find basic resources. This can create a disconnect between various sections of the Black trans community.

Janetta Johnson, executive director of TGI Justice Project in San Francisco, thinks the solution is twofold: increased Black trans involvement and leadership in activism spaces, and more facilitated conversations between Black cis and trans people.

“I think a certain part of the transgender community kind of blocks all of this stuff out. We are saying we need you to come through this process and see how we can create strength in numbers. We need to bring in other trans people not involved in the movement,” she said. “We need to create a space where we can share views and strategies and experiences.”

Those conversations must be an ongoing process until the killings of Black trans women like Rae’Lynn Thomas, Dee Whigham, and Skye Mockabee stop.

“As we commemorate this year, we remember who and why we organized Black Trans Liberation Tuesday last year. It’s important we realize that Black trans lives are still being affected in ways that everyday people don’t realize,” Hearns said. “We must understand why movements exist and why people take extreme action to continuously interrupt the system that will gladly forget them.”

Culture & Conversation Family

‘Abortion and Parenting Needs Can Coexist’: A Q&A With Parker Dockray

Carole Joffe

"Why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place?"

In May 2015, the longstanding and well-regarded pregnancy support talkline Backline launched a new venture. The Oakland-based organization opened All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center, a Bloomington, Indiana, drop-in center that offers adoption information, abortion referrals, and parenting support. Its mission: to break down silos and show that it is possible to support all options and all families under one roof—even in red-state Indiana, where Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Mike Pence signed one of the country’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws.

To be sure, All-Options is hardly the first organization to point out the overlap between women terminating pregnancies and those continuing them. For years, the reproductive justice movement has insisted that the defense of abortion must be linked to a larger human rights framework that assures that all women have the right to have children and supportive conditions in which to parent them. More than 20 years ago, Rachel Atkins, then the director of the Vermont Women’s Center, famously described for a New York Times reporter the women in the center’s waiting room: “The country really suffers from thinking that there are two different kinds of women—women who have abortions and women who have babies. They’re the same women at different times.”

While this concept of linking the needs of all pregnant women—not just those seeking an abortion—is not new, there are actually remarkably few agencies that have put this insight into practice. So, more than a year after All-Options’ opening, Rewire checked in with Backline Executive Director Parker Dockray about the All-Options philosophy, the center’s local impact, and what others might consider if they are interested in creating similar programs.

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Rewire: What led you and Shelly Dodson (All-Options’ on-site director and an Indiana native) to create this organization?

PD: In both politics and practice, abortion is so often isolated and separated from other reproductive experiences. It’s incredibly hard to find organizations that provide parenting or pregnancy loss support, for example, and are also comfortable and competent in supporting people around abortion.

On the flip side, many abortion or family planning organizations don’t provide much support for women who want to continue a pregnancy or parents who are struggling to make ends meet. And yet we know that 60 percent of women having an abortion already have at least one child; in our daily lives, these issues are fundamentally connected. So why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place? That’s what All-Options is about.

We see the All-Options model as a game-changer not only for clients, but also for volunteers and community supporters. All-Options allows us to transcend the stale pro-choice/pro-life debate and invites people to be curious and compassionate about how abortion and parenting needs can coexist .… Our hope is that All-Options can be a catalyst for reproductive justice and help to build a movement that truly supports people in all their options and experiences.

Rewire: What has been the experience of your first year of operations?

PD: We’ve been blown away with the response from clients, volunteers, donors, and partner organizations …. In the past year, we’ve seen close to 600 people for 2,400 total visits. Most people initially come to All-Options—and keep coming back—for diapers and other parenting support. But we’ve also provided hundreds of free pregnancy tests, thousands of condoms, and more than $20,000 in abortion funding.

Our Hoosier Abortion Fund is the only community-based, statewide fund in Indiana and the first to join the National Network of Abortion Funds. So far, we’ve been able to support 60 people in accessing abortion care in Indiana or neighboring states by contributing to their medical care or transportation expenses.

Rewire: Explain some more about the centrality of diaper giveaways in your program.

PD: Diaper need is one of the most prevalent yet invisible forms of poverty. Even though we knew that in theory, seeing so many families who are struggling to provide adequate diapers for their children has been heartbreaking. Many people are surprised to learn that federal programs like [the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children or WIC] and food stamps can’t be used to pay for diapers. And most places that distribute diapers, including crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), only give out five to ten diapers per week.

All-Options follows the recommendation of the National Diaper Bank Network in giving families a full pack of diapers each week. We’ve given out more than 4,000 packs (150,000 diapers) this year—and we still have 80 families on our waiting list! Trying to address this overwhelming need in a sustainable way is one of our biggest challenges.

Rewire: What kind of reception has All-Options had in the community? Have there been negative encounters with anti-choice groups?

PD: Diapers and abortion funding are the two pillars of our work. But diapers have been a critical entry point for us. We’ve gotten support and donations from local restaurants, elected officials, and sororities at Indiana University. We’ve been covered in the local press. Even the local CPC refers people to us for diapers! So it’s been an important way to build trust and visibility in the community because we are meeting a concrete need for local families.

While All-Options hasn’t necessarily become allies with places that are actively anti-abortion, we do get lots of referrals from places I might describe as “abortion-agnostic”—food banks, domestic violence agencies, or homeless shelters that do not have a position on abortion per se, but they want their clients to get nonjudgmental support for all their options and needs.

As we gain visibility and expand to new places, we know we may see more opposition. A few of our clients have expressed disapproval about our support of abortion, but more often they are surprised and curious. It’s just so unusual to find a place that offers you free diapers, baby clothes, condoms, and abortion referrals.

Rewire: What advice would you give to others who are interested in opening such an “all-options” venture in a conservative state?

PD: We are in a planning process right now to figure out how to best replicate and expand the centers starting in 2017. We know we want to open another center or two (or three), but a big part of our plan will be providing a toolkit and other resources to help people use the all-options approach.

The best advice we have is to start where you are. Who else is already doing this work locally, and how can you work together? If you are an abortion fund or clinic, how can you also support the parenting needs of the women you serve? Is there a diaper bank in your area that you could refer to or partner with? Could you give out new baby packages for people who are continuing a pregnancy or have a WIC eligibility worker on-site once a month? If you are involved with a childbirth or parenting organization, can you build a relationship with your local abortion fund?

How can you make it known that you are a safe space to discuss all options and experiences? How can you and your organization show up in your community for diaper need and abortion coverage and a living wage?

Help people connect the dots. That’s how we start to change the conversation and create support.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify the spelling of Shelly Dodson’s name.

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