Commentary Abortion

A New Generation of Abortion Activists: Destigmatizing Abortion in Kentucky

Eriauna Stratton

If we can’t even talk about abortion, we can’t ever hope to change the stigma.

To commemorate the 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, this article is part of a series profiling a new generation of activists working to destigmatize abortion and ensure access to safe, affordable abortion care.

Published in partnership with Advocates for Youth.

Through the 1 in 3 Campaign with Advocates for Youth, our student organization VOX (Voices for Planned Parenthood) has been able to greatly increase our efforts toward destigmatizing abortion and change how we talk about abortion. Our VOX chapter was founded at the University of Kentucky in 2008, and it remains the only pro-choice organization on campus.

When my colleague and I first told the rest of our organization that we were joining the 1 in 3 Campaign, they were reluctant to participate. Even in a pro-choice student group, they were questioning how we were supposed to destigmatize abortion on our campus when we did not even talk about this subject to our friends and family. More importantly, they weren’t sure WHY we needed to talk about the subject at all. But that was exactly my point: If we can’t even talk about abortion, we can’t ever hope to change the stigma.

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My colleague and I definitely had our work cut out for us. The first step we took to get our members more involved with the 1 in 3 Campaign was to take them to a clinic that provides abortion services in Louisville to volunteer as clinic escorts. I knew that this powerful experience would help them understand personally why we do this work.

And it did—just as it had transformed my own understanding two years earlier. 

I will never forget the first time I ever went to serve as a clinic escort. I honestly did not know what to expect, especially in Kentucky. I had heard the stories about the protestors at the clinic. I knew about the graphic photos and the shouting. I even knew that as the only African-American woman going, I could be targeted by protestors, but somehow that did not deter me. I arrived at the clinic early that morning along with my fellow VOX members with sleepy eyes and an open mind, and soon I realized that all of the rumors I had heard were true.

The signs were even more gruesome and misleading than I had expected. One picture was paired with a scripture from the Bible, and another had a picture of a supposedly botched abortion. The protestors were not only yelling at the women entering the clinic, they were harassing their family members and friends. Not surprisingly, we had the pleasure of being verbally abused by them as well. On a couple of occasions, protestors told me that I was contributing to the genocide of my race by supporting this “madness.” If this is the kind of response we can expect, no wonder people are so hesitant to talk about abortion issues. 

If enduring this harassment wasn’t difficult enough, remember that this is after women have managed to make it to a clinic in the first place. Kentucky continues to enact as many laws as it possibly can to delay or prevent women from seeking abortion care altogether. A physician cannot perform the procedure until at least 24 hours after a woman has received counseling. Plus, our state only has two abortion clinics to serve all 120 counties in the entire state! 

Volunteering as a clinic escort showed me many of the obstacles women face just in obtaining a legal medical procedure. It also made me see that one day I could be in those women’s shoes, and if I ever was, I would want as much support as I could get to feel safe and secure about my decision. I knew from that day on that it was not by chance that I stumbled upon this work, and I have worked to expand upon it in every way I can. 

This year will mark the 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and one might think that reproductive health care would not still be a controversial and taboo topic. But it remains a constant struggle—particularly in “Bible Belt” states like mine. It is up to us and the other few organizations who support women’s reproductive rights, like Planned Parenthood and the Kentucky Health Justice Network, to continue to protect what is slowly being taken away from us.  

I left the abortion clinic that day with an even more fueled passion for this work, and, as we continue to work with the 1 in 3 Campaign on our campus, we are fueling the passion of our peers as well. We are now hosting discussion dinners, escorting at the abortion clinic, and ultimately educating our members and other peers in the process. Along with my peers here in Kentucky, I am doing all I can to start a new conversation, promote reproductive justice, and destigmatize abortion. 

There is one thing I’ve learned for certain: No matter what we face—and no matter who tells us we should just give up—we have to keep going. It really is up to us.

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