Commentary Abortion

Pro-Choice Groups: It’s Time to Include Abortion Workers in the Movement

Shelley Abrams

The movement already trusts us to provide abortion treatment, so why aren't we trusted with the defense of our own cause?

Dear national pro-choice groups and local grassroots activists for abortion rights,

I’d like to begin by saying thank you. I know that most of you out there deeply and genuinely care about protecting abortion access in our country and abroad. Most of you have done the best you can within the confines of either your hierarchical employment structure or your social structure, and I want to thank you for standing up for what you believe in.

But I think we can all see that it is time to make some big changes in the movement. What we’ve been doing since 1973 hasn’t worked. The anti-choice advocates have outsmarted us and outlasted us. They have been creative in their tactics, working at the most local levels all the way up to the Supreme Court.

It’s time to call up your local loud-and-proud abortion worker. I know, I know, we can be different, even scary. We don’t always have a smile on our faces or have time for pleasantries, and we can have bad manners. Many of us feel “diplomacy” has failed the abortion rights movement, so we’ve dispensed of it in our lives. We are really real. But we are putting our lives on the line every day, and with that commitment and passion comes power.

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Clinic Workers Understand the ‘Heart of Abortion’

In 1993, when the first murder of an abortion doctor occurred, I became an abortion rights activist. I marched, traveled to defend clinics across the deep South, and, eventually, was hired at my local clinic as a doctor’s assistant.

Fast forward 20 years, and I’ve been running clinics ever since. I’ve led clinics in four U.S. southern states, including the last remaining clinic in Mississippi, and a clinic in Alabama that was bombed. I always considered working in a clinic the highest form of activism. I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of abortion care. I quickly learned that patients come in many forms: anti-abortionists, Republicans, white supremacists, young, old, religious. Some of these women not only weren’t grateful that we were risking our lives to provide them this service, they actually resented us for being the people that happened to be around when they made a decision they never thought they’d make.

None of these realizations caused me to question my stance on abortion rights, however. They made it stronger and in the process sharpened my senses to the “heart of abortion,” by which I mean the day-to-day truth of abortion: That there are women every day who think abortion is murdering a baby yet very consciously choose it anyway. That most abortion patients are normal, flawed, determined women who want to not have a baby and move on with their lives as if they were never pregnant. That abortion is just plain normal.

What Went Wrong Over the Last 40 Years?

National pro-choice activist groups have done the best they could. Because they do not understand the heart of abortion, they have taken the path of least resistance and painted the issue of abortion as sanctified. They only discuss certain abortions—rape, incest, and life of the mother—while arguing society must allow other abortions to occur by default.

They set the tone. We’ve all heard it: safe, but rare. This tone implies shame. The national organizations are worried that the public will “find out” that some women do get multiple abortions or that most women don’t regret their abortion.

And talking about the normality and commonality of abortion requires, well, talking. It requires the hard work of debunking a lot of myths and reversing a lot of damage. To have this conversation honestly and accurately, it requires someone very familiar with the heart of abortion. It requires the experiences of abortion workers.

By allowing abortion rights to become something that professional figureheads defended, we took the reality out of abortion. We made it something different, strange, and special. I’m here to tell you that abortion isn’t different, it isn’t strange, and for some women, it isn’t special.

So What Do I Propose?

Like I said in the beginning, it’s time to call up your local abortion worker. The movement already trusts us to provide abortion treatment, so why aren’t we trusted with the defense of the cause? I know a lot of abortion workers can be tough nuts to crack. Some of us are a little shell-shocked from dealing with protesters, police, and threats from anti-abortion extremists. But, we are fighters, and we are survivors.

To get us out of our clinics and back into the light of day, you may have to reassure us, coach us a bit, or even talk with us about event security. We need a little patience and understanding.

Here are a couple of suggestions for getting abortion workers involved in the movement:

  • Make sure that if a pro-choice event is happening in your area, you reach out to your local provider for input and advice on the most pressing issues for their staff and patients.
  • Hold an abortion speak-out or forum and invite abortion providers to talk about what it’s really like operating a clinic.
  • Demand that local or national groups representing abortion rights have independent clinic workers on their organizing committees and board of directors. Give providers a real vote and a real voice.
  • Start a letter-writing campaign to national media sources asking them to bring in a worker for interviews when talking about abortions. Tell them that there are a lot of smart providers out there with first-hand knowledge and experience.

We are, after all, the ultimate stakeholders, and there is a lot at stake here.


Shelley Abrams
Director, A Capital Women’s Health Clinic

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