Q & A Abortion

Women Who Have Abortions Are ‘Not Alone’: A Q&A With Abortion Story Advocate Beth Matusoff Merfish

Chanel Dubofsky

Rewire recently spoke with Beth Matusoff Merfish, co-founder (with her sister, Brett, and mother, Sherry) of Not Alone about how her organization combats abortion stigma through storytelling. As Merfish explains, these stories have the potential to "open people’s minds" and hearts.

As high school students, Beth Matusoff Merfish and her sister, Brett, spent their summer afternoons volunteering at Planned Parenthood, encouraged by their mother, Sherry. “We’d open the plastic birth control containers and put the Planned Parenthood stickers on them,” Beth told Rewire.

When Beth prepared to leave for college, her mother told her about her abortion, which she had in 1972 as a 20-year-old in Austin, Texas. (She had told her older daughter before Brett left for college two years earlier.) Years later, all three women sat in the gallery of the Texas state senate building during Wendy Davis’s 11-hour speech aimed at filibustering legislation seeking to limit abortions after 20 weeks and impose new regulations that would leave just a few abortion clinics open in the state. Angry and frustrated about the passage of HB 2, as well as the trend in anti-choice legislation nationwide, Beth, now 31, wrote a New York Times op-ed urging women to tell their abortion stories in the name of breaking down stigma and shame. “You have the power to cement in the minds of your communities and families the importance of reproductive freedom,” she wrote.

In response to the outpouring of stories that they received in response to Beth’s piece, the three women founded Not Alone in the summer of 2013. The project aims to change the current climate around abortion stigma by encouraging women to tell their abortion stories in videos uploaded to YouTube.

In July, Rewire spoke with Beth Matusoff Merfish on the phone about the organization she co-founded and the importance of storytelling in the reproductive rights movement. 

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Rewire: What makes Not Alone different from other organizations that encourage folks to tell their abortion stories?

Beth Matusoff Merfish: Our emphasis is on video—it’s a higher threshold way of telling a story. There’s no anonymity. When Emily [Letts, who filmed her own abortion earlier this year] posted her video, you had to stare into her eyes, you had to face her. Doing that makes it more difficult to judge her.

We have the same goal as the existing campaigns; we want to join with them, reach new audiences, continue the work of affecting the culture around abortion and the stigma that quiets women. The more voices we have, the better.

Rewire: How does Not Alone combat abortion stigma?

BMM: Women who get abortions are painted as caricatures—uneducated, irresponsible—when in reality none of those things are true.

All women make choices about their reproductive health, but stigma around abortion make us think that having an abortion will leave you entirely alone, that you’ll be the only one. It’s a really mean trick by the right. We hope people will look at the videos, at the diverse submission group, and see someone who looks and sounds like them, because abortion stories are diverse.

The assumption is that these campaigns are apolitical, that it’s a self-help project—if by self-help, you mean helping all women. Not Alone is a 501(c)(4); there is a political goal here. Our representatives need to hear that we want to change the status quo around reproductive rights.

Rewire: Can you talk about your personal experiences with abortion stigma?

BMM: My mom told us her abortion story so we wouldn’t feel alone, the way she did, if we ever made the same choice. It shocked me that she felt alone, because she was always surrounded by community. She had this intense fear of stigma, that telling people about her abortion would cause fractures in her relationship, she didn’t know how they would react. The fact that she felt stigmatized really had an impact on me, it gave me a whole new perspective.

Rewire: What do you think about the idea that every person who has had an abortion should tell their story?

BMM: My mother, sister, and I went to hear Rachel Maddow speak in Austin, and she said something that really inspired me: If you’re able to share an experience that was once shrouded in shame, you can do that because someone did it before you did; they took risks.

We don’t know the impact our stories will have on other people. The more we talk, the more we help each other, and that’s a compelling reason to talk. If we think of ourselves as being in a community of common goals and experiences, our stories can help each other.

Maybe you’re not ready to make a video for Not Alone, but you might be feeling ready to tell someone in your life, and you end up seeing a video that gives you language to talk about your own story.

When you upload a video for Not Alone on YouTube, we make a donation to Provide, an organization that seeks to fill gaps in abortion access through work with local partners and within the health-care systems, so that we can also help ensure that women can have access to abortion providers. We want everyone who makes a video to know that we appreciate their bravery and sharing so much.

Rewire: What do you think about the idea that there’s a “right” kind of abortion or abortion story?

BMM: As someone who’s pro-choice, I think there’s this inclination to only want to hear stories from women who don’t feel traumatized, who don’t have regrets, because the right would have you believe that women who have abortions regret them every single day. On the site, we mediate videos, and we have gotten pre-made videos from the right, although I expected more. The truth is that abortion stories are three-dimensional, because we live full lives, and everyone has a different relationship with their reproductive health. The more kinds of stories, the more authentic the representation, the more likely it will be that people can go on the site and find someone that reminds them of their mom, sister, or themselves. I want these stories to do what I know they can do, which is open people’s minds. We have to push ourselves to find communities, and move beyond fear.

Rewire: I’m thinking also of the commonly seen, very “palatable” portrait of a woman who has an abortion: She’s white, wealthy, married, educated, she already has a child, and she was pregnant with a very wanted child when she learned it had a fetal anomaly.

BMM: There are a lot of compelling stories of choice; they all have their places, and they should all be told. I think when someone talks about why they chose abortion, people move to judgment if they don’t recognize her choices or her circumstances:  “She’s not educated,” “She didn’t use birth control,” “I bet everyone in her family has had an abortion.”

This woman you’re talking about is in an impossible situation. Sympathy and empathy, not judgment, allow more stories to be told, and that makes the issue no longer abstract. That changes the culture.

This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

News Politics

Clinton Campaign Announces Tim Kaine as Pick for Vice President

Ally Boguhn

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

The Clinton campaign announced Friday that Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) has been selected to join Hillary Clinton’s ticket as her vice presidential candidate.

“I’m thrilled to announce my running mate, @TimKaine, a man who’s devoted his life to fighting for others,” said Clinton in a tweet.

“.@TimKaine is a relentless optimist who believes no problem is unsolvable if you put in the work to solve it,” she added.

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

Kaine signed two letters this week calling for the regulations on banks to be eased, according to a Wednesday report published by the Huffington Post, thereby ”setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.”

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, told the New York Times that Kaine’s selection “could be disastrous for our efforts to defeat Donald Trump in the fall” given the senator’s apparent support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Just before Clinton’s campaign made the official announcement that Kaine had been selected, the senator praised the TPP during an interview with the Intercept, though he signaled he had ultimately not decided how he would vote on the matter.

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Kaine’s record on reproductive rights has also generated controversy as news began to circulate that he was being considered to join Clinton’s ticket. Though Kaine recently argued in favor of providing Planned Parenthood with access to funding to fight the Zika virus and signed on as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act—which would prohibit states and the federal government from enacting restrictions on abortion that aren’t applied to comparable medical services—he has also been vocal about his personal opposition to abortion.

In a June interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kaine told host Chuck Todd he was “personally” opposed to abortion. He went on, however, to affirm that he still believed “not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions.”

As Rewire has previously reported, though Kaine may have a 100 percent rating for his time in the Senate from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the campaign website for his 2005 run for governor of Virginia promised he would “work in good faith to reduce abortions” by enforcing Virginia’s “restrictions on abortion and passing an enforceable ban on partial birth abortion that protects the life and health of the mother.”

As governor, Kaine did support some existing restrictions on abortion, including Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law. He also signed a 2009 measure that created “Choose Life” license plates in the state, and gave a percentage of the proceeds to a crisis pregnancy network.

Regardless of Clinton’s vice president pick, the “center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted in a bold, populist, progressive direction,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in an emailed statement. “It’s now more important than ever that Hillary Clinton run an aggressive campaign on core economic ideas like expanding Social Security, debt-free college, Wall Street reform, and yes, stopping the TPP. It’s the best way to unite the Democratic Party, and stop Republicans from winning over swing voters on bread-and-butter issues.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article included a typo that misidentified Sen. Tim Kaine as a Republican. We regret this error.

Commentary Politics

Is Clinton a Progressive? Not If She Chooses Tim Kaine

Jodi Jacobson

The selection of Tim Kaine as vice president would be the first signal that Hillary Clinton intends to seek progressive votes but ignore progressive values and goals, likely at her peril, and ours.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, former secretary of state and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton has frequently claimed to be a progressive, though she often adds the unnecessary and bewildering caveat that she’s a “progressive who likes to get things done.” I’ve never been sure what that is supposed to mean, except as a possible prelude to or excuse for giving up progressive values to seal some unknown deal in the future; as a way of excusing herself from fighting for major changes after she is elected; or as a way of saying progressives are only important to her campaign until after they leave the voting booth.

One of the first signals of whether Clinton actually believes in a progressive agenda will be her choice of running mate. Reports are that Sen. Tim Kaine, former Virginia governor, is the top choice. The selection of Kaine would be the first signal that Clinton intends to seek progressive votes but ignore progressive values and goals, likely at her peril, and ours.

We’ve seen this happen before. In 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama claimed to be a progressive. By virtue of having a vision for and promise of real change in government and society, and by espousing transparency and responsibility, he won by a landslide. In fact, Obama even called on his supporters, including the millions activated by the campaign’s Organizing for Action (OFA), to keep him accountable throughout his term. Immediately after the election, however, “progressives” were out and the right wing of the Democratic party was “in.”

Obama’s cabinet members in both foreign policy and the economy, for example, were drawn from the center and center-right of the party, leaving many progressives, as Mother Jones’ David Corn wrote in the Washington Post in 2009, “disappointed, irritated or fit to be tied.” Obama chose Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff, a man with a reputation from the days of Bill Clinton’s White House for a reluctance to move bold policies—lest they upset Wall Street or conservative Democrats—and a deep disdain for progressives. With Emanuel as gatekeeper of policies and Valerie Jarrett consumed with the “Obama Brand” (whatever that is), the White House suddenly saw “progressives” as the problem.

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It became clear that instead of “the change we were hoping for,” Obama had started on an impossible quest to “cooperate” and “compromise” on bad policies with the very party that set out to destroy him before he was even sworn in. Obama and Emanuel preempted efforts to push for a public option for health-care reform, despite very high public support at the time. Likewise, the White House failed to push for other progressive policies that would have been a slam dunk, such as the Employee Free Choice Act, a major goal of the labor movement that would have made it easier to enroll workers in unions. With a 60-vote Democratic Senate majority, this progressive legislation could easily have passed. Instead, the White House worked to support conservative Democrat then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s efforts to kill it, and even sent Vice President Joe Biden to Arkansas to campaign for her in her run for re-election. She lost anyway.

They also allowed conservatives to shelve plans for an aggressive stimulus package in favor of a much weaker one, for the sole sake of “bipartisanship,” a move that many economists have since criticized for not doing enough.  As I wrote years ago, these decisions were not only deeply disappointing on a fundamental level to those of us who’d put heart and soul into the Obama campaign, but also, I personally believe, one of the main reasons Obama later lost the midterms and had a hard time governing.  He was not elected to implement GOP lite, and there was no “there, there” for the change that was promised. Many people deeply devoted to making this country better for working people became fed up.

Standing up for progressive principles is not so hard, if you actually believe in them. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D- MA) is a progressive who actually puts her principles into action, like the creation against all odds in 2011 of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, perhaps the single most important progressive achievement of the past 20 years. Among other things, the CFPB  shields consumers from the excesses of mortgage lenders, student loan servicers, and credit card companies that have caused so much economic chaos in the past decade. So unless you are more interested in protecting the status quo than addressing the root causes of the many problems we now face, a progressive politician would want a strong progressive running mate.

By choosing Tim Kaine as her vice president, Clinton will signal that she values progressives in name and vote only.

As Zach Carter wrote in the Huffington Post, Kaine is “setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.” Kaine is in favor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement largely negotiated in secret and by corporate lobbyists. Both Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose voters Clinton needs to win over, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren oppose the TPP because, in Warren’s words, it “would tilt the playing field even more in favor of … big multinational corporations and against working families.”

The progressive agenda includes strong emphasis on effective systems of governance and oversight of banks and financial institutions—the actors responsible, as a result of deregulation, for the major financial crises of the past 16 years, costing the United States trillions of dollars and gutting the financial security of many middle-class and low-income people.

As Warren has stated:

Washington turned a blind eye as risks were packaged and re-packaged, magnified, and then sold to unsuspecting pension funds, municipal governments, and many others who believed the markets were honest. Not long after the cops were blindfolded and the big banks were turned loose, the worst crash since the 1930s hit the American economy—a crash that the Dallas Fed estimates has cost a collective $14 trillion. The moral of this story is simple: Without basic government regulation, financial markets don’t work. That’s worth repeating: Without some basic rules and accountability, financial markets don’t work. People get ripped off, risk-taking explodes, and the markets blow up. That’s just an empirical fact—clearly observable in 1929 and again in 2008. The point is worth repeating because, for too long, the opponents of financial reform have cast this debate as an argument between the pro-regulation camp and the pro-market camp, generally putting Democrats in the first camp and Republicans in the second. But that so-called choice gets it wrong. Rules are not the enemy of markets. Rules are a necessary ingredient for healthy markets, for markets that create competition and innovation. And rolling back the rules or firing the cops can be profoundly anti-market.

If Hillary Clinton were actually a progressive, this would be key to her agenda. If so, Tim Kaine would be a curious choice as VP, and a middle finger of sorts to those who support financial regulations. In the past several weeks, Kaine has been publicly advocating for greater deregulation of banks. As Carter reported yesterday, “Kaine signed two letters on Monday urging federal regulators to go easy on banks―one to help big banks dodge risk management rules, and another to help small banks avoid consumer protection standards.”

Kaine is also trying to portray himself as “anti-choice lite.” For example, he recently signed onto the Women’s Health Protection Act. But as we’ve reported, as governor of Virginia, Kaine supported restrictions on abortion, such as Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law, which, he claimed in 2008, gave “women information about a whole series of things, the health consequences, et cetera, and information about adoption.” In truth, the information such laws mandate giving out is often “irrelevant or misleading,” according to the the Guttmacher Institute. In other words, like many others who let ideology rather than public health guide their policy decisions, Kaine put in place policies that are not supported by the evidence and that make it more difficult for women to gain access to abortion, steps he has not denounced. This is unacceptable. The very last thing we need is another person in the White House who further stigmatizes abortion, though it must be said Clinton herself seems chronically unable to speak about abortion without euphemism.

While there are many other reasons a Kaine pick would signal a less-than-secure and values-driven Clinton presidency, the fact also stands that he is a white male insider at a time when the rising electorate is decidedly not white and quite clearly looking for strong leadership and meaningful change. Kaine is not the change we seek.

The conventional wisdom these days is that platforms are merely for show and vice presidential picks don’t much matter. I call foul; that’s an absolutely cynical lens through which to view policies. What you say and with whom you affiliate yourself do indeed matter. And if Clinton chooses Kaine, we know from the outset that progressives have a fight on their hands, not only to avoid the election of an unapologetic fascist, but to ensure that the only person claiming the progressive mantle actually means what she says.