On Thursday, I spent six hours listening to individuals talk about their abortions via the 1 in 3 Campaign’s abortion speak-out. During the event, more than 100 people spoke about their experiences of obtaining an abortion, and the impact those decisions had on their lives. By hosting the first-ever live-streamed abortion speak-out, the campaign organizers had hoped to reach as wide of an audience as possible, and to disrupt the public shaming that, too often, surrounds the pursuit of what should be viewed as a standard medical procedure. For me, though, the speak-out had an additional consequence: It made me realize that even as a staunch reproductive rights advocate, a clinic escort, and a feminist, I still have to battle my own internalized abortion stigma.
Before last spring, I had never been to an abortion speak-out. In the past, when I’d had the opportunity to attend them at conferences or other events, I’d create excuses: I needed to save my energy, I had other plans, or I was just tired. Plus, I reasoned, there was no reason to go to an abortion speak-out, because I’d never had an abortion. I’d had few scares from late periods in college, but I knew that I would have an abortion without question if I turned out to be pregnant. Even in my late teens, I knew I didn’t want kids.
Finally, at last April’s Civil Liberties and Public Policy (CLPP) conference, I spoke with another attendee about why she was going to attend the abortion speak-out the first evening. She told me that as a volunteer at an abortion fund, she thought it was important to understand what the people who called the hotline were experiencing. Though I agreed to go with her, I still felt strange about it. My past pregnancy scares, while extremely frightening, were obviously not the same thing as actually having an abortion. I feared that I might be invading someone else’s safe space. Even worse, I was secretly afraid that, as I sat and listened, I would start judging people—that all the abortion stigma I’ve been fighting to resist throughout my adulthood would somehow bloom to the surface. What if I found myself thinking, She’s had how many abortions? Or, Why didn’t they use birth control? Seriously, how can you get accidentally pregnant twice? Why aren’t they being more careful?
What I realized that night in the auditorium at CLPP was reaffirmed during Thursday’s speak-out: Those lingering questions—the examples of abortion stigma that so often contaminate our ability to relate to each other—are exactly why I, and everyone else who has not had an abortion, should be listening to people tell their abortion stories.
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“The conversation around abortion is not nuanced,” said Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health Executive Director Yamani Hernandez during the speak-out. We’re told abortions are either “good” (white, college-educated, wealthy married woman who desperately wants a baby, only to find out that her pregnancy is rife with horrible fetal anomalies that will make the life of the child untenable) or “bad” (someone didn’t use birth control, or it failed and they just don’t want to be pregnant, or basically any other situation that doesn’t involve the situation I described above). Speak-outs make it clear that just like the decision to get an abortion, the circumstances behind obtaining one—faulty birth control methods, forgetting contraception, rape, reproductive coercion, bad relationships, non-ideal parenting situations, or just plain accidents—are neither an indicator of or a reflection on someone’s morality.
Therefore, although it is vitally important for women to have the opportunities to take control of their own first-person narratives around abortion, and for others to hear those stories, abortion speak-outs can also be about recognizing the common pressures put on all of us about our reproductive rights decisions and about our bodily autonomy, period. Of her abortion, artist and activist Favianna Rodriguez said, “It taught me I hadn’t developed the tools to really assess who I was sleeping with or how to negotiate what I wanted, and I didn’t have the lens to make those decisions.” Abortion stigma relies on shame. But for those of us who identify as women, there is also often shame around saying no to anything at all, as Rodriguez pointed out—about keeping space for oneself and making one’s own choices.
These moments when we recognize familiar elements of coercion or fear in each other’s stories is when stigma-busting happens. We know that society can exert these pressures on us in a variety of ways. Yet abortion stigma has jammed our listening frequencies.
Abortion speak-outs challenge us to stay in our seats, even when it’s hard, when we’re feeling disturbed or conflicted. Having a speak-out online, by the way, is genius: You can hide out in the privacy of your own home, or put in your headphones in the coffee shop with no one being the wiser. Or you can choose to watch it with friends, family, or your whole dorm, like students at Harvard and the University of Minnesota did on Thursday.
For some people, abortion storytelling can make us nervous, because we may have to confront the prejudices that we may still have despite our best intentions. But it’s highly necessary to have them—so we can remember how impossibly hard it can be to inhabit a body that others are intent on controlling, and so we can use the ensuing fury to advocate for everyone’s right to control themselves.