Commentary Abortion

New Research on How to Support Abortion Storytellers

Renee Bracey Sherman & Steph Herold

This week, we released Saying Abortion Aloud, a report and set of recommendations for those sharing their personal abortion stories publicly and the advocates who support them.

Sharing stories has long been a method of communication and culture change for social justice movements. It allows our movements’ oppressed and vulnerable to speak their truth, often when they have no capital or power. It can be difficult to do, in particular when the story they’re sharing is one deeply entrenched in stigma, and is often met with hate, harassment, and isolation. All too often, people become fed up with the narratives told about them, and the weight of keeping that secret is far heavier and outweighs that of speaking out. Sharing an abortion story publicly is no different.

In our recent research of people who share their abortion stories publicly, this was one of the main reasons many chose to speak out: to change the narrative, fight for their political power, and make their voices heard. But all too often, the storytellers were nervous to speak out publicly. They found themselves asking questions like: Who will have my back? How can I get the support I need from organizations in the movement? What can advocates do to ensure that I have a safe and supported experience?

This week, we released Saying Abortion Aloud, a report and set of recommendations for those sharing their personal abortion stories publicly and the advocates who support them. The recommendations are based on both qualitative and quantitative data from 39 survey respondents and 13 in-depth interviews—eight with experienced public abortion storytellers and five with storytellers and advocates in the HIV, LGBT, sexual assault, and teen pregnancy and parenting fields.

We limited the survey to public abortion storytellers, which we defined as “sharing in an outlet or event that is accessible to the general public for attendance and comment. This includes public workshops or events, articles and videos in the media, political office visits and testimony, and public education campaigns about abortion experiences.” The reason we focused on public abortion story-sharing is because it’s a type of sharing where the storyteller isn’t always in control where the story goes, who hears it, or how it gets used. It can be used against them at work or in certain communities, so there’s a big risk in sharing.

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We sent out an open call on social media and listservs for people to fill out the survey, and the results were amazing. We were pleasantly surprised that 33 percent of our respondents were from the South, often an underrepresented area in abortion story discussions; another 21 percent were from the Midwest. We even had three people respond from outside the United States. Of our 39 respondents, 22 (56 percent) identified as white, four as Black, six as Latina, one as Middle Eastern, one as Asian, and four as mixed race; one declined to answer. While we know this isn’t representative of those who have abortions, or even those who share their stories publicly, this is the first survey we know of that collected data about public abortion storytellers. We also know that there’s an inherent privilege in being able to be public about abortion, thus our lack of racial diversity was somewhat expected. A total of 38 survey respondents identified as cisgender women, while one person identified as non-binary.

We also asked about respondents’ experiences with sharing their abortion stories publicly, working with organizations, responses from family and friends, support and self-care, and harassment. These findings were critical in shaping our recommendations in Saying Abortion Aloud.

Our survey respondents experienced both positive and negative feedback after sharing. Surprisingly, the positive had more of an impact on them than the negative. Almost 70 percent noted that when they received positive responses, it helped them feel better about their story-sharing experience. They reported feeling good about positive anonymous responses, in particular from those who had also had abortions, as well as family and friends.

The respondents also noted they were worried about negative reactions from family and friends, and harassmentboth on- and offline. This became crucial when deciding whether to share again, because they weren’t sure if they would have support from the organization with which they were sharing. One respondent noted, “Organizations want me to speak up [about my abortion], but they don’t have any mechanisms for protecting people who do speak up.”

Over 40 percent of respondents said that they received little or no support from the organization with which they partnered; a few respondents said they didn’t know they could ask for it. One respondent noted that she felt nervous to admit she didn’t know how to do what the organization was asking of her, and she was afraid to ask because she didn’t want anyone to laugh at her. To deal with harassment, anxiety and self-doubt about sharing, and community reactions, respondents noted that they employed coping mechanisms like finding friendly support, talking to a counselor or therapist, and meditation or prayer. Even though respondents faced challenges when sharing their stories, 92 percent said they would continue talking about their abortions in public.

Almost 60 percent of respondents said that they were not sure of the kind of support they would want from an organization, but did note that media training, support in writing their story, support groups, and ongoing engagement would be a great start. To help facilitate this conversation between storytellers and organizations interested in working with abortion storytellers, we developed a set of recommendations based on our findings.

Storytellers must know that they can ask organizations for help writing their testimony, as well as for more information on how an event will be run and who their main point of contact is. This ensures that the process is clear and transparent. Storytellers can also ask organizations for media support, and that includes fielding media requests, monitoring anti-choice sites for vitriol, and helping in reporting harassment. This helps to reduce challenges when sharing an abortion story.

Based on our findings, storytellers believe that everyone should know that their story is simply that: theirs. They are in control of how, when, and where it’s told. We also heard from storytellers that they would like some sort of compensation for the work they do for an organization. Storytellers should not be paying out of pocket to support the organization’s mission, if they don’t want to. Organizations should offer an honorarium, or travel stipend, to cover the storyteller’s time. Storytelling is work and it should be valued as such. Additionally, just because a storyteller shared their story once, doesn’t mean they have to share again. They can take breaks and say no at any point.

When we asked storytellers what support they wanted from organizations, they said that they wanted their full stories to be honored. Abortion stories can be complexstorytellers must be allowed to share as much or as little of their story as they like. Stories should not be manipulated for mission-sake. They also noted that they wanted organizations to recognize the intersectionality of their identities and how they all impact their abortion experience. Identities might include, but are not limited to: their race, ethnicity, or nationality; their sexuality, gender identity or expression; their religion; their class background, family, citizenship status, mental illness, disabilities, intimate partner violence, sexual assault or abuse, substance use; and their other pregnancy experiences. If a storyteller wants to talk about these identities as part of their story, they should not be censored. It’s part of who they are.

When preparing storytellers, advocates should offer to help storytellers hone their stories, speak in front of audiences or the media, or even assist in composing a tweet about the speak-out. Storytellers also wanted organizations to help them manage their privacy. Advocates should also ask what types of support the storyteller would like: security at events, monitoring their name on the Internet, using a pseudonym, handling media, or reporting incidents to authorities. Storytellers must know they are not alone, and that we have their backs. After sharing, storytellers often want additional information on ways to get involved. Advocates should continue engagement to harness their power for social change; storytellers are true assets to our community.

Abortion storytellers are crucial to culture change. Their work isn’t easy, yet it creates beautiful change. We believe that they deserve to have their stories honored and their work protected. We asked them what they neededand they have spoken. It is our hope that the Saying Abortion Aloud data and set of recommendations will help facilitate the beginning of an ongoing conversation between advocates and storytellers.

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