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.

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

Let’s Stop Conflating Self-Care and Actual Care

Katie Klabusich

It's time for a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities.

As a chronically ill, chronically poor person, I have feelings about when, why, and how the phrase “self-care” is invoked. When International Self-Care Day came to my attention, I realized that while I laud the effort to prevent some of the 16 million people the World Health Organization reports die prematurely every year from noncommunicable diseases, the American notion of self-care—ironically—needs some work.

I propose a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities. How we think about what constitutes vital versus optional care affects whether/when we do those things we should for our health and well-being. Some of what we have come to designate as self-care—getting sufficient sleep, treating chronic illness, allowing ourselves needed sick days—shouldn’t be seen as optional; our culture should prioritize these things rather than praising us when we scrape by without them.

International Self-Care Day began in China, and it has spread over the past few years to include other countries and an effort seeking official recognition at the United Nations of July 24 (get it? 7/24: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) as an important advocacy day. The online academic journal SelfCare calls its namesake “a very broad concept” that by definition varies from person to person.

“Self-care means different things to different people: to the person with a headache it might mean a buying a tablet, but to the person with a chronic illness it can mean every element of self-management that takes place outside the doctor’s office,” according to SelfCare. “[I]n the broadest sense of the term, self-care is a philosophy that transcends national boundaries and the healthcare systems which they contain.”

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In short, self-care was never intended to be the health version of duct tape—a way to patch ourselves up when we’re in pieces from the outrageous demands of our work-centric society. It’s supposed to be part of our preventive care plan alongside working out, eating right, getting enough sleep, and/or other activities that are important for our personalized needs.

The notion of self-care has gotten a recent visibility boost as those of us who work in human rights and/or are activists encourage each other publicly to recharge. Most of the people I know who remind themselves and those in our movements to take time off do so to combat the productivity anxiety embedded in our work. We’re underpaid and overworked, but still feel guilty taking a break or, worse, spending money on ourselves when it could go to something movement- or bill-related.

The guilt is intensified by our capitalist system having infected the self-care philosophy, much as it seems to have infected everything else. Our bootstrap, do-it-yourself culture demands we work to the point of exhaustion—some of us because it’s the only way to almost make ends meet and others because putting work/career first is expected and applauded. Our previous president called it “uniquely American” that someone at his Omaha, Nebraska, event promoting “reform” of (aka cuts to) Social Security worked three jobs.

“Uniquely American, isn’t it?” he said. “I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that. (Applause.) Get any sleep? (Laughter.)”

The audience was applauding working hours that are disastrous for health and well-being, laughing at sleep as though our bodies don’t require it to function properly. Bush actually nailed it: Throughout our country, we hold Who Worked the Most Hours This Week competitions and attempt to one-up the people at the coffee shop, bar, gym, or book club with what we accomplished. We have reached a point where we consider getting more than five or six hours of sleep a night to be “self-care” even though it should simply be part of regular care.

Most of us know intuitively that, in general, we don’t take good enough care of ourselves on a day-to-day basis. This isn’t something that just happened; it’s a function of our work culture. Don’t let the statistic that we work on average 34.4 hours per week fool you—that includes people working part time by choice or necessity, which distorts the reality for those of us who work full time. (Full time is defined by the Internal Revenue Service as 30 or more hours per week.) Gallup’s annual Work and Education Survey conducted in 2014 found that 39 percent of us work 50 or more hours per week. Only 8 percent of us on average work less than 40 hours per week. Millennials are projected to enjoy a lifetime of multiple jobs or a full-time job with one or more side hustles via the “gig economy.”

Despite worker productivity skyrocketing during the past 40 years, we don’t work fewer hours or make more money once cost of living is factored in. As Gillian White outlined at the Atlantic last year, despite politicians and “job creators” blaming financial crises for wage stagnation, it’s more about priorities:

Though productivity (defined as the output of goods and services per hours worked) grew by about 74 percent between 1973 and 2013, compensation for workers grew at a much slower rate of only 9 percent during the same time period, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute.

It’s no wonder we don’t sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been sounding the alarm for some time. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend people between 18 and 60 years old get seven or more hours sleep each night “to promote optimal health and well-being.” The CDC website has an entire section under the heading “Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Problem,” outlining statistics and negative outcomes from our inability to find time to tend to this most basic need.

We also don’t get to the doctor when we should for preventive care. Roughly half of us, according to the CDC, never visit a primary care or family physician for an annual check-up. We go in when we are sick, but not to have screenings and discuss a basic wellness plan. And rarely do those of us who do go tell our doctors about all of our symptoms.

I recently had my first really wonderful check-up with a new primary care physician who made a point of asking about all the “little things” leading her to encourage me to consider further diagnosis for fibromyalgia. I started crying in her office, relieved that someone had finally listened and at the idea that my headaches, difficulty sleeping, recovering from illness, exhaustion, and pain might have an actual source.

Considering our deeply-ingrained priority problems, it’s no wonder that when I post on social media that I’ve taken a sick day—a concept I’ve struggled with after 20 years of working multiple jobs, often more than 80 hours a week trying to make ends meet—people applaud me for “doing self-care.” Calling my sick day “self-care” tells me that the commenter sees my post-traumatic stress disorder or depression as something I could work through if I so chose, amplifying the stigma I’m pushing back on by owning that a mental illness is an appropriate reason to take off work. And it’s not the commenter’s fault; the notion that working constantly is a virtue is so pervasive, it affects all of us.

Things in addition to sick days and sleep that I’ve had to learn are not engaging in self-care: going to the doctor, eating, taking my meds, going to therapy, turning off my computer after a 12-hour day, drinking enough water, writing, and traveling for work. Because it’s so important, I’m going to say it separately: Preventive health care—Pap smears, check-ups, cancer screenings, follow-ups—is not self-care. We do extras and nice things for ourselves to prevent burnout, not as bandaids to put ourselves back together when we break down. You can’t bandaid over skipping doctors appointments, not sleeping, and working your body until it’s a breath away from collapsing. If you’re already at that point, you need straight-up care.

Plenty of activities are self-care! My absolutely not comprehensive personal list includes: brunch with friends, adult coloring (especially the swear word books and glitter pens), soy wax with essential oils, painting my toenails, reading a book that’s not for review, a glass of wine with dinner, ice cream, spending time outside, last-minute dinner with my boyfriend, the puzzle app on my iPad, Netflix, participating in Caturday, and alone time.

My someday self-care wish list includes things like vacation, concerts, the theater, regular massages, visiting my nieces, decent wine, the occasional dinner out, and so very, very many books. A lot of what constitutes self-care is rather expensive (think weekly pedicures, spa days, and hobbies with gear and/or outfit requirements)—which leads to the privilege of getting to call any part of one’s routine self-care in the first place.

It would serve us well to consciously add an intersectional view to our enthusiasm for self-care when encouraging others to engage in activities that may be out of reach financially, may disregard disability, or may not be right for them for a variety of other reasons, including compounded oppression and violence, which affects women of color differently.

Over the past year I’ve noticed a spike in articles on how much of the emotional labor burden women carry—at the Toast, the Atlantic, Slate, the Guardian, and the Huffington Post. This category of labor disproportionately affects women of color. As Minaa B described at the Huffington Post last month:

I hear the term self-care a lot and often it is defined as practicing yoga, journaling, speaking positive affirmations and meditation. I agree that those are successful and inspiring forms of self-care, but what we often don’t hear people talking about is self-care at the intersection of race and trauma, social justice and most importantly, the unawareness of repressed emotional issues that make us victims of our past.

The often-quoted Audre Lorde wrote in A Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

While her words ring true for me, they are certainly more weighted and applicable for those who don’t share my white and cisgender privilege. As covered at Ravishly, the Feminist Wire, Blavity, the Root, and the Crunk Feminist Collective recently, self-care for Black women will always have different expressions and roots than for white women.

But as we continue to talk about self-care, we need to be clear about the difference between self-care and actual care and work to bring the necessities of life within reach for everyone. Actual care should not have to be optional. It should be a priority in our culture so that it can be a priority in all our lives.

News Politics

Debbie Wasserman Schultz Resigns as Chair of DNC, Will Not Gavel in Convention

Ally Boguhn

Donna Brazile, vice chair of the DNC, will step in as interim replacement for Wasserman Schultz as committee chair.

On the eve of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) resigned her position as chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), effective after the convention, amid controversy over leaked internal party emails and months of criticism over her handling of the Democratic primary races.

Wasserman Schultz told the Sun Sentinel on Monday that she would not gavel in this week’s convention, according to Politico.

“I know that electing Hillary Clinton as our next president is critical for America’s future,” Wasserman Schultz said in a Sunday statement announcing her decision. “Going forward, the best way for me to accomplish those goals is to step down as Party Chair at the end of this convention.”

“We have planned a great and unified Convention this week and I hope and expect that the DNC team that has worked so hard to get us to this point will have the strong support of all Democrats in making sure this is the best convention we have ever had,” Wasserman Schultz continued.

Just prior to news that Wasserman Schultz would step down, it was announced that Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) would chair the DNC convention.

Donna Brazile, vice chair of the DNC, will step in as interim replacement for Wasserman Schultz as committee chair.

Wasserman Schultz’s resignation comes after WikiLeaks released more than 19,000 internal emails from the DNC, breathing new life into arguments that the Democratic Party—and Wasserman Schultz in particular—had “rigged” the primary in favor of nominating Hillary Clinton. As Vox‘s Timothy B. Lee pointed out, there seems to be “no bombshells” in the released emails, though one email does show that Brad Marshall, chief financial officer of the DNC, emailed asking whether an unnamed person could be questioned about “his” religious beliefs. Many believe the email was referencing Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT).

Another email from Wasserman Schultz revealed the DNC chair had referred to Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, as a “damn liar.”

As previously reported by Rewire before the emails’ release, “Wasserman Schultz has been at the center of a string of heated criticisms directed at her handling of the DNC as well as allegations that she initially limited the number of the party’s primary debates, steadfastly refusing to add more until she came under pressure.” She also sparked controversy in January after suggesting that young women aren’t supporting Clinton because there is “a complacency among the generation” who were born after Roe v. Wade was decided.

“Debbie Wasserman Schultz has made the right decision for the future of the Democratic Party,” said Sanders in a Sunday statement. “While she deserves thanks for her years of service, the party now needs new leadership that will open the doors of the party and welcome in working people and young people. The party leadership must also always remain impartial in the presidential nominating process, something which did not occur in the 2016 race.”

Sanders had previously demanded Wasserman Schultz’s resignation in light of the leaked emails during an appearance earlier that day on ABC’s This Week.

Clinton nevertheless stood by Wasserman Schultz in a Sunday statement responding to news of the resignation. “I am grateful to Debbie for getting the Democratic Party to this year’s historic convention in Philadelphia, and I know that this week’s events will be a success thanks to her hard work and leadership,” said Clinton. “There’s simply no one better at taking the fight to the Republicans than Debbie—which is why I am glad that she has agreed to serve as honorary chair of my campaign’s 50-state program to gain ground and elect Democrats in every part of the country, and will continue to serve as a surrogate for my campaign nationally, in Florida, and in other key states.”

Clinton added that she still looks “forward to campaigning with Debbie in Florida and helping her in her re-election bid.” Wasserman Schultz faces a primary challenger, Tim Canova, for her congressional seat in Florida’s 23rd district for the first time this year.