This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.
When Brittany Mostiller shared her abortion story in November as part of a 1 in 3 Campaign abortion speak-out, she talked about how the economic challenges she was facing informed her decision to have an abortion. Mostiller was 23 years old and working part-time at a grocery store to support her three daughters, all under age 7. She was having a hard time paying rent and feeding her family, and the thought of another pregnancy brought on thoughts of suicide.
Even though an abortion was the right choice for her, barriers like the Hyde Amendment, which bans Medicaid recipients from using their health insurance to cover an abortion procedure, were in her way. She eventually was able to receive financial assistance from her local abortion fund and have an abortion, but her financial situation and insurance provider shouldn’t have prevented her from accessing health care on her own.
Abortion stories like Mostiller’s dominated the media last year. But too often, the circumstances that led women to have an abortion were under-discussed; the fact that they had an abortion at all became the focal point. As Anu Kumar points out in a recent piece for Rewire, this has the negative effect of putting the weight on the individual story and not on the collective action we can all take to remove systemic barriers to health care and other services benefiting low-income women and single mothers. As more of us move to share our stories in 2015, advocates should not only promote these stories as they work to reduce stigma around abortion, but also push for policy reforms that match the full spectrum of needs laid bare in these stories.
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Last year, we saw people speak out about what went into their decision to choose an abortion, which has helped create a more complete picture of why 30 percent of women choose to have one by age 45. Lucy Flores, a Nevada State Assembly member, shared her story about not having access to comprehensive sexual health education in her community. Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis said her abortion decisions were based on the health of her pregnancies. We also heard from rapper Nicki Minaj, the CEO of Planned Parenthood, a writer at Salon, 26 women in New York magazine, the features director and four women at Elle, four couples in Cosmopolitan, eight women in Glamour, the young woman who filmed her abortion, and over 100 people, including myself, during the 1 in 3 Campaign’s eight-hour online speak-out. People even shared their stories at the front doors of strangers’ homes.
Many said they told their stories to highlight a different narrative about abortion, the people who have them, and what goes into the decision.
“I share my abortion experience because my lived experience is that of so many other women, particularly marginalized women,” Brittany Mostiller told me via email in December. “However, women on the margins have always been at the center of the reproductive health chopping block. We need policy change and we have to be a part of that process.”
Mostiller is now the executive director of the Chicago Abortion Fund, helping make sure other people can pay for their abortions. Her experience has come full circle; she went from being without the funds, and insurance coverage, needed to get an abortion to helping people get the money they need for their abortions. What we can learn from Mostiller and other storytellers is how to have a bias toward action: Take the lessons from their stories and turn them into political actions for pro-women policies.
When our friends speak about their abortions, we should listen to truly hear what they are sharing with us. Often, buried in each story is a heart-wrenching experience of economic injustice, discrimination, and oppression. When storytellers share their whole story, then, they’re able to tell us the role low wages, jobs without health insurance, racism, gender discrimination, and lack of access to food and child care may have played in their abortion experience. Not only will we gain a clearer sense of what many women are forced to endure, but by sharing their stories, and our own, we can help to eliminate stigma on an individual level while effecting change on a cultural and policy level.
As Anu Kumar explains, we need more than just stories to affect policy change and reduce stigma. “Certainly, sharing stories can be a powerful act and may reduce self-shaming. But are we making women alone responsible for stigma reduction?” she asks. “I fear that it distracts from the structural inequalities of race, poverty, age, and education by placing too much emphasis on the individual. And I worry that it lets our politicians and policymakers off the hook.”
She’s right—stories are important, and they must be connected to the larger issues affecting our everyday health experiences just as lawmakers must be held accountable.
As such, for families like Mostiller’s, we must renew the fight to repeal the Hyde Amendment. And for poor families across the country, we must repeal family cap laws, which refuse additional government aid for poor families who have children while on public assistance, and do nothing but stigmatize, keep poor families in poverty, and punish children because their families are poor. Families in poverty need support and compassion, not judgment and shame. The abortion stories that describe trying to make ends meet as a low-income parent should remind us of that, and serve as a catalyst for policies that ensure everyone has the economic stability necessary to raise healthy families.
If we looked back at other stories shared in 2014, we could come up with a host of other needed policy reforms. For example, Rep. Flores’ story elevates the issue of whether the nation’s students are receiving accurate, non-stigmatizing sexual health education so they can make informed decisions about their bodies. Texas Rep. Dawnna Dukes’ admission that she did not experience mental health issues after her abortion reminds us that pervasive myths about abortion are still, unfortunately, informing our policy. And the many Texas abortion stories about traveling hundreds of miles, skipping meals, and not having the ability to take time off of work tell us the fight to end economic and geographic barriers to health care is far from over, especially as lawmakers are working harder than ever to close clinics.
Abortion stories give us a glimpse into the lives behind the statistics and policies. But as advocates, it’s our job to put faces on the data and show the deep impact our policies have on abortion experiences—policies that everyone can take part in shifting. This year, let’s pledge to really hear these stories, and take action so that our truths and community needs are not lost in political rhetoric and stigma. Listening to a story is only the first step. The next step—doing something—is up to us.