Commentary Abortion

Sharing Abortion Stories Isn’t Just About Changing Policy

Renee Bracey Sherman

A recent Daily Beast article claims abortion stories aren't enough to change reproductive rights policy. But advocates never said abortion stories alone could bring about policy changes—and it's shortsighted to believe as much.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

As part of the Center for Reproductive Rights’ Draw the Line campaign, Girls actress Jemima Kirke released a short video about her experience getting an abortion at Planned Parenthood while in college. “Because I couldn’t tell my mother that I was pregnant, I had to pay for it out of pocket,” says Kirke. She describes having to empty her bank account and borrow money just to afford the abortion, and how she couldn’t afford anesthesia because it was an additional cost. She discusses feeling isolated, but relieved that she had access to care with fewer barriers than many other women in the United States, though those barriers affected her experience nonetheless. “We think we are able to do whatever we want, but then there are these little hoops we have to jump through to get them,” says Kirke.

In response to the video, Daily Beast writer Emily Shire argues that while sharing stories like Kirke’s is important, abortion stories won’t do any good for, say, “an undocumented immigrant in the Rio Grande Valley who may have to travel hundreds of miles—never mind the cost itself—to have an abortion.” Because Kirke didn’t experience many of the geographic, legal, racial, and class barriers that many experience in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, Shire took issue with “the tenor of debate [her story] perpetuated.”

Writes Shire:

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Certainly, fighting the stigma of having an abortion is important, but is it as important as actually fighting abortion barriers in terms of state restrictions and travel, financial, and logistical humps? Surely, helping women through the unfair burden of abortion shame has to be secondary to helping them secure abortions in the first place.

And she concludes that “sharing our stories isn’t enough to bring about concrete policy changes that adequately secure abortion access.”

This conclusion is shortsighted: Advocates have never said abortion stories alone could bring about policy changes, and this isn’t the only type of change we seek.

I frequently share my abortion story publicly, and Shire’s reaction echoes a conversation I see reflected across the country: A lot of people don’t realize how stigma affects our everyday lives. According the Sea Change Program, a nonprofit that researches reproductive stigma for which I have consulted, abortion stigma is a societal belief that abortion is morally wrong, thus people who have them are considered bad, deviant, and are deemed shameful. “Abortion stigma silences people who have had abortions, as well as the people who love them. Stigma operates on many levels impacting our laws, institutions, media, communities and personal interactions,” Steph Herold, managing director of the Sea Change Program, told Rewire.

Stigma affects everything from how legislation forces policyholders to purchase separate abortion policies for their health insurance, to the passage of mandatory ultrasound policies when research shows they have no impact on a person’s desire to have an abortion. Because anti-choice laws reinforce the idea that abortion is a bad decision, people accessing care feel isolated and shameful, when they’re actually part of a large community; 30 percent of American women will have an abortion by age 45but many know of few in their circles. The levels of stigma also work in tandem. If abortion isn’t talked about in our communities, is only reflected in a negative light in the media, and the laws in most states are restrictive, abortion stigma is locked in place. As Maya Dusenbery writes in Pacific Standard, “It’s stubbornly self-perpetuating. In the most simplistic telling of this dynamic, stigma breeds silence, which breeds more stigma.”

This is why speaking out is crucial and makes a difference in our communities, not as a secondary effort but as a critical step in advocates’ overall goal of expanding public support for abortion. Research from New York University found that people who are anti-choice are more likely to think that abortion is less common because they hear fewer stories from their loved ones compared to their pro-choice counterparts, largely due to stigma. And in a recent poll, Vox found that when a woman was mentioned in questions about abortion, rather than addressing abortion only as a political issue, people were more likely to be supportive of abortion. Other rigorous research and program evaluations also confirm that when people hear abortion stories, they become more supportive of abortion rights.

These same people we’re sharing our stories with are voters. If we are working to address stigma at all levels, to which storytelling is one strategy, they will recognize the harm policies have on loved ones.

Contrary to Shire’s belief, this is beginning to work in the political realm. Earlier this year, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) announced that he had shifted his stance on abortion because of the stories he heard. Now, whether his change was politically motivated or not, we’ll never know, but his stance did shift. And as someone who previously passed many pieces of anti-choice legislation based on his personal beliefs, he will hopefully turn the lessons of those stories into policy change. “Storytelling alone won’t stop the avalanche of attacks on reproductive rights and health care, but that’s far from all we’re doing to fight back,” Chris Iseli, chief communications officer for the Center for Reproductive Rights, explained to Rewire. Iseli says that his and many organizations are on Capitol Hill, in the courts, and in the streets to make their voices heard. “Our ability to make substantive change in all of these arenas depends a great deal on what the lawmakers, judges, and justices are hearing in the press and public conversation,” he said. And let’s be honest, we have tons of organizations that have been working on policy change for many years, yet the stigma persists.

“We are working almost around the clock to stop restrictionslobbying legislators, mobilizing supporters, and mounting legal challenges. But here’s the catch 22: Abortion restrictions lead to shame and silence. And shame and silence make it easier for politicians to pass more restrictions,” Jennifer Dalven, director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, told Rewire. “No movement can survive, and no right can be protected, in a culture of silence. On some level, culture change is policy change. It’s tough to have one without the other.”

As someone who works on abortion storytelling advocacy, I can tell you the ultimate goal of sharing abortion stories is not to change policies. The goal of storytelling in any movement is to normalize a stigmatized experience, to connect the stigmatized people who often live in isolation, and to increase understanding about a taboo issue. In my research, I’ve found that the majority of people who have shared have done so to change the existing narrative and connect with others. Think of it as the Batman symbol flying high above the streets of Gotham: We want people to know that we’re here and that we matter. Cultural shift, along with policy shift, is a byproduct of that connection.

By thinking that policy gains are the end-all-be-all of abortion storysharing, Shire is seeing stories as primarily for consumption rather than connection. This is not a framework that centers the storyteller; it should never be our goal.

Which brings me back to Shire’s critique of the use of Kirke’s story, when there are people across the country facing more barriers than Kirke did: This isn’t a zero-sum game. Abortion stories are as diverse as the people who have them. It’s naive to think there’s a perfect abortion story that will change the laws, nor should there be. As Jessica Valenti points out in The Guardian, “sometimes our stories are mundane and sometimes they’re tragic, but they’re always ours. And even if some of us do choose to share them to combat the stigma against all of us who have abortions, there’s really no explanation necessary.”

For many of us, it takes years to speak out to our loved ones, let alone publicly, and to dismiss that contribution is limiting. We need a variety of stories to show how stigma—in addition to racism, classism, ability, geography, immigration status, sexual orientation, and gender identity—affects all of our experiences on many levels. We need our stories to be as real and as powerful as we are, and to serve the larger goal of reminding us we’re not alone.

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