Analysis Politics

Can Abortion Storytelling Break Through Politics as Usual?

Christine Grimaldi

Politicians often tell stories about their constituents in selling various policies. Why not provide those stories, revealing how such policies affect their constituents’ access to, and experiences with, abortion care?

Rosalyn Levy Jonas experienced a sense of déjà vu as she sat with Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) in his Capitol Hill office in late 2013. Nearly 50 years earlier, she had been a young congressional staffer working in the very same building when she sought an illegal abortion in a Maryland farmhouse, pre-Roe v. Wade. Now, she was here to tell Ryan her abortion story.

“He was rapt,” Jonas recalled in an interview with Rewire. “It wasn’t just that he was listening politely, he was listening as a human being to a human being.”

When Ryan officially shifted his mixed-choice stance to unequivocal support for abortion rights in 2015, he attributed his evolution on the issue, in large part, to listening to Jonas and many others. “I’ve heard firsthand from women of all ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds about the circumstances and hardships that accompany this personal choice, which we should not judge,” he wrote in a candid op-ed at the time.

Abortion storytelling holds the power to open up a dialogue where none previously existed. Thousands of people shared their stories on Twitter through #ShoutYourAbortion earlier this year. And over the course of 2016, pro-choice advocates made a commitment to amplifying a range of lived experiences on social media and in traditional media.

As storytelling encourages new ways of thinking and talking about abortion, can it have the same effects in a setting notorious for intractability—the U.S. Congress?

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Abortion storytelling dates back to a landmark 1970 court case challenging New York’s abortion ban at the time and again factored prominently in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case, which opened the door to often personal amicus briefs from pro-choice and anti-choice advocates alike. More than 100 pro-choice lawyers filed an amicus brief that stated: “To the world, I am an attorney who had an abortion, and to myself, I am an attorney because I had an abortion.”

Pro-choice advocates have sought to increase the diversity of voices sharing their abortion stories. The National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF) this year launched We Testify, an initiative with more than a dozen storytellers representing a wide range of identities, specifically those living at the intersections of multiple oppressions.

The practice is not without critics. Anu Kumar, executive vice president for Ipas, a North Carolina-based international women’s reproductive health and rights organization, expressed concern in a Rewire commentary that abortion storytelling “distracts from the structural inequalities of race, poverty, age, and education by placing too much emphasis on the individual.”

NNAF senior public affairs manager Renee Bracey Sherman, who runs We Testify, shares her abortion story but is not “pro-voice”: “The act of telling someone how, when, where, and why they should, or should not, share their personal experience is one deeply rooted in privilege,” she wrote in a commentary for Rewire. She separately described the mix of hate, vitriol, and love that flooded her Twitter feed in response to her article about how an abortion changed the way she experiences Mother’s Day.

Such unvarnished reactions show how abortion storytelling can create the kind of authenticity that politicians promise, and all too often fail, to deliver. What will happen if members of Congress are willing to listen?

Enhancing, Not Supplanting, Advocacy

People should not expect policy change as the immediate or even long-term objective of abortion storytelling.

“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,” the NNAF’s Bracey Sherman wrote in another Rewire commentary on the subject last year. “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.”

Bracey Sherman nevertheless acknowledged that storytelling plays an important role in traditional lobbying. Sharing stories from the perspective of stigmatized identities presents an opportunity to discuss the consequences that result from every far-away vote in Washington, rather than to insist the storyteller is right and the policymaker, wrong, she said in an interview with Rewire.

Abortion Storytelling Resources

Read the five golden rules of talking about abortion for guidance on sharing your story, and the research on how to support abortion storytellers on tips for care.

“When we have a chance to say, ‘We live in your district, we are here, we are visible, please recognize us,’ I think that is huge to begin with. And that’s something that you can’t really fight,” she said.

The same barriers that limit abortion access—transportation, income, and paid leave, among others—also stand in the way of women directly speaking with the media or policymakers.

Advocates in the states are working to eliminate those barriers.

Preterm, the largest abortion clinic in Ohio and one of the largest in the country, launched the My Abortion, My Life campaign, complete with billboards that have attracted the ire of anti-choice activists, to end the stigma associated with abortion. The campaign encourages people to share their stories through MyAbortionMyLife.org and hosts events to elevate those stories.

The starkness of political rhetoric on abortion fueled the campaign, according to Preterm Director of Development and Communications Nancy Starner.

“What we could see as an abortion provider, that it was really so much more complex then that,” Starner told Rewire in an interview. “That the experience of abortion isn’t as a political debate, it’s as a human experience that women decide to go through for a variety of personal reasons.”

Preterm collaborated with NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio Foundation, New Voices Cleveland, and the Ohio Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice on a separate initiative: the Patient to Advocate fellowship.

Launched in April, the fellowship is funding bimonthly classes through December, training an inaugural class of 11 participants to become leaders in reproductive health, rights, and justice. Participants put their skills to the test at the Ohio Statehouse in September during panel discussions with policymakers and the Ohio State University’s Medical Students for Choice.

Early on in the fellowship, participants completed Preterm’s My Abortion, My Life module, which helped them put their abortion stories into words—often, for the first time. 

“A lot of the women in the program, this is their first time talking to anyone outside their immediate family or friends about their abortions,” Ashley Underwood, Patient to Advocate’s project coordinator, said in the same interview. “Making abortion personal is kind of helping to break stigmas about abortion.”

Unveiling Humanity Behind “Hot Political Rhetoric”

Tim Ryan elaborated on the importance of personal accounts, including his own, in an interview with Rewire. Becoming a first-time father just shy of his 41st birthday had a profound effect. As he and his wife anxiously awaited the results of prenatal tests, he said he came to an overdue realization: “Why in the hell would I want the government in that room with us?”

The same applies to the women who shared their abortion stories with him.

“I think it’s important to see the humanity behind what can be a lot of really hot political rhetoric,” Ryan said. Anti-choice lawmakers have increasingly relied on inflammatory language to make their points. Republicans in the House of Representatives, particularly those on the so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, continually refer to a fictitious illicit market in “baby body parts” despite the link between such rhetoric and escalating anti-choice violence. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) echoed the phrase in a video, “We Are the Pro-Life Generation,” around the time Rewire broke the news of the $1.2 million budgeted for the investigation.

Ryan credited abortion storytelling with the power to enhance traditional lobbying on reproductive health-care issues.

“The most effective, most powerful lobbying technique is to tell a story of a real person, eyeball to eyeball with some legislator, and just say, ‘If there was a 20-week ban on abortion, this is what would have happened to me,’” he said.

NARAL Pro-Choice America arranged for Rosalyn Levy Jonas, who formerly chaired the organization and chaired the board of the organization’s foundation at the time, to meet with Tim Ryan, creating the personal connection at the core of abortion storytelling. “I always feel good about telling my story because inevitably, someone comes up to me and says, ‘Oh, I had that experience too, but I’ve never talked about it,’” Jonas said. The effect she had on Ryan was a perk: “It was hugely satisfying to me to have the interaction with him, to see his receptiveness to it, and then to see him change his mind.”

Kaylie Hanson Long, national communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, credited Ryan’s evolution to “brave women” like Jonas who shared their stories with the congressman. In an email, Hanson Long said NARAL Pro-Choice America and other groups are highlighting more personal stories associated with anti-choice laws, including 20-week abortion bans and the Hyde Amendment.

“When people—including politicians—hear firsthand from a woman about why her abortion allowed her to chart her own destiny, they’re better able to understand why politicians have no business interfering with a woman’s right to safe and legal abortion,” she said.

Shifting Positions, Not Necessarily Policies

Only two members of Congress—Tim Ryan and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), the Democratic vice presidential nominee—have shifted their positions on abortion in recent years.

Ryan didn’t just pledge to support abortion rights. The same day House Democrats introduced the EACH Woman Act (HR 2972), he signed onto the legislation to overturn the Hyde Amendment’s ban on federal funding for abortion care. Ryan has publicly given equal weight to each of the wide-ranging reasons why pregnant people may choose abortion.

Tim Kaine, in contrast, never entirely shed his mixed-choice record on abortion as governor of Virginia after he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2012.

Kaine waited five months to co-sponsor the Women’s Health Protection Act (HR 448, S 217), which would prohibit admitting privileges and surgical center requirements, among other barriers to abortion care. His support for the bill only occurred the day after the Supreme Court’s Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt ruling struck down the same restrictions in a Texas anti-abortion law—and presumably, while under consideration as the running mate for pro-choice Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Clinton aides had said Kaine privately pledged his support for repealing Hyde, consistent with the party’s 2016 platform. Kaine himself, however, appeared on CNN just hours after the Democratic National Convention to express support for the barrier that disproportionately restricts access to abortion for people with low incomes and people of color.

Kaine typically couches any support for abortion rights in the context of his personal opposition—language that Bracey Sherman, speaking from her perspective as a reproductive justice advocate, characterized as “extremely stigmatizing.” She therefore welcomed Kaine’s shift in tone during the vice presidential debate, which saw him willing to engage in the conversation on abortion rights and make repeated statements to “trust women” with the decision. Kaine’s comments echoed the sentiments Ryan expressed in his 2015 op-ed.

“I have come to believe that we must trust women and families—not politicians—to make the best decision for their lives,” Ryan said at the time.

Reaching Politicians Through Their Constituents

Gauging the effect of abortion storytelling on politicians may sit with the people they represent. Republican majorities in the House and Senate almost uniformly oppose abortion rights. People willing to share their abortion stories may find a more receptive audience in the constituents, and voters, to whom anti-choice members of Congress are accountable.

“I think that’s the far more constructive way to address this,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) told Rewire in an interview.

Speier shared her abortion story on the House floor in 2011, but she’s not optimistic about Congress “representing the American people, ironically, on this issue.”

Anti-choice Republicans “have created such a stigma attached to what is legal that it’s—it’s been very destructive in terms of any kind of dialogue,” she said.

Tim Ryan recognized that his break with the anti-choice movement is an anomaly in such a virulent atmosphere.

“I don’t know of anybody [else]—yeah, it’s a dangerous move,” he said with a laugh. “So I don’t think a lot of people are going to change, to be honest with you.”

That doesn’t mean that abortion storytellers should stop trying to counter anti-choice narratives with their lived experiences. Speier had no intention of sharing her own story until Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), arguably the most abortion-obsessed lawmaker in Congress, took to the floor to spread misinformation about later abortion care. “The outrage that I felt internally was so great that I felt compelled to say, ‘How dare you speak about something you know nothing about?’” Speier said.

That impulse created the kind of organic, genuine moment that the NNAF’s Bracey Sherman described as essential to abortion storytelling. Speier’s outlook on abortion storytelling also aligns with Bracey Sherman’s reluctance to be “pro-voice.”

“Trying to encourage women to tell their stories so that it doesn’t have this scarlet letter associated with it would probably be advisable, but I don’t want to presume to tell anyone how to deal with their particular experience,” Speier said.

Politicians often tell stories about their constituents in selling various policies. Why not provide those stories, revealing how such policies affect their constituents’ access to, and experiences with, abortion care?

Constituents have abortions for many reasons, none less valid than the next. They do so as potential voters. And so, they “should be able to hear their stories represented from the politicians they’re electing to office,” Bracey Sherman said.

“They should know that their issues, their decisions, are important.”

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