As someone who has had an abortion and is watching access to a medical service that hundreds of thousands of people have each year be legislated and adjudicated away, I welcome any effort to reduce stigma and normalize the choice that saved my life eight years ago. Which is why I was excited to see the new book from Shout Your Abortion, a decentralized network of activists “shouting” their abortion stories.
Out earlier this month, the 224-page book adds an important element to the catalog of reproductive rights books: It describes in relatable detail how empowering it can be to make the decision to have an abortion, and how that decision can lead to exercising agency in other aspects of one’s life.
Many have found themselves inspired by the co-founders since #ShoutYourAbortion first entered the public discourse, when feminist author Lindy West asked if she could share her friend Amelia Bonow’s Facebook status detailing her abortion experience in mid-2015 in support of Planned Parenthood. Building off of the broader storytelling movement, SYA has gone on to tour the country sponsoring events where people can share their experiences. The network also encourages people to use the free materials on their website to create their own guerrilla artwork normalizing abortion, using buttons and pins, fashion, signs, and accessories.
As Bonow says in the book’s preface, advertising your support on your body is no small contribution; it can let people know that this conversation is happening and encourage them to opt-in.
“I wear the word ‘ABORTION’ on my body most days,” Bonow writes. “Most days that I do, strangers tell me about their abortions, their mother’s abortions, or the abortions had by their wives and girlfriends. I’ve had these exchanges with grocery store checkers, baristas, and dozens of Lyft drivers. It’s happened in less than 30 seconds in an elevator and more than a handful of times during a bikini wax.”
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And now with Shout Your Abortion, the co-founders and co-editor Emily Nokes are documenting stories in a more permanent way to invite even more people to share their stories and take action against the legislative and judicial attacks on reproductive rights in the United States.
Throughout the pages of Shout Your Abortion—which includes stories from patients and providers, full color artwork, history from the pre-Roe era, resources, and calls to action—I saw glimpses of myself and my peers. Contributors tell their truths, often covering the circumstances surrounding their abortion(s), while others chose to expand on what it’s been like for them living in an era still so rife with stigma. Ultimately, many of the stories come back to the theme of empowerment.
The significance of the book—and books of its kind—cannot be overstated. For Bonow and her colleagues, these pieces of our cultural history had to be recorded in such an unapologetic way because the times we’re living through call for nothing less.
“Abortion is not simply a women’s issue, it is a universal human rights issue,” reads the content note on the first page. And, indeed, not only women have abortions. It is the telling of these important truths that highlight the need for this critical care for all people. “In the words of Dr. Willie Parker, we believe that the truth will do.”
“Powerless No More”
While each “shout” in the book is as unique as its storyteller, through lines quickly become apparent. Some illustrate the statistics used regularly in abortion rights advocacy: one-in-four of us who can become pregnant will terminate at least one pregnancy in our lifetimes, more than half of those who seek abortion are parents, and—despite successful anti-choice efforts to paint patients as overwhelmingly regretful—studies show that “ensuring women can have a wanted abortion enables them to maintain a positive future outlook and achieve their aspirational life plans.”
Providers that Bonow spoke to for the book back up such studies.
“Often when somebody has an abortion, it’s the same celebration, it’s the same joy, it’s the same relief that is present when I’m helping a woman have a baby,” said Dr. Yashica Robinson, who maintains a private OB-GYN practice in Huntsville, Alabama, while also providing abortion care at the Alabama Women’s Center. “Being able to be there for women, allowing them to exercise their right to choose, and then seeing their relief and gratitude when they leave the clinic … it’s overwhelming.”
Recording individuals’ stories in their own words—and/or art or comics or fashion—allows for additional common themes to shine through. One of the more powerful themes is the reclamation or emergence of agency and self-determination. More than one contributor describes the realization that they desire an abortion as a driving factor in leaving an abusive partner.
Chrissy’s [last name withheld] “shout” describes the sexually and emotionally abusive relationship she was in when she discovered she was pregnant. He had ushered her into a place where she couldn’t feel love for herself.
“At the time, I saw myself as a lost cause,” Chrissy writes. “At that point I was working two jobs and living on my own, barely keeping my head above water …. I didn’t have parents or friends to help me raise a baby. At the time I didn’t feel like I could trust myself to mentally handle childbirth, postpartum health, and raising a child. I couldn’t stand the thought of bringing a child into the world and subjecting them to a highly abusive father, like my own had been.”
A few pages later, Emily [last name withheld] describes the relationship she didn’t realize was so “volatile and unhealthy” until faced with an unplanned pregnancy in the summer between her junior and senior years of college:
Looking back, I realize that getting pregnant could have sealed our fate, binding me forever to this man who wasn’t good for me, a man with whom I was weak—a shell of the woman I am today. But when I did get pregnant, I knew that I couldn’t commit. Ultimately, this unplanned pregnancy was one of the most pivotal and empowering moments in my life …. Essentially powerless in my relationship, I was powerless no more.
Not every participant chose to tell the circumstances that led to their decision; some focused on the surprising and enraging hurdles required by state laws, while others expressed the shame imposed on them by the cultural expectation that they be sad despite the fact that the feeling of relief is the most common emotion post-abortion. According to the Guttmacher Institute, “Most (95 percent) women who had obtained the abortion felt it was the right decision, as did 89 percent of those who expressed regret.”
It turns out, we can feel multiple emotions at the same time and that most regret related to abortion is actually about the circumstances that created a need for the procedure. As I can attest, even when the decision to terminate is simple and immediate as mine was, being pregnant when you don’t want to be is—at the very least—an expensive hassle no one would go through intentionally.
“I am a good person and my abortion made me happy,” Bonow shares in her personal story. “It’s perfectly reasonable to feel happy that you were not forced to become a mother.”
Perfectly reasonable, and also enough of a reason to seek an abortion.
As Emily closed her “shout,” many of us might have been pretty all right if we’d parented rather than ended our pregnancies, but why should we have to?
“We women are so damn resilient that sometimes it backfires,” she writes. “[O]ur ability to make do in nearly any situation is often at the expense of our own wants and needs.”
In many ways, this book is poised to be a vital tool for person-to-person connection and part of the broader work for culture-wide change. As Amy Jochsett, who grew up in Mexico where abortion is criminalized, shared for the book, “Shout Your Abortion helped me realize that I am not alone, that abortion is normal, and that I have nothing to be ashamed of. Reading the stories of all those women made me feel stronger and empowered, and allowed me to heal.”
When I received my copy of Shout Your Abortion, I shared it with friends who have supported my reproductive justice work but maintain some personal discomfort about abortion. To a person, they said that the framework provided by the contributors helped them understand the circumstances and emotions of those who choose to end a pregnancy. Several had made the intellectual connection between abortion and the ability to determine one’s destiny, but admitted that they previously couldn’t feel the link to empowerment in the decision or the despair rooted in societal expectations that they mourn afterwards.
As someone who has had an abortion and—should my birth control fail (statistically unlikely with an IUD, yet still possible)—would absolutely choose to terminate again, I hope that this book will encourage individuals to talk more openly with those around them. Sometimes it’s easier to start by sharing another person’s experience to see if those in your life will be supportive of your own story.
We are all about to need each other with the very real possibility of a Roe v. Wade nullification and return to the widespread criminalization under which Jochsett was raised. When that happens, tapping into people’s emotions will be crucial as we are forced to navigate more legal hurdles to exercise a basic human right. Just as important will be disseminating resources for harm reduction, including the self-administered abortion information included in the book.
Only one thing is absolutely for certain: As long as there are pregnancies, there will be those who need to terminate them.