Since 1 in 3 women in the United States will have an abortion in her lifetime, the debate over whether the federal government should pull its funding from Planned Parenthood's sting videos this summer has many, especially the Republicans running for president, slandering not only the organization, but also the women who have had abortions.
"If we will not stand up to force President Obama to veto this bill [defunding Planned Parenthood], shame on us," candidate Carly Fiorina said Wednesday. "This is about the character of our nation."
Some women who have had abortions, however, have decided to speak out about their experiences just as much as the candidates railing against them. And reproductive rights advocates are finding this form of storytelling is working to flip the script on stigma and vitriol surrounding abortion.
False guilt: Women are generally told they should feel guilty about their choice to have an abortion. But the data highlights a stark contrast between these feelings women "should" have, and which they really do. A recent University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine study showed 95% of women don't regret their abortion. Moreover, women were confident that having an abortion was the right decision for them. As Reuters reports, the study concluded, "Women overwhelmingly felt abortion was the right decision in both the short-term and over three years, and the intensity of emotions and frequency of thinking about the abortion declined over time."
Changing the story: While this omnipresent narrative is damaging to the women who have or are considering having abortions, it can be transformed, most powerfully by inspiring women talk about their experiences. Abortion storytelling is a growing phenomenon in the media, on the Internet and in communities across the country. It encourages women to speak out about their experiences with abortion in the hopes of destigmatizing what is, in actuality, a relatively common procedure.
"Because supposedly everyone knows that abortion is bad, you may think you're the only person in your community who has had an abortion, and that there's nobody else who understands the situation," Roula AbiSamra, outreach and evaluation manager of the culture-change organization Sea Change, told Mic. "Carrying something with you that you can't talk about, that untold story, in and of itself hurts people. It can feel like you're alone and isolated. [Fear] of the consequences of being found out creates lot of silence."
The danger of hiding: The isolation and silence is familiar to Karen Thurston. After she had her first abortion at age 13, Thurston's parents swore her to secrecy about her experience and, growing up in the South, Thurston constantly faced billboards, bumper stickers and overwhelming public opinion that a woman who has an abortion is "immoral, horrible ... a whore, a slut, a killer, a murderer," she told Mic.
"When you start hearing those messages at the age of 13, it's just not healthy for you," Thurston said. After having another abortion at 19, she spent the following years living "in fear, in terror that if my husband found out, he would leave me; if my children found out, they would disown me; if my friends found out, they would exclude me," she said. "That's really kind of a terrible fear to live with."
Lizz Winstead, creator of The Daily Show and founder of the reproductive rights organization Lady Parts Justice, had a similar experience.
"I got pregnant the first time I ever had sex," Winstead told Mic. Just 16 years old, she saw an ad for what she soon found was actually a crisis pregnancy center. After she was shown disturbing images of fetuses, the consultant told Winstead "my options were 'mommy' or 'murder,'" she said.
The silence this stigma encourages not only results in personal trauma, AbiSamra noted, but also can result in tangible, detrimental effects. "In communities and in institutions, stigma can keep people from finding the support that they need, or the health care that they need or from accessing the care they're trying to get in a timely way," she said.
The solution: In this way, stigma effectively polarizes conversations about abortion and leads women who have had them to believe their only options are remaining silent or engaging in a highly politicized, combative, public spar. The key to disrupting this damaging framework, AbiSamra said, can be found in the middle-ground, through "personal conversations where you can open up, be curious about other people's experiences, share some of your own and trust that you're going to be heard and supported."
In fact, the Untold Stories Project, launched by Sea Change in 2014 found that relatively private and safe abortion storytelling spaces and events can effectively accomplish this. Over 60 book clubs across the U.S. were recruited to read and discuss "Untold Stories: Life, Love, and Reproduction," a Sea Change anthology of 17 personal stories about a variety of reproductive taboos, including abortion. The goal, according to a report on the project, was to disrupt the "silence and isolation of stigma by bringing people together in discussions about reproduction that spark openness, curiosity and connection."
The results of telling our stories are astounding: The Untold Stories Project is based on research conducted by the organization's founders in 2012; in that earlier study (involving 14 book clubs, who read a different book of reproductive stories), they found that "four-fifths of those who had had abortions discussed their experiences with their group, often for the first time," and a "lasting positive change in individuals' attitudes about commonly stigmatized reproductive experiences" was evident.
People felt more warmly towards people who had various reproductive experiences like abortion after they've shared their personal story about it, AbiSamra said. In fact, there was also an even greater difference in attitudes among those who had started the meetings with the most negative attitudes about these groups.
So in 2014, Sea Change worked with 17 writers to create a new book of stories. Of the participants in the 41 groups who have already held discussions about this book, 48% of people shared with their group about a personal reproductive experience of their own (11% of which were abortion experiences), and, among the authors who wrote the book's stories, 46% agreed or strongly agreed they felt more support since participating in the project; 54% said they told others about their experiences than they had previously; and 61% said sharing their story prompted others in their lives to share their own personal reproductive experiences.
Thurston, whose story is included in Sea Change's recently published book, acknowledged while sharing the "personal, private" experience of abortion may not be easy or fair, previous social movements undeniably benefitted from similar tactics. Turning points in other historical movements have involved "real people telling the truth from their lives in their circle, in their environment," she said. "The more people do that, the more the world sees that [women who have had abortions are] everywhere ... We're part of the community, we're part of the fabric of society. Once we tell our stories, it's like we light up. We become visible to people."
The effects are cyclical. Once one person speaks in this "circle of sharing vulnerable things," AbiSamra said, "another will open up about their experience [and] feel more connected by having revealed something that they thought they couldn't talk about, and now they're finding support in that room to talk about it."
Winstead, who has organized abortion story-telling events through Lady Parts Justice, agrees. When she tells her own story publicly, "I have people saying 'I have the same story,'" she told Mic. "I have young people writing me saying 'I'm in college, and I experienced what you experienced and now I don't feel so alone.'"
She encourages women to tell their story multiple times, she added, because "the more you have faith and confidence in [your abortion story], you'll hear and talk to more people who have had your same experience and realize that you are indeed the majority; we've just been silenced and shamed into thinking we aren't."
"Finding out that someone you know has a specific stigmatizing experience or identity ... that human connection does reduce prejudice and stigma," AbiSamra said.
Ultimately, storytelling appears to be a key tool in normalizing what is, in actuality, a somewhat common experience for many women.
"When we tell our story, we reveal that we're everywhere and we also generate compassion for the reality of human life," Thurston said. "Life is messy, it's complicated, and it's not a simple story. ...Owning the truth of our lives is a beautiful thing, and it will help others and I believe that. And if every woman would share their truth of their lives, then it would be miraculously healing for anybody who has ever felt shame."