Here's What It's Really Like to Tell Millions of People About Your Abortion
A few days before I turned 23, I had an abortion. The experience wasn't really a big deal, except for one thing: I decided to talk about it.
Scores of other women did the same on Mar. 2, 2016, when the Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments in Whole Women's Health v. Hellerstedt, which could be the most consequential legal decision regarding reproductive rights since Roe v. Wade. The case challenges key portions of HB2, the 2013 Texas omnibus abortion bill that has shuttered the bulk of the state's reproductive health clinics, sharply reducing abortion access for tens of thousands of people.
Thanks to HB2, only a handful of clinics have remained open, requiring many Texans to travel hundreds of miles or even cross state lines to undergo a legal medical procedure — a procedure approximately 3 in 10 American women will have before age 45.
Although abortion is incredibly common, few people ever talk about the experience, often for fear of facing shame and stigma. Finally, this is starting to change.
In a culture where the decision to terminate a pregnancy is not only condemned but often kept secret, there ends up being a difference between having an abortion, and having an abortion and talking about it. To tell one's own abortion story is to illustrate exactly what feminists have long meant by "the personal is political," according to Sherry Merfish, founder of the reproductive rights advocacy group Not Alone.
"It isn't easy to be called a murderer or to open yourself to an onslaught on social media, where it's harder to guard yourself," Merfish told Mic. "But we can't allow them to silence us. There's too much at stake."
Merfish, along with hundreds of other pro-choice activists, has shared her own abortion experience to make the case against HB2 and other state-level abortion restrictions. A primary strategy in the SCOTUS case has been to present scores of individual abortion stories as testimony, illustrating the wide range of experiences of people who have terminated pregnancies.
"I feel like the climate his shifted in terms of people coming out and sharing their stories," Amanda Williams, executive director of the Austin, Texas-based pro-choice organization Lilith Fund, told Mic. "I think we've all been open about being pro-choice, but we haven't been open about sharing our own stories."
While talking about the experience of terminating a pregnancy makes storytellers vulnerable and can even threaten their safety, it also gives the people who talk about their abortions an enormous, somewhat surprising amount of power. Williams, who was one of several women to talk about her abortion on the steps of the Supreme Court on Wednesday, says she realized the positive impact of storytelling after years of working in pro-choice activism, during which time she never came forward about her own experience.
"I feel like I had been held hostage by [internalized stigma] in many, many ways," Williams said. "I had fear of judgement from family and friends and colleagues, even if I know they're supportive politically, it always felt different to be the subject of the conversation. But I recently decided that with everything happening with HB2... it was time for those of us who felt safe enough to come forward and tell our stories."
Indeed, the choice to talk publicly about an abortion often stems from the desire to achieve some sort of political goal, though it inevitably has personal implications for the woman speaking. Emily Letts, a reproductive health counselor who posted a video of her abortion on YouTube, shared her story to combat what she describes as a "nauseating" amount of misinformation about the procedure. She told Mic that stigma and myths about abortion leave many women terrified even if they're about to have one.
"Every time a person came into my abortion counseling office... we would have to not only work through whatever emotional state they would be in, but also dispel the horrific nonsense that has been fed to them by our shaming society," Letts said. "I realized that it wasn't enough to tell each of these women the truth individually, I wanted to tell everyone at the same time."
When her video went viral, however, Letts' decision to share her experience gave millions of people the opportunity to share their opinions in return. As responses to the video came in, Letts says she also gained unexpected insights both from messages of support and of condemnation, which she received in roughly equal numbers.
"The main takeaways I learned from that entire experience was that hurt people hurt people, and that my experience may have been so positive because of my privilege," Letts said. "Before [my abortion], I knew very little about systems of oppression and how my own privilege worked into those systems. ... What I know now is that though there might have been a bit of luck, my privileged as a white, middle-class, educated woman had a large role to play in my experience."
"The stigma associated with abortion has women in the shadows."
Letts' point about privilege is one that has come up time and again in reproductive rights advocates' fight against the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits Medicaid coverage for abortion, and TRAP laws, state-level abortion restrictions aimed at diminishing access little by little. Both disproportionately affect low-income women.
Sharing abortion experiences has helped underscore the reality that socioeconomic status effectively prevents many poor women of color in particular from exercising their constitutionally protected right. But public storytelling also highlights something else that's long held true: All sorts of people — even, say, affluent, educated white mothers — need abortions.
"Unfortunately, the stigma associated with abortion has women in the shadows," Merfish said. "It has allowed the other side to form a construct of who has an abortion: She's not white, she's not educated, she doesn't go on to become a mother."
Combatting that stigma by speaking out, regardless of background, reveals the way that attacks on reproductive rights can, ultimately, be attacks on anyone. It's also an effective way to drum up personal support as well, for a very simple reason: Abortion is something many different people go through. For a lot of us, having had one is a basic, but not defining, fact of our lives.
"The overwhelming experience was one of support and camaraderie," Merfish said of telling her own abortion story. "I think coming forward inspired others to do the same. There's still so much stigma, but I think we are on our way...for women to be able to talk about their reproductive decisions without fear or recrimination."
Before publishing my abortion story, I scrubbed the internet of my contact information and set my social media accounts to private, anticipating backlash from anti-choice activists who would no doubt call me selfish, a slut and a murderer. And they did.
But they were outnumbered by the people who thanked me for telling my story.