Abortion beyond "good" and "bad": Why it's so important to share nuanced stories

Storytelling campaigns are creating more space to talk honestly, but there's still a long way to go

Published September 25, 2014 8:21PM (EDT)

  (AP/Susan Walsh)
(AP/Susan Walsh)

Women have been telling their abortion stories for as long as women have been having abortions. Whether these stories were traded covertly among women as practical advice or declared publicly as an act of political defiance, the simple act of sharing goes a long way back. But that hasn't made the choice to talk an easy one. Women who speak out are still targeted for harassment and other threats, and the right to access abortion as basic medical care is as contested as ever. Given the current reproductive health landscape, more storytelling -- in addition to sustained political pressure, funding to local providers and continued focus on the economic and cultural issues that hurt women's ability to control their own lives -- is an important and necessary thing.

On Wednesday, the Center for Reproductive Rights launched a new campaign featuring women and men telling stories related to their own reproductive healthcare choices. In addition to a story from Padma Lakshmi on how access to birth control helped her manage her endometriosis, singer Dee Dee Bridgewater shares a powerful and painful account of getting an abortion before Roe v. Wade.

These are important stories because they're real stories. Plenty of women take birth control for reasons that aren't entirely related to pregnancy, just like so many others were forced to seek out dangerous abortions at a time when no other option existed, particularly low-income women of color who couldn't get the procedure in a hush-hush way from their private doctors. (The same disparities in access exist today.)

But while hearing these stories, and when listening to Wendy Davis share her own story several weeks ago, I was reminded of how difficult it remains to talk about the full range of experiences that people seeking abortion go through -- the stories that don't neatly fit into any single narrative.

A few months back, I interviewed a woman named Emily Letts about her decision to film her abortion and post it online. At the time we talked, she said she wanted to challenge stigma around the procedure and demystify the process for people who only think about abortion as an abstract political concept. "So many of the decisions [women make about abortion] are influenced by the idea that they are not allowed to talk about it," she said. "The idea that their family would shame them. The idea that they will be made to feel totally and completely isolated even though they need help and support dealing with an unintended pregnancy."

It was through our conversation that, again, this idea of a "good" abortion story came up:

Salon: We tend to have these narratives -- even within the reproductive rights movement -- of how we’re allowed to talk about abortion. We generally talk about the “good” abortions. The ones that are sufficiently early on, or the tragic circumstances where a parent finds herself terminating a wanted pregnancy because of a dangerous health complication. And it’s important to tell those stories because those stories are true, but there is a pretty broad range of experience that gets erased when this is how we talk about abortion.

Emily Letts: Yeah, absolutely. I did this awesome interview with BBC Radio Service, and it was five women including myself, on international television, sharing our abortion stories, and how we felt about it. And three of the women talk about their regrets and how they’re pro-life now, and then me and another women were saying, “No, I feel OK about my abortion. I feel great, thanks.” [...]

That’s why my clinic invests in having at least three counselors on each day, so we can take the time to talk to you about your decision. How are you coping, how do you feel afterward?

I thought of this exchange again earlier this month when a Chicago woman was targeted for harassment after her partner used a crowdfunding site to raise money for her abortion. The tone of the campaign was irreverent, unapologetic, unserious. The woman didn't want to have a baby, according to the request, because she wanted to go to shows and hang around with her friends. These are, to my mind, perfectly acceptable things to prefer over having children, but the response from anti-choice conservatives was predictably sneering. The campaign was shutdown and GoFundMe eventually banned all fundraising campaigns for abortion. Women had previously used the platform to raise money to fund abortions, but to do so while not feeling sorry for it -- while being young and imperfect -- was apparently too much.

One in three women will have an abortion by the time she’s 45. It almost feels as if, in order to do justice to those experiences, we need a 24-hour broadcast of women sharing story after story after story. The teens who are young and in love and wildly inconsistent about using condoms. The women who already have children and want more but find themselves in a financial situation that makes that desire feel impossible. The women who feel shunned and alone in their decision. The women who felt nothing but relief.

Because of the sheer number of women who have had abortions in this country, and because of the wildly different circumstances under which those women accessed that care, there are lots of complicated and sometimes negative stories out there. It's a challenge to talk honestly about that in a landscape where anti-choice forces have had a lot of success in dictating the terms of the debate, in talking about abortion as a procedure that women could only ever regret. Storytelling campaigns like the one launched by the Center for Reproductive Rights and similar initiatives from groups like Not Alone are creating more space to talk, but it still feels that somehow, even after all this time, we're still just in the nascent stages of having these conversations.

With access so fraught and the political balance so precarious, it almost feels like too much to ask for there to be more room for nuance. To see the faces of these women looking into the camera. To let the ambiguity stare us all down. To keep fighting anyway.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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Abortion Abortion Care Reproductive Freedom Reproductive Justice Reproductive Rights