"Every time I tell my story, someone else will come up and tell me theirs": How the 1 in 3 Campaign is turning abortion stories into art

Playwrights have taken stories from the 1 in 3 Campaign and turned them into a drama honoring women's choices

Published January 9, 2015 2:00PM (EST)

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

When women talk about their abortions, people listen. Whether their listeners respond with vitriol or compassion often varies and tends to depend on whether or not the two parties are strangers; research has shown that when women share their abortion stories with those close to them, their friends' and family members' views on the procedure tend to soften. They grow empathetic. Sometimes, they share that they, too, had an abortion once -- maybe more than once.

This is the premise of the 1 in 3 Campaign. Orchestrated by Advocates for Youth, the campaign centers on giving women space to talk about their abortions, in hopes that speaking out will reduce the cultural stigma attached to the procedure. The name comes from the 1 in 3 women who will have an abortion in her lifetime -- a statistic that contrasts with the number of women who are able to overcome the shame and guilt they're made to feel for their reproductive choices. The campaign has been successful in its first two years at getting women to speak out, and has collected over 650 written and recorded stories on its website. Recently, 1 in 3 held its first ever "Abortion Speakout," a live online event that featured more than 100 women telling their stories on camera over eight hours.

The speakout is just one way the campaign is attempting to broaden its reach and share its message in new ways. Advocates for Youth is also sponsoring a play based on stories from the 1 in 3 Campaign called "Out of Silence," which dramatizes an array of real accounts for audiences across the country. The production, comprised of a series of vignettes, opens in Washington, D.C. on January 20, but Advocates recently hosted a reading in New York. The stories run the gamut of experiences -- from a lesbian couple that decides to terminate a much-planned baby after discovering a fetal anomaly to a young, single woman who just graduated college and has $400 to her name.

Salon recently spoke separately with Deb Hauser, the executive director of Advocates for Youth, and Jacqueline Lawton, a professional playwright who produced "Out of Silence," about the campaign, the show and how they hope women's abortion stories will impact the larger public debate around reproductive choice. Both conversations have been edited lightly and condensed for clarity.

Tell me a little about the 1 in 3 Campaign. Where did the idea originate? Why do you think it’s so important?

DH: We know the number one predictor of coming out in support of abortion -- especially among millennials -- is if they know someone who’s had an abortion. I started sharing my story when the campaign started, probably two years ago. I hadn’t really shared my abortion story with anyone for probably 15 years or more, and I have to tell you, every single time I tell my story now, someone else that hears me will come up and tell me theirs. The mechanism really is exactly that. It’s been really, really exciting just seeing people break through that fear, and how much relief there is, but most importantly for the 1 in 3 Campaign, the idea really is to strengthen people’s ability to stand up publicly for abortion. It felt as if there were so many antiabortion pieces of legislation that passed in the states over the last for years -- I think more in the last four years than in the ten years prior. And we felt like they’re chipping away at abortion access because those of us who have had an abortion can’t speak from our hearts to tell what these services mean to us.

I’ve written about my abortion, and for me it’s been really helpful to talk about it. I would never encourage another woman to talk about something that she doesn’t feel comfortable talking about, but at the same time, I get frustrated when women -- for whatever reason -- don’t speak out. I wonder how you deal with that.

DH: I hear you. And how lucky are you to be able to speak out and feel good about it? I think that there are those of us who are willing to do it, and able. Someone said to me, “You’re fortunate that you can.” Maybe you have a partner who is anti-choice or violent. Who knows? For whatever reason, those of us who can, either because we’re comfortable enough or privileged enough, or we’ve gotten to a point in our lives where we don’t care what other people think, if those of us who can, do, I think what happens is that fear and shame that other people feel that keeps them from coming out or from telling their stories...that begins to dissipate. And they’re much more likely to be able to tell their stories. They might not do it publicly. Maybe they’ll just talk to somebody who’s a friend or a family member. It just takes a couple of people to stand up and feel comfortable enough, for those who are on the fence to feel a little better, and then maybe the next time -- maybe it takes them two or three times. I think we’re on the brink of something. I’ve done this work for 35 years, and there are maybe a handful of times when I felt like, “This is something.” And I feel like this is something.

So -- the play! Tell me a little about the play.

DH: I will tell you this. I have seen a reading of about eight of the vignettes, and they are incredibly powerful. I was in a room full of young women, and there was a woman sitting next to me and she was crying the whole time. Some of it is very funny; it’s written beautifully. And the stories really represent multiple and various stories that have been submitted to the campaign. But we were really looking for another way to bring art and culture together. The media really both reflects and shifts our cultural attitudes, and so really looking for ways -- like the speakout, like the play -- that we can challenge people and put women’s stories, both artistically and literally, in front of people, so that we can continue to break through. We need a culture where the stigma not only is gone, but the stigma turns around. Where someone who might be judgemental or might try to shame one of us is kind of put down by everyone else -- people who say, “Hey, that’s not your place! Leave her alone!” That’s when I think we’ll see the next big leap forward. That would strengthen the support for abortion care and, hopefully, keep abortion safe.


Jacqueline, how did you get involved with the 1 in 3 Campaign? What gave you the idea to turn these stories into a play? Can you tell me a little about the production?

JL: First, [the campaign] approached me about producing a play, and then it came about that she also asked me to write a play, like a short piece. We always envisioned it would be a series of vignettes, so basically it was their idea to have it be a play. They wanted to find a new way to approach the conversations around abortion, because it can be such a polarizing issue -- and the human stories, the women’s stories, the families, the couples, they don’t come forward. It comes down to politics and party line conversations. It can get really ugly. So, if we’re going to be messy, why don’t we be messy with a more passionate, emotional, human side of the story? All of my plays come from a point of entry of social justice -- looking at race, gender, how to move those conversations forward, so I thought this was perfect. I had 13-14 women playwrights who I had long-term relationships with, who I respected and admired their work, and I knew they would be passionate about this topic as well. So we commissioned those playwrights to write four-minute scenes and monologues in response to the stories from the 1 in 3 Campaign.

I’m curious what sort of stories you were drawn most to or were more focused on. There’s an ongoing debate about “good” abortion stories versus “bad” abortion stories, and I wonder if that was part of your focus in aggregating these together.

JL: I don’t know the definition of a “good” or “bad” abortion story, but what we looked for was a diversity in stories. We looked for women who were young, middle aged, older women; we have a couple, two women who were in their mid-40s, who both find out that they’re pregnant, and one of them wants to have the child because its her first child -- and it addresses the medical issues that might come up around that -- and the other has already raised her children and she does not want to go through this again. I have some that are economically not able to bring a child into the world. It’s a wide variety, and I don’t know that we looked at it in terms of “what are good choices and what are bad choices” but rather “these are the choices that these women have to make.” We went in that direction. The playwrights really chose stories that they responded to from the 1 in 3 Campaign. There were hundreds to read from, and they spent many hours poring over them. Only toward the end did we say, “Okay, we really want to get more of a diversity in terms of economics” -- to make sure that range is represented.

What sort of feedback are you expecting from this production?

JL: It’s going to be a wide range. I’ve gotten responses of, “Wow, you’re really brave to write about this!” I think that depending on where you’re coming from, you’re going to have a different response. I’ve gotten positive, but I’ve gotten people saying that to humanize these stories is to negate the fact that you are still killing a living creature or human being -- people saying that just because you humanize it doesn’t mean it isn’t wrong. In no way are any of these stories trying to put forward what is right or what is wrong. We are putting forward that these are the choices these women made, and they are absolutely right in the choices that they made because it’s what they needed to do at the time.

What has been your biggest takeaway from the experience? What has it left you feeling, thinking -- and what do you hope for in the aftermath of this?

JL: On a purely artistic level, I think the more organizations -- particularly political advocacy organizations -- can look to the arts as a way to tell stories and talk about policy issues, talk about things that matter, the more we can have important conversations. Again, this is one of the issues that I come to my work with, and I hope it comes out of this in a really strong and powerful way. A second thing is that I pay a lot of attention to what’s going on around things like the Bill Cosby sexual assault allegations, the story out of UVA, rape culture -- I feel like all of that mirrors what is going on with abortion, too. Women are just, quite simply, under attack in this country, and it feels like at times we can’t do anything right. And so I hope that women feel supported. I hope they feel that their stories have been validated, that their choices have been validated, that they are no longer being judged -- because someone out there not only believes in them, but took the time to write their stories, to speak to their experience. I hope that women feel supported.

By Jenny Kutner

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