In 2010, Katie Stack sat down with MTV’s Dr. Drew to discuss her personal decision to have an abortion. The summer before she left for college — and two weeks before her 18-year-old sister gave birth to her first son — Stack found out that she was pregnant. She had witnessed her younger sister’s pregnancy, and she knew that she wanted to make a different decision.
The segment that Stack appeared on, “No Easy Decision,” was a special feature accompanying MTV’s hit show “16 and Pregnant” — perhaps intended to address the criticism that the show glamorizes teen pregnancy and ignores the reality of abortion. And since then, Stack hasn’t stopped speaking out about her experience. She’s remained involved in reproductive rights activism, and she’s currently participating in the “1 in 3 Week of Activism,” a campaign that seeks to dispel the pervasive abortion stigma that impacts women’s experiences with this aspect of reproductive health care.
The campaign, organized by the national sexual health advocacy organization Advocates for Youth, draws its name from the fact that one in three U.S. women will have an abortion in her lifetime. It hopes to provide safe spaces to encourage those women to speak openly about their experiences. Since many people have internalized the guilt and shame that society projects onto abortion, they feel like they’re not allowed to talk about it even though they went through it.
That was Stack’s experience at first, too. In an interview with ThinkProgress, she explained that although she knew many people who were supportive of abortion rights — in fact, she had volunteered with pro-choice groups — she still didn’t feel like she could talk about her own abortion. It certainly wasn’t something she talked to strangers about. But MTV changed all of that.
“When ‘No Easy Decision’ came out, that was the first time that I was hearing other people’s stories, and the first time I had engaged with strangers and people who weren’t my close friends about abortion experiences,” Stack said. “That experience with MTV really reinforced for me that it can be really powerful to provide these opportunities and to allow stories to heard — stories that are complex, and that don’t necessarily fit a pro-choice or pro-life narrative.”
The “1 in 3 Week” campaign wants to provide more of those opportunities for women like Stack. For instance, students at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor are planning an “abortion speak-out” for Thursday evening that will allow students to share their abortions in a safe space, and help them connect with other people who have also made the decision to end a pregnancy. Carly Manes, the student activist who’s organizing it, told ThinkProgress earlier this week that she hopes the event will “give a voice back” to all of the individuals who feel like their personal experience is getting lost in the recent legislative push to restrict reproductive rights across the country. Stack will also be participating.
Stack told ThinkProgress that allowing people to publicly share their abortion stories is one the first steps to tackling the stigma that keeps so many people silent about it. She hopes something like Thursday’s “speak-out” could help spark future private conversations between partners, friends, and families — the individual connections that she believes will be agents for change. But she also expressed caution.
“It’s very hard to talk about abortion without the negativity, without calling people murderers, without the judgment,” she said. “The speak-out event is almost an experiment to see if it’s possible. Hopefully it is. I know Carly has taken a lot of steps to make it a safe space, but it’s really hard to authentically create a safe space to share these stories.”
Indeed, the Facebook event for the site is already attracting anti-choice comments directly attacking Stack. “This literally makes me feel sick,” one person posted. “Katie, abortion kills an innocent child. The little dead bodies is what is sickening,” another wrote. “You are clearly not even remotely sorry you hired someone to kill your own unborn offspring at your mercy,” a third comment declares.
That’s nothing new for Stack, who’s received backlash ever since her MTV appearance. “I still to this day get death threats and hate mail,” Stack said. “The fact of the matter is, mo matter what anyone wants to debate about abortion and its morality, I feel that I made the right decision. And that’s threatening to people, the fact that I will say that.”
Fortunately, the positive feedback still outweighs the negativity. “I get emails all the time from people telling me their abortion stories, and thanking me for talking publicly about my experience, even if it’s very different than theirs,” she noted. “I get emails from people I went to elementary school with, telling me, ‘Hey, I know we haven’t talked in ten years, but I had an abortion or I’m going to have an abortion and I just wanted to talk to someone about it.’ ”
This past year, MTV finally aired an episode of “16 and Pregnant” that featured an abortion story. The episode centered on a young woman named Briana who has a baby — but also features her older sister, Brittany, who decides to have an abortion. MTV put the sisters in touch with Stack before the episode was filmed because their situation so closely mirrored Stack’s. But their episode ended up having an important difference from hers: It aired as a regular episode of the series, not a standalone special feature for women who have abortions. “I think that’s a sign of progress,” Stack said.