Emily Letts, a 25-year-old abortion counselor at a clinic in New Jersey, knew that she wanted to use her own abortion story to help other woman making their own decisions about whether to end a pregnancy. At first, she thought she would write a blog post about her experience. But then she had the idea to film it.
In an essay published on Cosmopolitan.com, Letts explains that she decided to film her procedure after trying and failing to find a video of a surgical abortion online. There’s at least one YouTube clip of a woman taking the abortion pill, which is the non-surgical option for ending an early pregnancy, but that’s it. So Letts decided that she wanted to have a surgical procedure — the option that seems scarier to many women — to help educate people about what it’s actually like.
“We talk about abortion so much and yet no one really knows what it actually looks like,” Letts writes on Cosmo’s site. “A first trimester abortion takes three to five minutes. It is safer than giving birth. There is no cutting, and risk of infertility is less than one percent. Yet women come into the clinic all the time terrified that they are going to be cut open, convinced that they won’t be able to have kids after the abortion.”
The few representations of abortion on film are fictional, and they tend to portray it extremely negatively. A recent review of the fictional abortion storylines in TV shows and movies found that the procedure is typically depicted as far more dangerous than it actually is. On the screen, women often die after having an abortion, even though women in real life have virtually zero chance from dying from a legal procedure. Ultimately, pop culture helps further the myth that abortion is always dangerous, dramatic, and violent.
So Letts set out to offer a different narrative with her own story. Her video, which isn’t at all graphic, focuses on the top half of her body. It shows her doing some deep breathing and humming during the short procedure, as well as talking things over with the staff in the room. “I feel good. I’m done,” she says after it’s over.
About a month after her procedure, Letts tells the camera that she’s been reflecting about her experience. “I don’t feel like a bad person. I don’t feel sad,” she explains, pointing out that many of the women who come to her clinic assume that everyone feels guilty after having an abortion. “I knew that what I was going to do was right — it was right for me and for no one else.”
Letts’ personal story is obviously just one anecdote. But some of the things she expressed are fairly common among women who end a pregnancy. According to the research in the field, the overwhelming majority of the women who choose to have abortions say that it was the right decision for them. Abortions can certainly inspire a complicated mix of emotions, including negative emotions like grief and guilt. But the most common emotion women report is relief.
“I know there are women who feel great remorse. I have seen the tears. Grieving is an important part of a woman’s process, but what I really wanted to address in my video is guilt,” Letts writes. “Our society breeds this guilt. We inhale it from all directions. Even women who come to the clinic completely solid in their decision to have an abortion say they feel guilty for not feeling guilty… They pressure themselves to feel bad about it.”
Studies have found that those negative emotions typically stem from a deeply ingrained stigma surrounding abortion that teaches women it’s supposed to be secretive and shameful. Reproductive rights advocates are attempting to get rid of that stigma by encouraging more women to tell their stories. Storytelling efforts like the 1 in 3 Campaign — which draws its name from the fact that one in three U.S. women will have an abortion in her lifetime — intend to help Americans understand that this is an issue affecting a wide range of people across the country. Just like young women like Letts have important stories about how relatively painless and easy having a surgical abortion can be, older women have their own stories about what it was like to have an illegal and dangerous abortion before Roe v. Wade.
Abortion stigma certainly has an impact on the way that politicians legislate the procedure, so advocates hope that a greater number of women sharing their personal experiences could slowly help politicians make different choices about whether or not to restrict abortion. For instance, Letts’ story helps demonstrate the fact that abortion isn’t a barbaric procedure that needs additional regulation in order to make it safer.