After Emily Letts posted a video of her own abortion procedure on YouTube, she knew it would spark a discussion. She wanted to open up a space to talk honestly about the medical procedure. The 25-year-old New Jersey resident also inspired some harsh backlash from right-wing sites, as some conservative commentators called her video “horrible” and “disturbing.” But that didn’t shut her up.
Instead, Letts became even more involved in the advocacy work of collecting abortion stories — a method of normalizing a procedure that one in three U.S. women experiences at some point in her life. She joined Not Alone, an organization encouraging women to talk about their abortions that just launched a new website this week.
“Our nation’s silence around abortion has allowed dangerous myths to dominate the debate. By sharing our own experiences through videos, putting our faces alongside our stories, we can change the conversation around abortion and fight back against increasing attacks on women’s rights,” Not Alone’s new site explains.
Once Letts made her video public, she was flooded with hundreds of letters and emails from strangers who had also ended pregnancies but never felt comfortable talking about it before. And she ended up connecting with Beth Matusoff Merfish, who received similar feedback after she published a personal account of her mother’s abortion in the New York Times. It became clear to both women that more people needed an outlet to talk about their experiences in this area. So they decided to team up, and created an online space for women to record and upload their own personal videos about abortion.
“We started really exploring the testimonial power of video,” Letts told ThinkProgress. “It can be a little scary or overwhelming at first to push that record button… But wouldn’t it be great if we could get to a place where people are making videos and supporting each other? It’s only once we give those stories a space, and let people know that women who have abortions are real people, that we can really support and value these experiences instead of shaming them.”
Even before the two women met, Matusfoff Merfish had been researching videos as a method of effective storytelling. The new campaign was partly modeled after It Gets Better, Dan Savage’s popular project that collects short video clips from LGBT individuals to help communicate to younger Americans that they’ll be able to lead happy and healthy lives outside of the closet.
“We thought, why can’t we do the same thing for women?” Letts said, pointing out that a third of the entire female population will have an abortion by the time they turn 45 years old. “We’re hoping to create the same kind of community. There should be no need, at any point in time, for a woman to feel that she is isolated in this because so many other women have gone through it.”
Abortion storytelling has become an increasingly popular way to challenge the societal stigma that tells women abortion is something that’s shameful, immoral, and impolite to talk about. Organizations like Sea Change and Exhale Pro-Voice hope to build connections between women who have had abortions to help slowly shift our culture away from its current polarization on the issue. Advocates agree that’s an important method of putting a personal face on an issue that often focuses on “choice” and “life” instead of on real women’s experiences.
However, there are some significant challenges ahead. Stigma is deeply entrenched into the policy landscape, particularly as states have passed a record-breaking number of new abortion restrictions over the past three years. Many of those laws, like mandatory waiting periods and forced ultrasounds, are specifically designed to make women second-guess the decision they’re making about their pregnancy. That only reinforces the message that abortion is something to be ashamed about, despite the fact that it’s been a legal medical procedure for more than four decades.
“It’s not just about telling stories. It’s also about pushing back on the policies that further stigma,” Louise Melling, the deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union and an expert who often speaks on abortion stigma, explained to ThinkProgress. “There are a million ways in which our laws create institutional stigma and tell women that they’re doing the wrong thing.”
“We can change culture as much as we can, but hopefully, the goal is to start changing these laws,” Letts agreed. But she’s still optimistic. “Because of this extreme political movement, I do think we’re seeing a shift in culture in the opposite direction. There is something changing in the wind, and hopefully we can make this wind stronger and stronger… It could start with a woman clicking record on her video.”