Cecile Richards — the head of Planned Parenthood and one of the most prominent figures in the reproductive rights community — opened up about her personal abortion story in an essay published in Elle on Friday, writing that women who feel comfortable enough to share their experiences with the medical procedure can help decrease some of the stigma surrounding it.
“I had an abortion. It was the right decision for me and my husband, and it wasn’t a difficult decision,” Richards writes. “Before becoming president of Planned Parenthood eight years ago, I hadn’t really talked about it beyond family and close friends. But I’m here to say, when politicians argue and shout about abortion, they’re talking about me — and millions of other women around the country.”
There’s been a move toward encouraging more women like Richards to speak up about the fact that they’ve had an abortion, a type of “coming out” process that can help shift societal attitudes about the procedure. While advocates say that no one should be obligated to disclose their personal medical history, putting a personal face on the common reproductive health experience — one in three U.S. women will have an abortion before the age of 45 — can help influence the national conversation.
Women who choose to disclose their abortion stories are always making a brave move, since speaking publicly about it can open them up to harassment, judgment, and even death threats. On top of that, Richards’ disclosure is particularly radical in our current political atmosphere.
By specifying that her choice to end a pregnancy wasn’t a difficult decision, Richards has deviated from the current societal script on abortion. So far, the public figures who have talked openly about ending a pregnancy have mostly talked about what a hard and heartbreaking choice it was. Most of them terminated pregnancies for medical reasons, and speak honestly about how much they really wanted to have a child. That fits neatly into society’s typical approach to abortion as something that’s always dark, painful, and morally weighty.
Of course, some women have that type of emotional experience with abortion. But other women don’t. Everyone has different reactions depending on their personal circumstances, and the research into the subject further illustrates that complexity. The media doesn’t usually reflect that diversity of experiences, however, choosing instead to focus on ending a pregnancy as “the most difficult decision a woman has to make” — a dynamic that implicitly forces women to prove why exactly they deserved to have an abortion.
This is deeply entrenched into the policy landscape, too, particularly as states have passed a record-breaking number of new abortion restrictions over the past several years. Some of those laws, such as forced ultrasounds and mandatory waiting periods, are specifically designed to make women second-guess the decision they’re making about their pregnancy. That reinforces the message that abortion is something to be ashamed about, and too difficult of a decision for women to make lightly.
Richards alludes to this dynamic in her Elle essay. “There’s a big difference between sharing your story and being forced to justify your decision,” she writes. The way she speaks about her own experiences may help get us closer to creating a society for all women that’s free of those demands.