It took 15 years for Deb Hauser to feel comfortable talking openly about her abortion.
But, working as the leader of Advocates for Youth — a reproductive and sexual health organization that spearheads abortion storytelling campaigns — Hauser realized she needed to transform her experience into advocacy. “I knew I couldn’t speak up from my heart if I couldn’t tell my own story, and I certainly couldn’t ask other people to talk about their stories if I wasn’t willing to do the same,” Hauser explained in an interview with ThinkProgress.
Now, she speaks and writes publicly about her decision to end a pregnancy at age 35, when she was struggling to make ends meet while caring for her six-month-old son and dealing with the dissolution of her marriage. She’ll share her story again on Thursday, during an online abortion speakout organized by Advocates for Youth that will give a national platform to dozens of others of individuals like her.
At least 70 people will talk about their personal experiences with abortion during Thursday’s speakout, which will be live-streamed from 1 pm to 9 pm ET. Some of them — like Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards, who first disclosed her abortion story last month — are public figures. But the event will also give a voice to dozens of private citizens who signed up to participate.
“There’s been considerable interest. People are really excited,” Hauser, who believes it’s the first time that an abortion speakout will be streamed in real time, said. “Some are nervous. Some people are telling their story for the first time, and others are doing it for the 20th time.”
CREDIT: Advocates for Youth
Toni Van Pelt is one of the women who will be recounting her experience with abortion on Thursday. A member of the National Organization of Women, she’s been a reproductive rights advocate for decades. She says she’s never felt uncomfortable talking about the two illegal abortions she had before Roe v. Wade.
“I’m not going to cower and have people threaten me. I’m just not going to live my life like that. I’m not interested in being fearful of anybody or anything,” she told ThinkProgress. “I think it’s really important for women to speak out.”
Van Pelt understands firsthand the consequences of criminalizing the procedure. In 1969, after giving a friend of a friend information about where to find an abortion doctor, she was arrested on a felony charge for “aiding and abetting an illegal abortion.” She spent a night in jail before she was bailed out; the case was eventually dismissed, but only because the police had misspelled her name on the arrest warrant.
Advocates for Youth hopes experiences like Van Pelt’s will eventually be the animating force behind the national conversation about whether lawmakers should enact additional abortion restrictions.
“We want to put women and our stories and our families back at the center of the political debate around abortion,” Hauser explained. “It’s about real people’s lives driving policy, as opposed to policy driving our lives.”
This is the central ethos at the heart of the move toward abortion storytelling, which an increasing number of organizations have made the focus of their work over the past several years. Along the lines of the “coming out” model used by the LGBT community, some activists hope that encouraging more women to speak openly about their abortions will help nudge the country toward becoming more accepting of the medical procedure.
While emphasizing the landscape of individual lives is hardly a new tactic — it’s one of the prongs of the reproductive justice framework, which has been put forth by women of color for decades — women’s personal abortion stories have become increasingly prominent in the national media lately. Politicians like Lucy Flores and Wendy Davis have spoken openly about their own procedures. Personal abortion stories have graced magazine covers and appeared in prominent New York Times wedding announcements. One reproductive rights advocate recently dubbed 2014 the “year of the abortion story.”
According to qualitative interviews conducted by Sea Change, a group that works to support people who have reproductive health experiences that are traditionally stigmatized, about a third of the participants chose to share their abortion story as a “political action.” It’s becoming common for women to disclose their personal abortion experiences as a way of lobbying against proposed anti-choice policies on the state and federal level, for instance.
There’s some evidence this can make a real difference. In 2012, for example, a Republican lawmaker in Virginia cast the deciding vote against a proposed 20-week abortion ban after listening to a woman testify about why having a later abortion was the most compassionate choice for her family once they learned their unborn child had fatal fetal defects. Although State Sen. Harry Blevins had voted in favor of a different type of abortion restriction just hours before, he said that listening to that woman’s story about her own abortion “had a big impact” on his position on the 20-week ban.
Nonetheless, bans on later abortions remain politically viable. The GOP-controlled House of Representatives passed a national 20-week abortion ban last year, and, thanks to the Republican gains in the midterm elections, Congress will likely advance the legislation again in 2015.
That’s why people like Susan Ito, who’s sharing her own later abortion story in a new anthology compiled by Sea Change, continue to speak up.
CREDIT: Sea Change
“There’s an incredible stigmatization of late-term abortions and abortion in the second trimester, so I felt it was really important to get this story out,” Ito, who had a post-20-week abortion after developing a life-threatening condition that required her to terminate a wanted pregnancy, told ThinkProgress. “It’s traumatizing, it’s terrible, and it’s something that nobody really wants to do ever. For people who do it, it’s for really good reasons.”
Even aside from potentially influencing the political process, many of the women who choose to publicly share their abortion stories hope to have an impact on the broader culture surrounding the issue. According to Sea Change’s research, about 41 percent of participants said they have spoken openly about ending a pregnancy “in order to show a new narrative about abortion.”
“I feel like I can use my experience to really make a difference. I need to step up to the plate here and be brave for the next generation,” Karen Harris-Thurston, who had abortions when she was 13 and 19 years old, told ThinkProgress. “I don’t want people to have shame around this issue.”
Harris-Thurston, who decided to share her story publicly for the first time in Sea Change’s anthology, can powerfully articulate the devastating consequences of abortion stigma. She spent decades grappling with feelings of guilt, shame, and isolation. After her parents helped her get an abortion at the age of 13, they told her she shouldn’t ever talk about it with anyone, and Harris-Thurston internalized that message. It got worse after she was in an unhealthy relationship at the end of her teenage years and had another unintended pregnancy, and another abortion.
“I just felt so incredibly alone because I felt like, well, certainly no one has ever had two abortions. No one! I had to be the only one,” she recounted. “I believed there was probably a special lower level basement of hell for me. And I just couldn’t tell anybody. I was so ashamed, so humiliated I had gotten myself into that situation, and I was so alone.”
The ultimate goal of efforts like Advocates for Youth’s speakout is to reach out to people across the country who may be feeling similarly isolated.
“There’s so much noise around abortion. But it’s women’s personal stories that have been silenced… And to watch stigma’s impact on people is so heartwrenching in many ways,” Hauser said. She pointed out that some of the women who signed up to participate in Thursday’s speakout aren’t comfortable displaying their photos and don’t want to use their real names.
For people like Harris-Thurston, however, eventually “coming out” about abortion after years of secrecy can be empowering. When asked if she wanted ThinkProgress to identify her, she replied, “Please use my name. I’m not hiding. I’m not hiding anymore.”