This week, New York Magazine is running a feature story about more than two dozen real women who have chosen to terminate a pregnancy. And the cover of the magazine allows those women’s experiences to claim a prominent platform under the headline “My Abortion”:
As the piece notes, even though abortion is a very common aspect of reproductive health care — one in three U.S. women will have one by the time she reaches 45 years old — it’s still not discussed very widely. There’s a pervasive stigma surrounding abortion that implicitly communicates it’s not an acceptable topic of conversation for polite company. Women are taught that they’re always supposed to feel shame and regret about choosing to end a pregnancy, even if that isn’t actually their personal experience with their own abortion.
And when women do speak openly about their decision to have an abortion, they’re often met with serious backlash. Earlier this year, after one lawmaker in Nevada talked about the abortion she had when she was a teenager, she received death threats. One of the young women who appeared on MTV’s reality show “16 and Pregnant” to talk about having an abortion still receives hate mail, even though the episode aired three years ago.
That’s a big reason why many of the people who have experiences with this type of reproductive health care don’t feel safe enough to “come out” about it. And that’s also why reproductive rights advocates are attempting to create more safe spaces for women to discuss their abortions. The “1 in 3 campaign,” for example, is a grassroots effort to combat abortion stigma that has collected women’s abortion stories in a book. Last month, the campaign sponsored a week of activism and encouraged communities to host “abortion speak-outs” to give women an opportunity to share their stories among supportive people. The advocates behind “1 in 3” believe that shifting the conversation about abortion can eventually help shift the politics around it.
Indeed, when abortion becomes a lived experience rather than a politicized buzzword, some realities emerge that often get lost in the legislative pushes to continue chipping away at Roe v. Wade.
For instance, the women featured in New York Magazine come from a wide range of backgrounds, and each of their stories is very different. Some of them already had children they were struggling to support; others weren’t ready to be a parent yet. Some were raped or in the midst of abusive relationships. Many of them struggled to be able to afford the cost of the procedure and the logistics of getting to the clinic, and some were forced to cross state lines. Nearly all of them explain that it was the right choice for them. “I never cried about it. I don’t feel guilty,” one woman, 29-year-old Yolanda, explains. “When I tell people, they respond with a panic face, and when I say I’m truly okay with it, they make a second panic face,” 36-year-old Anya notes. “I saw that I could choose not to feel ashamed,” 28-year-old Abby says.
But there’s ambiguity and complexity, too. These are real women with real lives. Not everything fits neatly into a box. “Even when I felt I made the right choice, I regretted having anything to regret,” 30-year-old Monica, who remembers weeping at toothpaste commercials during the month following her abortion, says. “Society is so focused on women being mothers. I felt selfish for not wanting to be a mom,” 35-year-old Lindsay admits. “There’s no room to talk about being unsure,” 23-year-old Mayah points out.
In the politicized fight over reproductive rights, there’s some evidence that these type of personal stories can actually sway public opinion. A recent poll commissioned by Planned Parenthood found that when Americans are given more context about why a woman may need a later abortion, they don’t actually support 20-week abortion bans. That type of restriction is typically more popular than other attacks on women’s health care, since public support drops off for abortions after the first trimester. But when Americans are asked whether they want to deny abortion care from a woman who has been raped, or a woman whose health is in danger, or a woman who discovers serious fatal abnormalities, they tend to say no.