With anti-choice forces in power, women turn to personal stories to advance reproductive rights

“You can hate the thing but you can’t hate the person.”

Pro-choice activists celebrate during a rally at the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, June 27, 2016, after the court struck down Texas’ widely replicated regulation of abortion clinics. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Pro-choice activists celebrate during a rally at the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, June 27, 2016, after the court struck down Texas’ widely replicated regulation of abortion clinics. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

The 2016 election was poised to be a banner year for abortion access rights: throughout her campaign, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton staked out a progressive, inclusive vision of reproductive rights.

Instead, with President Donald Trump’s victory and an open seat on the Supreme Court, the election sparked widespread fear among pro-choice advocates and women, spawning a rush on long-acting birth control methods like IUDs as women feared their access to affordable contraceptives and abortion care could be taken away.

For Candice Russell, however, the panic just meant people were waking up to her reality.

“It was kind of surreal for me,” she told ThinkProgress over the phone.

Russell, 33, lives in Dallas, Texas. She was on a trip back to where she grew up in Seattle when the election results came in. “I was sitting amidst all these people that I grew up with, that I loved, and they started talking about being afraid. A lot of them specifically started talking about reproductive rights. And, to me, it was like, well I’ve been talking about this for 4 years.”

“Now your nation looks the way my state has looked, forever.”

Russell is an outspoken pro-choice advocate, and has been sharing her own abortion story for years as part of the fight against Texas’ restrictive laws. But with Trump in the White House and Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress, what was a fight to expand abortion access in places like Texas got one step harder, as advocates gear up to play defense against anti-choice federal laws.


On Tuesday, Russell was one of about 100 women sharing her abortion story, some on the Capitol steps and some via livestream, as part of a speakout organized by the 1 in 3 campaign as part of the resistance.

The organization takes its name from the projection that one in three women will have an abortion by age 45, but that’s where the use of statistics ends. Instead, the campaign focuses on women like Russell telling their individual abortion stories — even as inside the Capitol, lawmakers entered the second day of hearings for Trump’s Supreme court nominee Neil Gorsuch, whom advocates fear could be instrumental in turning back abortion rights.

“Telling our stories is an act of resistance — resistance against restrictions on access, resistance against threats from the Trump administration, and resistance against the shame that’s kept us quiet for too long,” said Debra Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth, parent organization of the 1 in 3 Campaign, said about the event.

But while the event, which is occurring for the third time this year, has taken on extra weight in the wake of Trump’s inauguration, Russell’s story highlights the ways that abortion rights have been under siege since they were granted. For most American women, Trump or no Trump, whether or not they can actually access abortion care depends on state lines.


Texas, where Russell lives, has some of the most restrictive laws in the nation. She had her abortion in 2013, shortly after Texas passed HB2. The law required all abortion clinics to meet hospital-like standards — including minimum sizes for rooms and doorways, anesthesia pipelines, and requiring doctors to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.

These types of regulations are known as Targeted Restrictions of Abortion Providers, or TRAP laws. Proponents say that the regulations are necessary to protect women, though the reality is that abortion procedures are already extremely safe — safer than a whole host of other medical procedures not under the same scrutiny, like knee replacement surgery and colonoscopies.

Instead, what these laws do is impose burdensome and expensive regulations on abortion providers, often forcing clinics to close. In June 2016, the Supreme Court ruled HB2 unconstitutional.

But in 2013, when Russell needed an abortion after her IUD failed, the law made it nearly impossible for her to receive care.


“I was lucky and lived in Dallas, where we hadn’t seen any clinic closures at that time,” she told ThinkProgress. Still, there was an influx of patients from the other closed clinics, overburdening the Dallas clinics. “It was going to be two and a half to three weeks before they could even see me for my initial appointment.”

Complicating matters was the fact that Russell had been depending on an IUD, which commonly causes irregular periods. She didn’t discover she was pregnant until she was 12–13 weeks along. Texas law also required two visits to the clinic: One for an ultrasound, and one for the actual procedure.

Ultrasounds are not medically necessary and can make the procedure more expensive. Still, 26 states have regulations governing ultrasounds before abortions, some of which mandate that they offer them, and some of which mandate that they perform them. Texas is one of the latter.

At the time of her abortion, Russell was newly divorced and bartending for a living. She didn’t have any personal time off to use, let alone two days in a row. The wait time, plus the requirement that she go to the clinic twice, put her perilously close to the edge of Texas’ 20-week abortion ban.

“I was scarily close at that point. Anything could go wrong and I was looking at being forced to have a child,” she told ThinkProgress.


So instead, she called a clinic in California, where her then-boyfriend lived. They could get her in immediately. She took out a high-interest payday loan for the ticket and got on a plane. Ultimately, that loan put her in a financial spiral it took two and a half years to get out of, costing her thousands, but she considers herself lucky for being able to get an abortion at all.

As the case against Texas’ abortion restrictions started winding through the courts, she started speaking out publicly about her experience.

“It was important to me that we change the narrative about what people see and talk about when they talk about abortion,” Russell told ThinkProgress, noting that often, even in pro-choice spaces, one whitewashed story dominates.

“It’s white women, with wanted pregnancies, who are married, and who had a fetal abnormality and had to get an abortion. Which is a horrific thing to have happen. But also, not the case for every single person who has an abortion,” she said.

In fact, the majority of women who have abortions are, like Russell, women of color. Many are already mothers. Many of those most affected by restrictions, from TRAP laws to attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, are low-income women. And unlike the narrative of abortion regret that dominates in conservative media, the vast majority of women who receive abortions are extremely certain about their decision.

Still, Republicans in Congress have made defunding Planned Parenthood a priority. At the same time, they’re advancing a health care law that would roll back Medicaid coverage, which would disproportionately affect low-income women and affect their families ability to afford care. One of President Trump’s first acts was to reinstate the Global Gag rule, which prevents U.S. aid from supporting any international organization that so much as mentions abortion.

Those developments alerted the broader culture to a reality that was already a fact of life for many, Russell said.

“Now your nation looks the way my state has looked, forever. This is old hat for us. This is the pressure that we’ve been feeling forever,” she said. “Now what do we do? We mobilize.”

And when statistics and science don’t work to persuade politicians and voters, Russell and others in the 1 and 3 campaign are hoping that personal stories will.

“The thing that is most effective is humanizing this issue that people kind of think of as academic and intellectual and philosophical,” she said. “You can hate the thing but you can’t hate the person.”

Hauser echoed that sentiment. “Too often the political has overpowered the personal in the fight for abortion access, and now more than ever we cannot afford to remain silent and let stigma invade the conversation,” she said.

“You can hate the thing but you can’t hate the person.”

Russell says she’s proud to speak out for those who can’t. But she also acknowledges that for many women, speaking out despite the stigma is too high a cost.

Like the real obstacles state restrictions pose for abortion access, this is another experience she’s had personally. She says that living in a red state and having a heavy pro-choice web presence has made it difficult for her to get jobs, pushed her out of a career that she loved, and alienated her from some family members.

But in the face of a future for reproductive rights in America that might look like the state of things in Texas, she’s still traveled to DC to speak out and share her story.

“When they’re out there making laws, they don’t picture the people those laws are affecting,” she said. “They don’t see us. And so, forcing them to see us feels really empowering to me.”