On the difficulty of sharing pro-abortion stories in the Heartland

Protest against abortion in Lawrence on June 4, 2022. // Photo by Chris Ortiz

Lauren Conaway didn’t expect to see her abortion on the news.

Conaway, founder and CEO of InnovateHER KC, had planned to give an interview about the Supreme Court leak Roe vs. Wade decision impacting women entrepreneurs. But as the interview progressed, she unexpectedly shared her abortion story.

Later, while watching her story on television, she began to panic. “KSHB is the news. I didn’t know what people’s response would be. People are being murdered for performing abortions.

With Roe vs. Wade on edge, more personal stories of abortion are emerging in rallies, talk shows, podcasts and interviews. For people speaking out, spotlights may not capture a deep personal journey of storytelling itself – and that’s a lost lesson, both for future storytellers and organizers.

“What no one checks is what happens after people share stories,” says Justice Gatson, director of the Reale Justice Network, a longtime organizer for maternal care and reproductive justice. “The range of personal emotions goes from super-happy, almost dazed, and for others it was a tough decision.”

Storytelling for social change

Abortion stories are masterful tools for social change because they do what memes and headlines can’t: Open minds to new understanding, spark deep conversations, and change narratives.

“The power of storytelling runs incredibly deep,” says Kelsey Walker, author, coach, and advocate for people who experience abortion stigma as well as the grief of losing a child. She shares her story and resources on FromTheGreenDesk.com

“What I found in telling my story is that people are shocked by it,” Walker says. “But after the initial shock, there’s a determination and an acceptance that you only see by being vulnerable and telling your story.”

“Telling and sharing our experiences is the only way for people to gain some kind of insight and understanding,” says Kristen Thomas, a Kansas City resident, writer and clinical sexologist who shared her abortion story. mother.

Thomas vividly remembers his mother’s near-fatal ectopic pregnancy. As her mother lay in a pool of blood at home, she begged Thomas, a child at the time, to call for life-saving help. Ectopic pregnancies can cause fatal internal bleeding if the embryo is not safely aborted.

Thomas grew up a pro-life conservative Christian and she hopes her mother’s story can change stereotypes about people who need abortions. “I can show that it’s not just pagans who believe these things, it’s not people who haven’t been guided. I owe it to this growing community here to be very vocal and to use the platforms that I have so that we can have conversations.

For some, opening up to family is a difficult part of the journey. Walker, who has published a book about the loss of her child, the stigma of abortion, grief and PTSD, organized what she calls a ‘truth tour’ with her extended family ahead of the launch of her book. She and her husband both come from conservative Christian families and she was afraid of being rejected.

“For four years we kept everyone in our family in the dark that we had an abortion, even though they knew we had lost a baby,” says Walker, a mother of two.

In her book, Walker shares her excitement to learn she was expecting a daughter, whom she and her husband named Hope. Later, they were devastated to learn that the fetus had developed a disease that caused its bones to burst. An ultrasound crushed his skull and began to pose a safety risk to Walker. Walker and her husband mourned their loss and requested cremation and church services to bless Hope’s ashes. But because the loss of Walker’s child included an abortion procedure, church after church – seven in all – refused to help.

As Walker opened up about her story to extended family, she and her husband learned that “our fear and anxiety were only perceived. It was not true. They were very supportive of what we thought was the next step in the healing process, which was finding meaning.

Share your story

For people who plan to tell their own stories, whether to family and friends or to a wider audience, storytellers say there are no deadlines and no right or wrong answers. than seems safe.

“Women should have the autonomy to share their own stories or not,” says Conaway. “I don’t think it’s possible, wise or safe for all women to share their story. We’re not at a point where women can freely share without consequence.

“Please know that you are not alone,” says Cassie Driskel, co-founder of Without us strike, co-organizer of the Mother’s Day Reproductive Rights Rally and long-time campaigner in rural communities. “If you don’t have anyone in your personal bubble you feel safe, contact safe abortion groups or spaces. We testify specializes in being a space where people can share their stories. Shit, contact me! I am here!”

Storytellers recognize that stigma and shame can make speaking up difficult, even when it is safe to do so. Walker, who has shared her story many times in speeches and interviews since launching her truth tour, urges storytellers not to get carried away by irrational fear. “A lot of the perceived shame and guilt around an abortion is just that – it’s just perceived. It’s not necessarily what’s going to happen,” she says.

However, Walker cautions, “Be prepared to keep your drawbridge in place. You have an island of you and your loved ones, and this is your most important island. You don’t have to drop your drawbridge to people who are afraid of what other people will think. Don’t let their shame and fear be your shame and fear. Own your drawbridge.

Storytellers say there is room for allies in community conversations – and allies are needed. “We need more men speaking out,” says Thomas. “The men out there who are keeping quiet right now, who aren’t calling their senators, who aren’t posting about the treatment of abortion as health care, we need you to speak up right now. ”

Tips for organizers

For people creating story platforms, such as rallies, websites, or special events, stories kick in where mainstream culture leaves off. “I wish there were more mainstream stories about life-saving abortion care, but you won’t see that,” Thomas says.

The rallies have become powerful catalysts for breaking the stigma and silence around abortion. “For me, I share my story because I would go to rallies and hear from such brave women and they would share their stories, and I would always be ashamed,” Conaway says. “I always felt that by not owning my choice and my stake in the case, it was a lack of integrity. It contradicts who I want to be.

Organizers looking for stories, however, should keep in mind that “sharing stories” is not enough, especially when it comes to uplifting stories from BIPOC people, black women, trans people and non binaries.

Gatson says white-led groups in particular have a responsibility to create safe spaces for storytellers, build non-transactional relationships with BIPOC-led groups, and center those closest to the issue. This can help white-led organizers think and act more inclusively and accurately about the issues at hand, and ultimately align efforts more effectively.

Gatson also says that the BIPOC and LGBTQ communities are already at a disproportionately higher risk of reproductive health complications and maternal death, and that this gap will widen if Roe falls, so this moment in history calls for more stories of these communities. But organizations must invest in authentic, non-transactional relationships with communities long before a story is requested.

“We have to start there. There’s no other way,” says Gatson. “You have to take me on a first date. You can’t just think we’re going to take care of the case. Especially when talking about my personal private situation. Because I need to feel good about how this ends.

Gatson has seen storytellers traumatized after stepping forward, and organizers must be prepared to provide care for trauma responses. When an organization also seeks to claim ownership or full rights to story content, it can deter storytellers from coming forward because they lose ownership and don’t know how their stories might be remixed, repurposed or taken out of context.

After the TV interview

Conaway’s abortion happened years ago when she was in her twenties. She was struggling at the time, had no savings and was on the pill. She was not ready to have a child and her abortion brought her relief (read more in CatCall Magazine). But after sharing her story on television, she feared a backlash.

She watched for reactions online. A few article comments called her a baby killer. “I commented on one, then realized it wasn’t going to end in a productive conversation, so I quit.” The feedback was mostly positive. She received DMs from friends who spoke about their own abortion stories. “It makes me feel better about myself. It makes me feel like I’m not alone.

For many storytellers, their journeys stand in stark contrast to a toxic silence: even though most Americans support abortion and it is banal (nearly 1 in 4 women will have an abortion before their 40s), open and healthy discussions about abortion are rare. Most people don’t know how to talk about it.

“Someone will come up to me and say, ‘I saw your story on the news, thank you’, but there’s that look [on their face] like they don’t know what to say,” Conaway says. “We have to get past that. Women should be able to tell their story without shame, without fear. The only way to do that is to go out and provide that roadmap of how to manifest.

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