Why we need to tell our abortion stories

By Julie Rovner, Kaiser Health News

Deb Hauser was married with a 6-month-old child when her husband “went to work one day and didn’t come home.” Two weeks later, she realized she was pregnant.

“I work full time. I have this 6-month-old child, and all of a sudden I’m pregnant,” she recalls. “I had no idea what was going to happen. I didn’t know if he was going to come back; if my marriage was going to hold. I didn’t know where I was going to find the money I needed. All I know is that I had a responsibility to my 6 month old.

Hauser had an abortion, “which was absolutely the right thing to do for me and for my son,” she says. “I never regretted it.” Eventually, her husband was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, they divorced, and she remarried and raised her son, who is now 20. “Abortion has played a very important role in my life,” she said. “It made me stable again.”

Now she wants to help other women tell their abortion stories. It’s part of an effort by her organization, Advocates for Youth, and several others to “de-stigmatize” abortion. Like the 42n/a anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion is approaching on Thursday, abortion rights forces hope the new tactic will help them reverse the momentum gained by abortion opponents in recent years. Not only have states passed a growing list of abortion restrictions, but with the US Congress now in the hands of the GOP, federal restrictions are likely to pass as well.

“It’s very clear that pro-life lawmakers and people running for office are now in violation,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of anti-abortion advocacy group Susan B. Anthony List. “It’s also very clear that our opponents are on the defensive.”

Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, who appeared at the National Press Club in Washington a day before Dannenfelser, acknowledged this.

“The new Congress is introducing anti-women health bills at the rate of one a day,” she said. The House is expected to vote on a bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy on the anniversary of Roe v Wade.

But in addition to fighting legislative efforts, proponents of abortion rights hope to change public opinion about abortion, just as gays and lesbians have done about homosexuality in recent years.

The fact that more women are speaking out about their experiences, they say, will help underscore the statistic that about one in three American women will have an abortion during their reproductive life.

“Probably everyone knows someone who has had an abortion,” said Lindsay Rodriguez of the National Network of Abortion Funds. “They just don’t know they know someone who’s had an abortion.”

Stigma around abortion “permeates every aspect of our culture,” says Steph Herold of the Sea Change Program, another group that works to facilitate discussion of not just abortion, but also other “stigmatized reproductive experiences.” “, including infertility and miscarriages.

Herold says the stigma is everywhere, from media depictions “where someone who has had an abortion is often stereotyped as selfish or immoral” to hospitals, which may refuse to provide the procedure not because of ideology, “but because that they’re afraid of backlash or anti-abortion protesters. Herold says the stigma even prevents women from talking about abortion with loved ones “lest it ruin their reputations or their friendships.”

Advocates for Youth launched the 1 in 3 campaign, which has so far collected some 700 abortion stories in audio, video and print versions. Last fall, the project hosted an eight-hour online “talk” where more than 100 women shared their stories. He also prompted a book and a play, out of silencewhich debuts this week in Washington DC, based on some of the stories.

The goal is twofold: to give women a safe place to talk about their experiences and to build support for abortion rights, Hauser says. “We know from research that the No. 1 predictor of whether or not you say you’re pro-choice and vote pro-choice is if you know someone who’s had an abortion,” she says.

Richards says the abortion destigmatization movement also has particular appeal for young women. “They’re much more open about gender, sexuality, gender identity, and abortion,” she said.

Planned Parenthood consulted on production of last year’s indie film Obvious child, in which a young actress played by Jenny Slate finds herself unexpectedly pregnant after a one-night stand. “It was so refreshing,” Richards said. “Most of the time, we talk about abortion [in the media] it’s a gothic story. It was truly the life of a young woman. What happened, what she decided to do with the support of her family, even her boyfriend.

Proponents of “coming out” women with their abortion stories are quick to admit they are following a page from the gay marriage playbook.

“More and more people in the United States have become aware of the people in their lives they know who are gay,” said Jessica Arons of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project. “And they started to get more comfortable with it.”

Even abortion opponent Marjorie Dannenfelser says the effort is good policy. “In terms of tactics, it’s smart. I never underestimated their ability to do the smart thing,” she said.

Which isn’t to say that she agrees that speaking out will or should eliminate stigma.

“It’s very true that women are afraid to talk about their abortion,” she says. “It’s very true that there’s a lot of shame associated with it. The question is what are the root causes of these things? If it’s a child, it’s complicated in another way.

Kaiser Health News is an independent editorial program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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