Eliminating Abortion Stigma: Playing Offense Starts With You

A year and a half ago I joined two other women in telling my abortion story on MTV’s 16 and Pregnant. Though we were certainly not the first women to speak out publicly about our abortion experiences, doing so on a television show about teen mothers quickly sparked a heated debate. Bill O’Reilly even went so far as to condemn the show as “glorifying abortion” because host Dr. Drew dared to call us “brave” for sharing our experiences. Since then, many others have come forward. 16 and Pregnant recently featured the abortion experience of Brittany DeJesus in an episode about her younger sister’s unplanned pregnancy, and the 1 in 3 campaign has provided a platform for many other women to begin speaking out.

Though no woman should ever feel required to “come out” about her abortion, the War on Women seems to have sparked a trend, and I have been contacted by many women who seek to come out in some capacity – either to friends and family members privately, or on Facebook, Youtube, or other social media. Our discussions always center around one theme – how do you tell your story honestly without seeming proud or happy? How do you say, “I had an abortion” with confidence, but with sensitivity to the diversity of experiences and feelings surrounding that phrase? And finally, does it matter?

Until recently, I’ve struggled with the answers to these questions. On the one hand, I have urged women to remain true to their own feelings. On the other, I have understood that the tone of our narratives could hold political consequences. For so long the rhetoric of the pro-choice Democrat’s position has focused on “safe, legal and rare” – with the “rare” reinforcing the idea that abortion, though permissible, should be shameful and undesirable. Nobody wants to have an abortion, after all.

And so the debate continues – online in the comments of our stories and nationally in our social conscience: is speaking about our abortion experiences brave and necessary or promotional? And can you support women who have had abortions without supporting abortion itself?

While I certainly understand the impulse of even the most well-intentioned to suggest that nobody wants an abortion, I can’t help but feel that it is an incorrect and dangerous sentiment to hold. A more correct statement would be that nobody wants to have an unplanned pregnancy. Sometimes those of us who find ourselves facing one really do want an abortion. Winning the moral, cultural, and political debate surrounding abortion rights means that we must not give the other side the upper hand on any aspect. Suggesting that nobody wants an abortion or that nobody should be willing and happy to talk about her experience reinforces the idea that it is shameful – and it gives the other side the moral advantage.

Which is why congressional candidate Darcy Burner’s speech at Netroots Nation last week was so refreshing.  In it she outlines how the Left can begin playing offense in the War on Women. Central to her proposed strategy is challenging the “stories that people play in their heads” about women and abortion.

First, I want to thank Darcy Burner for recognizing this, and for being willing to support those of us who do chose to use our personal lives to protect the political rights of others.

Second, I want to suggest that the burden of changing the stories that people play in their heads about abortion is not just the responsibly of those who have had them. Ms. Burner goes on to say that “we need to make it okay for women to come out about the choices that we’ve made.” While I am confident that our stories can make a difference, the burden cannot be on those of us who have had abortions alone.

So what will it take? I want to suggest that support for the individuals who share their stories and support for abortion as an option, as a medical procedure, cannot be divorced – to do so places far too much of a burden on the women sharing their stories. Women who have abortions are good women. Abortion, when desired by a woman, is a good procedure. Abortion itself holds no moral weigh except in the context of its usage. Therefore, in order to change to stories in our heads we must resist forces that tell us that abortion as a procedure is bad, shameful, or not to be supported.

If we want women to come forward, to use their stories to change the narrative about abortion, then we must first create a culture in which women who have had an abortion can feel supported in having done so. That starts with challenging the myths in our own heads about abortion and women who have them. It means that each and every one of us needs to stop apologizing for abortion.

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  • pegjohnston

    Excellent! Katie recognizes both the value of “coming out” and the pitfalls of relying on individual courage to de-stigmatize abortion. In an article I penned, “We Have Met the Enemy and S/he is Us” (http://www.abortioncarenetwork.org/term-papers/Enemy%20is%20Us.pdf/view) I call for all of us to create DMZ’s (De-Militarized Zones) in the abortion war to make room for individuals to talk about their experience.

    The Abortion Conversation Project started by helping those around women, notably with two handouts: Mom, Dad, I’m Pregnant and Especially for Men both now on the Abortion Care Network’s website. More people need to find ways to listen to women’s experiences about abortion without judgment.

    Finally, I want to alert people to the revival of the Abortion Conversation Project which is looking for creative ways to spark conversation and reduce stigma about abortion. Check out: http://abortionconversationproject.wordpress.com/  or join our mailing list. 

    Thank you, Katie!

  • mantis

    One narrative that strikes me as particularly powerful is that of a mother who had an abortion in the past, before she was ready to be a mother.  Such a woman can truthfully say, “I’m glad I had an abortion when I did because, if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have the children I have now.  Had I chosen to have a child then instead of having an abortion, I could not have given that child the good life my children have today.”


    Those who regard abortion as a tragedy because of the loss of the children who might have been rarely stop to consider the equal (or greater!) tragedy of the children who might have been — happy, healthy children raised in loving households with two committed parents — if the women who would have borne them had not been prevented from ever conceiving them by the constraints of single motherhood, being trapped in a bad relationship, having to care for a developmentally disabled child, losing their fertility to complications of pregnancy, or any other the other difficult circumstances abortion can avert.

  • wildthing

    All women risk the possibility of death in pregnancy and chilbirth or chronic hormonal destruction or unmanageable family survival issues. A womans body can spontaneously miscarry but they cannot use their minds regarding the risk to their lives and freedom of choice as to available medical procedures???… no one else is risking their lives so no one else can make those choices, or interfere with them without denying them their medical rights in addition to moral, ethical, or religious freedom, no doctor, minister, family member, legislator, or news jabberjockey should be able to or impune someones free choice. It is not a matter of stigma, it is the right of women to have a mind of their own as well as a body of their own.