“Coming Out” on Abortion: Who Wins?

The current buzz within the abortion rights movement seems to be that we need to take a lesson from the gay rights movement – that people need to start “coming out” with their abortion stories. The assumption of these conversations is that the gains in gay rights – marriage and the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell – are a direct consequence of the culture change resulting from more and more queer folks coming out over time. That people have softened over time as they have gotten to know queer folks and queer families and are able to see that they are “just like normal people.”

This assumption – that visibility and normalization leads to culture change – is probably true. And it may also be true that if more people were to tell their abortion stories, that if people in the political center could see that women who have had abortions and the physicians who have performed them are “just like normal people”, that we would likely see some cultural shift over time. We may even see policy change follow.

But there is a limit to this thinking – with all of the culture change that the LGBTQ community has seen, stigma and violence are still perpetrated every day. I was reminded of this as I read the story of Mollie Olgin, 19, and Mary Chapa, 18, two young lesbians who were shot (with Mollie being killed) in Texas just last month. And I am heartbroken, remembering exactly how terrifying it is to be a 17-year-old kid coming out in the South, and how challenging moving through the world in this queer body of mine continues to be.

It’s too early to know whether or not this act of violence on young people was a hate crime. It doesn’t matter. Even if it wasn’t, queer and trans people experience violence and harassment at the hands of individuals and the state every single day.

Similarly, abortion providers, clinic workers, and the people that utilize their services experience violence and harassment every single day. The National Abortion Federation reports 5,165 incidents of violence and disruption at abortion clinics in 2011 alone, including stalking, vandalism, picketing, and attempted bombings and/or arson.

The lived experience of violence and harassment for people associated with abortion services should give us pause. The thinking and direction of the abortion rights movement originates primarily from the coasts, but living life in Manhattan or San Francisco or Washington, DC is different than living life in Tulsa, Oklahoma or Greenville, South Carolina.  It’s important to think carefully about the roles we are asking people to play. “Coming out” is a powerful contribution, but is not the only role one person can play to support progress around abortion access.

If the abortion rights movement is going to ask women to be more visible and vocal about their experiences with abortion, we must do so with thoughtfulness about the potential impact on individual people – particularly people living in rural communities and conservative states. We must be working to address stigma in these communities. And we must be vigilant about supporting people – providers, clinic staff, and individual women – once they go public. We must support individual health care providers and social service workers to challenge the stigma around abortion in their clinics, agencies, and professional communities, a strategy we at the Abortion Access Project are currently pursuing. And finally, we must stick around, knowing that this change takes time, and that individuals need lasting support.

If we’re going to see the change we seek for every woman in every community of every state, we need to meet people where they are, be patient, and keep showing up for the individuals who risk an awful lot to stand up for women. And we need to value not only those whose contribution is to “come out,” but those whose contribution is to stand up for women in a less public way. Everyone has a role to play, and these roles are as diverse as the people who play them. If we can’t think bigger than “coming out,” we’re limiting the growth of our movement to people who are willing and/or able to take that risk. We can dream bigger than that. Our movement needs more than that.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact press@rhrealitycheck.org.

  • kirsten-sherk

    This is the second blog I’ve read that criticize pro-choice advocates for creating an open-space for women to share their abortion stories. If I undestand you and the other (anonymous) author correctly, just by asking women to share their stories, and creating a space for them to do so, it is implied that ALL women who have had abortion SHOULD share their stories, or risk being Bad Feminists. But I worry that this protective stance also reinforces the censorship that keeps even pro-choice women feel from talking about their own abortion experiences.

    I speak as someone who has worked in the movement for 20 years, and from my position at Ipas, where we work every day, often in legally restricted settings, to ensure that abortion is considered a part of basic health care for women, and where we work with partners like ANSIRH to break down the stigma that surrounds abortion. In many of the countries where we work, stigma helps to maintain the colonial abortion laws promulgated 100 years ago, even as the countries that imposed them reformed their own. Stigma drives women to seek unsafe abortions, rather than talk to their support netowrks or medical providers about unwanted pregnancies.

    Too often I have heard friends and colleagues in the pro-choice movement say that they felt like the only pregnancy experience they could talk about was the one that ended happily with a healthy baby. Even among our suppoesly supportive circles, we reinforce this code of silence. So I guess I would turn the question back to you: how would you create a space for women to share their abortion stories? What can we do to enable or empower women to talk about their experiences in a way that doesn’t make others feel compelled to do so?

  • pegjohnston

    These are questions that we in abortion care think and talk about a lot, and I thank you for this perceptive article and discussion. My sense of what Kai is saying is that we all have to do some work to make the stigma go away and not wait for or expect women who have had an abortion to tell her story. Some of the women who present for abortion, can’t say the word, have very little support, or know that they would be stepping into a minefield if they told people who know them. As I advocated in an article, “We have met the enemy and s/he is us” we need to create DMZ’s (de-militarized zones) where we signal that it is safe to talk and not be judged. I have talked to professors, clergy, and counselors who say that women never talk to them about abortion. Yet I talk to women who say, “I can’t tell my minister, or my teacher, or counselor.” Women perceive the stigma quite keenly even if they don’t use that word..


    So, perhaps we should assert to women that they should be able to talk about their abortion experiences in an ideal world, but we should first ask ourselves if there are ways we can make the world safer and more tolerant for all kinds of revelations. If we have some safety we can announce to our immediate circle that “pregnancy decisions are all very complex” or “I could never judge a woman having an abortion.” See how many people approach you in the next month. And if we are in some position to influence others, we should be out there often. We should respond to bigots and stigmatizers in all media whenever possible. The anti-abortion folks have gotten away with far too much in this struggle; it’s time for push back.