Why I Share My Abortion Story, But Am Not Pro-Voice


A version of this article originally appeared on the Abortion Gang blog.

Six years: that’s how long I didn’t talk about my abortion. I pretended like I hadn’t even had one. Abortions were something I knew other people had—a right I supported, but I stayed out of the conversation in case someone would find me out.

When I found Exhale, an organization focused on “addressing the emotional health and well-being of women and men after abortion,” I literally exhaled. It was a place where I could relax and own my experience. I could share the complexities without shame and guilt. When the group asked me to write my story for their site, I was nervous—strangers would know my secret. But the response was one of overwhelming support and understanding. Friends from my past came out of the shadows to tell me that they had an abortion too, and that we should keep talking about them, so I did.

For a year and a half, I worked with the team at Exhale to share my story when training their new talk line volunteers and in magazine interviews; I even had their support when I told my story on the BBC World News Hour. When I was asked to join the group’s national college campus story sharing tour, I was excited. For four months I excitedly prepped, planned, and practiced. But a month before the tour was to begin, I was told that I wouldn’t be joining them. The decision was made without a conversation. It was devastating. I was, and still am, thankful for the opportunities we shared together. I believe their work is very much needed by so many people who’ve had an abortion. But I also realize that my understanding of my abortion is more complex than what Exhale can handle. It was like those past relationships we’ve all had—I learned so much more about who I am and what I need to move forward and grow … after I was dumped. The following is a piece I wrote for the Abortion Gang blog about what I’ve learned.

I’ve been sharing my abortion story publicly (and privately) for two years now. It’s been a whirlwind experience; I’ve felt elation and anxiety, pride and shame, stigma and empowerment. Sharing my story has brought me closer than ever to some of my friends and family members, and also left some unwilling to speak to me again. I’ve been told I’m very brave and courageous, and also some not-so-nice things not worth repeating. I knew from day one that speaking about my abortion would change my life and the lives of others. I knew that if I was honest in sharing one of the most vulnerable parts of myself, that I could be my most authentic self and could use my voice to advocate for my rights and my people, as I had never done before. So it makes me angry when one abortion story-sharing organization belittles some abortion stories as nothing more than political pawns for the pro-choice movement.

When I first started sharing my story publicly, I was shown a different movement; one that valued sharing abortion experiences without politics. I was excited. I wanted to share my story for my own healing and move past the shame and stigma that mainstream rhetoric forced upon me. And like many, I drank the Kool-Aid to shield myself from the ‘politics of abortion.’ I was trained to be pro-storyteller’s-voice. To me, letting go of the politics meant freeing oneself from the pro-choice and pro-life labels. It meant not blaming one political party for anti-abortion legislation, because there are some Democrats to who don’t support abortion rights and there are some Republicans who do. White Republican men at that! Don’t believe me? You should, I’ve dated them. Joining this new movement felt great—I felt heard and honest about myself. I previously felt so isolated and it felt great to be pro-voice.

As I continued sharing my story, I began to unpack my invisible knapsack. Inside there was a mix of privilege and oppression; complexities galore. I recognized how much my class background, growing up in an urban setting, and access to (somewhat) comprehensive sexual health education played in to my ability to have a safe abortion. How my privilege gave me access to a great clinic where the nurse held my hand and was waiting by my bedside when I awoke. But also, how my race, gender, and place in society affected the stigma, stereotyping, and isolation I felt. How I stayed silent about my abortion for so long because I didn’t want to been seen as a statistic—”another Black teen who got pregnant.” When I began volunteering to house clients who traveled five hours or more to have a safe and legal abortion through my local abortion fund, I began to see how much more complex abortion was, beyond the emotions. Sharing my home with strangers to whom I’m only connected through our abortion experience made me understand the power of elevating our voices that much more. We never discuss politics, but we do discuss what is political—our bodies and our lives.

I thought that vocalizing my complexities would continue to help me heal and acknowledge the vast gray area of abortion. I thought that was acceptable to others in the organization I spoke with, but I found out the hard way that it was not. “We don’t think you’re ready to share your story publicly,” they told me. Wait, what? I was bewildered. How can someone else tell me when I am ready to tell my story? I had been working with them for over a year. I felt so supported, but now I had been dumped hard. I asked for more explanations, yet they gave me none.

Afterwards, I talked to more people and found out I was not the first. I was now at the back of a long line of people who had found their voice, only to be shut down when they began to explore it more. I found a friend who was told by the same group that her story was too political, simply for the fact that her abortion happened on Election Day—an irony she realized as she cast her vote for president.

Time, and more public story telling, has given me perspective into what the root issue was—privilege. The act of telling someone how, when, where, and why they should, or should not, share their personal experience is one deeply rooted in privilege. It is wrong to identify yourself as the gatekeeper to the stories that the world will hear. It is wrong to filter out the personal experiences of people of color, poor folks, people with various gender identities and sexual orientations, and immigrant folks, all because the world happens to be debating issues related to those identities. Saying that our personal experiences are “too political” is a continued systematic oppression by those with power to silence stories that will not further a specific agenda. This perpetuates the idea that abortion stories should fit one narrative—the one that best fits a social movement’s goals. It is an abuse of power over the most vulnerable.

It is not my fault that people are allowed to debate my skin color. It is not my fault that my healthcare is a matter of public discussion. For someone to say whether or not I can share my story to further an understanding of my life experience is one of the most offensive actions they can take against me. For them to say that I can’t share it in an advocacy realm is ignorant of the fact that I have to stand up for myself and fight for my rights, because who else will? As Amanda Marcotte wrote when questioning the movement, “People who view women as things to be controlled and punished aren’t going to be swayed by women’s voices, when they don’t respect them in the first place.” My community and I are under attack. Is the personal no longer the political?

For the record, I identify as a reproductive justice activist because I believe there is more at play than legal abortion. I want to use a broader framework for change. I actively work for the inclusion of queer identities in our movement, to end the stigma around young parents, and to ensure that everyone has the autonomy to live their fullest lives. Fighting for access to food, education, healthcare, etc. all has an impact on available reproductive decisions—without access, there is no choice. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t stand in solidarity with my pro-choice friends.

When I share my story, I am no one’s political pawn. I am standing up for myself in a society that deems my voice unnecessary. I am sharing an experience and how it changed my life. And if my friends or I need access to a safe abortion, I want to speak out to ensure that it is available next week and next year. I do it because I want to help shape the pro-choice movement to become a more inclusive one, and increase our understanding of the complexities of abortion experiences. I want to make it better. I want culture change.

By sharing my abortion experience, I jump in to the heated conversation and bring some rationale to it. I often share my experience with people who are fervently anti-abortion. I don’t do it to get them to become pro-choice or vote for the candidate of my liking. I do it because I actually want to create a culture of listening and sharing. I listen to them to understand why they hold the views they do—often it’s because they don’t want me to feel pain through an abortion. When I explain my actual feelings, how feelings are multifaceted, and how the rhetoric on all sides impacts my experience, they begin to understand me a bit better. They understand the quandary I was in. There’s no talk of politics—and we can both retain our separate beliefs, but also share a vulnerable moment.

I agree that no one should have their story misused, distorted, or flattened. No one should have their story twisted for another’s gain. It’s not right. But I also recognize that many of the listeners in the room also have abortion experiences and identify with mine. They heard something in my story that rang true. The connection and engagement with the listeners is what’s most important to me.

I don’t believe in order to share your abortion story authentically, you have to move to the sidelines and become apolitical. And if that is what some people want to do, that’s great. That’s their choice. But it’s unethical for them to tell me that how I should share my story. Because it’s just that: mine.

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Follow Renee Bracey Sherman on twitter: @rbraceysherman

  • billfalls

    It’s sad that two movements I’m committed to and active in – pro-choice and pro-voice – sometimes veer off into tests of orthodoxy: if you aren’t exactly “on message” you’re suspect or even a threat. I cringe when pro-choice leaders I respect say President Obama is selling out when he looks for a middle ground with Congressional opponents. Renee Bracey Sherman’s article suggests that Exhale applied a purity test to her story-sharing as well. I hope that isn’t what they meant to do, and that they will respond here in RHRC.

  • XKCD

    It wasn’t long ago that I thought the best thing the pro-choice movement could do was to encourage (without pressure) women to share their abortion stories with those they knew who were anti-abortion. I had thought, obviously, it’s got to be hard to paint someone as a heartless “baby killer” if you know them and their situation personally.

    Honestly though, after hearing that guy shut down the testimony of hundreds of women who weren’t allowed to speak because he felt their stories were “repetitive” and “boring”, and seeing my home state’s abortion bill legislate that women can’t be transferred to a public hospital if they develop serious medical issues caused by legal abortion, and seeing more and more how anti-abortion people deflect and whine whenever you mention the awful effects banning abortion can have on women…I really have given up on the idea that any of these people care about women’s lives and health in the first place.

    Now I think what people need to do is just straight-up say “a fetus is not a baby”. That is their primary belief, and that is what needs to be focused on and argued against. A fertilized egg is not an embryo, an embryo is not a fetus, and a fetus is not a newborn baby. A 20-week ban is not based in logic because a 20-week fetus has 0% viability. Literally not once in history has a 20-week preemie survived, so “development” is not an argument for that ban. Fetal pain at that stage is a myth. The arguments for a 20-week abortion ban are based on emotion, not facts or statistics, and forcing those emotions on all women shouldn’t be tolerated. Something does not equal something else solely because it has the potential to become that thing. “Potential to be” does not equal “being”, and that would be a horrific scientific standard to base actual laws around.

    These people are the ones trying to take away already established, constitutionally-protected legal rights, it’s about time we put them on the defensive and made them prove that abortion rights harm society more than help (which would require ignoring history, I think).

    • Nor

      Ok, but the people who think it’s a baby at conception for religious reasons aren’t going to bend. The people who think a fetus is a baby aren’t going to bend. The only place there seems room for argument is telling them about how the way they are going about trying to limit/eliminate the number of abortions isn’t the most effective way. It’s hard, because some of them are also anti-birth control. I don’t know how to talk to those people. I don’t think it’s possible to win them over with words. But the people who truly want to reduce or eliminate the numbers of abortions can be convinced to promote other very positive things, like free birth control and comprehensive sex ed. And I think most of them are reasonable enough to allow exceptions for the health of the mother. So then we’re talking about a relatively small number of abortions left. And since there will always be abortions, whether it’s legal or not, in a practical sense they are going to have to accept a certain number, shy of putting all pregnant or possibly pregnant women under 24-7 watch. Then it gets down to practical questions – how do you intend to prevent illegal abortions, or self-abortions? If you can’t do this, what is your motivation for making women pursue that vs. having access to safe abortion? If that motivation is to punish them, look at who you are choosing to punish – poor married mothers, mostly. How is this punishment effective? Does it work now, did it work in the past, and will it work in the future? What is the cost to you and to society? What is the greater good? What is the cost to the weakening of bodily autonomy law? What is the danger of allowing laws of this type to be enacted in fields other than abortion (i.e. birth control, etc.). What is the cost to women’s rights and control of their lives? Is it worth it? Can you make that decision for other people? If they still can’t find some middle ground or understanding after all of that, I don’t know what else you can do except wait until they themselves are in that situation. Then whatever happens is what they really believe.

      • HeilMary1

        I try bringing up frequent deadly, gross and bankrupting complications from childbirth like female fetus-caused face and breast cancers, divorce-causing incontinence, $1,000,000 hospital and disability bills and priests molesting the already born kids. Looks-conscious fetal idolaters might then get very icked out by what Rev. Pedophile never told them.

  • Anne

    Thank you Renee, so powerful and helpful. I only recently shared my abortion story after keeping it secret for 27 1/2 years. I was able to do that because of voices like yours. I’ll be honest, the one thing I heard over and over and over again from the anti-choice women was a story like this: “I had an abortion, it was awful, I have regrets, it was emotionally painful. Therefore, no one else should ever have to go through that.” Although I empathize with these women, I find myself getting so angry that having had the choice themselves, they now want that choice taken away and given to a group of legislators. Anyway, thanks for your voice, much appreciated! God Bless!

    • Nor

      I don’t know that anyone explains it to them in those terms, and if someone did, I don’t have a lot of hope that they’d understand it.

  • Nor

    So what’s your story?