In the world of reproductive rights, it’s no surprise that “stigma” and “storytelling” have simultaneously emerged as buzzwords. Both center individuals’ abortion experiences while circumventing the overtly political pro-choice/”pro-life” divide that has remained at loggerheads for over 40 years. Last week, my Students for Choice Chapter at the University of Michigan—partnered with Advocates for Youth’s 1 in 3 Campaign—attempted to harness the latent power of abortion stories by hosting our first-ever Abortion Speak Out. With the help of pro-choice activist Katie Stack, I think we succeeded.
In a room of over 200 guests, several students shared their abortion experiences. Some experiences were positive, certain, and empowering; others were doubtful, remorseful, and even haunting. Some people shared how they were forced to obtain judicial bypasses or endure mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds, and nearly all wished they had had more support before, during, and after the procedure. The details varied, but hearing these women speak was deeply moving, and demonstrated the need for a safe, non-judgmental space, like the one provided at the Speak Out. Moreover, their stories added necessary nuance and moral gray area to the issue. They verified that the personal experience of abortion is often more complicated than the pro-choice/”pro-life” dichotomy that dominates national discourse.
The Speak Out was the first time several of the participants women had spoken publicly about their abortions. Most speakers mourned the lack of support they received immediately following the procedure. I hope—and believe—that the Speak Out was a safe place for these women, and that the stories humanized an issue that is often completely decontextualized from women and men’s lived experiences. Hearing an uncensored abortion story articulated by an individual who has terminated a pregnancy provides an emotional boon that is impossible to achieve with statistics, and the pro-choice movement needs that emotion. In order to live up to our slogan of “trusting women,” we must accurately and truthfully portray abortion experiences, the good and the bad, rather than simply cherry-picking the most sympathetic narratives, as we have in the past—which, I would argue, disregards and even demeans many abortion experiences. Thus, spaces like those crafted by the Speak Out will help inform and direct us, in effect generating a more cohesive, open, and honest movement.
Still, an annual Speak Out at a university is not enough to address the needs of one-third of U.S. women. Other, similar spaces should be created. For example, Exhale, an organization that addresses the emotional health and well-being of women and men following abortions by fostering communication in virtual and in-person communities, seeks to transform conversation around abortion. Though this is a step in the right direction, sharing stories does not allow individuals who have had abortions to go back in time and garner support from friends and family; something deeper has to change. Perhaps we could learn from Kate Cockrill’s research, which has proven that under certain conditions (for example, equal power relationships, shared goals, and common customs), contact with an individual who has terminated a pregnancy contributes to less prejudicial attitudes toward abortion; she also demonstrates that storytelling facilitates a domino effect of sorts, wherein the disclosure of one abortion experience prompts the disclosure of another. However, these findings complicate the notion that simply sharing a story with an indiscriminate group of people in any setting is an effective way to destigmatize abortion—instead, our efforts should be intentional.
Furthermore, storytelling may have potential to bridge political divides. The vice president of our campus’ anti-choice group Students for Life shared kind words after the event. He said, “Although I am sure we had very different takeaways from hearing the women’s abortion stories, I really liked the focus on the individual as opposed to the politics. The issue of abortion will always come down to the desire to protect human beings, and whenever winning some political game becomes the focus, we all lose.”
A 1 in 3-sponsored student group at the University of Maine had a similar experience, and their anti-choice counterparts found common ground in agreeing that stigmatizing individuals who have had abortions is undesirable. That an abortion rights group and an anti-choice group even managed to communicate respectfully is (judging from my experience) astounding. The idea of cultivating a common ground using the framework of combating stigma should be further explored.
The pro-choice movement can learn from the stories shared at our Speak Out. For some, abortion is an empowering experience, while for others it is not. For many, it is not just the removal of a ball of cells or a straightforward route to educational and economic progress. To simplify the issue is to tarnish and invalidate the experiences of people who have had abortions. In order to align our rhetoric and ideology with lived experiences, we must embrace and vocalize the moral ambiguity of abortion. The black-white paradigm has not worked for us in the past, and I do not anticipate people’s aversion to dismembered fetuses waning in the near future. As the stories we heard reflected, the choice to have an abortion may be difficult and guilt-ridden, even if it is right. These emotions may be a product of stigma rather than natural or logical byproducts of having had an abortion. But even if they are, they are nonetheless part of individuals’ experiences, and we must respect and reflect that.
The 1 in 3 Campaign creates a space where abortion stories can be shared, illuminating the repercussions of stigma, and this is an important first step. These stories next must be channeled to inform the movement so that years from now, at an abortion Speak Out, the stories shared will reflect a culture of respect and support surrounding abortion.
*Many thanks to Steph Herold and Lisa Martin for their generous thoughts and feedback in regard to this article.