I write about abortion, abortion rights, abortion access, and abortion stigma all day, almost every day. If I’m not publishing something here at RH Reality Check about abortion, I’m probably tweeting or Facebooking about it.
But how often do I say the word out loud? Not often enough, and certainly not often enough in front of people—strangers, acquaintances, and family members—who aren’t part of the circle of friends and reproductive justice activists I surround myself with here in my daily life in blue, blue Austin, Texas.
Despite the work I do as an activist journalist, I’ve been contributing to abortion stigma by not always speaking plainly about the work that I do, and that I’ve dedicated my life to. I’ve been afraid of starting arguments, of offending friends and family members, of ostracizing myself as the abortion lady.
A few months ago, I decided to change that. I made a conscious decision to talk about abortion, my support for abortion rights and my work as a reproductive justice activist in situations where I might previously have been more circumspect or guarded.
The result has been surprising and wonderful.
It started earlier this spring, while I was reporting on a story about anti-abortion “abolitionists” in Texas who protest outside schools, holding graphic signs that they say depict typical, legal abortion care. The group I profiled was based near my hometown, and I stayed with my parents while working on the piece.
I could have told my mom—with whom I have long had an agreement about not discussing our divergent political views—that I was working on a story about a “pro-life” group. Instead, I leveled with her late one morning after returning from a reporting outing: I’m writing about a group that opposes legal abortion care, I said. I told her about how the group confronts schoolkids with bloody imagery and sets up shop on public sidewalks while kids are trying to get to and from class in the mornings and afternoons.
I had no idea what she would say, how she would react. I was 30 years old, and I had never really had a conversation with my mom about abortion before.
We spent the rest of the morning sitting in her room, on my mom’s tall, pillow-strewn four-poster bed surrounded by her raucous cats, talking about life before Roe v. Wade. We discussed what happens when people don’t have access to legal abortion care, who thinks they have a right to dictate other people’s reproductive health decisions, what a 20-week abortion ban means, who gets abortions, who needs abortions, and, fundamentally, why access to legal abortion and affordable birth control are absolute necessities. And then we went and made some sandwiches.
It was just incredible. A conversation I’d been dreading for a decade brought me closer than ever to the most important woman in my life.
After that, I got bolder: At brunch with my father-in-law, I told him and his long-time work buddy, a total stranger to me, about how I spend my days writing about abortion. His buddy chimed in with enthusiasm, and we discussed Wendy Davis’ gubernatorial prospects and right-wing domination in Texas politics.
We didn’t necessarily agree on everything, but I can’t believe that we might have otherwise spent the meal making small talk about kolaches and goat cheese.
I work from home, which in reality means that I work from a rotating series of coffee shops and bars where, several times a week, I’ll get the inevitable question: “Whatcha working on?”
And now, my answer is never not some version of: “well basically, abortion.”
This is not a decision that all people who would like to end abortion stigma can necessarily make, or make safely. I’m a white, middle-class cisgender woman. My economic stability is not in danger because of my views on abortion. Neither myself nor my partner rely on family members for financial support, and we both enjoy working for employers that actively and publicly support reproductive rights. My closest social circle is (deliberately) comprised of feminist activists, feminist graduate students, feminist writers, and other -archy smashing allies. I am privileged to be able to talk about my support for legal abortion without fearing any consequences more serious than an awkward silence at Thanksgiving dinner or the temporary quashing of good social vibes.
While I’m a native Texan, and I’ve spent the majority of my professional life living and working in Texas, fear of talking openly about abortion has followed me everywhere I’ve traveled and lived. I don’t believe abortion stigma is particular to Texas, or particular to the South, or particular to places ruled by conservative politics. Which is why I was particularly dismayed to read a recent piece on Cosmopolitan‘s website—”How Texas Created a Culture of Shame and Silence Around Abortion”—that claims abortion stigma is “particularly powerful” in Texas.
Is abortion stigma powerful in Texas? Absolutely. Are Texans the source of a particularly dangerous strain of “shame and silence around abortion”? I’d like to see that research.
If abortion stigma was a problem unique to certain geographies, we wouldn’t have organizations like Sea Change, the 1 in 3 Campaign, and the recently launched Not Alone doing the hard national and international work of combating people’s fears of sharing their stories, not only concerning abortion, but concerning a wide range of reproductive health-care experiences.
NBC recently had to be publicly shamed into running an online ad for Obvious Child, the rom-com centered around a Brooklyn woman’s decision to end her pregnancy, simply because the ad contained the word “abortion.”
And it has been remarkable to watch Nevada lawmaker Lucy Flores (D-Las Vegas) talk honestly about the abortion she had as a teenager—remarkable not only that Flores told her story, but that the country didn’t self-destruct in the wake of this revelation, and her legislative work continues apace.
Indeed, our country’s highest court just proved, in its Hobby Lobby ruling, that Americans even struggle with having an evidence-based, scientifically sound national conversation about birth control—something it seems we can only talk about as long as everyone only needs it for “medical reasons” like polycystic ovary syndrome, and not “medical reasons” like not getting pregnant from having fun sex.
To presume that abortion stigma’s origin or manifestation is unique to particular cultures or geographic areas is to marginalize and even further silence those who, for a variety of reasons up to and including their own personal safety and survival, cannot, will not, or should not take up the cause of “free abortion on demand” all day every day. It also situates stigma as something inevitable and natural to particular groups, rather than something that can be actively countered by education and dialogue.
To claim, as Jill Filipovic does in her Cosmo piece, that Texas (a state with 254 counties, 268,820 square miles, 27 million residents, and which could house 11,687 islands of Manhattan) is a particular hotbed of abortion stigma is to regurgitate an easy and deeply unoriginal narrative that does nothing but blame people who are most negatively affected by the widespread stigma that surrounds all aspects of reproductive health care—not only abortion—for not trying harder to not be such wusses about it all.
Texans don’t need more disdain and ridicule that demeans and pooh-poohs the hard work activists are doing here not just to counter stigma around reproductive health-care decisions, but to make a wide range of reproductive health-care options available and affordable.
Instead of talking about how afraid folks—Texans, New Yorkers, citizens of Atlantis—are of saying the word “abortion,” a more productive conversation would center on why we’re afraid, and why and when those fears are real and substantial, and why and when they aren’t. The trouble, of course, is that it’s hard to know the difference until you give it a shot, and for a lot of folks, it may never be safe or practical to take the risk in the first place.
Which is why those of us who can afford to take the risk must do so—we must talk openly, loudly, and enthusiastically, not just about abortion but about the full spectrum of reproductive health-care decisions that we should all be empowered to make.
I hope that if you try it, you’ll find—as I did—that you have long been surrounded by unexpected allies.