Women Who Have Abortions Are ‘Not Alone': A Q&A With Abortion Story Advocate Beth Matusoff Merfish


As high school students, Beth Matusoff Merfish and her sister, Brett, spent their summer afternoons volunteering at Planned Parenthood, encouraged by their mother, Sherry. “We’d open the plastic birth control containers and put the Planned Parenthood stickers on them,” Beth told RH Reality Check.

When Beth prepared to leave for college, her mother told her about her abortion, which she had in 1972 as a 20-year-old in Austin, Texas. (She had told her older daughter before Brett left for college two years earlier.) Years later, all three women sat in the gallery of the Texas state senate building during Wendy Davis’s 11-hour speech aimed at filibustering legislation seeking to limit abortions after 20 weeks and impose new regulations that would leave just a few abortion clinics open in the state. Angry and frustrated about the passage of HB 2, as well as the trend in anti-choice legislation nationwide, Beth, now 31, wrote a New York Times op-ed urging women to tell their abortion stories in the name of breaking down stigma and shame. “You have the power to cement in the minds of your communities and families the importance of reproductive freedom,” she wrote.

In response to the outpouring of stories that they received in response to Beth’s piece, the three women founded Not Alone in the summer of 2013. The project aims to change the current climate around abortion stigma by encouraging women to tell their abortion stories in videos uploaded to YouTube.

In July, RH Reality Check spoke with Beth Matusoff Merfish on the phone about the organization she co-founded and the importance of storytelling in the reproductive rights movement. 

RH Reality Check: What makes Not Alone different from other organizations that encourage folks to tell their abortion stories?

Beth Matusoff Merfish: Our emphasis is on video—it’s a higher threshold way of telling a story. There’s no anonymity. When Emily [Letts, who filmed her own abortion earlier this year] posted her video, you had to stare into her eyes, you had to face her. Doing that makes it more difficult to judge her.

We have the same goal as the existing campaigns; we want to join with them, reach new audiences, continue the work of affecting the culture around abortion and the stigma that quiets women. The more voices we have, the better.

RHRC: How does Not Alone combat abortion stigma?

BMM: Women who get abortions are painted as caricatures—uneducated, irresponsible—when in reality none of those things are true.

All women make choices about their reproductive health, but stigma around abortion make us think that having an abortion will leave you entirely alone, that you’ll be the only one. It’s a really mean trick by the right. We hope people will look at the videos, at the diverse submission group, and see someone who looks and sounds like them, because abortion stories are diverse.

The assumption is that these campaigns are apolitical, that it’s a self-help project—if by self-help, you mean helping all women. Not Alone is a 501(c)(4); there is a political goal here. Our representatives need to hear that we want to change the status quo around reproductive rights.

RHRC: Can you talk about your personal experiences with abortion stigma?

BMM: My mom told us her abortion story so we wouldn’t feel alone, the way she did, if we ever made the same choice. It shocked me that she felt alone, because she was always surrounded by community. She had this intense fear of stigma, that telling people about her abortion would cause fractures in her relationship, she didn’t know how they would react. The fact that she felt stigmatized really had an impact on me, it gave me a whole new perspective.

RHRC: What do you think about the idea that every person who has had an abortion should tell their story?

BMM: My mother, sister, and I went to hear Rachel Maddow speak in Austin, and she said something that really inspired me: If you’re able to share an experience that was once shrouded in shame, you can do that because someone did it before you did; they took risks.

We don’t know the impact our stories will have on other people. The more we talk, the more we help each other, and that’s a compelling reason to talk. If we think of ourselves as being in a community of common goals and experiences, our stories can help each other.

Maybe you’re not ready to make a video for Not Alone, but you might be feeling ready to tell someone in your life, and you end up seeing a video that gives you language to talk about your own story.

When you upload a video for Not Alone on YouTube, we make a donation to Provide, an organization that seeks to fill gaps in abortion access through work with local partners and within the health-care systems, so that we can also help ensure that women can have access to abortion providers. We want everyone who makes a video to know that we appreciate their bravery and sharing so much.

RHRC: What do you think about the idea that there’s a “right” kind of abortion or abortion story?

BMM: As someone who’s pro-choice, I think there’s this inclination to only want to hear stories from women who don’t feel traumatized, who don’t have regrets, because the right would have you believe that women who have abortions regret them every single day. On the site, we mediate videos, and we have gotten pre-made videos from the right, although I expected more. The truth is that abortion stories are three-dimensional, because we live full lives, and everyone has a different relationship with their reproductive health. The more kinds of stories, the more authentic the representation, the more likely it will be that people can go on the site and find someone that reminds them of their mom, sister, or themselves. I want these stories to do what I know they can do, which is open people’s minds. We have to push ourselves to find communities, and move beyond fear.

RHRC: I’m thinking also of the commonly seen, very “palatable” portrait of a woman who has an abortion: She’s white, wealthy, married, educated, she already has a child, and she was pregnant with a very wanted child when she learned it had a fetal anomaly.

BMM: There are a lot of compelling stories of choice; they all have their places, and they should all be told. I think when someone talks about why they chose abortion, people move to judgment if they don’t recognize her choices or her circumstances:  “She’s not educated,” “She didn’t use birth control,” “I bet everyone in her family has had an abortion.”

This woman you’re talking about is in an impossible situation. Sympathy and empathy, not judgment, allow more stories to be told, and that makes the issue no longer abstract. That changes the culture.

This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

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  • http://batman-news.com Gordon Cash

    I heartily recommend that everyone reading this also read This Common Secret by Dr. Susan Wicklund, a Montana abortion provider. As you might guess from the title, it is about the common secret of having had an abortion.

    • almond_bubble_tea

      This Common Secret is a great book. Dr. Wicklund goes into detail about how she actually sits down with each patient and ensures an abortion is what the patient really wants. She even mentions a case when one patient really wanted to carry the pregnancy to term but there was no support at home. Dr. Wicklund actually calls the local pregancy center and asks them to help this patient.

      • fiona64

        And, as I recall, they (the CPC) did diddly-squat. :-( (I freely admit that I could be mis-remembering.)

        • StealthGaytheist

          Thank you for this. I’m so sick of the BS lies we’re always seeing from the antichoice trolls.

        • Shan

          IIRC, they DID find a doctor who took the woman pro bono, but grudgingly.

          “The patient referred to in the quote was given free prenatal care and did not have to pay the financial cost of childbirth by a local
          anti-choice doctor. She would often stop by Dr. Wicklund’s office to let
          her know how she was doing:

          “He always moans and groans about being tricked into [doing this],”
          she says. “Then he goes off on these tirades against abortion.”

          http://provoice.tumblr.com/post/78554069484/i-had-a-patient-in-the-clinic-who-really-did-not

          • StealthGaytheist

            Yep, so “prolife” but not the least bit interested in actually doing anything to promote it beyond having tantrums about abortion.

          • Shan

            Go here, because…I just need some rational people there, please. And don’t judge me for trying to reason with these people.

            http://liveactionnews.org/is-the-economy-the-untold-casualty-of-abortion/

          • dudebro

            Creating life specificaly to exploit for the capitalist system = immoral, and, in a sense, is enslavement.

          • Shan

            Yeah. Just…yeah. (sad sigh)

          • Shan

            Lindsey, I think it’s insane that half your comments are getting stuck in moderation. I’m going to contact RHRC to ask them to put you on the “white list” (I think that’s what it’s called) so you can post like a big girl here.

          • StealthGaytheist

            They’re selfish. What else would you expect?

          • Alex Hunter

            Not to mention it drives up demand for fuel and energy. India wants to mine in the Great Barrier Reef because they’ve exhausted their own fossil fuels and even if they succeed they’ll still not have enough to sustain their population.
            This is little more than keeping the masses reliant so that they can be manipulated more easily into spending more for the same amount. Like pushers to drug addicts.

          • dudebro

            God will provide!!

          • fiona64

            I know. I read a few of the comments, and it was pretty much “We need to hurry up and breed because jobs!” StealthGaytheist pointed out quite rightly that tax breaks for corporate inversion, etc., were the real problem here … but ohnoes!

            I’m surprised they stopped justthisclose to Lebensborn programs being required, if you ask me …

          • dudebro

            And what a shocker.. The Koch brothers write most of the anti abortion laws through ALEC.

          • Jennifer Starr

            I wish I could post there, but I’ve been banned–you’re doing a great job.

          • Shan

            Well, pooh, no. I don’t know how much longer I can stand it. It’s like “OMG PUT THE OXYGEN MASK OVER YOUR FACE OR YOU’LL DIE!!!” And they’re like “No, I’ll use the mystical cloth-of-mystery instead, thanks!”

          • Jennifer Starr

            I know–sending (((((hugs))))))

          • dudebro

            Jennifer, Fiona and I are banned.
            And u r crazy, going there.

            Are you masochist?????

            Then again, I hang out at SPL so…who am I to talk.

          • Arekushieru

            Add my name to the list, dudebro!

          • lady_black

            These people are all over the place in their so-called “arguments”. They have nothing even resembling a logical argument. There is no way to quantify the economic effect of people who never existed in the first place. And of course, the conclusion (based on data that doesn’t even exist) is that ending abortion on demand is the answer.

          • Suba gunawardana

            LAN is one group who absolutely can’t stand truth or logic. I was banned in one night. So were many others.

          • fiona64

            Banned from there after a mere 12 hours, because I presented facts and sources that proved Calvin Freakburger is a liar.

          • Shan

            I can see why you call him that now. Oy.

          • expect_resistance

            He’s a complete little pompous shithead. I think he gets his rocks off on being the moderator. He’s a mean-spirited. I think it drives him nuts that you call him “Freakburger” I love it.

          • fiona64

            BTW, I managed to get through about four paragraphs of the main article before I hit the “what a steaming pile of shite” wall.

          • JamieHaman

            OMG,

          • someone45

            I’d love to go there but they seem to ban anyone who disagrees with their anti-choice garbage.

          • dudebro

            You’ve been at SPL longer than I have. Don’t know how you can stand it. Took me a while to post, they skeeved me.

          • someone45

            I wonder that sometimes. They are just so delusional in their thinking I guess I just want to try to see if I can make sense of their garbage.

          • dudebro

            Anton used to post there. He was so mean to them. Haven’t seen him in ages though.

          • someone45

            I think I remember him. If he is who I am thinking of I wish he would come back. His posts always made me laugh.

          • dudebro

            yep. He was always like “fuck you misogynist assholes, you just want to control female sexuality, and my daughters are not broodmares’

            He’s a Christian, too.

          • someone45

            Hahaha yeah that was him. I wonder what happened to him.

          • dudebro

            Vita is a dumbass.

          • someone45

            Yep I have noticed that.

          • expect_resistance

            Got your notice late as I’ve been offline in the garden. I’ve never posted there before but trying it now. :)

          • redlemon

            I’m sprinkling in my two cents where I can, but I don’t know how much I can stand of their self righteousness. It takes many hours of The Sims 3 to erase that much smug.

          • dudebro

            Moral purity feels gooooood.

            https://www.google.ca/search?q=moral+purity&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&channel=sb&gfe_rd=cr&ei=KLDeU76XDJTn-QOSqICgCQ

            That’s why they debate abortion on LAN. They get to feel self-righteous without lifting a finger or mortgaging their homes to actually save the life of a dying child.

          • redlemon

            Everything is a simple, ill thought out soundbite of cute babies and nothing else. Thinking of anything else amounts to murder in their eyes.

            I really can’t stand how they equate abortion to killing children. I’ve held a dead child in my arms. Not my child, but a brother. A preschooler. And I am sure they have never seen a dead child in their lives. Or had to say such a goodbye. I am not removed from what a dead child looks like and it insults me that they would think of a fetus higher then starving children, beaten children, or homeless children. They don’t life a finger, and those who have experiences like me cry at every starving/hurt child they come across.

          • Shan

            I’m so sorry, Red.

          • Shan

            I think it went pretty well. There were some emo-snivelers and some “I’m so smart, you just don’t get it” ones but for the most part they were pretty decent, especially in comparison to the aresewipe trolls we get over here all the time.

            I’m pretty much done over there now, though. It seems like it’s at the stage were it’s going to get nasty.

          • expect_resistance

            The World Gone Crazy guy is really strange. He told me because I was on the pill I was a killer. Bat $hit crazy.

  • dudebro

    http://mypage.direct.ca/w/writer/anti-tales.html

    The only moral abortion is my abortion

  • dudebro
  • Suba gunawardana

    The vast majority of articles on abortion, including those in support of it (as this one) still carry the undertone that abortion is something wrong, something about which you should feel bad or make excuses.

    If and when that sentiment is changed, the world would be a far better place for women & children.

  • Shan

    “It’s called “sleep paralysis” and I’ve experienced it a few times since.”

    That’s where my brain was going when you were describing the sensation. It’s happened to me before. I was a little wigged out until I found out, like you, what it actually was. Fortunately, not having been raised with any particular religion or with any superstitions, I only went to “WTF was THAT all about?!”

  • http://batman-news.com Gordon Cash

    I lost the thread. What site are you talking about here?

    • Arekushieru

      Live Action News, I believe? Btw, Gordon, is that a picture of you or someone you know, or someone related to you or simply a random picture? It’s just that, if it’s the former, I would like to send out kudos to you! Since the picture appears to represent someone from a previous generation to mine, that means you were more likely a minority when upholding the Pro-Choice than a lot of us from my own generation. And that is just AWESOME, especially considering how well-written and -thought out your comments. THANK you, again!

  • expect_resistance

    Did you get banned from LAN?

  • Suba gunawardana

    The LAN crowd obviously can’t stand logic or reason. That’s why they never post outside their little comfort zone, and ban anyone who dares to challenge them.

    When I was banned from LAN I posted a detailed response on a SPL thread which they were watching. A couple of them responded but never continued the debate. I challenged them more than once to debate here or any other site. No takers. They cannot conduct a real debate, so prefer to ban people & claim false victory.

  • Arekushieru

    But, but, them there taxes are my hard earned money! Ugh, they’re hypocrites. Besides, what do they think it will COST to raise the children to that point. A whole HELL of a lot more than that.