It’s been another in a series of very rough years for reproductive rights. Misleading, surreptitiously filmed videos about Planned Parenthood have led to a political wrestling match over funding for the healthcare provider which could shut down the government. Meanwhile, various abortion bans have gone into effect, leading to an upsurge in women going across the border to find abortion drugs. At the GOP debates, abortion providers are used as a punching bag, a bogeyman on par with the Ayatollah and socialism.
In the middle of this dark period, voices advocating abortion rights on social media and in the press have been getting stronger and stronger, creating a base of support that has fostered some of the best fictional abortion stories we’ve seen in years, in films like Obvious Child and Grandma.
But real stories have a place too, as this week’s trending hashtag #shoutyourabortion shows. Abortion speakouts have been a huge part of the pro-choice movement since its inception, with different iterations reflecting the attitudes of their respective generations — from rap sessions and consciousness raisings of the second wave to the third wave’s “I Had an Abortion” project to the spate of abortion Tumblrs, videos, a MOOC about abortion stigma, and more inventive technology-based campaigns in this decade. Recent speakouts had online components, but this is the first one that has taken place entirely on social media.
Started by Lindy West and Amelia Bonow, the hashtag aimed to do what abortion storytelling has always done: connect the procedure to real women — mothers, daughters, friends, professionals. Bonow wrote about her abortion on her Facebook page: “Plenty of people still believe that on some level – if you are a good woman – abortion is a choice which should be accompanied by some level of sadness, shame or regret,” she wrote. “But you know what? I have a good heart and having an abortion made me happy in a totally unqualified way.” West screencapped this story with the hashtag #shoutyourabortion, and the stories began to proliferate: “The response was immediate and overwhelming – it felt, almost, as if many had been waiting for this moment to speak,” she writes at the Guardian . “People I’ve known for years told me stories I’d never heard before.”
Most of the stories I saw on the hashtag expressed little regret, taking a tone of defiance and self-ownership. This was the choice I had to make at the time, the tweets said. Trans people, rape victims, mothers of multiple kids, women who were just too young and clueless to have kids, women whose medically necessary abortions broke their hearts, and women who never wanted kids all chimed in with their own stories, their own feelings. Many women used it to speak about their mothers’ abortions, the ones that allowed them to be born later in life.
The hashtag almost immediately got invaded by trolls, many of whom expressed their wish that the people who had abortions had themselves been aborted — which makes very little logical sense, but there’s no logic to nihilistic trollery. The amazing power of this hashtag campaign was the way it publicized both the stories of women and the sheer misogyny of the supposedly pro-life, humanist people on the other side:
Earlier this year, Katha Pollitt wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, one of several high-profile calls for women who have had abortions to “come out” if they feel safe and comfortable doing so. Pollitt noted that the problem with remaining silent is that it lets the other narrative gain ascendance, climbing up to very high places:
A recent study published in the journal PLOS One finds that more than 95 percent of women felt the abortion was the right decision, both immediately after the procedure and three years later. They’ve been shamed into silence by stigma. Abortion opponents are delighted to fill that silence with testimony from their own ranks: the tiny minority of women who say they’re plagued by regret… Make no mistake: Those voices are heard in high places. In his 2007 Supreme Court decision upholding the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy specifically mentioned the “unexceptionable” likelihood that a woman might come to regret her choice.
Ending stigma is not going to stop vile anti-choice politicians from taking aim at Planned Parenthood, nor will it stop Anthony Kennedy from his moral handwringing. Just look at the Republican debate to see how this issue is currently being handled by a political party whose leaders were once Planned Parenthood donors (looking at you, Bush family) to see how severe the backsliding has been. But I think fighting the stigmatization of abortion is the only way to win the long game. We have to talk about the fact that it’s a part of life, and that even as it does close some doors, it opens other doors — to fulfillment, family, and freedom. And it affects people we know. I hope #shoutyourabortion is far from the last time we see social media used to replace the shroud of stigma with the faces of real people, who deserve dignity and a decent life, and whose abortions may have helped them achieve those goals.