One of the great schisms between the anti-abortion movement and the abortion rights movement is the question who cares for women more.
Obviously, pro-choice activists see themselves as on “Team women,” and many have expanded that position to include transgender people. But anti-abortion activists have also long sought to depict themselves as defenders of women, making women out to be innocent pawns who later come to regret their choices (again, while the abortion issue isn’t just about women, its opponents aren’t exactly trying to explode the gender binary).
These activists avoid the question of whether women who have abortions should do jail time, because it makes people uncomfortable, and similarly skirt around the possibility that people seeking abortions are rational actors who understand exactly what their own decisions are (and are no more likely to regret those decisions than the average human being).
This message has never been particularly convincing to advocates on the other side, since it has more than a whiff of paternalism to it — and since abortion stigma remains so strong. But it does appeal to people in what Katha Pollitt calls “the muddled middle” who don’t have strong opinions on the issue but are swayed by arguments on both side. One of those people? Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has cited “abortion regret” in his Supreme Court decisions.
Yet that message that women regret their abortions or are duped into them was undermined considerably a few weeks ago when the #shoutyourabortion hashtag began to go viral. It was an incredible social media moment, maybe one of the most powerful hashtag campaigns since that form of activism was invented, because it offered incontrovertible evidence that abortions happen for a great variety of reasons, from personal choice to dire health circumstances to prioritizing other children or future children.
But whatever the reasons, the participants stressed that these were rational, thought-out decisions that enabled the people who made them to live the lives that mattered most to them. It was a campaign that came in close proximity to the hashtags supporting Planned Parenthood, which attracted dozens of celebrities and hundreds less-famous people talking about the actual services they’d received at the provider. In both cases, social media enabled actual stories and experiences to create the narrative, rather than be caught in a political ping-pong match.
And then there was a curious side-effect to the #shoutyourabortion hashtag. It revealed the ugly, deeply sexist sentiment that informs a movement that claims to be the real supporters of women. Instead of saying, “oh, you poor dears, you know not what you did,” the response to the tweets and Facebook posts was almost universally nasty, misogynist, racist and even threatening. It got so bad that Amelia Bonow, who began the campaign along with Lindy West, had to go into hiding:
Bonow and her boyfriend spent several nights in a Seattle hotel. They headed out of town, returned and left again because she felt so unsafe. On Tuesday, she got a call from David Hale, vice president of development at Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands, expressing concern for her safety. He put her in touch with Planned Parenthood’s security guru, who connected her with the Seattle Police Department and the FBI. The hope is that they can help her assess the level of threat and that she can soon come home.
But the momentum from the hashtag survived even the most ghastly trollery. Bonow and others, including several celebrities, decided to keep their activism going recently, with a video put together by the “A is for” organization. Imitating Jimmy Kimmel’s mean tweets segments (a meme that has been used by feminists to expose trolls before) the writes and performers including Martha Plimpton and Margaret Cho, stood before the camera and read out loud the worst tweets they received, including the racist ones, the Hitler comparisons, a smattering of debasing misogyny, some bad anatomical understanding, and some very bad spelling or grammar.
The primary point of the video was to strike back at trolls, but it also goes further in illustrating how just saying “I had an abortion” is enough to inspire really scary threats, obscenity and flat-out hatred.
Watch the video below and note that it’s very NSFW.