Planned Parenthood and the Messy Fight to Destigmatize Abortion

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 30:  A police officer from the counterterrorism department stands guard outside Planned Parenthood on November 30, 2015 in New York City. A gunman killed three people November 27, including a police officer, at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Originally posted on GQ

By: Luke Darby

Last Thursday, less than a week after a gunman murdered a veteran, a mother, and a police officer at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, the Senate voted mostly along party lines to remove all federal funding from the national organization. The vote falls short of a veto-proof majority—and there’s no reason to assume Obama won’t veto it once it arrives at his desk—but the bill serves as political fodder for both parties, giving them a way to rev up their base ahead of the primaries.

Defunding Planned Parenthood has become a common squawking point for GOP presidential candidates after a series of now discredited videos—purporting to show that the organization profits from selling fetal tissue—was released by the anti-abortion Center for Medical Progress earlier this year. Yet while politicians continue using Planned Parenthood as a wedge issue, the rest of the country isn’t as evenly split as the two parties might suggest. A survey conducted by Vox in March found that 39 percent of the country does not identify as solidly pro-choice or pro-life—and also that respondents were markedly more in favor of access to abortion if they knew someone who’s had one.

According to a widely referenced study in Obstetrics & Gynecology, by the age of 45, about 30 percent of women will have had an abortion. Despite that high percentage, there’s still a lot of skittishness just around the word “abortion.” In the days following the Colorado Springs shooting, whenever journalists referred to these and prior incidents of violence as “attacks on abortion clinics,” progressive commenters were swift to rebuke them: “Don’t call them abortion clinics!” It’s an accurate distinction to make. After all, not all Planned Parenthood clinics provide abortions, and those that do always offer many more services beyond that procedure—that’s why Planned Parenthood clinics are officially called “health centers.”

But some pro-choice groups are worried that downplaying the role of abortion is cultivating the exact mindset that enabled these attacks in the first place. “Women often live in fear of speaking about their abortions,” says Debra Hauser, the president of Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit dedicated to helping young people access sexual-health education and services. “They often live in isolation because of it and don’t speak out because they are afraid that other people will judge them, but they’re also afraid of the violence and hateful rhetoric that often accompanies talking about abortions.” (In the wake of the Colorado Springs attack, Twitter has been filling with threats on abortion clinics across the country.)

If Vox’s findings are accurate—and those who personally know someone who has had an abortion show more support for abortion access—then there’s the potential for a groundswell of support if more women were less afraid to discuss their experience openly. To that end, in 2011, Advocates for Youth started the 1 in 3 Campaign. The initiative is dedicated to fighting the taboo and stigma of abortion through storytelling, and has gathered more than 900 stories of pregnancy terminations. “This is a chance for people to find communities and share their stories,” says Hauser.

1 in 3 isn’t alone in trying to fight abortion stigma with stories. A brief survey of the media landscape suggests that pop culture is also trying to have an honest conversation about the subject. The mid-season finale of ABC’s Scandal depicted an unsensational (relatively, for Scandal) abortion procedure. And in September of this year, activist Amelia Bonow and writer Lindy West started #ShoutYourAbortion via social media, asking women to use the hashtag to share their experiences.

As West, an old friend of GQ, wrote in The Guardian: “The fact that even progressive, outspoken, pro-choice feminists feel the pressure to keep our abortions under wraps–to speak about them only in corners, in murmurs, in private with our closest confidantes–means that opponents of abortion get to define it however suits them best. They can cast those of us who have had abortions as callous monstrosities, and seed fear in anyone who might need one by insisting that the procedure is always traumatic, always painful, always an impossible decision. Well, we’re not, and it’s not.”

The Sea Change Program is also dedicated to shifting cultural perceptions with its Untold Stories Project. According to Sea Change executive director Kate Cockrill, it’s difficult to organize people around a common cause when there’s no shared sense of identity. It’s a similar problem to what the gay-rights movement faced in its infancy: As long as people stayed closeted and afraid of public exposure, it was impossible to gain political momentum. “There’s no constituency that’s been able to advocate on its own behalf on the issue of abortion,” says Cockrill, “because women who have abortions, and people who have abortion experiences as partners or family members, aren’t really able to connect with each other around those experiences. There’s no cultural movement around that.”

In many ways, it presents a classic chicken-and-egg problem. “When you’ve got a situation where those of us who support abortion care are afraid to speak out, then how can politicians know about that support?” asks Hauser. “We’ve seen politicians change their minds once they heard women tell their stories of how abortion care has helped them in their lives.”