Activists Look to Flip the Script on Abortion

By January 27, 2016Media Mentions

Originally posted on U.S. News and World Reports

By Susan Milligan

Safe, legal and rare.

For decades, that was the mantra of the Democratic Party on abortion, a phrase coined in characteristic fashion by Bill Clinton to walk the unsteady line the party navigated in electoral politics. The party and most of its leaders wanted women to have access to abortion, at the same time hoping to avoid alienating those who weren’t categorically opposed to abortion, but felt squeamish about the procedure.

Now, activists are turning the argument around. Long on the defensive for being “pro-abortion” (a phrase considered offensive and inaccurate by people who call themselves “pro-choice”), abortion-rights supporters are going on the offense, determined to take away the stigma of terminating a pregnancy.

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“We’ve seen a lot of shame around it, still,” says Lauren Himiak, communications manager for Sea Change, an organization that promotes public discussion of abortion and sexuality. “Abortion stigma is so deeply rooted in our society. Women and men have been led to believe they shouldn’t talk about it. It’s such a deeply personal issue that it’s hard to talk about it in a national way.”

While abortion is legal (though limited and hard to access in a number of states), the sentiment persists, abortion rights supporters complain, that it is something women should have to apologize for, justify and keep secret. It’s similar, they say, to the fight over the military’s since-abandoned “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gays and lesbians: if you have to hide it or explain it, true acceptance does not really exist.

Abortion rights activists are hiding no more. Reproductive rights literature, which once highlighted the sad cases of poor women or victims of rape and incest who desperately wanted to end their pregnancies, now features women who don’t hide their full names and state unabashedly that they had abortions because they simply did not want to become mothers. Some of them already have children and have been upfront about that.

Some have told their stories on “ShoutYourAbortion” on Twitter and Facebook, or on “1in3” speakouts, a reference to the statistic by the Guttmacher Institute that one in there women will have had an abortion by age 45. Others have penned essays on Sea Change and other sites, talking about having an abortion simply as a medical procedure they chose to have, without angst.

The website for NARAL Pro-Choice America opens with a video of the group’s president, Ilyse Hogue, talking about her own pregnancy termination. “I think about my abortion, but I certainly don’t regret it,” Hogue says in the video, adding that she would not have the leadership job she has now if she had not had access to a safe procedure.

For me, it really felt important to tell my story, to use my platform,” to prove “it’s OK to speak up and not be ashamed,” Hogue explains in an interview. When she took the job as president, “One of the things I heard from my generation [X] and millennials is that they felt some of the big pro-choice groups had been apologizing for them. This is a generation that was raised on the idea that nobody needs to apologize for them,” Hogue adds. “That’s a cultural shift.”

Anti-abortion forces say the power of the personal story is on their side, with stories of women who regret their abortions or those of people whose mothers considered and rejected the idea of an abortion. The images of near-full-term babies – not to mention the recent videos of Planned Parenthood staffers discussing in brutally clinical terms the fee for transporting fetal tissue for medical research – do not make people sympathetic to the pro-abortion rights movement, they say.

“I can’t really speak to the inner workings of the other side, but I think there is a level of tragedy” to those cases highlighted by the pro-abortion rights websites, says Mallory Quigley, communications director for the Susan B. Anthony List, which promotes anti-abortion candidates for office. “Every abortion is a tragedy, for the child and for the woman who goes through it all. These cultural attempts to normalize abortion, to ‘shout your abortion,'” will merely energize those who want to stop or at least restrict abortion, Quigley adds, noting polls showing that even Americans who describe themselves as pro-abortion rights want some restrictions on the procedure or express some misgivings about it.

Those who “shout” their abortions may well “generate conversation, and the abortion side may think it is helping their cause,” Quigley says. “But the more we look at what abortion is, the more people are likely to consider themselves pro-life.”

Pro-abortion rights groups are taking their aggressive PR effort to the courts as well. Planned Parenthood is suing the Center for Medical Progress for surreptitiously filming the conversations with staff about fetal tissue (videos the clinic network says were heavily edited to give the misleading impression Planned Parenthood was selling aborted fetuses).

And the group scored a startling victory Monday evening, when a Texas grand jury set up to investigate the Planned Parenthood videos not only cleared the women’s clinic but indicted the Center for Medical Progress for tampering with a government record and, in the case of one employee, a misdemeanor involving the sale of human tissue.

“The Center for Medical Progress uses the same undercover techniques that investigative journalists have used for decades in exercising our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and of the press, and follows all applicable laws,” the group said in a statement. “Planned Parenthood still cannot deny the admissions from their leadership about fetal organ sales captured on video for all the world to see.”

And as for “safe, legal and rare?” Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation says the group, “never liked or accepted that slogan. NAF’s mission and work has been to ensure that abortion is “safe, legal and accessible.” Democrats, meanwhile, dropped the word “rare” from the Democratic National Committee’s 2012 platform. And Hillary Clinton, who in the past used the phrase, now has the endorsement of Planned Parenthood, the first time in its 100-year history that the group has endorsed in a presidential primary.