Forty-three years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States legalized abortion, giving people autonomy to decide for themselves what is best for their health, their lives, and their futures. Today, people are speaking openly, some for the first time, about their own abortion experiences. Thanks to campaigns like #ShoutYourAbortion and the 1 in 3 campaign, as well as platforms like Speak Your Story or The Abortion Diaries podcast, we have more and more opportunities to share our abortion experiences. It’s exciting to see storytelling building momentum! Yet we couldn’t help but wonder — what if “personal experiences with abortion” extended beyond those who’ve had an abortion themselves?
While research shows that nearly one in three women will experience an abortion by the age of 45, that statistic obscures the fact that many more people have direct experience with abortion, even if they haven’t had one themselves. How many friends, partners, bosses, grandparents, community members, or strangers have we come across who have been touched by abortion? It is so often left out of a conversation until it personally affects us that we may not realize how connected to abortion we all are.
When we talk openly about abortion, we open the door to communicate with everyone around us who may have been touched by it. It could be a brother you never knew helped a girlfriend get an abortion, a neighbor who volunteers at a clinic continuously attacked by anti-abortion protestors, or a colleague who recently talked with a pregnant friend about when she might or might not consider an abortion. Highlighting all of these experiences can help shift the stigma that surrounds abortion, building a future where all reproductive choices are respected.
As firm believers in the power of storytelling, the Sea Change Program wanted to celebrate the anniversary of Roe v. Wade by sharing a few of our own. We are proud to share what inspires us to continue in our work, and look forward to the programs, collaborations, and research that will get us closer to a world where all sexual and reproductive choices are treated with dignity and respect.
Elisette Weiss, Operations Manager: As an undergraduate student in 2009, I was pursuing a career in sexual health education. I had experience counseling clients around pregnancy decision-making and was undoubtedly pro-choice, but I never dreamed my career would shift to focus on abortion research and preventing abortion stigma.
A few days before starting an internship at the Feminist Majority Foundation, Dr. George Tiller was tragically murdered in his Wichita, KS church. I walked into the first day of my internship naïve and eager to work, and met a staff that was beleaguered, shocked, and in mourning. Morale was certainly low but what I saw was a commitment to fight for abortion rights that was as fierce as ever. And it inspired me to learn all I could about abortion rights and advocacy.
Later that summer, I went to hear Amy Hagstrom Miller speak on Capital Hill during the release of the Center for Reproductive Rights report, “Defending Human Rights: Abortion Providers Facing Threats, Restrictions, and Harassment.” Amy was such a dynamic speaker! I was so moved by her dedication, her presence, and her unwavering commitment to helping others after her colleague — Dr. Tiller — had been murdered. I wanted to work for her and surround myself with people like her! Thankfully, I followed that spark and have worked to improve research and advocacy around abortion and other stigmatized reproductive decisions since that summer.
Now, 7 years later and still completely fulfilled and energized by my career in advocacy and research, I am geared to cheer on and support Amy and her team as they fight for abortion rights at the Supreme Court this spring. She is as fierce as ever and I have found a career where I can surround myself with the best colleagues and champions for everyone’s health and rights. Despite the struggles and tragedies, like that of Dr. Tiller, I am constantly catalyzed to work harder and enhance my unwavering commitment to abortion access.
Elizabeth Greenblatt, Capacity Building Coordinator: I used to work as a health educator at Planned Parenthood. The majority of my job was engaging young people in comprehensive sex education classes, which included education about pregnancy options. I provided an opportunity for young people to explore their feelings about pregnancy, to practice respect of other people’s choices, and inform them where they could access abortion and other sexual health services.
Every Friday, there were protesters outside our office. I remember how frustrated I felt, having to come to work and walk past people praying for me, because I was supposedly contributing to something ‘sinful.’ Whenever I would walk past them, I would get a sick feeling in my stomach as they prayed even louder. Not long after opening an office in San Francisco, we had a protester camp-out very close to the health center. Protestors stayed overnight to yell, pray, and showcase graphic photos and signs to workers, patients, and anyone that walked by. We were harassed. We were yelled at. We were called murderers. While I understand that abortion is complicated for people, I don’t believe that those complex feelings grant the right to harass people at their place of work. I have the right to feel safe at work. I have the right to begin my day without being called a murderer.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t escape harassment. As a health educator, outreach was a big part of the job, and during my time at Planned Parenthood I tabled at many health fairs and events, giving out information and resources. At the Napa County Fair, we staffed a table with resources, quizzes, games, and access to condoms and lubrication. And every year, at least one person would yell how terrible we were for providing abortion services. Each year, one of us would have to take time away from interacting with the young people and parents at our booth who wanted information to ask a protestor to respectfully leave. It is still hard to wrap my brain around why that person was screaming at me when I knew I was doing work that had a positive impact on people’s lives.
No matter the harassment and confusion, I have always taken pride in working towards a world without reproductive stigmas. When people are stigmatized, they are less likely to reach out for support and less likely to feel connected to people who love them and share their experiences. I have seen it through my work and its continues to drive me to create a world with more connection and caring — one where people feel empowered to live the sexual and reproductive lives they desire.
Lauren Himiak, Communications Manager: He got in my face, nose-to-nose, and yelled that he would take “a lead pipe to my knees so that I bow down before God and ask forgiveness for my sins.” My crime? Escorting a young woman, nervous and scared of the aggressive environment she found herself in while attempting to receive health care.
To say my volunteer work as a clinic escort opened my eyes to the realities of sexual and reproductive care would be an understatement. The very idea that a woman or man needs an escort to safely enter a health clinic was a large enough clue that I would experience some negativity. But nothing could really prepare me for the amount of harassment, cruelty, and violence that comes with being within 100 feet of a women’s health clinic that happens to also provide abortion care.
Each bout of volunteering comes with its own story, ranging in their levels of stress, emotion, and anxiety. I have seen full-term pregnant women screamed at as they enter for a sonogram or to discuss their birth plan. I have attempted to stop a protestor from physically blocking a couple trying to get out of their vehicle. I’ve seen children too young to read being given smear brochures depicting bloodied babies as they walk by with their parents. And I want to quit every single time.
What keeps me coming back is what happens inside clinics, away from the noise and protests. I recall one afternoon, sitting with a young girl who came alone and asked me to stay with her. She had a long day, speaking to staff about her options and choice. And when she ultimately had an abortion, she was relieved to see me waiting for her, long past the protestors who went about the rest of their day. Her smile and kind words gave me a reminder that sticks more than that of any protestor — that the work of abortion care providers helps women and men achieve their dreams and reach their full potential. She (and every woman I have escorted into a clinic) reminds me that no one deserves to be harassed, attacked, or judged for their personal sexual and reproductive choices. I am grateful to work in field alongside so many fighting for our right to live with dignity and respect. And lead pipe to my knees or not, I am not giving up.
Steph Herold, Managing Director: Despite working in abortion funds, abortion clinics, and abortion rights advocacy for the last 10 years, I have not, in fact, had an abortion. In my early 20s, I had a series of pregnancy scares, and each time plotted the exact abortion clinic I’d go to if I were actually pregnant. These days, I’m not as panicked about pregnancy, but I do think about the circumstances in which I’d consider abortion. But I haven’t actually been pregnant, so having a real-life abortion has been out of the question.
So why work in abortion? The crux of it for me is that almost every person’s life is touched by abortion in some way, even if you haven’t had one. We all benefit from abortion being safe, legal, easy to access, and free from stigma. We might think about abortion during a pregnancy scare. We might think about abortion during a planned pregnancy — under what circumstances would we definitely or maybe consider it, or definitely not consider it? We think about abortion in our communities, often after seeing anti-abortion billboards or protesters. We think about it after seeing abortion portrayed on TV — were characters portrayed as selfish and alone, or refreshingly human and connected to their friends and families? We think about abortion every election year as politicians discuss it, often as a litmus test for how conservative they are or how progressive they’re willing to be. Whether we like it or not, abortion is part of the cultural fabric of American life.
While people who have abortions may be the most personally impacted by the stigma that surrounds it, the rest of us are not “off the hook” in advocating for abortion rights. All of us suffer when we live in a culture that routinely shames people for going against unrealistic, harmful social norms about sex, parenthood, and reproduction. And it’s all of our responsibility to work to change that culture, whether we’ve had an abortion or not.
Rana Barar, Sea Change Advisory Board Member: Last year, after 15 years working in reproductive health, 22 years being sexually active, and 14 years as the parent of two beautiful children, I became one of the “one in threewomen in the U.S.” who has had an abortion. The day I chose not to become a parent was, in an incredibly ironic twist of fate, exactly one week after my husband chose to end his fertility permanently with a vasectomy. My story is not tragic, my decision was not hard, and my abortion story is, in many ways, similar to so many others.
Like the two thirds of women who have abortions, I am a mother. Like the 30 percent of women who cite their existing children as a reason they wanted an abortion, my 13-year-old and 9-year-old were a big part of my decision not to have another child. I went into my procedure sure of my decision and in full agreement with my partner. Yet, those facts did not inoculate me to the stigmatizing behavior of others, such as a nurse telling me she would have to hand off my care to another because she did not do “those things.” But like many women who have positive emotional reactions after an abortion, I felt nothing but relief as I left my appointment.
I know from working in the field for so long and from my work on the Advisory Board of Sea Change, that my experience was mild, almost unworthy of mention compared to the throngs of protestors and other hurdles that thousands of women have to face every day to get the care they need. My belief that all women deserve to be able to have children they want, when they want them, has always fueled my work. Being able to do so myself has made me all the more grateful for and awed by the providers working in treacherous conditions, the organizations who fight for women under constant attack, and all the women who have made the brave decision to live their lives on their terms.
For more information about the Sea Change Program and our work to transform the culture of reproductive stigma, please visit http://www.seachangeprogram.org and follow us on social media: