Meet Kate Cockrill

Photo by Summer Starling

In 2000, after graduating from the University of Maryland, I began work as a talkline operator for the National Abortion Federation (NAF). I spoke with people all over the US who were seeking abortion services. Most of these people experienced some form of difficulty finding care. Many people could not afford abortion care or did not live close to an abortion provider.  All over the US, there were regulations that forced people to jump through hoops in order to get an abortion. It was sometimes hard just to find a provider, as abortion services were not well-advertised and many callers had contacted fake clinics only to find out they were operated by anti-abortion organizations.

I found out that a colleague at NAF was conducting a research project on women’s experiences in these “fake clinics” which are often called Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs). I volunteered to tell my story. A few years before, as a teenager, I had a pregnancy scare and ended up seeking a pregnancy test at a CPC. The adults at the CPC hadn’t counseled me or given me accurate health information; instead they shamed me for having sex and tried to scare me about the so-called risks of abortion.  Participating in that study solidified my interest in abortion research. I realized that telling my own embarrassing personal story might help other women who were in similar situations. And I wanted to use research to give a voice to the people I spoke to every day on the talkline.

After working a few more years in abortion services at clinics in Arkansas and Georgia, I moved to California to get a Master’s in Public Health. In my entrance essay, I wrote passionately about my interest in researching abortion. A professor in my program took note of this interest and connected me with Tracy Weitz, a well-known abortion researcher and director of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California, San Francisco. Tracy wanted to do a research study exploring the experience of seeking an abortion in states where abortion was heavily regulated. I was thrilled to get the opportunity to participate and over the next two yeass we conducted 20 interviews at abortion clinics in three Southern and Midwestern states. At first, we were surprised to find that some women who were seeking abortions actually supported regulations on abortion care. But looking over our data, we realized that these women were surrounded by negative attitudes toward abortion and it was natural that they would apply these judgments to other women and themselves.

I worked with Tracy and others at ANSIRH for the next seven years, designing research that focused on the social and emotional aspects of abortion.  We asked questions like: What do abortion patients think about abortion regulation and why? How does stigma affect who women want as an as an abortion provider? What is the stigma of having an abortion? How does the stigma of abortion manifest in clinics? How can we measure abortion stigma? What kinds of social and emotional support might be helpful for women seeking abortions?

The pervasiveness of stigma and shame about abortion and its relationship to health care discrimination and inequality prompted me to seek interventions and strategies to reduce stigma. I had this intuition, based on my own qualitative research experience, that in-person, storytelling opportunities are a key element of reducing shame and isolation.  I began to examine the strategies that had been effective at reducing stigma around mental illness, minority sexual or gender identity, HIV/AIDS and other stigmatized experiences.

In 2012, drawing on this research, I designed an intervention called Reading Women’s Lives to reduce stigma around abortion.  In the study, we enrolled 14 pre-existing book clubs all over the US to read a book about abortion and other reproductive experiences. In our study, we found that 79% of women who had abortion experiences disclosed these experiences in the book club. Additionally, attitudes toward abortion experiences were significantly more positive following the book club discussion, even in four-month follow-ups.

Meet Steph Herold

Photo by Summer Starling

In 2005, I started my career in reproductive health working as an access counselor at an abortion fund, the Women’s Medical Fund in Philadelphia. I talked to women over the phone, connecting them with financial assistance for abortion care and helping them navigate the cumbersome Pennsylvania Medicaid system. Funding abortions and connecting people to resources became my passion, and I wanted to figure out how to apply that to my professional career. The next logical step seemed to be to go from talking to people on the phone to talking to them in person. One semester before graduating from college, I started working full time at an abortion clinic in Philadelphia as a counselor, providing emotional support for women before, during, and after their abortions. I was working at this clinic when abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was murdered at his Church in Wichita, Kansas.

I was devastated by Dr. Tiller’s assassination as were all of my colleagues at the clinic. As a cathartic response to his murder, I started IAmDrTiller.com as an online archive of the stories of abortion providers, specifically exploring what motivates them to work in this field. The site was featured on a variety of progressive websites, from Our Bodies, Ourselves to Jezebel.com. Conservative pundit and overall bully Bill O’Reilly skewered the website on his show, which encouraged both hate mail and a slew of new submissions.

Motivated by the success of  IAmDrTiller.com, I dove headfirst into online activism. I started AbortionGang.org as a blog for young activists doing reproductive justice work. The name came from a comment made by then-Congressmen Bart Stupak, who claimed he had an “abortion gang” ready to vote down healthcare reform if it didn’t contain abortion restrictions. I recruited 15 bloggers, and the blog garnered about 6,000 views a month for the three years that I served as the Editor. I explored different venues for online activism, including starting an #ihadanabortion hashtag, creating a YouTube video about abortion clinics, and writing for popular feminist blogs.

Seeking to merge my direct service experience and online organizing skills, I moved to New York to work at a national abortion rights advocacy organization. I helped draft legal testimony and organizational communications, and supported training and programs. I also went back to my abortion fund roots and  joined the Board of Directors of the New York Abortion Access Fund. During my three year tenure on the Board, I quadrupled our social media presence, launched a program to help get our clients involved in our work, and spearheaded our gender inclusivity task force. I also appeared on the Melissa Harris-Perry show to talk about how the Hyde Amendment discriminates against people on Medicaid by denying coverage of abortion.

To hone my research and advocacy skills, I began a Master’s program in Public Health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, focusing on reproductive health.  In the summer of 2012, I joined Sea Change as a graduate student intern to help implement the Reading Women’s Lives study. I also launched a microblog on tumblr to document abortion narratives in mainstream media. I graduated in 2013, and wrote my master’s thesis on how participants in the Reading Women’s Lives study talked to each other about abortion during the book club discussions, a paper which is currently under consideration for publication.

Coming Together to form Sea Change

In 2011, Steph was doing some fierce online activism around abortion stigma and Kate was conducting research on the same topic.  Steph was looking for someone who had a research background in stigma; Kate was looking for someone who cared as much about stigma as she did.  Kate invited Steph to come and do a research internship at ANSIRH in between her first and second year of graduate school.  Not only did we love working together, we began to shape a vision for an organization that could conduct research, programming, and movement building around abortion and other reproductive stigmas, particularly recognizing both the stigma that people who have abortions face, and the stigma experienced by abortion providers.

During the spring and summer of 2013, we worked together to develop a unique research and program agenda for The Sea Change Program. We sought funders who saw the value in our passion for reducing stigma and secured funding to develop our own nonprofit project.  We spoke to friends and colleagues and identified six remarkable women who agreed to serve as an advisory board for our project.  Steph drove from Brooklyn, NY to Oakland, CA and Kate packed up seven years of her work life at ANSIRH.  The Sea Change Program officially launched as new nonprofit project of the Tides Center in January 2014!