The Political Power of Telling Abortion Stories

An image from the Repeal Hyde Art Project, an activist art project that aims to create awareness about the Hyde Amendment, which blocks people from using Medicaid to pay for abortion. 

During this election, rhetoric around abortion has been more polarized than ever. At the one pole, we have the scene at the Democratic National Convention this summer, where we saw something that’s rare for a primetime national TV event: someone sharing a personal story about getting an abortion. In her brief four minutes onstage, NARAL Pro-Choice President America Ilyse Hogue told her story, saying, “I wanted a family, but it was the wrong time. I made the decision that was best for me: to have an abortion and get compassionate care in a clinic in my own community.” A few months later, at the third presidential debate, we found the opposite pole: Donald Trump said that abortion means “you can rip the baby out of the womb of the mother” during the ninth month of pregnancy. Ugh.

Trump’s statement is misleading on so many levels, and it shows the sharp contrast in the way Americans are talking about abortion during this election year. The movement to publicly share abortion stories, through projects like the Abortion Conversation Project and #ShoutYourAbortion, has shifted mainstream dialogue around abortion in recent years. But there are lots of right-wing people who push for reproductive rights restrictions on the back of the idea that abortion is an unsafe and gruesome procedure. To talk more about this shift and the way America has been talking about abortion in this presidential election, I called up Renee Bracey Sherman, who runs the National Network of Abortion Funds program We Testify, which is an abortion storyteller-leadership program focused on supporting abortion storytellers who share their stories at the intersection of race, class, geography, and gender identity. Sherman is also on the board of NARAL Pro-Choice America, but in this interview, she is speaking only for herself and sharing her personal thoughts and opinions.

A rally outside the Supreme Court this June in support of abortion rights. Photo by All Above All

SARAH MIRK: Let’s start off talking a bit about the abortion stories project that you run. Can you tell me about how the idea of publicly sharing stories about abortion on a national scale came to be?

RENEE BRACEY SHERMAN: So I’ve been sharing my abortion story for about seven years now. I had an abortion when I was 19, but when I had my abortion, I didn’t really know anyone who’d had an abortion. I have a cousin who, she had told me that she had had one, but we never really talked about it that deeply. And I knew that the rapper Lil’ Kim had had an abortion, and that was kind of the extent of people I’d seen who had had them and talked about them. And so for me, as a biracial Black woman, I really wanted to see myself represented, and I wanted to see people of color represented in sharing their abortion stories and just talking about it in the news media but also in pop culture. Something I always say is that everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion. So the more stories that we have out there, the more diversity of stories we have out there, it reminds people that it’s actually really common, and it’s quite normal.

When I had my abortion, I remembered feeling so isolated and alone. Even though my family was a very, very pro-choice family, and I knew that we stood with Planned Parenthood, I knew that we were pro-choice, I didn’t really feel like I could go to my parents to tell them that I was pregnant because I was afraid they would be upset with me because I got pregnant by the boyfriend that they couldn’t stand. And I worried that they would judge me, and I do wish that I had had someone in the clinic with me. I do wish that I had had someone to talk to afterwards that had also had an abortion. So part of the reason why I do all of this work in sharing stories is so that folks know that they’re not alone, and no one feels the way that I did when I was in the clinic.

What I saw when I started sharing my stories was a lot of white women and older white women talking about abortion and often talking about it in a very abstract or only policy way and not actually saying, “Well, I had an abortion, so I know what it’s like.” And so I wanna change that. I want us to be having the conversation about people who have abortions, putting them at the center and putting those of us who are most marginalized, those of us who have multiple identities, at the center of every single conversation.

The #ShoutYourAbortion project, seen above, is part of a movement to publicly share personal abortion stories. 

One thing you bring up here is how abortion is such a personal decision that ties into all the different, complicated parts of your identity. But when we talk about abortion in politics, it can often become abstract and binary, like it’s a just a blue issue or a red issue. I think that’s something that the movement to tell more personal stories about abortion is changing in a positive way. It’s bringing more nuance to these discussions.

Well, I think it’s always easy to take people’s rights away if you demonize them, dehumanize them, and take them out of the conversation. It’s easy to pass restrictions on abortion or anything if you refuse to acknowledge that the person being impacted is a human being and is even part of the conversation. So you shut people who’ve had abortions out of the conversation, you say that this is about regulations and that’s it, it makes it easier because people are like, “Oh, we’re just arguing about mundane regulations” and forgetting that it’s actually impacting someone’s life. I think that this happens in a whole host of issues. When we’re talking about terrorism, we forget that there are Muslim families who are impacted by our rhetoric and the policies that are being passed every single day. Same thing with trans folks. If we’re just talking about folks in an abstract and not recognizing that this is a human being who is standing right next to us, and they will be impacted in this way, it’s easier to pass these: “Oh, these are just bathroom rules. It’s not that big a deal.” And forgetting that someone is going to be harassed based on what law you’re passing.

So I think there’s always this fight to try to keep us out of the room and to keep the conversation out of our personal experiences because when we insert ourselves, and when we insert our stories, the politicians and people voting on these issues are forced to face our humanity. And here’s the thing: Roe v. Wade keeps abortion legal, and yet there are countless states who have one clinic or a handful of clinics. And so we have to really be vigilant that Roe v. Wade may be legal across the nation, but if there is no clinic for you to go to, or if you can’t get a day off of work because you have no sick days or because you work an hourly job, and so for you to take time off to go get health care means you’re unpaid, or you don’t have anyone to watch your kids while you go get an abortion or whatever it is, that’s not actually meaning that it’s accessible.

How do you feel like sharing these stories has changed the nature of political discussions this election?

The fact that a conversation around repealing the Hyde Amendment is center stage in the election right now is a huge shift. For those who don’t know, the Hyde Amendment is an annual budget rider that is in its 40th year as of last month, and it bans federal funds from being used to pay for abortion. So anyone who is enrolled in Medicaid, anyone who is in the military, uses the Indian Health Services Insurance Plan, anyone who is incarcerated, folks who are being held in the immigration detention centers, federal employees, and in the vast majority of states, state employees, they cannot use their health insurance to pay for an abortion. So this actually leaves a quarter of people on Medicaid to carry a pregnancy to term that they would not have otherwise. And that’s actually just quite unjust because why is it that we are saying that, “Oh, because you get your health insurance through the federal government, you’re not entitled to your constitutional right. You are not entitled to this type of healthcare”? That leaves people struggling to try to figure out how to pay for an abortion, which starts at $500.

Art from the Repeal Hyde Art Project.

So while the Hyde Amendment has remained intact for 40 years, in the past decade or so, Republicans have realized that they’re not going to be able to dismantle abortion rights at the federal level by repealing Roe v. Wade. Instead, they’ve shifted tactics, and they’re chipping away at abortion rights at a state-by-state level, getting legislatures in almost every state to pass laws that make it harder to get an abortion and harder for doctors to provide them. There have been fights over this all the way from Texas to Wisconsin, and these laws are pushed by Republicans with the language of “protecting women’s health and safety,” like we need to make it harder to get an abortion as a safety issue. Can you talk about that rhetoric and the paternalism that’s apparent there?

Well, first off, it’s utter bullshit. Because if they actually cared about health and safety, they would actually read all of the research that shows that abortion is one of the safest medical procedures ever. It’s actually like 14 times safer than carrying a pregnancy to term. And that was actually something that came out in the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case was that abortion is extremely safe. And by Texas shutting down abortion clinics through HB 2, they were actually making abortion quite unsafe because they were denying people access. Additionally, the folks who seem to care so much about people carrying these pregnancies to term and women’s health and all of those things, they say nothing on the issues around maternal mortality, and that is something that impacts Black women at a extremely higher rate than it does white women. But they’re not actually doing anything about that. They’re not doing anything about any other health care issue. They’re not trying to make sure that people have access to insurance. They’re not trying to make sure that Medicaid is expanded. It is literally about trying to deny access to autonomy through this one healthcare procedure. And their language has very much gone to, like, “Oh, we’re pro-women; we’re pro-life. We’re compassionate.” One that they use a lot is, “Women deserve better than abortion.” And they’re using it to try to kind of say that those of us who choose abortion are being preyed upon by evil abortion providers when it’s not true. Abortion providers are extremely compassionate. Mine held my hand during my procedure. But what they’re trying to do is just say that women are dumb, they don’t know what they’re really getting into, they’re being duped, they’re being taken advantage of by these money-hungry abortion providers. It couldn’t be further from the truth. And it is extremely patronizing because they refuse to admit that yes, those of us who have abortions, we choose it freely. We had agency, and we know what’s best for our lives. For me as a Black woman who’s had an abortion, I hear a lot of people saying, “Well, Margaret Sanger” or “It’s Black genocide, and you’re not trying to save your people” and all of this stuff and that I’m a race traitor for supporting access to abortion. It is true that Black women are five times more likely to have an abortion, and that is because we’re lacking access to consistent access to healthcare and birth control. And they’re not doing anything to try to fix that, to alleviate that as an issue. They’re also not doing anything to support the Black mothers whose children are being shot in the street by police officers or community vigilantes.

So when they talk about [how] they wanna support women and Black motherhood and all these things, they’re not there where we’re saying we actually do need them. They’re not understanding what reproductive justice is, which is ensuring that everyone has the rights and ability and resources to decide if, when, and how to become a parent, and to be able to parent their children with dignity and respect.

Abortion came up in the last presidential debate. The language that Donald Trump used to describe abortion in that debate was really grotesque and graphic and misleading. I feel bad even repeating it here, but it’s important to talk about, and it was on national TV. So here’s a quote from Donald Trump from the last presidential debate. He said, “If you’re going with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother, just prior to the birth of the baby.” Can you talk about that language? Where did he get the idea to say that abortion is “ripping a baby out of the womb,” and what impact does that language have?

This language comes straight out of the anti-choice movement. Last year, we saw the Planned Parenthood videos get released that were highly edited. Forensic analysts have looked at them and said that they were discredited; they were clearly misleading. But a lot of the language that the anti-choice activists use to talk about those videos was this like, “ripping fetuses apart” and all that stuff. The point of it is to kind of shame people who are seeking abortions and get people to think that it’s gory, and it’s somehow an awful, terrible medical procedure, when in reality, it’s actually about five minutes long. I know because I was there. I had one.

What he was saying was so ridiculously inaccurate that I was sitting there, like he literally has no idea how an abortion is performed. And this isn’t new, right? Because last year, during the Republican primary debates, we saw Carly Fiorina do the same thing. It’s not new what he’s doing, and a lot of politicians have done this. Again, it’s all part of this trying to shame and stigmatize and add to this gore factor. 

This interview is featured on our Popaganda podcast “How Do We Talk About Abortion?”

by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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