Popaganda: How Do We Talk About Abortion?

This story was originally published on October 28, 2016.


Okay, pop quiz: What’s a legal medical procedure that’s performed roughly 1.6 million times a year in the United States but that still seems to rather terrify and scandalize Hollywood?  That’s right, abortion. One in three women in the United States will get an abortion at some point in her life. But in our pop culture and in our politics, talking about abortion is often still verboten.

In recent years, though, there’s been a big shift in the way we talk about abortion. People who’ve had abortions have been able to share their stories widely on social media. Though, of course, they’ve faced a lot of pushback and hatred, real people sharing their stories about abortion is helping change mainstream conversation about reproductive rights in a big way. And it’s helping change our pop culture, too. On this episode, we talk with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health researcher (and Bitch board member) Gretchen Sisson about the way abortion is portrayed on TV. Then, we talk with the great Renee Bracey Sherman, author of Saying Abortion Aloud: Research and Recommendations for Public Abortion Storytellers and Organizations, about the evolution of political rhetoric around abortion. Listen in! 





Earn your women, gender, and sexuality studies degree ONLINE. Explore the role race, social class, age, ability, appearance and sexual identity play in women’s everyday lives. Join the nation of do what you love, push up your sleeves, make the world better—Oregon State UniversityLearn more at ecampus.oregonstate.edu/wgss.


• The band featured on this band is the one-and-only Tacocat

• The graphics featured on the Soundcloud files of this show come from the activist art project 4000 Years for Choice

• If you’re a sociology nerd who wants to read the full studies exploring abortion representation in pop culture, check out Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health

Subscribe to Bitch’s podcasts on iTunesSoundcloudStitcher, or Pocketcast

Subscribe to Bitch’s podcasts through our audio RSS feed.

Download an MP3 of this podcast on Soundcloud or just browse our podcast archives here on Bitch Media
This podcast was transcribed by Cheryl Green of StoryMinders. We’re proud to make Popaganda accessible to people who are Deaf or hard of hearing.

Okay, pop quiz:  What is a legal medical procedure that’s performed roughly 1.6 million times a year in the United States but still seems to rather terrify and scandalize Hollywood?

[recorded clip]

MAN 1: Tell me you don’t want him to get an A-word.

MAN 2: Yes, I do, and I won’t say it for little Baby Ears over there. But it rhymes with shmish-mortion.

SARAH: That’s right, abortion. One in three women in the United States will get an abortion at some point in her life. But in our pop culture and in our politics, talking about abortion is often still verbotten.

In recent years, though, there’s been a big shift in the way we talk about abortion both in politics and in pop culture. People who’ve had abortions have been able to share their stories widely on social media. Though, of course, they’ve faced a lot of pushback and some virulent hatred, real people sharing their stories about this common, and sadly, still controversial procedure is helping change mainstream conversation about reproductive rights in a big way. And it’s helping change our pop culture, too. In the last two years, we’ve seen several films and TV shows that center on characters who gets abortions, and that presents their experiences in a non-judgmental way. From the sweet Lily Tomlin movie Grandma….

WOMAN 1: I need $600. $630.

WOMAN 2: For what?

WOMAN 1: I’m pregnant.

SARAH: To the surreal, bizarre world of Netflix comedy Bojack Horseman.

HOST: [on TV] But has the concept of women having choices gone too far? We’ve assembled this diverse panel of white men in bow ties to talk about abortion. Gentlemen?

GUEST: Tom, this is not just a woman’s issue. I’m a man, but if I got pregnant, would I put my life on hold for a job I didn’t want? Yes, I would. And I can say that with confidence, because I will never have to make that decision!

SARAH: So how are films and TV shows telling stories about abortion? And how are those stories changing over time?


SARAH: There’s probably nobody who studies the intersection of abortion and pop culture more than than Gretchen Sisson.

GRETCHEN: Hi, I’m Gretchen Sisson. I’m a sociologist at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, which is part of the OB-GYN department at the University of California at San Francisco.

SARAH: I think that job title’s so surprising. It’s surprising to me that an OB-GYN has a sociological research arm.

GRETCHEN: Yes, we have ANSIR, which is Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, which is just a really impressive acronym in and of itself.

SARAH: [laughs]

GRETCHEN: We’re all different social scientists. So obviously, I’m a sociologist. We have demographers, epidemiologists, public health scholars. So it’s a really multi-disciplinary social science group.

SARAH: Gretchen and her collaborators spend a lot of their day at the office doing what we’d all probably like to be doing at the office:  Sitting at our desks watching TV.

GRETCHEN: It’s mostly just us watching Netflix at our desks. Sometimes when I’m working late, I’ll be on Amazon Prime at home.

SARAH: But, you know, it’s not actually that fun. As sociologists, they’re watching TV while also filling out a massively detailed spreadsheet. They note every detail about how TV shows and films portray abortions and abortion providers.

GRETCHEN: I’ll go back and watch and re-watch, and we’re coding for really everything that we think will be of analytical interest. So we’ll focus first on a character. So who’s getting the abortion? Why is she thinking about getting the abortion? Has she given reasons? Do we know why she’s made this choice? How old is she? What is her racial, ethnic background?

SARAH: Since 2012, the team at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health has been poring over every single movie and TV show that’s ever been made in the United States that has a storyline dealing with abortion.

GRETCHEN: But there’s often something interesting and intriguing and new and positive about a scene, and there’s also often something that we can frame as being unrealistic or maybe could be a little bit more nuanced or could be a little bit better. Because abortion is so stigmatized, many people don’t know that they know someone who’s had an abortion. Many people don’t hear real-life abortion stories. So the fictional stories that we see on television might become especially important in forming your idea of what abortion care looks like, how safe it is, who gets abortions, why they get abortions.


SARAH: They have found some really interesting patterns. That’s what we’re going to explore on today’s show. Just a brief spoiler alert:  we’re going to talk about abortion as a plotline in the shows Scandal, Bojack Horseman, Call the Midwife, House of Cards, and Grey’s Anatomy.

Anyway, first off, one of the big patterns that the sociological researchers found is that TV shows and films typically present abortion as way more dangerous than it actually is.

GRETCHEN: The mortality rate directly association with the abortion procedure was about 10%, and that’s going back, like I said, to films 100 years ago. So there’s a couple things going on there. One is that abortion used to be more dangerous than it is today, but abortion is still more risky on television than it is in real life.

SARAH: In the United States, says Gretchen…

GRETCHEN: There are more deaths from abortion on TV than there are deaths in real life from abortion, even though there are over a million abortions happening in real life and maybe only 30 to maybe 40 max happening on television.

SARAH: Gretchen is quick to point out that just because a TV show shows an abortion that winds up leading to infection or death, that doesn’t mean the storyline itself is anti-choice. A lot of these shows are set in a time period when abortion was illegal, and so women had to resort to dangerous options. 

GRETCHEN: One of my favorite shows is called The Midwife, right?

[music from The Midwife]

And that show has dealt with abortions many times, and it often deals with it in a way that’s quite dangerous. For example, you see a woman self-inducing an abortion using a coat hanger and then having a hemorrhage and needing a hysterectomy and being hospitalized. Or you have women going to an unsafe provider who also lapses into a coma after that abortion. You see these extremely graphic, dangerous abortions on this show, but again, this is in a setting where abortion was illegal. So maybe the viewer watches those and gets this idea that abortion is quite dangerous. Maybe they watch that, and it reinforces the idea that abortion must be legal in order to be safe and that it is much safer today. So we can’t say that by including a dangerous abortion, that a content creator is trying to say that abortion is dangerous today. But to get back to that point that people don’t have that real life comparison point. The onscreen stories become important. If we see over and over again that women are dying from abortions on TV, they’re dealing with infertility, they’re dealing with depression, they’re committing suicide after they have an abortion, if we see that over and over again, it almost doesn’t matter sort of what the intent is behind that story, if we don’t see a wider range of outcomes.

SARAH: This is the case in classic movie Dirty Dancing.

[music from the film, people cheering and clapping]

While it’s most famous for its final dance sequence, Dirty Dancing is also about the trouble of obtaining an abortion during an era when the procedure was illegal. Dirty Dancing was the first time that many people saw abortion actually being discussed onscreen.

GRETCHEN: And I forget how old I was when I watched Dirty Dancing, but I know that I did not know what the phrase “knocked up” meant. My mom had to explain that to me. I think I was 11 or 12. It was a very big deal that I was getting to watch Dirty Dancing with my mom, and she had to explain what was happening. I didn’t understand that they were talking about abortion. And my mom being the feminist mom that she is, did have to fill me in on some details. I mean, I think Dirty Dancing holds up in a really interesting way. The entire plotline of this film is about sort of the characters rallying around Penny to help her access her abortion. That’s the driving motivation, is how is she gonna pay for this abortion? How can we get her money? How can we get her off of work? How can we cover for her? Baby has to learn these dances. I mean, that’s really what’s behind all of this character development. And no one ever really questions that decision or that right, even though it was set in the ’60s. It was illegal at the time the story is set.

[clip from the film]

MAN: They didn’t use no ether, nothing.

WOMAN: I thought you said he was a real MD.

MAN: The guy had a dirty knife and a folding table! I could hear her screaming in the hallway. I swear to God, Johnny, I tried to get in. I tried.

SARAH: One other pattern that Gretchen’s team found was that the characters who get abortions on TV shows or in films don’t reflect the reality of who actually seeks an abortion in real life.

GRETCHEN: One of the patterns that we’ve really seen is that the characters seeking abortion are pretty homogenous. So they’re overwhelmingly white. The characters that are seeking abortion on TV are even whiter than all of the characters on TV! So we see this pattern of young, white, middle class/upper class women getting abortions on television. That’s fine. There are plenty of real-life women who meet those criteria getting abortions in this country. But the problem becomes that we’re missing the stories about women of color.


SARAH: That’s part of why an episode of Scandal from the past season was particularly noteworthy. On the episode, Capitol Hill insider Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington, is shown in a hospital gown and hairnet, getting an abortion. While Scandal is, of course, all about drama and intrigue, the scene isn’t played as if it’s a juicy bit of gossip. The camera is on Olivia Pope’s face as the audience is left to wonder what she’s thinking and how she’s feeling.

When her team analyzed that Scandal scene, says Gretchen, they thought a lot about every detail.

GRETCHEN: It was very matter of fact. It was the first time we’d seen a woman of color who was a primary protagonist on a show going and getting an abortion. She didn’t agonize over this. It was framed within a bigger political conversation in the episode. So all of those things are really interesting and really new, and in some ways, really groundbreaking. But then– Oh! And they showed the abortion onscreen. It showed the abortion actually happening. A lot of shows will cut away right before the procedure begins, or they’ll only show part of the scene. We actually saw the doctor turning on the aspiration machine, performing the abortion. That was very new. That was very radical, right? So we have all of these really interesting, groundbreaking things about this one scene, but at the same time, she’s in a surgical center or an operating room with a hairnet on. Most abortions in this country don’t look like that. So there are political implications there. We might think that abortion is a major surgery because it’s taking place in a surgical center. The parallels between that and what was recently happening, what was happening at the time this episode aired, with the ambulatory surgical center requirement in Texas and the fact that they were trying to legislate that abortions had to take place in these surgical centers.

SARAH: Scandal is one of several extremely popular shows crafted by show runner Shonda Rhimes, who has made clear that having characters get abortions is an important part of her work on TV. Her characters on medical dramas Private Practice and Grey’s Anatomy deal with all sorts of other medical procedures. Why not abortion?

GRETCHEN: Shonda Rhimes includes abortions in many of her shows, and she’s on the Board of Directors of the Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles. I mean, she’s very clearly committed to this issue as an advocate and as a producer.

SARAH: Probably the most talked-about abortion storyline in TV in recent years came from Shondaland show Grey’s Anatomy. In the eighth season of the show, in 2011, Dr. Christina Yang–who’s played by Sandra Oh–decides to have an abortion. Her partner is against it and is angry when she chooses to go through with the abortion.

[recorded clip from the show]

WOMAN: She didn’t have the abortion. She wants to, and she can’t do it because of you because she loves you. And instead of loving her, you’re punishing her. For what? For being the woman that you fell in love with?

MAN: This isn’t any of your business.

WOMAN: OK, do you know what will happen to Christina if she has a kid that she doesn’t want? It will almost kill her.

GRETCHEN: What’s interesting on Grey’s Anatomy is that we’ve seen Christina both as a provider of abortion care and as a patient in need of abortion care.

SARAH: Clearly, telling abortion stories onscreen is complicated. In shows that have nuance, it’s not treated as a black-and-white, good-or-bad situation. In a world where abortion rights are a heated political issue, on TV shows, characters are keyed in to that reality too. A prime example of this is found on political drama House of Cards.

[dramatic music from the show]

In the first season of the show, political mastermind Claire Underwood–played by Robin Wright–tells her doctor that she’s had three abortions. That information isn’t public, though. But when a reporter asks her at a press conference about a political opponent’s allegation that she’s had an abortion, Claire seizes the moment. She says, “If I said yes, my husband’s political career would be in jeopardy. My faith would be questioned. Likely my life would be threatened. But I won’t feel ashamed. Yes, I was pregnant. And yes, I had an abortion.” That’s a really powerful moment. But, because of course it’s House of Cards, she doesn’t tell the whole truth. She figures out how to frame the issue to her best advantage.

GRETCHEN: What they decide to do in the show is say that the abortion was for a pregnancy that was the result of a sexual assault. So that’s sort of how they frame this as the good abortion. So there’s a lot of things going on there. And this is sort of the give and take that I mentioned earlier. We see a lot of really interesting things. They’re dealing with abortion head on. She’s talking about it, she’s not embarrassed by it, but at the same time, there’s this need to craft the story of what’s the good abortion? What’s gonna be the publicly acceptable abortion for her to talk about?


SARAH: In recent years, Gretchen says the biggest change that she has seen in abortion stories in pop culture has to do with one element:  comedy.

GRETCHEN: Can abortion be funny? And we saw that with Obvious Child. It was out in June of 2014.

[recorded clip of the show, upbeat music]

WOMAN 1: Oh, my boobs hurt really bad.

WOMAN 2: Maybe you’re pregnant.

WOMAN 3: Oh my god! You didn’t use a condom with Pee-farter? Ooh!

WOMAN 1: I remember seeing…a condom. I just don’t know like exactly what it did.

[Paul Simon’s “Obvious Child”]

GRETCHEN: It was this rom-com about getting an abortion and was certainly the first of its kind, and I thought that was really interesting. We saw it on Girls in January of 2015, and Lena Dunham specifically said about that episode that she wanted it to be so different from the typical TV abortion story that viewers, at first, didn’t know what was going on. So in that episode, we see Mimi-Rose just sort of mention off-hand like, “Oh, I can’t go for a run today. I had an abortion yesterday, so I just sorta need to take it easy today.” And it’s such a contrast, sort of the agonizing decision-making and veiled disclosures that we’ve seen in the past in popular culture.

SARAH: The most recent TV show with an abortion storyline is actually a comedy:  the Netflix animated show Bojack Horseman. The episode of Bojack Horseman that deals with abortion seems like it would be hell for Gretchen’s team of sociologists to categorize. Bojack is a very surreal show where human characters and anthropomorphized animals mix and mingle in a bizarro version of Los Angeles. In this episode, human social media consultant Diane becomes unintentionally pregnant. She decides to get an abortion but then accidentally tweets her decision from the Twitter account of a popular rock star, the no-holds-barred dolphin named Sextina Aquafina, who was inspired by the likes of Ke$ha and Nicki Minaj.

[recorded clip from the show]

DIANE: I’ll put out a statement explaining the whole mess. I am so sorry. Oh. Oh!

SEXTINA: What oh? Who said you could “Oh?”

DIANE: Taylor Swift just Tweeted that you were brave. Nicki Minaj Tweeted at you a face with heart eyes. And BuzzFeed just posted a list of top 15 celebrities who should’ve had abortions like Sextina. Geez! You’re trending like crazy!

SEXTINA: I’m trending?!

SARAH: Instead of being scandalized, Sextina decides to spin the news to her advantage, releasing a totally over-the-top abortion-themed pop song.

[Sextina’s hip-hop abortion song]

The episode critiques celebrity embrace of “empowerment” as a marketing plan but also deals with Diane making a sincere decision about her body and her life. How are you supposed to record all that in a spreadsheet, exactly? But Gretchen found the episode really interesting.

GRETCHEN: I mean, there were a lot of things going on in that episode. First, there’s the idea that she’s publicly talking about getting an getting an abortion. Not even just talking about it. She releases this single about getting an abortion in the most graphic, over the top terms, and she’s not. She’s not getting– This idea that the publicity of getting an abortion is not shaming to her, that she embraces this, that she’s perceived as brave and revolutionary. I still don’t think that most women who are publicly out about their abortion have that as their response to sharing their story. I think, again, there are a lot more women telling their abortion stories. I hope they are receiving a lot more support as they do so, but what we don’t see depicted is Sextina as sort of talking about getting this abortion are the death threats and the backlash. It’s one fictional dolphin character’s story that will have parts of it that ring true for real women who are publicly story-sharing about their abortion, and then these other parts that are really missing.

SARAH: Even though TV and films deal with abortion in a way that’s clearly fictional–whether they’re starring dolphins or young Patrick Swayzes–the way abortion stories are told in pop culture matters for our real-world understanding of abortion.

GRETCHEN: Now we’ve seen just in the past two years a great uptick in real women sharing their abortion stories and storytelling. And I think that that is really important, but fictional characters can still carry a lot of weight.


SARAH: Thanks to Gretchen Sisson for taking the time to talk with us. In addition to being a sociologist, she’s also on the Board of Bitch Media. If you’re a sociology nerd and want to read the full studies about abortion and pop culture that she’s worked on, you can find them on the website for Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health.


Popaganda is produced by non-profit, independent Bitch Media. Our feminist response to pop culture is entirely funded by our community. Love our work and wanna pitch in? Become a member. Join hundreds of fellow listeners as a member of the Podcast Pollinators. When you do, you’ll receive a special mug, a subscription to Bitch Magazine in print and digital, a snazzy sticker, and Listen Bitch! a brand new monthly roundup of all of our podcast shows and music reviews straight to your inbox. Become a Pollinator today at bitchmedia.org/pollinators.

At the Democratic National Convention this summer, I expected the standard speeches about family and the economy and unity, etc. etc. But there was one speech that felt very different from what you usually see at huge political rallies:  someone sharing their personal story about getting an abortion. That’s not something you often see on primetime national TV.

The four-minute speech was given by Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. In front of thousands of people, Ilyse told her story.

[crowd talking, Ilyse’s amplified voice resonating in the large hall]

ILYSE: 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.


SARAH: A few weeks ago, as the election was heading into its final month, Ilyse talked with us here at Bitch about that moment and why she decided to share her story in this political context.

I: There are millions of women who have made the decision to terminate a pregnancy who live in fear, live in shame, are experiencing political rhetoric that is made, that is designed to make us feel less-than. We’re seeing policies passed on that political rhetoric that is completely out of step with the real lived experience of women and families in this country. And those millions of women didn’t have the stage. They didn’t have the four minutes, and I did. So when I sat down to think about what was the highest, best use of those four minutes, it seemed like sharing my story– And I say that hesitatingly because I actually didn’t feel like it was important to go into the details of my story because all of our stories are individual and can be and should be personal if we want them to be. But to stand on the stage and self-identify as one of the millions of women in this country who has made that decision and who has gone on to live a very full life!

SARAH: Publicly sharing abortion stories on a big scale like this is one way that political rhetoric around abortion has shifted in recent years. 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.

RENEE: Hi, I’m Renee Bracey Sherman. I’m a reproductive justice activist, and I’m the senior public affairs manager at the National Network of Abortion Funds where I run a program called 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, gender identity, and all other identities. And I’m also a Board member at NARAL Pro-Choice America. But today, everything that I’m sharing with you and all my thoughts are my personal opinions.

SARAH: 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: So I’ve been sharing my abortion story for, you know, been about 6, 7 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.

SARAH: 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. Like, just making abortion legal isn’t enough when it’s hard to get the money to get an abortion, when you have to drive hundreds of miles to get an abortion, when there’s social stigma around abortion.

RENEE: 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. So 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.

SARAH: So how do you feel like sharing these stories has changed the nature of political discussions this election?

RENEE: 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 a 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.

SARAH: 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. So 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’ve 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?

RENEE: [chuckles] 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 health care 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 health care 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 who children are being shot in the street by police officers or community vigilantes.

So when they talk about 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.

SARAH: 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 9th 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/

RENEE: Well, first, to quote Shonda Rhimes and correct Donald Trump, what he was describing was a C-section, and it’s quite a normal procedure when it comes to pregnancy. But you know, 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 a 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.


SARAH: It’s weird how abortion is treated as often some kind of purely political, abstract issue because it’s not. It’s a basic part of health care for the millions of people with uteruses who get abortions every year. And people have been performing abortions for all of human history. Like literally one of the oldest pieces of writing we have in the world, the Code of Hammurabi, written nearly 4,000 years ago, mentions abortion. And here we are, millennia later, and for some reason, it’s still hard to talk about abortion. It often feels hard to find the right words to talk about abortion. Are you pro-choice or anti-abortion or pro-women? Because it’s such a personal thing. This isn’t about being a Democrat or a Republican. It’s about our bodies, and everyone has their own relationship to their body. So all the language we have seems to fall short of describing this 4,000, very normal medical procedure.

What’s important, though, is hearing those personal stories and listening to them, whether they’re being told on a TV show or on a national political stage. For far too long, those stories have been silenced.


The music on today’s show was by the band Tacocat, your Seattle-based feminist rock band, Tacocat.

This week’s listener comment keeps it short. Silvia V.T. left us a five star review on iTunes and wrote just two words:  “Necessary indeed.” For some reason, that cracks me up. Thanks to Silvia and everyone else who shares the show with their friends.

by Sarah Mirk
View profile »

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

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

0 Comments Have Been Posted

Add new comment