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Activists using new means to fight abortion stigma

Abortion is under unprecedented legal and political assault. These women think telling their stories publicly can change that.

The first-known abortion speak-outs, where women stood up to tell their abortion stories publicly, were held when terminating pregnancies was illegal. The radical feminist group Redstockings gathered in a church basement in New York in 1969 to talk about their experiences. Three years later, on the eve of Roe v. Wade, 53 prominent women, including Billie Jean King and Nora Ephron, declared in the debut issue of Ms. Magazine that they, too, had had abortions.

Thursday's abortion speak-out looks very different. It is being live-streamed over eight hours and includes more than 100 storytellers. Unlike the earlier era of speak-outs, abortion is now legal. But access to it remains under assault across the country, and, decades later, the procedure is still often shrouded in silence.

RELATED: Reproductive rights still in peril

“Because of the rhetoric of the last 40 years, so full of shame and stigma, it’s hard to come out and tell your story,” said Debra Hauser, president of the group Advocates for Youth. The organization’s "1 in 3" campaign is hosting Thursday's speak-out as part of a broader campaign to change the conversation around abortion. According to the Guttmacher Institute, about one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime.

In campus versions of these conversations, Hauser said, storytelling generated “a sense of empathy. And it strengthened support for making sure abortion care is available in their community.”

Storytellers planned for Thursday include Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health Executive Director Jessica González-Rojas, "Daily Show" Co-creator Lizz Winstead, and Rep. Mike Quigley. Some, including volunteers from around the country, will tell first-person stories, while others will talk about the importance of reproductive freedom in their lives.

"Oftentimes when reproductive experiences are stigmatized, they’re experienced in isolation."'

The speak-out comes at an unusual moment for abortion rights. Even as states have passed an unprecedented number of restrictions to block women’s path to the procedure, there is something of a renaissance in abortion storytelling. While the legal grounding of abortion is based on a right to privacy, politically that argument hasn’t done much for a nation that is both divided on the topic and regularly having abortions anyway.

Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis and Nevada lieutenant governor candidate Lucy Flores both told their abortion stories publicly last year on the campaign trail. (Neither of them won office.) Clinic counselor Emily Letts filmed her abortion and shared it on YouTube. And pro-choice advocates are less apologetic than ever, as evidenced by recent books such as Katha Pollitt’s "Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights" and a new non-profit by Texas’ Whole Woman’s Health clinic focused on fighting abortion stigma. A romantic comedy released earlier this year, "Obvious Child," featured a plotline that revolved around abortion and included both consultation and promotion from Planned Parenthood.   

There are also culturally specific efforts under way: A coalition including reproductive justice and Latino-focused groups have launched Yo Soy to combat stigma in the Latino community around reproductive decisions. It includes a pledge that reads, “Health, sex, and family may be hard to talk about sometimes. But if we don’t speak up and speak out, we miss the chance to be a stronger and healthier community. Together, we can break the silence. We are all stronger when we support each other and respect that personal decisions are ours to make.”

A similar impulse to put abortion squarely within the context of other reproductive choices is at the center of a recent book by the Sea Change Program, a new nonprofit that is combating stigma with, among other things, social science research. "Untold Stories: Life, Love, and Reproduction" has seventeen narratives intended to “provide a conversation piece for people in the U.S. to talk about reproductive justice — single parenting, abortion, adoption, diverse by age, sexuality, and gender,” said the group’s executive director, Kate Cockrill. The book’s creators hope it will be read in groups, in living rooms and kitchens.  

Related: Wendy Davis discusses her abortions

“Oftentimes when reproductive experiences are stigmatized, they’re experienced in isolation,” Cockrill said. “The goal is to say, look, there is a kind of norm that is accepted — first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage — but there are all kinds of experiences that fall outside that narrative.”

Contributors saw a common thread of shame and silence throughout their experiences, said Sea Change Program Deputy Director Steph Herold. And no single story was being asked to stand for any kind of experience, which could lessen the judgment each person felt from outsiders. 

Even beyond judgement, potentially dangerous backlash is more apparent than ever now that authors can be accessible on multiple platforms, including email. “There’s good reason sometime to be afraid. Not everyone should and can share their stories,” said Hauser. “But think about how much empathy and assistance we can provide each other if we share our stories.”