Sharing experiences about abortion can be powerful

Jan. 22 marked the 42nd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing early abortion in the United States. We’ve come a long way from the days when illegal abortion was a leading cause of injury and death among women in our nation.

The Supreme Court decision has saved countless lives, and that is cause for both gratitude and celebration. At the same time, advocates for reproductive freedom are now working toward a new goal: bringing abortion out of the closet.

One in three women in American will have an abortion before she is 40 years old. Yet many of these women do not openly share their abortion stories outside of their closest friends and family.

Planned Parenthood and our partners in the reproductive justice movement are working to change this, because when abortion is considered a shameful secret, women can feel isolated and alone. We are denied the opportunity to share our stories and draw from our collective support.

Several grassroots campaigns emerged in 2014 to provide women the chance to share their abortion stories. Across the country, women began uploading videos discussing their pregnancy termination. Whether women were relieved or sad or ambivalent about ending their pregnancy, they said the process of openly discussing these feelings was empowering.

The 1in3 Campaign, Seat Change and Exhale have been leading the charge to create vehicles for women to share their abortion stories. Organizations such as Sister Song, Latinas for Reproductive Choice, Catholics for a Free Choice and Planned Parenthood have supported their efforts by sharing these resources throughout our communities. The response has been overwhelming, the effect revolutionary. As women from all walks of life share their stories, they are transforming the way our culture views abortion.

In one video, a kindergarten teacher and mother of three grown children, says she had always feared that if people knew about her abortion, she would be abandoned. Sharing her story was like being “released from the oppressive weight of her secret.”

In another, a young artist describes her feelings of relief after her abortion. By telling their stories, these women have given others a great gift by allowing them to see that conflicting emotion — and lack thereof — are both common experiences.

Some might argue that abortion is a private matter. In fact, the Roe v. Wade decision is based on the fundamental right to privacy. But there is a difference between privacy and shame, and the shroud of secrecy surrounding abortion is due to an undercurrent of judgment about pregnancy termination.

Most women who keep quiet about having an abortion do not do so because of privacy issues. They remain in the closet because there has been a stigma attached to abortion. We must work to change that.

Unfortunately, those who oppose legal abortion have been effective at stigmatizing it. Blockading health centers and shouting insults at women is a tactic used to create discomfort and guilt. Targeting doctors and health center staff for harassment, intimidation and, in some cases, violence further promotes the notion that abortion is shameful.

We needn’t accept this, though. We can make a conscious and concerted effort to refuse to let these bullying tactics work. Our opponents are vocal, but we do not have to absorb their degrading messages about abortion any longer.

Even within the abortion rights movement, we can examine the inadvertent role we might play in the stigmatization of abortion. Planned Parenthood does more than any other organization to prevent abortion by providing low-cost and no-cost contraception and sexuality education.

Abortion is a small but important part of our practice. But perhaps in our well-intended effort to let people know that the vast majority of Planned Parenthood services are cervical cancer screenings, contraception, and STD testing and treatment, we have not made it clear enough that we understand the importance of our role as a provider safe, legal abortion.

We know that women rely on Planned Parenthood for abortion care and we are honored to have earned their trust. We work every day to reduce the rate of unintended pregnancy while also providing pregnancy termination service in a culture that respects women’s decisions.

One of the most effective ways we are moving toward this goal is through the power of storytelling. In the sharing of women’s stories, abortion is coming into clear focus. It is no longer simply an abstract political issue debated on Capitol Hill and in our state legislatures.

Terminating a pregnancy is a decision that many women face in their lives. It is likely we all know someone who has had an abortion. It is time for women to freely discuss these experiences. It is time to bring abortion out of the closet.

DiGiorgio Johnson is president & CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest.

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Faith Dandois 7:50am February 22, 2015

As well, I think we need to address, head on, the dog whistle of abortion as murder. It's a compelling but false sound bite that is the cornerstone of the so-called right-to-life movement. We had this argument as a nation 40 years ago. Unfortunately, we're going to have to address it again because those who like to think and speak in simplistic terms have forgotten how sophisticated the issue really is.

Patricia Evans 6:11am February 22, 2015

Thank you, Planned Parenthood for supporting women through education, birth control, cancer screenings and abortion. I have a friend whose daughter became pregnant at 14 and so needed an abortion. The service was there and they both were grateful for it and the follow up care and birth control.