I Had An Abortion 2.0

Women are sharing abortion experiences and support via the #ihadanabortion Twitter campaign, and (surprise!) everyone has an opinion. But Steph Herold, the woman behind the campaign, tells Rewire why she did it and why this is "just a start."

By now you’ve heard about or seen the Twitter campaign involving the hashtag #ihadanabortion. It’s the brainchild of Steph Herold, a reproductive justice advocate, and clearly a woman who cares about the reproductive health experiences of her fellow females. Using “#ihadanabortion,” Herold is encouraging women to “come out” on twitter if you’ve had an abortion; or even if you haven’t and you just want to offer support for destigmatizing women’s abortion experiences.

The “campaign” (if you can call it that – it may be more of a new media consciousness-raising), arose, in part, from Herold’s frustration with the way the anti-choice movement has attempted to make abortion seem like the “sin of a few bad women” rather than “a regular part of women’s lives.”

It’s sort of the new media extension of the “I Had An Abortion” campaign which popped up a few years ago – spearheaded by Jennifer Baumgardner who created the “I Had An Abortion” t-shirts and, with Gillian Aldrich, associated documentary and book, “Abortion & Life,” and carried on by filmmakers like Penny Lane (“The Abortion Diaries”), entrepeneur advocates like Emily Barklow who founded Our Truths, Neustras Verdades (a magazine devoted to telling women’s abortion stories which is now distributed by the organization Exhale – in and of itself an exercise in using the power of women’s voices in the abortion discussion) and others.

It’s not the first time, of course, women have utilized new media tools for authentic story-sharing around reproductive health – but specifically abortion – experiences.

Perhaps the first non-biased, judgement-free abortion-storytelling zone online was I’mNotSorry.net. The site was created by a “passionately pro-choice woman” who wanted to offer a safe, online space for women who didn’t regret their abortions to share their stories. Since then, women have tweeted their abortions, shared their experiences on YouTube, in blogs and more.

Maybe the #ihadanabortion twitter campaign has struck a chord because of the nature of twitter. On a CNN report about the campaign, the female commentator asks in a somewhat shocked voice, “Is abortion something to tweet about?” and calls what women are tweeting “blunt.”

I think the question answers itself, no? If women who have abortions are tweeting about those abortions – and others who support keeping abortion safe and legal in this country are tweeting support – then, yes, abortion is something to tweet about. And, yes, some of the tweets are blunt. There’s nothing wrong with that. The twitter campaign has struck a chord because women are daring to speak about their personal experiences with abortion – and aren’t hiding. As Sarah Seltzer writes on Alternet about the campaign,

Whenever these kinds of topics pop up on twitter, whether it’s women tweeting about birth, abortion, or miscarriages there are always some people who get squeamish about publicizing or trivializing what they deem to be a personal moment. This is especially true when it comes abortion. Many folks don’t want to be reminded that it happens.

Women aren’t hiding from anti-choice advocates who bully and denounce and stigmatize and lob hate. Women aren’t hiding from their own experiences, either – keeping them locked away. They are acknowledging the decision and moving ahead with their lives.

It’s happened with the gay rights movement (as you’ll read below) and, to an extent, it’s happening with the birth-activist movement – sharing stories of miscarriages and traumatic births – and also with women being more willing to share the horrific experiences, publicly, of being raped, as well.  Heather Corinna speaks to Jennifer Baumgardner about her campaign to break the silence around rape in our culture and explores this idea further.

Clearly the push to “out” yourself via a t-shirt or, in this case, a tweet has met with controversy – from both pro- and anti-choice advocates. Why though? The most vocally opposed to these sorts of public proclamations are those who are clearly anti-choice. They are those who profess a deep, angry opposition to women being allowed to terminate a pregnancy, under federal law. Dig deeper though and it may be more about how challenging it truly is, on a grand scale over a long period of time, to discount women’s personal experiences. As women “out” themselves, it creates a shared-experience that becomes increasingly more difficult to politically argue away. It’s dangerous – yes. It’s dangerous for individual women, to a degree, and it’s dangerous for the movement. Stories aren’t always strategic. They aren’t about talking points or key messages. They don’t always tell you the story you want to hear. They conjure up pain some of us don’t want to feel or stir sadness we may not want to acknowledge. Sometimes they’ll even point out the flaws in our own movement or political strategy. This is positive and productive and necessary, however, to progress.

And, clearly, coming out about ones’ abortion is not going away.

With that in mind, I asked Steph Herold, the courageous woman (and, full disclosure, an occasional Rewire contributor), about her thoughts on what she’s sparked with her twitter “coming out” thus far.

AN: Why did you do this – was it the election results or the political climate in general (even prior to the elections)?

SH: Honestly, I could have done this a week ago or last year with the same motivations. Unfortunately, abortion carries a stigma no matter who is in power. Last week, I read this blog post where the writer compares the modern pro-choice movement to the gay rights movement in the 1970s. What strengthened the gay rights movement then, according to her, was people coming out, and the general public realizing that homosexuality is more common and prevalent (and normal!) than they ever imagined. The author of the post posed an interesting question: why don’t we do that for abortion rights? That really struck a chord with me, and what better venue than twitter? The anti-choice movement has tried to make abortion the sin of a few bad women. In reality, abortion is a regular part of women’s lives. 

AN: Do you want to comment on the CNN coverage (or other coverage) thus far? Do you feel people understand what you’re trying to do?

SH: I was disapointed by both the CNN coverage and the PBS coverage, but for different reasons. CNN showed some of the poignant tweets on the hashtag, but didn’t seem to understand that this is about women’s stories and women’s lives, not about politics or pushing people’s buttons. This is about removing shame from an experience 1 out of 3 US women have, and using a popular social media tool to do so.

PBS only had commentators who clearly do not understand the value of social media. They didn’t reach out to me to try to understand why I started the hashtag, and not understanding the point, they were immediately dismissive. I was hoping that they would reach out to women using the hashtag or at least demonstrate that they had actually read some of the tweets. Thankfully, they responded to some of my critiques and I’m waiting to hear back from the producers about doing a follow-up episode. 

AN: Have women responded the way you thought they would? Have you received any particularly poignant responses?

SH: When I sent out the initial tweet last week, I had no idea what to expect. I have been overwhelmed (in a good way!) by how many women have come forward and started talking about their abortions, women who previously weren’t part of the online pro-choice community.  Unfortuantely, a lot of anti-choice groups and individuals have taken to tweeting their misinformation and hate using the hashtag, but for the most part, the hashtag remains a really powerful timeline of women (and men) supporting each other’s reproductive health decisions.

There are so many poignant ones. A few that stick out in my mind:

MT @karendtregaskin: #IhadAnAbortion & thank GOD b/c otherwise I’d still be tied legally financially & emotionally to abusive partner.

RT @najalocavore: my partner & I are far more capable parents mentally, emotionally, phyisically, financially now b/c #ihadanabortion at 19

RT @chelsad: I’m adopted &appreciate what my bio-mom did, but when pregnancy made me too sick to keep a roof over my head, #ihadanabortion

RT @ SexWrkrs4Choice
After I told my mom #ihadanabortion she told me about hers>she told my Gma about both>Gma told about illegal AB

AN: What would you like other women’s organizations and individual advocates to do (if anything) to help the effort/support the effort?

SH: Women’s health organizations do a fantastic job of working to increase access to reproductive health services and fighting anti-choice legislation nation-wide. But we need to learn how to better support women who exercise their reproductive rights, including figuring out how to decrease the stigma of abortion so more women feel comfortable talking about their experiences. We need to learn how to welcome all women who’ve had abortions into the pro-choice movement, and perhaps this #IHadAnAbortion hashtag is a start.