The New Public Face of Abortion: Connecting the Dots Between Abortion Stories

Over the last few months, there's been an electric energy around abortion story sharing.  What's going on here? Why are so many people "coming out" now? And what are the similarities and differences in their experiences?

Over the last few months, there’s been an electric energy around the sharing of abortion stories. We’ve seen two stories in the New York Times, a Jewish abortion story on Kveller, a continuation of an abortion story on Thought Catalog, an early abortion story on Boing Boing, and a piece by a woman reflecting on the consequences of telling her abortion story in the Texas Observer. One woman even documented her abortion in photos. And that’s just recently.

What’s going on here? Why are so many people “coming out” now? There are no simple answers to this question. Are women responding to the onslaught of anti-choice legislation? Has the uptick in media reporting on abortion policies eased some of the stigma around speaking about abortion? Are the calls to come out about abortion from pro-choice activists, politicians, and advocacy organizations actually working?

Without asking every person who’s shared her story, we won’t know the answers to these questions. By looking at what they’ve decided to publish, we can consider more basic issues: what are women saying when they come out? What kinds of experiences are represented? Who is coming out about their abortion experience, and who is silent?

To map the patterns and gaps in these published narratives, I created a tumblr to collect these stories: ihadanabortion.org. Here’s what I’ve found so far:

  • Some women had wanted pregnancies. Some did not.
  • Some women had illegal abortions. Some women had abortions after Roe.
  • Some women went through their abortions with no support. Some people had the support of friends, partners, or family members.
  • Some women had abortions by pill. Others had surgical abortions. Some attempted to perform their own abortions.
  • Some women talked about having one abortion. Some women disclosed having multiple abortions.
  • For some women, the decision to have an abortion was a decision about motherhood. For others, it was a decision about emotional or financial circumstances.
  • Some women experienced emotional difficulty with their abortion. Others experienced relief. Others experienced a mix of emotions.
  • Some women had explicitly pro-choice, pro-voice, or feminist takes on their abortion experience. Others divorced politics from their abortion experience.
Poster by Faviana Rodriguez.

Poster by Faviana Rodriguez.

Though there is great deal of diversity in the stories told by the women in these published accounts, there are also several similarities.

Many of the published stories focus on first trimester abortions. This may be slightly misleading, though, because many stories didn’t indicate at what gestation the author had an abortion. Still, the fact that so many of the stories are about first trimester abortions makes sense, since 90% of abortions take place before 12 weeks.

All the published stories that explicitly say that they are about abortions after the first trimester are about ending wanted pregnancies. Research tells us that a majority of those presenting for second trimester and later abortions do so because they were delayed in seeking an abortion, not because they had a wanted pregnancy gone awry. 

Three stories discussed multiple abortions. According to the most recent Guttmacher data, about half of women who’ve had abortions have had more than one. Does stigma keep people from sharing their experiences of having multiple abortions? Or do women who talk about their abortions publicly only feel comfortable mentioning a single abortion, even though they’ve had more than one?

Several of the published stories are by self-described middle class, young, white women. White women do make up the highest percentage of abortions by race. However, as compared to their proportion of the population, younger women, low-income women and women of color have higher abortion rates than other groups. There are multiple explanations for why these low-income women, young women, and women of color may be less likely to come forward or have their stories published. These women may have less access to media than women with more privilege or education. Additionally, coming forward may place them at risk for multiple stigmas associated with their age, race, and class as well as with their abortion experiences.

One story mentioned difficultly paying for the abortion (and specifically mentioned an abortion fund). This might suggest that those who need help paying for their abortion may be different from those who reach out to the media to publish their stories. People who need financial assistance for their abortion likely do not have access to the media to share their experiences.  It’s also possible that there is stigma around asking for help to pay for an abortion, and that this specific stigma coupled with abortion stigma increases the chances that a woman will not publicly share her abortion story.

Sharing an abortion story, whether with one person or with an online community, always comes with risks. For some folks, especially those who do not inhabit privileged identities, that risk might be greater. Looking at these abortion stories all in one place makes it obvious that certain voices, among others, are missing from the archive of public abortion stories: the experiences of low-income folks, people of color, people who experience emotional difficulty with their abortions, abortion stories from queer, gender non-conforming, and trans* folks, people who wanted an abortion but weren’t able to get one, and people who had elective second trimester (and later) abortions.

In discussing the implications of sharing her abortion story, Carolyn Jones writes,

As a white middle class woman, I’ve seen how powerful my voice can be. Not to share that power with those who’ve had equally valid experiences of abortion is like stopping a story half way through. But how do we hear the voices of the marginalized when they’re drowned out by the noise of our race, class and gender-riven world? And how, from our eyries of privilege, do we draw those stories out while respecting the political context from which they came?

“Coming out” about an abortion experience is a form of personal and cultural risk-taking. You’re exposing yourself to judgment and stigma from your friends, family, and community. By documenting published stories at ihadanabortion.org, we’re supporting the people who choose to take on this risk and unearthing the gaps between these narratives. We’re figuring out how to create a culture that supports people who’ve have abortions and allows for sharing diverse, multidimensional abortion stories. We know the danger of the single story. Let’s connect the single stories that create the dominant narrative about abortion, and map out ways to expand the frame.