Ain’t I an Abortion Storyteller?

Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech came to mind as I read recent articles highlighting the history of abortion storytelling while only citing the contributions of white women. We Testify storytellers of color have been talking about our multiple abortion experiences for years to try and change the stigma surrounding it.

[Photo: Two Black women wearing summer dresses smile at each other while enjoying a day in lush nature.]
I along with several other We Testify storytellers of color have been talking about our multiple abortion experiences for years to try and change the stigma surrounding it. Courtesy of Kenya Martin

When Sojourner Truth gave her famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech in 1851, she was frustrated by the white supremacy plaguing the early women’s suffrage movement that kept white women from recognizing the struggles Black women faced. This behavior is now known as misogynoir, a word coined by queer Black feminist Moya Bailey to illustrate the intersecting racism and sexism that Black women experience.

In her speech, Truth highlighted the way society refused to recognize the challenges Black women experienced as entwined with white women’s liberation. This speech came to mind as I read recent articles in the New York Times and Broadly highlighting the history of abortion storytelling but only citing the contributions of white women. These articles, and others like them, ignore the leadership of and great strides made by people of color to change the conversation about who has been having abortions and why.

As an abortion storyteller, I was particularly frustrated to see a quote in the Broadly article wishing for a future where people were open about having multiple abortions with ease and pride: “One day we’ll get to a place where someone’s saying, ‘I’ve had five abortions; deal with it.’ We’re just not quite there yet. But it’ll happen.”

That future is already here. It’s been here for several years. I speak openly about the fact that I’ve had six abortions over the last 24 years, and I don’t regret any of them. I along with several other We Testify storytellers of color have been talking about our multiple abortion experiences for years to try and change the stigma surrounding it.

Our stories aren’t uncommon, considering the majority of people who have abortions are people of color, and nearly half of patients seeking abortion have had at least one prior abortion, according to a Guttmacher Institute survey. In fact, as that survey notes, structural inequalities creating barriers to health care are a leading reason people of color often need more than one abortion. A 2012 study in the Contraception Journal concluded that advocates and providers must expand our thinking about why someone needs additional abortions because each one is often due to “unique circumstances,” and our language further perpetuates stigma.

When we are not included in articles or other conversations about abortion, well-intentioned writers and advocates are doing a disservice to the reproductive rights movement and other people like us who have had multiple abortions. If I’m being honest, the articles and discussions that do not center, or overlook, people of color simply spread more white supremacy. It’s a whitewashing of history right before our very eyes. By not including these stories and the barriers to health care that people of color face in this nation, the movement continues this cycle and maintains the hurdles to our liberation.

While it may seem like an innocent misstep or a road paved with good intentions, it’s part of a long history of erasure of the work and contributions made by people of color, Black women in particular. It allows the problematic narrative that only white women have abortions and share their stories to continue to thrive. It creates a society where a person of color thinks they’re one of the only people they know or that looks like them who has had an abortion, leading to more internalized stigma and isolation. And it feels like a particular slap in the face at a time when representation of characters of color having abortions on TV is at an all time high. Why is the movement’s conversation and news media representation still lagging?

My Abortion Stories

In 1995, I was 19 when I had my first abortion. It happened during my second year of college and honestly, I thought it would be my only time. Life continues and birth control isn’t 100 percent effective, so I found myself pregnant again in 1999. I wanted to have an abortion, but I allowed my Catholic parents to talk me out of doing what was best for me.

I knew from the start it wasn’t a good decision, and I pleaded with them to give me money to pay for an abortion. Instead, they convinced me to do what they wanted.

My mom felt I had already had one abortion and didn’t need to have another. My parents promised to support me and help me in all the ways I needed. I went into the situation scared of the unknown, because I didn’t know the guy I was pregnant by well enough to be bringing a whole life into the world with him.

If I knew then what I know now, I probably wouldn’t be a mother today.

The delivery of my daughter was a scary one. I went from having a perfect pregnancy to an all-out nightmare cesarean section. I really didn’t think I would come out of the hospital alive. It scared me so much so that I would think to myself, how do women do this over and over again? The doctor told me that I would more than likely have to deliver that way again if I wanted more children in the future.

That did something to me. There was no way in hell I was going to be cut open and face death to have more children. I inquired about getting a tubal ligation, but my doctor told me that I was too young and refused to do it.

In 2001, I had my second abortion the week after my daughter’s first birthday. In some ways, I didn’t want to have an abortion, but the father and his family thought it was too soon for another child. They pressured me into having one. I wasn’t as strong as I am today and was tired of fighting. In hindsight, I am grateful that I did have that abortion.

A year later, in 2002, I had my third abortion after birth control had failed me. I tried to prevent needing another abortion by taking birth control responsibly, as anti-abortion advocates love to suggest. Yet it still failed me. I fell in that 9 percent of people who get pregnant while on the pill. At the same time, I was in and out of family court, dealing with a nasty custody battle with my daughter’s father. Those years spent fighting for a decent custody resolution took a toll on me, and I vowed to never have children again.

Years later, in 2007 and 2009, I would have abortions that were both necessary and do not require any further explanation. In 2015, I had an ectopic pregnancy that resulted in the removal of my right fallopian tube. Shortly after, I started working for the clinic that had provided me with compassionate care for all of my abortions as well as for the doctor who delivered my daughter. It was there that I learned how stigma affects decision-making when it came to having more than one abortion.

For the three years that I was a counselor there, I would regularly witness how multiple-abortion stigma affects someone needing to decide whether to have an abortion more than once. There were times when patients, particularly people of color, would state how they really needed to have the abortion but didn’t want to feel bad about doing it even though they couldn’t afford to continue the pregnancy. There are many people who continue these pregnancies and are caring for children that they didn’t want or need because of the shame that goes into knowing they had an abortion more than once. Some have addictions they are battling, mental health issues they are getting under control, children already in the foster-care system, or partners they’re trying to get away from.

Each thought they were the only one who had more than one abortion, and I was happy to share my stories and let them know they’re not alone.

Multiple-abortion stigma doesn’t have to exist. The stereotype that people of color don’t share their abortion stories doesn’t have to exist. But we allow these ideas to spread and harm the very people we seek to support. Each and every time this happens, we allow ahistorical and inaccurate narratives to be printed as fact. That’s how stigma, white privilege, and white supremacy work: overlooking the contributions of people of color and only valuing those shared by white people. The erasure feels suffocating and exhausting.

For me, speaking out about multiple abortions is the first step to rejecting the stigma surrounding the issue. I hope that if we continue to speak out—not only about our stories, but also about the ignorance of the work of storytellers of color and people who’ve had more than one abortion—the conversation will change for good. My hope is that the stories we hear are truly reflective of the demographics they seek to represent and that those who are doing the self-sacrificing work of sharing their stories to change the conversation are acknowledged. I believe we can get there.