A 20-second TikTok video that surfaced last week follows a teenager into a Planned Parenthood clinic before she has a surgical abortion. She’s supported by a friend and fist-pumps while sitting in the waiting area. At the end of the video, the teen is shown in a gown on a medical table next to an ultrasound machine.
At no point is any part of the abortion filmed, but one Twitter user criticized the TikTok video as an “abortion celebration,” while anti-choice activists called the video “sick and depraved.”
As one of the most downloaded apps, the video-sharing social media platform has 500 million monthly active users, with 41 percent between the ages of 16 to 24, according to a Global Web Index report that analyzed data from November 2018. TikTok is a space for young people to creatively express themselves in short videos. Its user themes include dancing, comedy, education, as well as political issues like abortion. TikTok videos tagged under “abortion” have received 74.3 million views at the time of publishing.
There were some distasteful aspects to the recent TikTok abortion video, such as filming people in the waiting room. Anti-choice protesters often film patients without their consent. That’s never OK. The teenager’s friend filmed the ultrasound screen, and although nothing significant was visible, it still wasn’t her ultrasound to film. But as someone who’s had a surgical abortion, I was glad the teen felt comfortable to share her experience with strangers. Abortion is normal, and videos like these remind us that every experience is unique.
But the teen isn’t the first person to offer a digital glimpse into a personal decision like abortion.
Emily Letts was an abortion counselor at Cherry Hill Women’s Center in New Jersey when, in May 2014, she filmed her own abortion. Her decision was made with the support of the clinic staff after she discovered a YouTube video that depicted a medical abortion, but couldn’t find a similar, accurate video for a surgical abortion.
“I think there’s a lot of misinformation around surgical abortion because there aren’t enough representations of it,” Letts told Rewire.News. “It has negative connotations, and research has shown a disturbingly high percentage of abortion depictions in media end in death.”
Misrepresentations of abortion experience have long been exploited by the anti-choice movement, which pushes the myth of abortion regret and portrays abortion as unsafe. It’s important to center the experiences of those who are most affected by abortion restrictions. Studies show 87 percent of onscreen TV characters who had abortions were white—a statistic that contradicts data on real-life experiences. Most people who have abortions are people of color, and those with low incomes have to overcome numerous barriers when accessing abortion care.
The patients Letts counseled shared concerns of infertility and “being cut into their uterus,” so when having an abortion, she decided on the surgical method to “dispel that misinformation.” Also known as a vacuum aspiration abortion, a surgical abortion doesn’t involve an incision, but instead uses dilation and suction to end a pregnancy.
Although she received positive feedback for her video, Letts also experienced harassment and criticism from people who oppose and support abortion rights. Abortion advocates challenged her credibility as a “spokesperson” since she wasn’t using birth control, and in an interview with CNN’s Dr. Drew, she was callously asked if she got pregnant on purpose just to film her abortion. “I remember feeling overwhelmed by the amount of criticism by both people who felt negatively towards abortion and people who I thought would have supported me,” she said.
After seeing the negative feedback surrounding the recent TikTok video, Letts believes we should reserve judgment on the way teens cope with a deeply stigmatizing experience. “People have different reactions to all types of events in their lives. Who is to say what is the right reaction and what is the wrong reaction?” she said. “It is not for me or you to say if her reaction is good or bad or valid or invalid. It is what it is. The negative reactions to her video are people projecting their own suffering.”
At the time, Letts said she didn’t realize just how much of her decision to film her experience was rooted in privilege. Because she worked at the clinic, she had full access to the clinic and its resources, including emotional support from her supervisors.
“I shared my story from a platform of privilege before I knew what having privilege, specifically white privilege, meant,” Letts said. “Voices with privilege tend to be heard the loudest, but the majority of stories are of those who don’t have the privilege, access, or support to share their experiences. What I later learned is that it is my responsibility to use my privilege and power to create space for others to be seen and heard.”
Filming experiences with abortion provide a unique insight into a highly stigmatized—yet extremely safe—medical procedure. But it can inadvertently contribute to the misrepresentation of people who have abortions. An abortion is an abortion, but our experiences are unique, and access doesn’t look the same for everyone—it is often dependent on our ZIP code, income, and citizenship status.
CoWanda Rusk, 20, an abortion storyteller with the leadership program Youth Testify, said she’s excited to see young people talking about abortion care and using social media to do so. Rusk had an abortion in Texas when she was 17 after receiving a judicial bypass, or permission from a judge, to have an abortion. While she wouldn’t have filmed her own procedure, she said storytelling varies, and she shares in the way she feels comfortable.
“I do think this contributes to the misrepresentation of people who have abortions, but I still wish there had been normalized videos to watch when I had mine. I don’t feel negatively about [the videos] when it’s to bust stigma,” Rusk told Rewire.News. “I believe the ability for someone to share their experience can be tied to the support and resources they had. I’ve heard many abortion stories, and all posed different and difficult challenges for the person. It’s a spectrum, and it deserves the spotlight.”