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Sharing Abortion Stories Isn’t Just About Changing Policy

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

As part of the Center for Reproductive Rights’ Draw the Line campaign, Girls actress Jemima Kirke released a short video about her experience getting an abortion at Planned Parenthood while in college. “Because I couldn’t tell my mother that I was pregnant, I had to pay for it out of pocket,” says Kirke. She describes having to empty her bank account and borrow money just to afford the abortion, and how she couldn’t afford anesthesia because it was an additional cost. She discusses feeling isolated, but relieved that she had access to care with fewer barriers than many other women in the United States, though those barriers affected her experience nonetheless. “We think we are able to do whatever we want, but then there are these little hoops we have to jump through to get them,” says Kirke.

In response to the video, Daily Beast writer Emily Shire argues that while sharing stories like Kirke’s is important, abortion stories won’t do any good for, say, “an undocumented immigrant in the Rio Grande Valley who may have to travel hundreds of miles—never mind the cost itself—to have an abortion.” Because Kirke didn’t experience many of the geographic, legal, racial, and class barriers that many experience in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, Shire took issue with “the tenor of debate [her story] perpetuated.”

Writes Shire:

Certainly, fighting the stigma of having an abortion is important, but is it as important as actually fighting abortion barriers in terms of state restrictions and travel, financial, and logistical humps? Surely, helping women through the unfair burden of abortion shame has to be secondary to helping them secure abortions in the first place.

And she concludes that “sharing our stories isn’t enough to bring about concrete policy changes that adequately secure abortion access.”

This conclusion is shortsighted: Advocates have never said abortion stories alone could bring about policy changes, and this isn’t the only type of change we seek.

I frequently share my abortion story publicly, and Shire’s reaction echoes a conversation I see reflected across the country: A lot of people don’t realize how stigma affects our everyday lives. According the Sea Change Program, a nonprofit that researches reproductive stigma for which I have consulted, abortion stigma is a societal belief that abortion is morally wrong, thus people who have them are considered bad, deviant, and are deemed shameful. “Abortion stigma silences people who have had abortions, as well as the people who love them. Stigma operates on many levels impacting our laws, institutions, media, communities and personal interactions,” Steph Herold, managing director of the Sea Change Program, told Rewire.

Stigma affects everything from how legislation forces policyholders to purchase separate abortion policies for their health insurance, to the passage of mandatory ultrasound policies when research shows they have no impact on a person’s desire to have an abortion. Because anti-choice laws reinforce the idea that abortion is a bad decision, people accessing care feel isolated and shameful, when they’re actually part of a large community; 30 percent of American women will have an abortion by age 45but many know of few in their circles. The levels of stigma also work in tandem. If abortion isn’t talked about in our communities, is only reflected in a negative light in the media, and the laws in most states are restrictive, abortion stigma is locked in place. As Maya Dusenbery writes in Pacific Standard, “It’s stubbornly self-perpetuating. In the most simplistic telling of this dynamic, stigma breeds silence, which breeds more stigma.”

This is why speaking out is crucial and makes a difference in our communities, not as a secondary effort but as a critical step in advocates’ overall goal of expanding public support for abortion. Research from New York University found that people who are anti-choice are more likely to think that abortion is less common because they hear fewer stories from their loved ones compared to their pro-choice counterparts, largely due to stigma. And in a recent poll, Vox found that when a woman was mentioned in questions about abortion, rather than addressing abortion only as a political issue, people were more likely to be supportive of abortion. Other rigorous research and program evaluations also confirm that when people hear abortion stories, they become more supportive of abortion rights.

These same people we’re sharing our stories with are voters. If we are working to address stigma at all levels, to which storytelling is one strategy, they will recognize the harm policies have on loved ones.

Contrary to Shire’s belief, this is beginning to work in the political realm. Earlier this year, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) announced that he had shifted his stance on abortion because of the stories he heard. Now, whether his change was politically motivated or not, we’ll never know, but his stance did shift. And as someone who previously passed many pieces of anti-choice legislation based on his personal beliefs, he will hopefully turn the lessons of those stories into policy change. “Storytelling alone won’t stop the avalanche of attacks on reproductive rights and health care, but that’s far from all we’re doing to fight back,” Chris Iseli, chief communications officer for the Center for Reproductive Rights, explained to Rewire. Iseli says that his and many organizations are on Capitol Hill, in the courts, and in the streets to make their voices heard. “Our ability to make substantive change in all of these arenas depends a great deal on what the lawmakers, judges, and justices are hearing in the press and public conversation,” he said. And let’s be honest, we have tons of organizations that have been working on policy change for many years, yet the stigma persists.

“We are working almost around the clock to stop restrictionslobbying legislators, mobilizing supporters, and mounting legal challenges. But here’s the catch 22: Abortion restrictions lead to shame and silence. And shame and silence make it easier for politicians to pass more restrictions,” Jennifer Dalven, director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, told Rewire. “No movement can survive, and no right can be protected, in a culture of silence. On some level, culture change is policy change. It’s tough to have one without the other.”

As someone who works on abortion storytelling advocacy, I can tell you the ultimate goal of sharing abortion stories is not to change policies. The goal of storytelling in any movement is to normalize a stigmatized experience, to connect the stigmatized people who often live in isolation, and to increase understanding about a taboo issue. In my research, I’ve found that the majority of people who have shared have done so to change the existing narrative and connect with others. Think of it as the Batman symbol flying high above the streets of Gotham: We want people to know that we’re here and that we matter. Cultural shift, along with policy shift, is a byproduct of that connection.

By thinking that policy gains are the end-all-be-all of abortion storysharing, Shire is seeing stories as primarily for consumption rather than connection. This is not a framework that centers the storyteller; it should never be our goal.

Which brings me back to Shire’s critique of the use of Kirke’s story, when there are people across the country facing more barriers than Kirke did: This isn’t a zero-sum game. Abortion stories are as diverse as the people who have them. It’s naive to think there’s a perfect abortion story that will change the laws, nor should there be. As Jessica Valenti points out in The Guardian, “sometimes our stories are mundane and sometimes they’re tragic, but they’re always ours. And even if some of us do choose to share them to combat the stigma against all of us who have abortions, there’s really no explanation necessary.”

For many of us, it takes years to speak out to our loved ones, let alone publicly, and to dismiss that contribution is limiting. We need a variety of stories to show how stigma—in addition to racism, classism, ability, geography, immigration status, sexual orientation, and gender identity—affects all of our experiences on many levels. We need our stories to be as real and as powerful as we are, and to serve the larger goal of reminding us we’re not alone.

Indiana Lawmaker: Arming Women Is the Solution to Domestic Violence

A Republican lawmaker in Indiana stirred controversy last week when he suggested that women can prevent domestic violence with gun ownership, despite national statistics that show quite the opposite.

State house members have sought to raise awareness about domestic violence by having a different lawmaker each week present their take on the issue. Rep. Jim Lucas (R-Seymour) on Thursday said during his statement that women could be proactive against their abusers and defend themselves with a gun.

“There are options out there for women,” Lucas said. “Applications for a license to carry a handgun are up significantly in the state of Indiana, according to the Indiana State Police. Women can take it upon themselves to defend themselves.”

Lucas has received high ratings from the National Rifle Association (NRA) for his voting record on gun control.

Lucas’ comment comes as gun rights activists have pushed state legislatures to legalize concealed carry of firearms on college campuses. These activists have often justified their position by claiming that if female students had the ability to carry concealed firearms, they could prevent sexual assaults.

A meta-analysis of several studies has shown that domestic violence is five times more likely to end in homicide when a gun is present, according to research published in the journal of the American College of Physicians.

This coincides with other findings about the prevalence of violence when guns are present.

The more guns there are in a state, the more likely a woman is to die a violent death, including unintentional shootings, suicides, and homicides, according to a Harvard Injury Control Research Center study. This remains true “even after controlling for factors such as urbanization, alcohol use, education, poverty, and divorce rates,” reports the Atlantic.

Cam Edwards, the host of a NRA radio news program, criticized a University of North Carolina student publication for advocating against conceal carry on campus. An editorial in the independent student newspaper the Daily Tar Heel argued that concealed carry on campus was not the solution to campus sexual assault, and instead the focus should be on preventative programs.

Edwards argued that the “burden” of preventing sexual assaults and other violent crimes is on the victim.

“It is the truth that if you are the victim of violent crime or the victim of an attempted violent crime, it is not the patriarchy that puts the burden on you to defend yourself, it is not rigid gender roles, it isit’s a fact of life,” Edwards said.

The NRA has lobbied against proposed laws in state legislatures that would require relinquishing firearms as part of a protective order in domestic abuse situations.

Health Officials Issue New Guidelines on Sexually Transmitted Ebola

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Sunday changed its guidelines, suggesting that Ebola survivors avoid sex or use condoms to prevent spreading the virus “until more information becomes available.”

The guidelines had previously suggested that survivors wait three months before having unprotected sex. The change—which mirrors new guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO)—highlights the confusion about the sexual transmission of this deadly virus.

Ebola, like other viruses, is present in all bodily fluids, including blood, feces, vomit, sweat, tears, and urine, as well as semen and vaginal fluids. The virus is transmitted through direct contact with infected fluids. Risk of transmission begins when a person starts showing symptoms, and is highest when the patient is the sickest because the virus causes vomiting, diarrhea, and unexplained bleeding.

Laboratory studies show that the virus is detectable at very low levels in a patient’s blood once she experiences fever, and increases logarithmically during the acute phase of infection. The bodies of people who die from Ebola are particularly infectious.

This is why so many health-care workers and family members become infected.

For those who survive, the level of virus in their blood drops during their clinical recovery. Few survivors have been studied in lab settings, but the longest that any study has found detectable levels of the virus in a survivor’s blood is 21 days after the onset of symptoms.

Even fewer studies have been done on sexual transmission of the virus, but those that have been conducted suggest the virus can be detected in vaginal fluids for up to 33 days after symptoms appear and in semen for 101 days.

These studies were the basis for the original suggestion that survivors abstain from sex or use condoms consistently for three months.

Those guidelines, however, have been called into question by a Liberian survivor who recovered in September but seems to have passed the virus on to his female partner just recently. A sample given to a lab found his semen contained the virus 175 days after he his symptoms first appeared.

Scientists have matched sequences of the virus in his semen to those found in his partner’s blood, suggesting sexual transmission. Still, they warn that the findings are preliminary and the virus in his semen may not have been infectious.

Very little is known about sexual transmission of Ebola, in part because the virus is so lethal. The current outbreak—which has been centered in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea—began in 2013 and has killed more than 10,600 people. The current epidemic has a fatality rate of about 50 percent—meaning that half of those who become infected die.

Given how little research there is on sexual transmission, this one case is enough to have experts question their knowledge and change their advice. For now, both the CDC and the WHO are urging survivors to abstain from sex or use condoms until further notice.

The CDC promises to update its web page on Ebola transmission as soon as information becomes available.

Names Do Hurt: The Case Against Using Derogatory Language to Describe People in Prison

Too often, news stories about people in prison or jail use dehumanizing language to describe those under government control. While this coverage draws attention to widespread abuses in the criminal justice system, it frequently undercuts the humanity of the people featured with derogatory phrases. The term “inmate” is the most pervasive of these words; it is widely used by judges, prison and jail officials and staff, and the media. Far from being neutral, this word objectifies and disparages people who are imprisoned. We encourage writers to jettison this term once and for all, and instead to talk about “people in prison or jail”—phrasing that emphasizes the personhood and humanity of each individual before locating that individual in an institution of punishment.

In its exhaustively reported investigative series, “Women, Incarcerated,Rewire delved into the problems routinely faced by women who are pregnant or parenting from behind prison walls. Unfortunately, these moving and powerful stories continuously referred to the women profiled as “inmates.” Rewire is not alone in using this language. The Ms. Magazine blog and The Young Turks, both progressive outlets, use this same terminology in their coverage of shackling pregnant women and sterilization abuse in women’s prisons.

Media has tremendous power to promote and reinforce what seems normal, natural, and acceptable. Journalists can influence their readers’ perceptions by the language they use. The word “inmate” and others like it focus attention on a person’s incarcerated status instead of emphasizing that, even in prison, she is still first and foremost a person. Defining someone as “other,” in the media and other arenas, makes it more acceptable to treat people inhumanely—and for the rest of us to ignore these abuses. But language can evolve so that it addresses injustices without dehumanizing the people described. For example, undocumented people, allies, and linguists successfully pushed major outlets like the Associated Press, USA Today, Fox News Latino, and the Huffington Post to stop using the phrase “illegal immigrant,” which implied that a person’s very existence somehow violates the law and therefore that person deserves any punishment meted out.

The negative connotations of criminal justice language have real-life consequences for people who experience incarceration. As activist, educator and formerly incarcerated mother Tina Reynolds explains in the anthology Interrupted Life, the label “inmate” is “wholly dehumanizing;” it “underscores the invisibility of the human being. It undermines the self-esteem and self-worth of people as individuals, parents, and family members.” In a recent discussion hosted by the news organization The Marshall Project, organizer Khalil Cumberbatch recounts the first time he heard himself referred to as an “inmate”: “I recall feeling violated. It was the first time in my life that someone used a term—to my face—to describe me in a way that dehumanized me on so many levels.” Advocate Andrea James elaborates, “While in prison, part of the dehumanizing programming is the use of the word inmate. You are referred to as inmate 27402-038, for example, and relegated to an underclass referred to as ‘the inmates.’ It stays with you, creating a public and subconscious persona that is far removed from a person’s true identity. Inmate is a term used to reduce human qualities, separate and disparage.”

It is no coincidence that all of these experts describe being made to feel less than human. As they attest, the word “inmate” facilitates a worldview through which prison administrators and employees objectify the people in their custody. When someone is considered inferior and undeserving, it is easier to treat her badly. It also feeds into the pervasive notion that she is lying to manipulate staff or the system, making it easier to dismiss her needs. As Rewire’s own reporting demonstrates, prison and jail employees, including nurses and doctors, frequently ignore women who say they are in preterm labor and feeling pain when they are pregnant—even when they are visibly bleeding.

Similarly, terms such as “offender” or “criminal” reduce a person solely to someone under arrest or convicted of a crime. They are no longer parents, siblings, children, co-workers or neighbors. These terms also gloss over complex realities. When people are referred to as “drug offenders,” for example, it puts the focus on the individual as someone who has committed a crime or made a “bad choice,” while ignoring the structural problem of treating drug use as a crime instead of a matter of public health, compounded by poverty and lack of access to treatment. Criminalizing drug use is a policy choice that our elected officials have made; it is neither inevitable nor eternal. In fact, some state legislators are now reconsidering this model and rolling back harsh mandatory minimum sentences.

Equally problematic, the terms “ex-offender,” “ex-con,” and “felon” continue to identify people with their criminal conviction even after they have ostensibly paid their debt to society by serving their sentence. These labels add to the obstacles people face in making a life for themselves with the burden of a criminal record, which can make it impossible to find legal employment, rent an apartment, obtain food stamps or other public assistance, qualify for a student loan, get a driver’s license, or vote. For women, many of whom were primary caregivers when they were arrested, these burdens—and the attitude that anyone with a criminal record must be a bad mother—can also make it impossible to regain custody of their children who were displaced when they were in prison or jail.

By making these points, we are not ignoring the fact that some people in prison have inflicted serious harm on others. At the same time, we also want to point out that many people engage in conduct defined as criminal, but only some get caught and convicted. Regardless of the charge or conviction, once the government takes the step to confine someone, limiting their contact with the outside community and their ability to fend for themselves, the state assumes the responsibility to provide for that person’s basic welfare. This is especially true of health care. Every prison and jail is obligated by the Constitution to provide adequate medical services to the people in its custody; it makes no difference why someone is locked up. But as documented so vividly in “Women, Incarcerated,” jail and prison staff routinely deny women health care. At the same time, jail and prison staff force women to have their labor induced for the institution’s convenience, regardless of the woman’s wishes or medical situation.

We have learned a great deal from the insights of people who have lived in prison. In our own work, we make an effort to talk about “women in prison and jail” so that the emphasis is on “women” first and “prison” second, and to convey that the status of being in prison should not define a person’s entire being or self. While being confined in prison determines a great deal about a person’s life and daily experience, not to mention her future opportunities, it doesn’t change the fact that she is still an individual human being with a personality and relationships.

Organizations are advocating a change in the ways we refer to people who have experienced incarceration. The Center for NuLeadership, a policy and advocacy center founded and staffed by formerly incarcerated people, issued an open letter calling for an end to disparaging terms to describe people who are or ever were incarcerated. The Fortune Society also advocates a “people first” approach in a guide called “Words Matter“ created for medical providers working with patients who have come home from prison.

We believe that language matters. The way we write and speak helps shape people’s perceptions about the world. Women of color coined the term “reproductive justice“ to highlight the intersection of human rights, reproductive self-determination, and social justice. Reproductive justice provides a countervailing set of values to the policing and punishment that send too many people in the United States to prison for too long, and for too little reason. As writers who are involved in both advancing reproductive justice and challenging prison injustices, we hope that our approach contributes to changes in understanding and ultimately in the public policies that affect us all.

Nevada Assembly Passes Parental Notification Bill

Lawmakers in Nevada passed legislation Friday that would restrict the ability of minors to obtain abortion care.

AB 405, sponsored by Assembly Speaker John Hambrick (R-Las Vegas), would require physicians to notify parents or guardians of a minor in writing prior to providing abortion care. The physician would have to wait an additional 48 hours after sending notification before performing the abortion.

The bill includes exceptions if the physician certifies that a medical emergency exists that necessitates an immediate abortion, a parent or guardian certifies that they have already been notified, or a court has given judicial authorization to waive the notification.

Dozens of bills restricting minors’ access to abortion care through parental notification or consent requirements have been introduced in several states this year.

During the floor debate Assemblywoman Heidi Swank (D-Las Vegas) said the bill “puts a roadblock on a personal choice,” while Assembly Member David Gardner (R-Las Vegas) said that the legislation is about “parental rights,” reported the Associated Press.

An amendment to the bill accepted by lawmakers removed the reporting requirements of the original legislation.

Under the original language physicians would have been required to submit statistical data to the state, including the number of pregnant minors for whom written notice was delivered to parents or guardians, details about how notifications were delivered, and the number of pregnant minors who received an abortion without the physician providing written notice to a parent.

The bill was passed along by a 24-17 vote along party lines. Republicans hold a 27-15 majority in the assembly. The bill now moves to the senate, where Republicans hold a slim 11-10 majority.