the body politic

The Abortion Stories We Didn’t Tell

How decades of silence left us unprepared for the post-Roe fight.

A woman checks for bleeding during her medication abortion at home. Photo: The Abortion Project
A woman checks for bleeding during her medication abortion at home. Photo: The Abortion Project

In 2004, I covered a pro-choice gathering of over a million people in Washington, D.C., called the March for Women’s Lives. I was 28, and most of the speakers and celebrities onstage were much older, many of them veterans of the second-wave feminist movement. I watched with dismay as Whoopi Goldberg waved a coat hanger at the crowd and chided its younger members: “You understand me, young women under 30? This is what we used!”

At the time, I wrote that Goldberg “was scolding a generation for its privilege” and thereby committing movement malpractice by alienating young people, blaming them for not knowing about a world into which they were not born. I still think it was bad form; after all, if people in the crowd didn’t know about pre-Roe abortion practices, half the blame surely lay with the elders who had not told them and who had perhaps evinced less curiosity about what abortion care was like during Roe. But I’ve also thought a lot in the years since that gathering about how everyone should have talked about it more: about pre-Roe abortions, Roe-era abortions — about abortions, period. Now, in a post-Roe world, I feel even greater frustration at the decades wasted, the millions of stories that did not get told, not just onstage in front of big crowds but in families, social circles, and civic and religious contexts.

The smug incuriosity of the mainstream American media has played a role in the absence of abortion stories. So has the caginess of the Democratic Party, which is loath to even say the word abortion and has too frequently pushed the framework of “safe, legal, and rare,” casting abortion as some dolorous outcome rather than a cornerstone of reproductive health care, economic and familial well-being, and, therefore, equality itself. Even the reproductive-rights movement has kept a distance from nuanced, varied stories of abortion, leaving us with a dearth of understanding, an absence of sympathy, a cluelessness about the conditions under Roe and the state of things going forward.

Ironically, it has been young people — like those Goldberg was haranguing in 2004 — who have pushed for a more explicit conversation about what abortion is, how people experience it, and why it is a tool for liberation. But their work has really just begun. They are playing catch-up after decades of silence and curtailed narratives.

I haven’t had an abortion, but when I was pregnant with my second child, the erosion of access across the country led me to seek out stories from my own family. It’s not that these stories were kept from me; my mother, for example, had always been open about having had an abortion. But even as a 39-year-old who had been writing about gender, power, and abortion for more than a decade at that point, I’d never pursued the why or how.

I was startled by the sheer variety of abortion experiences revealed by just a couple of questions: My married grandmother had conceived accidentally and hadn’t had the money for a child during the Depression. Her daughter, my aunt, unable to get the abortion she’d needed as a teen in the early ’60s, had given birth to my cousin. That same aunt had two more children and four subsequent abortions, she told me, because she wasn’t good at using birth control; one was administered with a knitting needle, and another was performed by Robert Spencer, the Pennsylvania doctor who had provided illegal abortion care starting in the 1920s. Another aunt couldn’t afford to continue her accidental pregnancy because she already had two children and a new job. My mother had had medical complications and ended a pregnancy two years after my birth. These were abortions that occurred in the 1930s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. I was told about fear, risk, logistics; sadness and gratitude; husbands, bad boyfriends, kids; money, sex, and zero guilt.

But all that stuff, the texture of everyday existence, is not what we talk about regularly. While women have been publicly acknowledging their abortions for years — from Ms. Magazine’s famous open letter in 1972 to viral Twitter campaigns mounted on hashtags like #ShoutYourAbortion — the swift affirmation of having had an abortion is different from detailed storytelling about it. The reproductive-rights movement has “not figured out our relationship to abortion storytelling,” says Debasri Ghosh, head of the National Network of Abortion Funds. “We have not figured out how to use it in service of the future that we hope to build, even pre-Dobbs. There’s been a lot of stigma around the right kind of abortion stories, the wrong kind of abortion stories.”

This isn’t just some soft, sad problem of experiences unshared. It’s been a serious tactical error. The comparative absence of mainstream storytelling about what abortion was like under Roe — not only about the many kinds of abortions that took place but also about the ones that were impeded by the Hyde Amendment and restrictive laws at the state level — left millions unaware how incomplete Roe had been, and how effective the encroaching anti-abortion forces on the right had become at eroding it.

My friend Zoe has just started speaking publicly about a third-trimester abortion she had four years ago in part because prior to her own experience, she’d had no knowledge of the roadblocks that existed under Roe, even in blue states. “As someone who always used to call myself pro-choice, and who now calls myself pro-abortion, I had somehow never heard the story of someone who needed a later abortion,” she says.

After the detection of a severe problem with the fetus, she was told by her doctors that she would have to fly to another state to get the abortion she needed. “I was absolutely shocked when I found out that I was past the legal limit in New York, which I had always thought was this liberal oasis where you could get any care you needed,” she tells me.

After her procedure, she found support and community thanks to a 32-week-abortion story told to Jia Tolentino, then a writer at Jezebel, by Erika Christensen, who is now a full-time later-abortion patient advocate. Now Zoe is telling her story. But she is also aware of the pitfalls, since her experience — as a middle-class married white woman whose abortion was in response to a fetal anomaly — could be leveraged as one of the “good” kinds of later abortions, thus stigmatizing others, when what she wants is the reverse. “Abortion shouldn’t be accessible just because you have a sad story,” she says. “Nobody should be forced to stay pregnant for any reason.”

Without people who have had abortions describing their realities, the empty space has been filled by punitive, anti-abortion storytelling — at the center of which is the imagined character of the fetus and its “personhood.” Michele Goodwin, law professor and author of Policing the Womb: Invisible Women and the Criminalization of Motherhood, recalled sitting through a hearing at which an anti-abortion lawmaker held up a piece of fabric the size of a salt packet and announced that it was a diaper for a baby “born alive after abortion,” which is not a real thing.

“It was absurd,” says Goodwin, who pointed out that the space ceded to these false narratives has led to “claims that there are such things as heartbeats” at six weeks gestation, “which there aren’t,” making their way to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile the stories of providers who have had to retrofit clinics, do unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds, and recite misinformation to satisfy state restrictions have gone unheard.

Countering false narratives is partly what led Goodwin to write in the New York Times of the abortion that ended her pregnancy, at age 12, which was the result of being raped by her father. Goodwin says she took her tale to the press “because we have so devolved in government that I thought this needed to be told, because there’s no public understanding at all. There is not a human face.” She was all too aware of the assumptions made about victims of sexual abuse and incest: that their lives are messy and therefore less sympathetic or believable. “Mine is a life a lot of people would look at and say, ‘She’s a law professor and lives a pretty decent, healthy life, but this could happen to her.’ And yeah, it happens to people like me too.”

Describing an abortion is a fraught ask for many reasons. “The idea that if women don’t tell their stories of abortion, they might lose access to it is really troubling,” says Goodwin. “It reminds me of ‘Sing for your supper’ or ‘Dance if you want to stay alive tonight’ on slave plantations.” Then there is the fear absorbed from generations of illegality; before Roe, getting an abortion was contingent on silence. After Roe, too, when clinics were bombed and providers murdered, and abortion seekers regularly had to run a gauntlet of protesters, keeping quiet could be a protective measure. And it’s difficult to overstate the degree to which the shame and stigma heaped on abortion seekers over generations — via media, religious messaging, pop culture, and politicians — has been internalized by many women.

Despite being raised in a pro-choice family, Renee Bracey Sherman didn’t tell anyone when she had an abortion in 2005. At the time, she had no narrative context for how she was feeling. She was isolated in part because the abortion stories she did know about had come primarily from white women in whom she couldn’t see her own biracial identity reflected.

“The reason I didn’t talk about it was because I didn’t see anyone around me saying, ‘I had an abortion,’ ” says Bracey Sherman, who went on to found We Testify, a group dedicated to telling a wide range of abortion stories, centering the experiences of people of color and others on the margins of mainstream narratives. “Every time I saw abortion argued about on television, it was always some Catholic bishop. None of them were talking about race. They were talking about nothing that was relevant to 19-year-old me.”

As a young activist, Bracey Sherman was regularly told by mainstream pro-choice organizations that storytelling didn’t work as a communicative tool or, worse, that it was harmful to the movement, she says. The movement surely wanted to get the word out that lots and lots of people have abortions, but specifics could easily spin out of their rhetorical control. For many of the biggest reproductive organizations, abortion stories served as carefully calibrated transactional vehicles used to extract a vote from a politician or a donation from a rich person.

In this context, those who wanted to control the stories could be a little like Goldilocks: The narratives couldn’t be too happy lest they be perceived as cavalier; they couldn’t be too sad lest they give the impression that abortions are tragedies; the abortions couldn’t have been too late, or too casual, or too tied to sex or ambition or pleasure or self-interest. “We’re still fighting about which stories get to get told,” says Bracey Sherman. “If it’s, ‘My abortion was great, I took the pills at home, it was wonderful,’ that’s considered frivolous. There’s always some regulation: It’s never the right time; it’s never the right type of story.”

The fewer stories that get told, the more representational weight each one carries. Each individual narrative is asked to stand in for so much, rather than exist simply as one grain of sand on a beach’s worth of reproductive experience. In the lived world, abortion isn’t some heavily weighted reality siloed off from the rest of life, health care, and humanity. Abortion is life, health care, and humanity.

“Imagine if there were an archive and the understanding that that archive would lead to,” says Goodwin. The failure to build that archive was political malpractice. Because while some pundits and Democrats can barely suppress their gleeful fantasies about an army of women angry about Dobbs storming the polls in November and saving their electoral skins, there has been no accounting for the fact that many people don’t yet fully understand that this loss is a human-rights crisis. The accumulation of that knowledge, and the fury that will come with it, is going to take longer to build than the Democratic consultant class realizes.

In recent years, when the tenuousness of Roe had finally begun to penetrate, even some politicians, including Representatives Pramila Jayapal, Barbara Lee, and Cori Bush and Senator Gary Peters, have told their own abortion stories. In coming weeks and months, we are likely to be awash in more abortion stories as the shock of the new world seeps in. Many will frame this era as a return to an old world; the coat hangers will get dragged out in an effort to argue that we have moved backward. Which, legally, is true enough.

The idea that we have moved only in reverse, however, is its own distortion. Thanks to medical advances, especially medication abortion, the future will not look the same and will involve fewer coat hangers and many more safe and effective pills. No thanks to the expansion of our carceral state, the perils ahead will be different from those of our past. Republicans and Democrats have spent the last five decades making the criminal-justice system ever more monstrous, particularly for Black, brown, immigrant, and poor populations; it now stands ready to absorb new categories of criminals.

The additional horror is that the value of abortion stories may be about to shift in a sickening direction. We are at a terrible crossroads at which the stories of abortion — the testimony — may go from being a tool that could have been deployed on behalf of those needing care to a tool used against them.

“How do we protect storytellers?” asks Bracey Sherman. Speaking of some who have worked with We Testify, she says, “we have a number of storytellers who self-manage their abortions. I want them to be able to share their stories, and I don’t want to have to visit them in jail. And in a lot of places, your story is a confession. And that is what I’m super-terrified about in this moment.”

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