There were some who grieved, like former Texas state senator Wendy Davis, whose voice trembled as she described ending a pregnancy after learning that the child she carried suffered from a terminal disorder: “Never for a moment have I regretted what I did, and never for a moment have I believed that a politician was in a better position to make a decision like that than I was.”
Others were pragmatic, like Sara Imershein, an OB/GYN who said that abortion was an “easy” procedure to provide: “Every patient walks out feeling relieved, every woman has control again, every woman can decide for herself what’s important.”
And some were openly relieved. Abortion rights activist Renee Bracey Sherman smiled as she explained that she hadn’t been ready to become a parent at 19. “I don’t regret my abortion,” she said. “It was the best decision of my life.”
They were among more than 100 people who shared their stories at a live-streamed event hosted Tuesday by Advocates for Youth, the D.C.-based nonprofit focused on sexual health that created the 1 in 3 Campaign. (The campaign was named for an oft-cited statistic that 1 in 3 women in the United States will have an abortion by age 45 — an estimate based on the 2008 abortion rate, which has since gone down.)
The speak-out was one of a slew of similar storytelling events taking place nationwide this week in recognition of the 43rd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, which made abortion a legal right in all 50 states. On Friday, the actual anniversary, reproductive rights advocates also planned to share their thoughts and experiences online under the Twitter hashtag #TogetherForAbortion.
On this particular anniversary — at the start of a highly charged election year, on the eve of the first abortion case to come before the Supreme Court in more than 20 years — abortion rights supporters are focused on sharing their experiences publicly, with the goal of normalizing a procedure that so many American women undergo. This tactic underscores a recent and pivotal shift in the reproductive rights movement: Instead of assuming a defensive posture, activists are aggressively targeting the lingering cultural stigma surrounding abortion.
“I think it’s becoming glaringly clear to pro-choice Americans that legality alone is not enough,” said Amelia Bonow, the Seattle-based co-founder of the #ShoutYourAbortion campaign. “There’s no way for us to hold the line, using just defense. The cultural atmosphere has to change.”
And so the politically focused sit-ins and marches of years past have given way to speak-outs and social media campaigns highlighting personal abortion stories — all abortion stories, not just the extreme cases involving rape, incest or medical tragedy that have historically been used to defend abortion rights. For decades, the public was accustomed to hearing words like “agonizing” and “heartbreaking” to describe an abortion; now, grass-roots efforts like the 1 in 3 Campaign and #ShoutYourAbortion also feature women who say that their abortions made them feel relieved, resolved, even empowered.
When the 1 in 3 Campaign launched in 2011 to “change the conversation” surrounding abortion by sharing personal stories, participants were anxious about how their message would be received, campaign director Julia Reticker-Flynn said.
“It can be very intimidating to share these stories, especially in this culture where there’s so much shame and stigma around abortion,” she said. But as participants “began to share their stories publicly, they created space for others to do so. So the cultural narrative is evolving to include a variety of voices.”
Activists saw how personal accounts were driving social change with other hot-button issues, such as immigration reform and same-sex marriage, Reticker-Flynn said, and they wanted to follow that example.
“I think we know that statistics or political arguments don’t move people, and that what truly shapes our fundamental beliefs are the people in our own lives, our own experiences, and our ability to empathize and have compassion for others,” she said. “That’s what people need to hear.”
Despite other progressive trends, however, public opinion on abortion has remained deeply divided since the passage of Roe v. Wade. States have passed hundreds of new abortion restrictions in recent years — and Republican presidential candidates are promising more. Prominent Democrats and abortion rights leaders have said that “hateful rhetoric” from antiabortion advocates has exacerbated harassment and intimidation of abortion providers and their clients. In the coming weeks, all eyes will be trained on the Supreme Court as the justices hear arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, a case centered on a Texas law that places stringent restrictions on abortion providers. A December Associated Press/GfK poll showed that 58 percent of Americans are in favor of legal abortion in all or most cases; but more than a third support tighter regulations.
Antiabortion advocates have reacted sharply to the abortion rights movement’s increasingly unapologetic tone, sometimes co-opting trending hashtags — #ShoutYourAbortion, #Dear Debbie, #1in3Speaks — to make their perspectives known. Varioius antiabortion activists have championed adoption as an alternative to abortion; others have said they sought the procedure in the past, and now regret it. Some Twitter users have derided and even threatened the women who have unabashedly shared their stories about abortion.
On Friday, advocates on both sides of the abortion debate are prepared to make their voices heard again. Despite the looming threat of a historic blizzard, antiabortion activists vowed to proceed with the “March for Life” rally in the District, an annual demonstration that typically draws thousands of participants to the Mall.
And on Twitter and Facebook, abortion rights activists planned to rally under the hashtag #TogetherForAbortion. The new hashtag, Bonow said, is part of the #ShoutYourAbortion campaign, which has also helped organize more than 100 abortion-focused events nationwide on Friday — everything from large town hall gatherings to dinner parties to film festivals and poetry readings.
“We’ll show the country and the world: This is what pro-choice America looks like right now. We are everywhere, we are doing all sorts of different things, and we will not hide anymore,” Bonow said. “I know that things are going to change.”