Jill Filipovic is a journalist and lawyer based in New York.
In 2013, Lucy Flores, then 33, told a remarkable story to her colleagues in the Nevada legislature. As one of 13 children born into an impoverished Hispanic family, she had joined a gang, gone to juvenile detention and dropped out of high school. “At 16, I got an abortion,” she told lawmakers. “I don’t regret it.”
When Flores ran for lieutenant governor the next year, what captured the attention of Nevada voters — and the national media — wasn’t that she had transformed herself from a teenage gang member into a law student who won her first election to the state assembly just after graduating. It was that she spoke openly and remorselessly about one of the most controversial acts in American social life. She didn’t sprint away from the topic, as generations of politicians have done.
Even more surprisingly, pro-choice and Democratic electoral groups cheered Flores instead of advising her to keep quiet. She faced a brutal antiabortion backlash — she received death threats and lost the lieutenant governor’s race by 26 points — but she did so with enthusiastic endorsements from Emily’s List, NARAL Pro-Choice America and Harry Reid, who was then majority leader in the U.S. Senate.
That’s a turnaround from a decade ago, when elected officials and even abortion rights groups shunned the word “abortion” in favor of euphemisms such as “pro-choice” that they thought might earn broader voter support. Even popular culture seemed squeamish. The 2007 teen-pregnancy film “Juno” depicted just a few slightly traumatic minutes at a clinic, and “Knocked Up,” released the same year, tried so hard to avoid using the A-word that it subbed in “shmashmortion.” Both Barack Obama and John McCain evaded the issue in their 2008 presidential campaigns. And in the lead-up to the 2004 presidential election, the National Abortion Rights Action League, one of the largest reproductive rights advocacy groups in the country, changed its name to NARAL Pro-Choice America, stripping out “abortion” altogether. Its then-president, Kate Michelman, told the New York Times, “It is the right name for this moment in history.”
But in this new moment in history, “abortion” is back. The coded language of the older guard is giving way to frank talk from a younger generation of activists, who cut their teeth in LGBT work and online feminist spaces. Advocating “choice” didn’t stop the recent wave of losses for reproductive rights. Today, activists are realizing that the only way to erase the stigma is to talk about it.
Since the tea party sweep in the 2010 midterm elections, abortion rights have been rolled back aggressively. According to an analysis by the Guttmacher Institute, more abortion restrictions were passed in the three years after the 2010 midterms than in the previous decade, and almost entirely at the state level. “What we’re experiencing right now is the peak of a 40-year plan on the part of the anti-choice movement to get what they want,” NARAL President Ilyse Hogue says. “I think that has caused a reckoning within organizations and the movement to say, we can suffer death by a thousand cuts, or we can actually create our own long-term plan.”
Younger activists are shaping the dialogue, taking cues from the Internet, where conversational norms reward unabashed honesty about the female experience — sometimes to maximal shock value — whether with a dozen “this is so brave” retweets or a byline in the “It Happened to Me” section of XO Jane. To them, excising the word “abortion” from abortion rights work makes little sense. “I am very deliberate about using the word ‘abortion’ versus saying I am pro-choice,” said Renee Bracey Sherman, a 29-year-old NARAL board member who has written a guide to abortion story-sharing . “I didn’t have a pro-choice. I had an abortion.”
That intentional rhetorical shift has left the confines of movement boardrooms. In the 2014 midterms, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) put abortion rights at the center of his unsuccessful reelection bid, using his first campaign ad to criticize his opponent’s “history [of] promoting harsh anti-abortion laws” and dedicating close to half his ads to women’s issues — his emphasis on reproductive rights earned him the nickname “Mark Uterus.” In January, President Obama used the word “abortion” in one of his State of the Union addresses for the first time. A Planned Parenthood video from 2013, titled “Moving Beyond Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice Labels,” rejects the “pro-choice” moniker that the abortion rights movement has used for decades, while its narrator says the word “abortion” six times in less than two minutes.
Advocates and politicians are also putting a human face on the procedure: Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards wrote about her abortion for Elle magazine; Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis (D) told her abortion story in her memoir; clinic counselor Emily Letts filmed her own procedure. Organizations that encourage abortion story-sharing, including Exhale, Advocates for Youth and the Sea Change Program, have created platforms and guides for women who want to speak out. So many women told their abortion stories in 2014 that several journalists and commentators deemed it “the year of the abortion story.”
The shift is not just political; it’s cultural, too. Instead of “smashmortion,” moviegoers in 2014 got “Obvious Child,” a romantic comedy with an honest and decidedly un-tragic portrayal of abortion at the heart of the plot. In 2013, New York magazine featured 26 women’s abortion stories. A year later, Elle had a multimedia “abortion issue.” And while sitcoms are notorious for dealing with characters’ unintended pregnancies with convenient miscarriages, the new CW show “Jane the Virgin” included a frank discussion about abortion as an option for Jane’s pregnancy. Today, the percentage of Americans who say they’re pro-choice is at a seven-year high.
Activists now have a new set of digital tools at their disposal. “Stories that would never get into the New York Times or The Washington Post really came alive through social media, and then were forced onto the front pages of those more mainstream publications,” says Planned Parenthood’s Richards.
The wedding column in the Times, for example, mentioned a couple’s abortion and how it strengthened their relationship . Author Merritt Tierce told her own thoroughly normal story of having two abortions for the Times’ op-ed pages, writing that “the most common abortion is a five-to-15-minute procedure elected early in the first trimester by someone who doesn’t want to be pregnant or have a child.” And Bracey Sherman told her abortion story on video for Fusion’s digital memoir project called #nofilter. Having an abortion at 19, she said, “was the best decision of my life.”
While advocacy organizations have long used the horrors of dangerous pre-Roe abortions and particularly tragic stories of rape or severe fetal abnormalities to illustrate the need for abortion rights, younger women are pushing back on what they call the narrative of “the good abortion.” Instead, they’re talking about the whole range of their experiences, including the nearly 90 percent of elective abortions that occur during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Most women who terminate pregnancies aren’t facing life-threatening tragedies but rather more mundane ones: The most common reasons women give include not being financially ready, poor timing for a baby, issues with a partner and the need to care for the children they already have. Activists say playing down that reality — and the importance of abortion services for all women — contributes to the stigma that keeps abortion shameful and politically contentious.
The question of how much space to give abortion in the broader context of other reproductive-health issues, not to mention the many other issues women face in their lives, remains a tough one for the pro-choice movement. The same activists pushing for the word “abortion” are part of the most diverse cohort of young adults in American history, and they came up as activists at a time when “intersectionality” — the idea that different forms of oppression and discrimination overlap — gained currency in the feminist movement. At the same time, women of color were pushing the concept of reproductive justice, which Monica Simpson, the executive director of SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, defines as “the human right of every individual to have a child, to not have a child, to parent the children they have in healthy and sustainable environments, and the human right to bodily autonomy.”
With America becoming more racially diverse, Simpson says more traditional pro-choice organizations are realizing that they need to appeal to a wider demographic in order to survive. And the model pioneered by reproductive-justice groups — talk about abortion honestly, contextualize it as one piece of women’s lives, focus on the most vulnerable — is one that mainstream reproductive rights and health groups increasingly seem to employ.
“We are very focused on making sure that abortion access is central to a spectrum of rights that make up the definition of reproductive freedom,” NARAL’s Hogue says. “What does a policy package look like that matches our own lives, and doesn’t put abortion over here as a social issue and economic equality over here? Because that’s not the way real people experience it. We have a generation of women who have every expectation that they’ll be in the workforce their entire reproductive lifetimes, and we need a story and a policy agenda that talks about that, with abortion and the ability to control what happens to your own body and therefore your own life at the center of it.”
No “shmashmortion” necessary.