Melissa Madera set out across the country, equipped with an Apogee microphone and an iPad, to record women talking about their abortions. She has traveled to 18 states by plane, by bus, on Amtrak and in her aging car “to meet women where they are” — in luxury high-rises and on a Christian college campus, in rural towns and at a Harlem housing project.
Listeners may find evidence in their stories to support one side of the abortion debate or the other, but Madera’s mission is personal, she says, born not of a need to serve a political end but to find others who share a secret she long held. “Telling their truths,” she says, has become her whole life.
As the Supreme Court prepares to hear a major abortion case Wednesday, the polarized political discussion leaves no place for the evolving, layered and sometimes conflicting feelings prompted by an experience that, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-health research group, 1 in 3 American women — like Madera — will have before turning 45.
The “pro-choice” conversation often stops at access to abortion.
The “pro-life” movement has focused on stories of regrets and self-recrimination that don’t reflect the range of reactions Madera has felt and heard. From the evangelical mother of two who confessed to her children and her church that she’d had five abortions. From the liberal student whose personal regrets sent her on a 20-year spiritual journey.
The result is the online Abortion Diary of 125 first-person podcasts — stories of relief and grief and “every emotion in between,” Madera says, as well as the sense of release that comes from sharing cloistered memories.
Here’s how Karen, now in her mid-50s, looked back on her abortions four decades ago:
The shame of those experiences in my teen years created in me this belief that if [my husband] were to find out that he would — he would leave me. And in fact, that’s a guiding thought in my mind all my life about every relationship.
I would think, what if this person found out? What if this person knew? They would think I’m so horrible. They wouldn’t — they wouldn’t be my friend anymore.
And so to me that, that’s the hardest part of my experience. The silence. Not talking to anybody. Not knowing that other people have been through a similar situation. Feeling like I was the only terrible person.
And it’s kind of like, on an internal level, it’s like being in solitary confinement around that issue.
Trained as a historian and working as a doula, Madera, 36, broached the idea of creating podcasts at a midwifery workshop in Brooklyn in the fall of 2013.
About 10 women were making their introductions, Madera says, when she explained her goals for the diary. Three women spoke up. They had abortion stories to share. As did a fourth, who later joined the group.
“Does it matter,” one then asked, “how long ago it was?”
Even now, after recording more than 150 stories from women ranging in age from 18 to 85, that question stops Madera short.
Even now, after hearing stories of legal and illegal abortions. Of medical and surgical abortions and a coat-hanger abortion. Of abortions for economic reasons and abortions for health reasons and abortions because it wasn’t the right time.
Even now, after hearing from women who had one abortion and women who had many, after recording her own abortion story and posting it online for anyone anywhere in the world to hear, that question makes Madera catch her breath, choke back a sob.
No, it doesn’t matter how long ago it was.
Her own abortion was a long time ago. She didn’t doubt her decision, but she describes in her recording how it left her with a hunger for other women’s stories.
Even though I felt a lot of negative feelings about the abortion experience, I don’t regret it at all. Like there’s not one bone in my body that regrets that, you know, the abortion. The sharing is really powerful. Like the power of sharing is something I had never thought about before.
It happened that first summer after graduating from high school. She was 17 — the same age Madera’s mother was when she became pregnant with her — and she had a boyfriend. Her parents, immigrants from the Dominican Republic, made sure his visits were strictly chaperoned.
But one afternoon when the Yankees were playing, her parents and siblings headed off to the stadium, leaving the two of them alone in their Washington Heights apartment. And while the ballgame played on the TV in the background, Madera and her boyfriend had sex. The first of several times.
Her mother noticed the changes, but at the time they didn’t speak about them. Madera’s aunt escorted her to the clinic where she took the pregnancy test and brought her back the next day for the procedure. Her aunt cared for Madera in her apartment, where she sat on the bed and ate a bowl of Lipton noodle soup.
Then Madera carried on with a high-achieving life. She got a BA in history, a master’s degree in education, and then, in 2011, a doctorate in Latin American and Caribbean history from the State University of New York — giving little conscious thought to the abortion that had opened up new opportunities.
It could come up once in a while for me.
And what’s interesting is, my research for my dissertation is somewhat about abortion. So I would talk about it about other people but not in terms of myself.
So I just kind of like buried it as something, like, that I couldn’t talk about, that was, like, very shameful to me, like I felt completely like out of control and that I didn’t have a voice. And that carried on into other parts of my life.
Madera has found her own way of giving herself and others that voice through her podcasts. Most of the women she records use their first name only, and she grants anonymity to those who want it. She has removed one story at the speaker’s request. But most are just as Madera first heard them, ranging in length from 10 minutes to more than an hour and covering a time span from the 1950s to 2014.
They are not her stories to edit or reshape, Madera explains. “I give people ownership of their stories,” she says. “They decide how much information they want out in the world.”
But the entirety of the project — the effort “to honor the experiences of people who are totally fine with it, with people who are not and people in the middle” — is very much Madera’s.
She doesn’t see it as a scientific cross section of women’s views. There are other sites that align first-person stories with political goals — the 1 in 3 Campaign, which supports “access to legal and safe abortion care in our communities,” and the Silent No More Awareness Campaign, whose mission is to show abortion “is harmful emotionally, physically and spiritually.”
The women who tell Madera stories are “self-selected,” she says, and “represent how complex our experiences are.”
Here’s L.B., 28, recalling her 2011 abortion in New York City, when she felt her voice had been lost in the decision-making.
I told a few friends. And you know they took me to healers and rabbis and a psychologist, a psychiatrist. I was on medication. Like anything anyone suggested I was like, “Sure, let’s give it a go.” Because I really felt so badly.
. . . One of the biggest issues that I have with sharing [my story] — my experience was so negative. For me, it was so overwhelmingly awful, I hate to put it out there that abortion somehow is so terrible and that people regret it, because I know that’s not everyone’s experience.
The Abortion Diary has given rise to a small exhibit this month in the art museum at Ohio’s Denison University, where Madera has a one-year fellowship in the women’s and gender studies program.
You can take a seat in a chair that Madera picked up at a local antiques mall, pick up the rotary phone and listen to a member of the Jane Collective, an underground abortion service, describe her work in Chicago before the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973.
Then select a podcast from an iPad and listen on headphones. There are poems and songs, a framed handwritten letter to an unborn child, photos of belly-shaped tombstones and a replica of a window box that one woman planted as part of her “spirit baby ceremony.”
If she gets funding, Madera says, she would like to take her exhibit on the road as she visits women who continue to ask to tell their stories, looking to lighten their or other women’s loads.
Maryann C., in her late 20s, realized she wasn’t alone after she decided to talk about her abortions in 2011 and 2013.
My first pregnancy I started telling women in my life that I was pregnant and that I didn’t know what to do and I was thinking about keeping it. Almost every woman I talked to had told me, like, “Oh yeah, I had an abortion.” Or “I had two.” “I had three.” “I had five.”
Some of them were older, like pre-Roe v. Wade.
And it was just like, wow. Like almost every woman I know has had an abortion and we’re not ever talking about it. And a lot of times that’s where it ended. That person would say, “I had an abortion, too.” But not like, “Here’s how it was for me.”
This year, in preparation for the Supreme Court’s hearing of a case from Texas, first-person stories of regret that have shaped the antiabortion narrative are included in amicus briefs. They are being matched by briefs from women describing how abortion was the right decision for them, allowing them to succeed in their professional and personal lives and to bring babies into the world only when they were ready.
Both sides offering up rival stories of certainty.
The Internet is disrupting that neat divide. The nonprofit Exhale, created 15 years ago to offer emotional support to women who have had abortions, offers a “pro-voice” talk line open to the feminist who regrets her abortion and the Catholic who is grateful for a choice but feels at odds with her community.
Exhale co-founder Aspen Baker, 40, who gave a 2015 TED Talk titled “A Better Way to Talk About Abortion,” has seen how technology has changed the conversation since she wrestled over whether to have an abortion when she was 24 and went looking for information in the health section of a local bookstore.
“Books about abortion?” Baker remembers the sales clerk asking. “They’re all under politics or women’s studies.”
The Abortion Diary defies such categorization, even as it erodes the old taboos.
Stories beget more stories. After sharing their abortion stories on the podcast, two women told their sisters, who each in turn said that she’d had an abortion. One woman decided to tell her husband. Another told her mother, who then revealed she’d had a pre-Roe abortion. Several told their sons and daughters.
Marie, who had several abortions between 1983 and 2002, came through Bible study to believe that what she had done was wrong and that abortion would be the wrong choice for other women.
I think it’s very, very important that we as women provide a place to share about it, to hear about it, to talk about it. It is the last thing in this society that people just won’t talk about.
And Toya thinks the story of her 2014 abortion will help other women facing similar decisions:
I feel like knowledge is power. If I can share some knowledge and share some of my experience that will give a woman a different perspective and understanding of what our options are, that’s golden.