'I Had An Abortion,' in 140 Characters or Less: An Exchange With Steph Herold and Aspen Baker
The full extent of the damage done by the midterm elections to women's ability to access abortion and other reproductive health care services may not be known for months or years, but one measure we can count: fifty-three new antichoice Republicans were elected to the House, and five to the Senate. In response to the election results, and in anticipation of the amped-up assault on women's rights, Steph Herold, a young reproductive justice activist, put a call out to women on her Twitter feed: "Time for us to come out. Who's had an abortion? Show antis we're not intimidated by scare tactics. Use: #ihadanabortion." The #ihadanabortion hashtag soon swarmed with the first-person accounts of women's abortion experiences, with thoughtful responses, and with support. But after mainstream media attention, antichoicers joined the fray, with cynicism, suspicion and no small amount of cruelty for women who have had abortions. Aspen Baker, founder of Exhale, representing the "pro-voice" movement, is using a different model of online story-telling: Exhale offers women who've had abortions a private online community in which to share their experiences with abortion and support each other. "Through listening and storytelling, in private and in public, online and in-person, the pro-voice movement is building new public discussions that are grounded in the real, lived experiences of women and men with abortion," Aspen writes. The Nation invited the two women to engage in a dialogue about #ihadanabortion, the value of telling abortion stories publicly, and the risks and rewards of online consciousness-raising. —Emily Douglas
Steph Herold: Thanks for getting this started, Emily. I could have started the hashtag this week or last year with the same motivations. Unfortunately, abortion carries a stigma no matter which party is in power. My immediate motivation for this project was a blog post that compared the modern prochoice movement to the gay rights movement in the 1970s. What strengthened the gay rights movement then, according to the author, was individual people coming out, and the general public realizing that homosexuality is more common (and normal!) than they ever imagined. The author of the post posed an interesting question: why don't we do that for abortion rights? In reality, abortion is a regular part of women's lives. Why not use Twitter to demonstrate that? I talked to Anna Holmes, founder of and former editor at Jezebel.com, about the idea and she helped me brainstorm exactly what hashtag to use and how to encourage people to share their experiences.
There are many websites that allow women to tell their stories in longer form (such as ImNotSorry.net and 45 Million Voices), but I've never seen this kind of campaign on Twitter. It's easier to write a sentence or two about your abortion than it is to write a blog post. Twitter opens up this conversation to a broader audience—it's not just for the prochoice community. This hashtag has the potential to reach a new audience, to reach women who haven't yet found a venue to share their stories.
There have been all kinds of abortion stories on the hashtag, ranging from women who had abortions before they were legal in the US to women who had an abortion last month. There is such a diversity of abortion experiences on the hashtag, which I love because it mimics reality: there is no "average" abortion story.
Before mainstream media covered the hashtag, it was mostly women showing their support for each other's reproductive choices. Now that it's all over the media, the hashtag has unfortunately become another Internet abortion flame war zone. While perhaps I could've predicted that, it is disappointing. I don't think reading some of the cruel antichoice comments will shock women new to sharing their abortion experiences, though perhaps the audacity and persistence of antichoice hatred will. Part of the risk of coming out is exposing yourself to the antichoice hatred that is on Twitter. From what I've seen on the hashtag, antis seem less concerned with targeting specific women than spamming the hashtag with misinformation and cruel comments.
But I've had many women tell me that the activity on the hashtag made them feel less alone in their experience with abortion, even if they don't feel comfortable tweeting their own story. Others have reached out saying that reading other stories has made them want to become a more vocal, active part of the prochoice movement.
Aspen Baker: Steph, the concepts you've introduced are things we have spent a lot of time thinking about at Exhale. This idea of "coming out" around abortion has been around for a while. Considering the histories of the gay rights and consciousness-raising movements is a great place to start thinking about how to do public abortion storytelling in ways that empower women, not exploit them.
Long before gay men and women came out to their friends and family, they came out to each other. They did this in private, often secretly, navigating a very treacherous and risky terrain to find one another. Decades of community-building strengthened their capacity to demand political and cultural change.
The consciousness-raising movement was similar in that it started out with women meeting together privately to discuss their lives. They did this without any political litmus tests or expectations. It was only later, after these circles became communities, after women found strength and power in that which made them vulnerable and afraid, that they decided to make their personal experiences political.
In both of these cases, the move to political action came after years of community building, and the political organizing was driven from within, led by the people who were the direct targets of judgment and discrimination.
One of the major misconceptions that exist about women who have abortions—and there are many—is that we don't tell our abortion stories. We do. It's just that other people have ideas about what kinds of stories we should be sharing and how we should be sharing them. When our stories don't look and sound like what they want to hear, or if we don't talk about our abortions regularly and publicly, online, for example, then people say we're silent.
Of course #ihadanabortion became a flame war. Given how polarized abortion is in this country, women's experiences with abortion become just another tool to make a political point. Unfortunately, this may actually make women less likely to share their personal abortion stories in such a public manner in the future because they don't want their stories to be manipulated or misunderstood.
When a conflict is polarized, any story we tell is seen through the lens of that conflict. A woman who feels sadness or regret around her abortion becomes identified with being prolife, while a woman who feels empowered or a renewed sense of self-confidence afterwards is prochoice. This is often an inaccurate and simplified labeling of the many layers that make up a woman and her abortion story. People who care about women who have had abortions can help us take control of our own narratives so that they don't become just one more tool in the cultural war.
The technology and social media available today do provide new venues for consciousness-raising, but there are risks in being able to spread ideas and stories faster than ever before. Consider the "coming out" implications. When the gay rights movement was first emerging, a woman who told her sister she was a lesbian had many, many things to worry about, but none of those was that her sister would post her story on Facebook or Twitter, and out her to everyone she knew, whether or not she wanted that. The sense of being in control of your own narrative, of having the opportunity to create personal meaningful relationships is critical for anyone living or experiencing a stigmatized issue, like having an abortion, or being gay.
Let's recognize and validate women who are already taking great risks to tell their stories; from the women who shared on Twitter with #Ihadanabortion, to the women telling their stories to counselors on the Exhale talkline, or to one another in private online community spaces, or who are sharing stories publicly though not online. What women who have had abortions could really use is the chance to connect with one another, a chance to hear each other's stories, and an opportunity to understand one another.
Steph Herold: There is very little I disagree with Aspen on here. What I can provide is the perspective of someone who has worked in abortion care, and how perhaps people in the abortion care community and women who have had abortions need to work together to figure out how to support each other.
I really appreciate a poem called Poem to 45 Million Women, which is told from the perspective of an abortion provider. Essentially the point of the poem is that providers support all kinds of women through a plethora of scenarios, whether they are harrowing or average, and the absolute least we can hope for in return is that our patients support us. What this support could look like is different for every woman. If this means doing something as active as becoming a clinic escort and getting involved in the prochoice movement, fantastic. If this means something as basic as voting for prochoice candidates, great. If this means talking to her daughters, friends, lovers about her abortion, fabulous. What is not OK, to me, is to stand by as your sisters, friends, nieces, aunts, mothers need abortions and politicians make it more and more difficult to get them, the antichoice movement makes women feel more and more ashamed. If there really are 45 million women who have had abortions in this country, how powerful would the prochoice movement be if even half of those women spoke out in some form? There has to be a way for all these women who have had abortions to support the people who made it possible for them to access these services. They owe that much to providers, at least.
What has been fascinating for me to watch, after weeding through the flame war aspects of the hashtag, is women who've had abortions interacting with each other, claiming shared experiences and finding support just in each others existence. Some of these women have said that seeing so many others come out, and then seeing the hate that ensued from the antichoice side, has politicized them. I love that, but it's not the point. Solidarity, removing of stigma, is the point, and if I've done that for one woman, it's a success. If a woman feels comfortable talking publically about her abortion, I think that is at least part of the key to dismantling the stigma associated with this common procedure.
Aspen Baker: Steph, thanks for the poem. Your last response gave me quite a lot to consider. Here is my take on what we have learned:
The flame war around #ihadanabortion is another example of what happens when personal abortion stories are shared publicly, online: those of us who tell our story are quickly outnumbered, we are judged and our stories are politicized, whether that was our intent, or not. I speak from experience—just visit my own abortion story on YouTube and see how people treat women who speak publicly about having an abortion.
We have to approach public story sharing with this harsh reality in mind and we need to do more than hope that telling our stories will change it. The truth is that some women feel more empowered and others feel more stigmatized after #Ihadanabortion. As a community of women with a shared experience, we should never contribute to each other's shame or stigma. We have to work together to ensure each one of us has the opportunity to feel heard, supported, respected and understood when we tell our stories.
I asked a few of the women who shared their story on Twitter to describe the reasons they chose to take the risk and jump into the fray. I wondered if sharing their story on Twitter was the first time they talked about their abortion, or if they were already "out." Most replied they already talk about their abortions. And many noted that they were motivated by the desire to support other women who have had abortions. (Editor's Note: These tweets are edited to make them more readable in a non-Twitter format.)
@kellyhogaboom: I don't typically talk about it but haven't been especially "closeted" either. I'm sharing now b/c wmn aren't supported enough
@Victorianaaa: I wish more if us could be open about it, and I felt safer with many others talking about it.
@LibertyBelle4: …I've discussed it before
@1xMum: ...It's important to know that it does get better with time...
This motivation—to be a part of a community that works together to help each other—is reflected in a recent survey we completed with the members of our private online community space (a direct response to the repeated requests of our talkline callers for a way to connect with other women). After meeting their own need for support, the number-one reason our members visit the community is to support other women who have had abortions. Additionally, they said that participating in the community has made them more empathetic towards other women who have had abortions and more comfortable talking about their personal experiences with friends and family. They were also very clear that the community should stay private.
Privacy is the key to unlocking the personal experience of stigma and creating strong communities that feel capable of creating cultural change around abortion.
Understanding the motivations for public story sharing is one of the many tools that we need, as a community of women who have personally experienced abortion, to be the drivers of our own social movement and lead the way out of stigma and towards understanding and acceptance. And given the reality of our polarized political climate, we must be alert to those who will try to exploit our motivations for their own purposes.