Imagine that you just had an abortion. Imagine that you had to travel out of state for the procedure and stay overnight at a stranger’s house after your first day at the clinic. Imagine, a week later, relieved that everything is over, to find the story of your abortion online, posted by the person who so generously welcomed you into her home. Your story, posted without permission, lacking your name, but going into specific details about your scenario.
We are all guilty of doing this–using the stories of people who have abortions, with and without their permission, to decrease abortion stigma, raise money for our abortion funds, or raise awareness of the lengths people will go to in order to access abortion care. We have the best of intentions. But at what point are we crossing the line and exploiting these stories for our own political or research purposes instead of empowering these folks to share their own experiences on their own terms? If we host someone in our home, or give them money to fund their abortion, does that person then “owe” us their story in return?
Exhale has a Story Sharing Guide for Ethical Advocates that, to my knowledge, is the only publication that begins to address these issues. They open their guide with this:
A woman who is an equal partner with an advocate, who is able to direct when and how her story will be used, and who has full decision-making power over the advocacy agenda in which her story is used is a woman in an empowered position. On the other hand, it is a form of exploitation to take all or parts of a story from a woman and use it for advocacy purposes without receiving her consent or without empowering her with the authority to make decisions about how her story is used.
It’s not just women who have abortions, but you get the point. If someone comes into our clinic, obtains funding from our abortion fund, or even stays at our home during her two day abortion procedure, she doesn’t owe us anything. If we’re going to use abortion stories in a fundraising pitch, in a letter to the editor, or in an advocacy packet for legislators, we need to let the people who have abortions be the storytellers. We need to do more than ask their permission–we need to actively engage them in the process of sharing their own story, if they choose to do so, on their own terms, in their own way.
There is no doubt that sharing abortion stories is a powerful advocacy tool, whether used for legislators or in your organization’s emails to supporters. In an ideal world, abortion would be part of routine medicine, and we wouldn’t need to use abortion stories to convince others that access to safe, compassionate abortion care is a human right. But because abortion is both political and personal, it’s up to advocates to create safe spaces for people who’ve had abortions to share their experiences free from political posturing. And then we can let people who’ve had abortions decide for themselves whether they wan their stories to be used for advocacy purposes.
What could this look like in practice? It could mean following the model of the Chicago Abortion Fund’s My Voice, My Choice Leadership Group, a group led by young women who’ve received funding from CAF that provides them with community organizing and advocacy skills. It could mean using the My Abortion, My Life model to engage patients from your clinic who’ve had abortions in a public awareness campaign around abortion stigma. Or it could be participating in the 1 in 3 campaign, a project of Advocates for Youth which allows folks to share their own abortion stories through self-made videos. These efforts allow people to share their own experiences on their own terms, and allows the person who had the abortion to dictate how and in what context their abortion story is used.
As Exhale says in their guide: “Each [person] must have the information, resources, and support she needs to share her story in ways that further her wellbeing, uphold her rights, and keep her in control of the use of her own narrative. Work with people, not stories.”