A guest post from Renee Bracey Sherman.
I’ve been sharing my abortion story publicly (and privately) for two years now. It’s been a whirlwind experience; I’ve felt elation and anxiety, pride and shame, stigma and empowerment. Sharing my story has brought me closer than ever to some of my friends and family members, and also left some unwilling to speak to me again. I’ve been told I’m very brave and courageous, and also some not-so-nice things not worth repeating. I knew from day one that speaking about my abortion would change my life and the lives of others. I knew that if I was honest in sharing one of the most vulnerable parts of myself, that I could be my most authentic self and could use my voice to advocate for my rights and my people, as I had never done before. So it makes me angry when one abortion storysharing organization belittles some abortion stories as nothing more than political pawns for the pro-choice movement.
When I first started sharing my story publicly, I was shown a different movement; one that valued sharing abortion experiences without politics. I was excited. I wanted to share my story for my own healing and move past the shame and stigma that mainstream rhetoric forced upon me. And like many, I drank the Kool-Aid to shed myself from the ‘politics of abortion.’ I was trained to be pro-storyteller’s-voice. To me, letting go of the politics meant freeing oneself from the pro-choice and pro-life labels. It meant not blaming one political party for anti-abortion legislation, because there are some Democrats to who don’t support abortion rights and there are some Republicans who do. White Republican men at that! Don’t believe me? You should, I’ve dated them. Joining this new movement felt great—I felt heard and honest about myself. I previously felt so isolated and it felt great to be pro-voice.
As I continued sharing my story, I began to unpack my invisible knapsack. Inside there was a mix of privilege and oppression; complexities galore. I recognized how much my class background, growing up in an urban setting, and access to (somewhat) comprehensive sexual health education played in to my ability to have a safe abortion. How my privilege gave me access to a great clinic where the nurse held my hand and was waiting by my bedside when I awoke. But also, how my race, gender, and place in society affected the stigma, stereotyping, and isolation I felt. How I stayed silent about my abortion for so long because I didn’t want to been seen as a statistic – ‘another Black teen who got pregnant.’ When I began volunteering to house clients who traveled 5 hours or more to have a safe and legal abortion through my local abortion fund, I began to see how much more complex abortion was, beyond the emotions. Sharing my home with strangers, who I’m only connected to through our abortion experience, made me understand the power of elevating our voices that much more. We never discuss politics, but we do discuss what is political – our bodies and our lives.
I thought that vocalizing my complexities would continue to help me heal and acknowledge the vast gray area of abortion. I thought that was acceptable to others in the organization I spoke with, but I found out the hard way that it was not. “We don’t think you’re ready to share your story publicly” they told me. Wait, what? I was bewildered. How can someone else tell me when I am ready to tell my story? I had been working with them for over a year. I felt so supported, but now I had been dumped hard. I asked for more explanations, yet they gave me none.
Afterwards, I talked to more people and found out I was not the first. I was now at the back of a long line of people who had found their voice, only to be shut down when they began to explore it more. I found a friend who was told by the same group that her story was too political, simply for the fact that her abortion happened on Election Day – an irony she realized as she cast her vote for president.
Time, and more public story telling, has given me perspective in to what the root issue was – privilege. The act of telling someone how, when, where, and why they should, or should not, share their personal experience is one deeply rooted in privilege. It is wrong to identify yourself as the gatekeeper to the stories that the world will hear. It is wrong to filter out the personal experiences of people of color, poor folks, people with various gender identities and sexual orientations, and immigrant folks, all because the world happens to be debating issues related to those identities. Saying that our personal experiences are “too political” is a continued systematic oppression by those with power to silence stories that will not further a specific agenda. This perpetuates the idea that abortion stories should fit one narrative – the one that best fits a social movement’s goals. It is an abuse of power over the most vulnerable.
It is not my fault that people are allowed to debate my skin color. It is not my fault that my healthcare is a matter of public discussion. For someone to say whether or not I can share my story to further an understanding of my life experience is one of the most offensive actions they can take against me. For them to say that I can’t share it in an advocacy realm is ignorant of the fact that I have to stand up for myself and fight for my rights, because who else will? As Amanda Marcotte wrote when questioning the movement, “People who view women as things to be controlled and punished aren’t going to be swayed by women’s voices, when they don’t respect them in the first place.” My community and I are under attack. Is the personal no longer the political?
For the record, I identify as a reproductive justice activist because I believe there is more at play than legal abortion. I want to use a broader framework for change. I actively work for the inclusion of queer identities in our movement, to end the stigma around young parents, and to ensure that everyone has the autonomy to live their fullest lives. Fighting for access to food, education, healthcare, etc. all has an impact on available reproductive decisions – without access, there is no choice. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t stand in solidarity with my pro-choice friends.
When I share my story, I am no one’s political pawn. I am standing up for myself in a society that deems my voice unnecessary. I am sharing an experience and how it changed my life. And if my friends or I need access to a safe abortion, I want to speak out to ensure that it is available next week and next year. I do it because I want to help shape the pro-choice movement to become a more inclusive one, and increase our understanding of the complexities of abortion experiences. I want to make it better. I want culture change.
By sharing my abortion experience, I jump in to the heated conversation and bring some rationale to it. I often share my experience with people who are fervently anti-abortion. I don’t do it to get them to become pro-choice or vote for the candidate of my liking. I do it because I actually want to create a culture of listening and sharing. I listen to them to understand why they hold the views they do – often it’s because they don’t want me to feel pain through an abortion. When I explain my actual feelings, how feelings are multifaceted, and how the rhetoric on all sides impacts my experience, they begin to understand me a bit better. They understand the quandary I was in. There’s no talk of politics – and we can both retain our separate beliefs, but also share a vulnerable moment.
I agree that no one should have their story misused, distorted, or flattened. No one should have their story twisted for another’s gain. It’s not right. But I also recognize that many of the listeners in the room also have abortion experiences and identify with mine. They heard something in my story that rang true. The connection and engagement with the listeners is what’s most important to me.
I don’t believe in order to share your abortion story authentically, you have to move to the sidelines and become apolitical. And if that is what some people want to do, that’s great. That’s their choice. But it’s unethical for them to tell me that how I should share my story. Because it’s just that: mine.
Renee is a reproductive justice activist who shares her own abortion story to encourage others who have had abortions to speak out and end the silence and stigma around abortion. Renee is a Generative Fellow with CoreAlign, a contributor to Echoing Ida, a project of Strong Families, and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Public Administration at Cornell University. Follow Renee on Twitter: @rbraceysherman.