In the Long Fight for Reproductive Justice, Storytelling is a Weapon
Kaylen Ralph on How the Personal is Political in the Abortion Rights Movement
On April 5, 1971, 343 French women signed a manifesto.
“One million women have abortions each year in France,” they declared in the pages of Nouvel Observateur, a weekly French news magazine still in circulation today. “I declare that I am one of them. I declare that I’ve had an abortion. We demand open access to contraceptives; we demand open abortion.”
Led by the intellectual Simone de Beauvoir, and with the backing of a handful of French celebrities, according to Time magazine, the 343 women who signed the manifesto otherwise included everyday women—writers, performers, philosophers, etc. Their manifesto was the first of its kind in the modern era. In 1974, due in large part to the advocacy of the salopes—the French equivalent of “sluts,” a derogatory description the women reclaimed—the French Minister of Health, Simone Veil, introduced a bill that would eventually legalize abortion in France in 1975.
One year after Nouvel Observateur published the French women’s manifesto, the first issue of Ms. hit the newsstands in the United States. Inspired in part by the French manifesto, the magazine’s inaugural issue included a similar declaration. “Women Tell the Truth About Their Abortions,” promised the allusory cover line.
Similarly to the French women’s manifesto, the purpose of the Ms. petition was to spark legal change, “not to alienate or to ask for sympathy, but to repeal archaic and inhumane laws,” through the means of sharing personal truth.
At that point in time, in the thick of the fight to legalize abortion, the mere act of admitting to having had one was revolutionary. As Ms. co-founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin, an original signatory of the “We Have Had Abortions” petition, recounted, “Women who got pregnant before Roe v. Wade had very few options . . . Women died. Lots of women died. When I found out I was pregnant, I was in my senior year in college. I would have killed myself. This isn’t hyperbole. If I couldn’t have had an abortion at 18, I would have killed myself—because I couldn’t see how I could possibly live my life. I had to work. I didn’t have rich parents who were going to support me. I didn’t have a husband.”
The fear and inevitability inherent in Pogrebin’s story reflected the rhetoric employed by abortion advocates at the time. The Ms. petition was published in 1972 during a period in which, under the umbrella of the women’s liberation movement, abortion speak-outs and consciousness-raising groups were popping up around the country. In 1969, the New York State legislature’s hearing on abortion law, featuring a panel of 15 so-called “experts”—14 of whom were men—was interrupted as several women, members of a new consciousness-raising group called the Redstockings, attempted to share their own abortion stories. When the hearing was cut short, the Redstockings organized their own hearing, which famously took place just one month later at the Washington Square Methodist Church, during which 12 women shared stories about their own abortions for an audience of 300 men and women.If I couldn’t have had an abortion at 18, I would have killed myself—because I couldn’t see how I could possibly live my life.
In the midst of the consciousness-raising era of the women’s liberation movement that constituted the late 1960s and early 1970s, these petitions constituted a natural byproduct of the movement’s narrative and mission to legalize abortion thus far. As more and more women shared their abortion stories, whether through the spoken or written word, the abortion legalization movement gained steam and, in January 1973, the Supreme Court handed down its decision on Roe.
Forty-six years later, a person’s right to an abortion is still constitutionally protected. And yet, with each passing day, that right feels more and more at risk as conservative factions do their best to find state-specific footholds for anti-choice advocates. As outlined by #VOTEPROCHOICE on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade last month, Missouri, South Carolina, Florida, and Kentucky have all introduced legislation this year with an eye toward the potential reversal of Roe v. Wade by a now decidedly conservative Supreme Court.
In the face of these threats to reproductive freedom, the narrative and literature surrounding the pro-choice movement has evolved, as evidenced in two recent books.
Shout Your Abortion, an anthology co-edited by Amelia Bonow and Emily Nokes, simultaneously celebrates the storytelling and acknowledgement that defined the reproductive rights movement of the 1960s and 70s while also introducing the reality of what reproductive rights advocacy would likely look like, should Roe be overturned by a now solidly conservative Supreme Court. The book documents a viral social media campaign that began in 2015, after the House of Representatives voted to defund Planned Parenthood and Amelia Bonow wrote about her abortion in a public Facebook post.
“I am telling you this today because the narrative of those working to defund Planned Parenthood relies on the assumption that abortion is still something to be whispered about. Plenty of people still believe that on some level—if you are a good woman—abortion is a choice which should be accompanied by some level of sadness, shame or regret.”
Bonow’s post ended up sparking #ShoutYourAbortion, which was used used in more than 150,000 social media posts in two weeks, according to The New York Times.
Shout Your Abortion includes 40-plus first-person essays by people recounting their abortion experiences in addition to a handful of comics and photographs speaking to the same. In addition to essays and artwork, Shout Your Abortion offers interviews with abortion providers as well as additional resources on reproductive care. The diversity of perspectives and mediums adds an additional layer to the confessional, consciousness-raising narrative of the 1960s and 70s.
“There was a lot of activism before that happened, and there was an abortion storytelling movement that was very much centered around second-wave feminism and . . . New York and abortion speak outs and [figures] like Gloria Steinem and Ms. Magazine,” Bonow said. “In that era, stories were not as pervasively suppressed . . . there was a fairly broad movement to tell stories.”There’s no reward at the end for keeping your head down and not causing a problem.
But when the right-wing moral majority began to establish a Congressional foothold in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a person’s right to abortion was reframed, even by pro-choice politicians, as a non-ideal option, which reproductive rights advocates said contributed to a sense of shame around the procedure.
“We saw the progressive leaders of the late 90s, and even into the early 2000s . . . basically saying, ‘Abortion is a necessary evil, and we will ultimately defend a person’s right to choose, however it’s not a thing we’re down with, and you really shouldn’t talk about it, and if you do, you should express a lot of contrition and shame,’” Bonow said.
In the 1970s, prior to Roe v. Wade, to say, “I’ve had an abortion,” was to show the verisimilitude of an illegal act. In the eyes of pro-choice advocates at the time, doing so was a necessary step in legally securing the right to a procedure that was already happening around the country every day. Today, as anti-choice advocates work against those efforts, those moved to share their abortion stories are doing so with an urgency reminiscent of that which was yielded by the salopes, the women of Ms., the Redstockings, and others, and they’re sharing those stories alongside resources for legal reproductive care, a move that would have been impossible before.
Also tackling the possibility of a post-Roe America from a proactive perspective, Handbook for a Post-Roe America by Robin Marty is a guide to pro-choice advocates’ worst-imagined future. One chapter comprises a state-by-state dossier of abortion laws, including analyses of what would happen should Roe ever be overturned or weakened by the Supreme Court. Another is a self-reflective quiz that allows you to gauge the level of civil disobedience you feel personally comfortable engaging in by answering questions like: “Am I the only one who can help?” “Is my privacy important?” “Am I worried about my family?” There’s a section that breaks down the ins and outs of self-managed abortion care, including where to find the necessities for a medication abortion, how mifepristone and misoprostol work to end a pregnancy, and what to expect through the process of termination.
Handbook mirrors the covert systems of information dissemination that a group called The Jane Collective utilized in order to share information and perform abortions pre-Roe. A group of (mostly white) women in their late teens and twenties, the Janes offered counseling for people seeking illegal abortions in addition to performing first- and second-trimester abortions themselves.
Shout Your Abortion and Handbook demonstrate that storytelling and sharing information, including around abortion, is never a fruitless endeavor. “The impulse to stay silent is sort of based on some desire to conform to respectability politics,” Bonow said. “We’ve seen in the past few years there’s no reward at the end . . . for keeping your head down and not causing a problem. We’re totally fucked, so you might as well tell the truth about your life.”