Lindy West on Breaking the Silence Around Abortion
“When reproductive freedom becomes a class privilege, the human rights of our political body are negated.”
The first abortion I ever remember seeing on screen was that of Penny in Dirty Dancing, who is nearly killed by an unscrupulous opportunist with a “rusty knife” who promises he can end her pre-Roe v. Wade pregnancy. Penny is not quite blamed for getting herself into “trouble”—in fact, she receives tender, lifesaving care from Jerry Orbach, oddly one of the most affecting depictions of an abortion care provider ever committed to film—but her story is gruesome and traumatic nonetheless. The next fictional abortion that had an impact on me I never actually saw at all.
On the Canadian teen soap Degrassi: The Next Generation (which I watched religiously with my college roommates because IT WAS GOOD), a teenage girl named Manny decides to have an abortion in a two-part episode called “Accidents Will Happen.” The US network that aired Degrassi refused to run that episode—not, as I understand it, because Manny had an abortion but because she had an abortion and didn’t regret it. That was in 2004.
Shrill wasn’t the first show to put an abortion on TV, but I believe it was the first to feature an abortion in a pilot episode, and it joined a short list of shows that have presented abortion without high drama, anguish, or regret, as well as shows that have opted to take viewers through the procedure itself. I’m very proud of our choice. At the close of my career, whenever that comes, Annie’s abortion just may be the thing I’m most proud of.
Funny, because I never planned to write about my abortion at all.
In the fall of 2015, I was in the thick of writing Shrill the book—my deadline was looming, and I was embarrassingly behind and starting to imagine doomsday scenarios in which I would have to pay back my advance and go into hiding. At the same time, national hysteria about Planned Parenthood selling “baby parts” was at its peak, and my feminist friends and I were vacillating between rage and panic over it.
I was in self-imposed writing exile at a friend’s vacation home in Maine when my friend Amelia Bonow texted me, “I just told everyone on Facebook about my abortion! SORRY, FAMILY! LOLZ.”
Earlier that summer, Amelia and I had told each other about our abortions for the first time, which had gotten me thinking about why so few of my friends knew about mine. I wasn’t traumatized by my abortion, which I’d had in 2010, or ashamed of it. It had made my life better. Amelia felt the same way. It was just something you weren’t supposed to talk about. We noticed that people almost never said the word at all. And if we were bowing to that imposed secrecy in liberal, pro-choice Seattle, did that mean that all sorts of people are just having abortions all the time and pretending that they’re not? If that is the default way to have an abortion in one of the most progressive parts of the country, how much is internalized stigma still determining the way pro-choice people relate to their own abortions?
Amelia and I realized that the only people who felt free to talk about abortions in specifics were those advocating for its eradication—and their specifics were lies and propaganda. Why weren’t we owning our own stories? Why were we caving to a stigma that we didn’t even believe in?
Stigma breeds silence, and silence is a vacuum that abortion opponents can fill with whatever stories they want. I realized in that conversation with Amelia that despite growing up in progressive Seattle, with a mom who was a nurse who performed abortions, sometimes having to step in when other nurses refused, I had heard very little truth about abortion. The most progressive line when I was growing up was “safe, legal, and rare.” Abortion was a “complicated debate.” Pro-choicers assiduously insisted that “nobody is pro-abortion.” People who got abortions were either desperate or irresponsible. I didn’t hear any stories like mine—abortions that weren’t traumatic, that weren’t regretted or obtained under desperate circumstances, but were just young pregnant people exercising their rights to steer their own futures.
A few months after that conversation, when I was off in Maine, Amelia and I and a few friends had been batting around the idea of an abortion storytelling night or a YouTube channel for abortion stories, when, in a spasm of frustration, she went ahead and posted her story on social media. It read:
Hi guys! Like a year ago I had an abortion at the Planned Parenthood on Madison Ave, and I remember this experience with a nearly inexpressible level of gratitude . . . . 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. But you know what? I have a good heart and having an abortion made me happy in a totally unqualified way. Why wouldn’t I be happy that I was not forced to become a mother?
I tell this story onstage with some regularity. I choke up every time I get to “I have a good heart and having an abortion made me happy.” It happened just now as I typed this, even after all these years. Amelia does have a good heart. How inhumane, to teach people that they are bad for being free.
“This is amazing,” I texted back, and I asked if I could post a screen grab to my then 80 thousand or so Twitter followers. Something in this observation, that even the unashamed speak of abortion only in whispers, clicked with me and I added the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion.
It immediately took off. People from all over the world began sharing their own stories. Amelia and I began hearing from women who’d been suicidal over the shame of their abortions and felt free for the first time—and not only free but part of a global community declaring sovereignty over their bodies. We heard from women in religious countries who’d had illegal abortions and risked ostracism by their families, or even violence or incarceration, if they spoke openly about owning their bodies and futures.
We heard from women who’d had to abort nonviable fetuses at 24 weeks who were tired of their personal trauma being used as a bargaining chip by Republicans. We heard from trans men who had been victims of sexual assault and in seeking their abortions had been forced to weather the compounded traumas of rape, gender dysphoria, and erasure. We heard from defiant high school students and wise elders and our own mothers. The hashtag dominated Twitter for days and was covered by what felt like every major media source, landing on page one of The New York Times a couple weeks after the original post. Clearly, this was more than a hashtag. Clearly there was a need here—a yearning to talk.
Not everyone felt liberated by or pleased with the conversation. Amelia and I received lots of messages that opened with the phrase, “I’m pro-choice, but . . .” One reality that SYA had kicked to the surface was that the pro-choice movement was really, REALLY not on the same page about how people are supposed to talk about their abortions. The anti-choice people, on the other hand, were predictably monolithic in their, um, criticisms of SYA. In spite of the fact that only 23 percent of Americans want to see Roe v. Wade reversed and the anti-choice movement comprises a sliver of the US population, the word cloud of “abortion discourse in the last two decades” has been about 90 percent white evangelicals screaming the most incendiary, reductive, poisonous garbage imaginable in lockstep with one another. The brand is strong!
It is easy to craft an impenetrable brand when you are lying. Anti-choice rhetoric generally falls into three categories:
1. Extremely oversimplified and totally subjective (“Life begins at conception.”).
2. So incendiary that all who disagree are immediately marked as evil (“Abortion is murder.”).
3. An oxygen-less loop of tautology (“Life begins at conception, therefore abortion is murder.”).
The pro-choice movement, on the other hand, has never figured out an effective way to counteract anti-abortion propaganda because the omnipresence of that propaganda has terrified the vast majority of people who have abortions into silence and because for decades we have constantly been allowing ourselves to be drawn into a bad-faith debate over a fundamental human freedom that is not debatable. As soon as we are baited into correcting our opponents, it legitimizes their argument. Once you are arguing from the defense, you’ve already lost.
When Republicans introduce anti-abortion measures with no exceptions for rape or incest, the Left gestures, apoplectic, at the most barbaric hypotheticals—“You would force an 11-year-old to carry her rapist’s child?”—as though there is some threshold of age or circumstance or tragedy beyond which it is acceptable to force a person to have a baby. We rail against Republican legislation proposing a total abortion ban, and then, when lawmakers pass a 20-week ban instead, they look moderate (by design).
We fall into the trap of qualifying certain abortion restrictions as more extreme or more inhumane than others, when the unshakable reality is that if you are a person who is unable to access abortion for any reason, your state is total disenfranchisement and your right to life has been stripped from you. Even when we insist, however valiantly, that “abortion is health care,” we are playing into the devastating anti-choice fiction that abortion is anything less than liberty itself.
There is no debate because we do not live in a theocracy and one minority group does not get to implement legislation that impedes other people’s freedom, period.
It is time to stop granting those people even one iota of our collective energy and instead begin flooding the world with our real, true, messy, complex, hard, good, bad abortion stories, because those stories are the things that actually happened to us and they are the things that people actually relate to, and that other shit is blatant horseshit to anyone who isn’t an evangelical Christian cultist.
In the first debate of the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump turned abortion into an American Idol origin story: “[W]hat happened is friends of mine years ago were going to have a child, and it was going to be aborted. And it wasn’t aborted. And that child today is a total superstar, a great, great child. And I saw that. And I saw other instances.”
Nonaborted total superstar. Even something as fundamental as women’s humanity has to be turned into a game show. We would let you have autonomy over your own bodies, but that fetus you’re incubating might be the next Bo Bice!
Friends. That is not a serious person. We must stop treating it like one.
On January 20, 2017, Trump’s inauguration day, I had the surreal experience of giving the keynote speech at a fundraiser for the Emma Goldman Clinic, an independent abortion care provider in Iowa City, Iowa. I had never been to Iowa before, and I arrived at the theater that night in a state of deep misunderstanding. I knew that Iowa had gone red for Trump. I believed, naively, that I had flown there to comfort them.
What I found was exactly the opposite: a group of people not drowning in shock and despair, as I was, but putting one foot in front of the other with grace and good humor, just as they had the day before and would the day after. Welcome, they said. We have already been living in Trump’s America. We call it America.
The staff of the Emma Goldman Clinic knew well that the crisis surrounding abortion access in this country predates Donald Trump. Although most people think of Planned Parenthood when they think of abortion, independent providers like the Emma Goldman Clinic perform 60 percent of abortion procedures nationwide and perform the vast majority of procedures occurring after the first trimester. Independent clinics are often the last clinics remaining in red states, so these providers are used to seeing patients who have traveled a very long way for care, people who cannot use Medicaid to pay for their abortions, and people who are turned away because they are one day past the gestational limit.
These providers know that every day, people are having babies they do not want because they cannot access the abortions they need. The maternal mortality rate in the United States is the highest in the developed world, and in some places that rate is four times as high for black women as for white women. Lack of abortion access is a public health crisis. Eliminating abortion access for poor folks is an instrument of class and racial warfare. When reproductive freedom becomes a class privilege, the human rights of our political body are negated.
The truth of abortion is that people need abortions and always will. You cannot legislate abortion out of existence—you can control only who has safe abortions and who has dangerous ones, who is considered a full person in the eyes of her government and who is a state-owned incubator, who is free and who is not. The Emma Goldman Clinic exists because pregnant people in anti-choice, pro-Trump Iowa are having abortions, all the time. The most insidious anti-choice lie of all is that abortion is partisan. It’s not. The kind of person who has an abortion is “everyone.” People have abortions across party lines, geographic lines, religious lines, class lines, racial lines. People of all genders have abortions. Rural people have abortions. People of faith have abortions. Anti-choice people have abortions. And you know what? We are fighting for them, too. Part of the way we do that is to simply exist as our whole selves in public, unapologetically.
The chasm between who people claim to be and how they actually behave is vast. We have to fill that chasm up with truth so we can climb out of it.
Excerpted from the book The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West, to be published on November 5, 2019 by Hachette Books, a division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright 2019 Lindy West.