All for Abortion Storytelling, but Maybe Not So Much for Undercover Abortion Recording

Posted on 7.12.2012 by Lily

Steph Herold wrote an important piece and started an even more important project earlier this week that you need to check out if you haven't already. Here's her introduction:

Over the last few months, there's been an electric energy around the sharing of abortion stories. We've seen two stories in the New York Times, a Jewish abortion story on Kveller, a continuation of an abortion story on Thought Catalog, an early abortion story on Boing Boing, and a piece by a woman reflecting on the consequences of telling her abortion story in the Texas Observer. One woman even documented her abortion in photos. And that's just recently.

This recent wave of abortion storytelling gives me hope, which is hard to come by these days. Those of us working in the field have long said that sharing our stories is the only way (or the most powerful way) to combat the stigma and shame surrounding abortion. Since at least one in every three women has at least one abortion in her lifetime, it's hard to imagine that the stigma could continue if each and every one of this massive global community were open and honest about their experiences. If only abortion were openly discussed as a normal and common experience, part of the range of reproductive and sexual health experiences we have throughout our lives.

But I feel conflicted about one of these stories that's been making the Internet rounds lately. Specifically, I want to talk about the last one mentioned above, the abortion documented in photos.

This project represents a new type of abortion storytelling. The use of photos in abortion politics has been largely confined to the Photoshopped variety on the protesters' signs. Dispelling the lies of those signs seems to be the primary motivation of this patient who took pictures of her abortion.

I understand and applaud these intentions. It's true that a 6 week abortion bears no resemblance to the gruesome pictures of developed fetuses that decorate the sidewalks outside our clinics. In fact, a 6 week abortion is mostly a lot of blood and uterine lining, which is what you see in these photos. The actual embryo is so teensy and unlike any image of a baby you've ever seen that it takes a specially trained eye to find and separate it out from all the other tissue. You’re not actually even looking for the embryo at that stage; you're looking for the gestational sac containing it. Which can still be hard to find. It took me a while to be able to do it, and I know a little something about abortion.

But I have to admit that my first reaction upon seeing the site was not to applaud the woman behind it. My first reaction was more along the lines of what the fuck don't record undercover in our clinics.

Most comments and commentary about the site seem to be supportive of this woman. And I'm glad for that. It's a brave and radical and pretty cool thing that she did, which is why it sucks to feel so conflicted.

I guess my gut reaction can be boiled down to the fact that she took covert pictures inside an abortion clinic. Because while WHAT she recorded may be the first of its kind, the fact of secretly recording inside an abortion clinic is not a novel thing to do.

LiveAction (the anti-choice group doing all those undercover "stings" at Planned Parenthoods and private clinics of the last few years) has succeeded, at times, in making me feel exposed and vulnerable in my most sacred and wonderful place at work: the counseling room. This space is where patients disclose to me their most intimate of secrets and I work to respond with compassion and empathy. But at times, in bouts of anxiety and doubt, I've taken myself out of the mindset of supporting my patient. Instead of being on her side, I've at times wondered if the woman in front of me might in fact be an undercover protester working to discredit the incredible work I'm part of. At times, I've felt defensive and vulnerable, unsure if her messy story could be an elaborate ploy to get me to say something the antis can then distort and mangle into a narrative about how ABORTION IS EUGENICS or ABORTION WORKERS HATE WOMEN or ABORTION CLINICS ARE SECRETLY IN CAHOOTS WITH FORCED PROSTITUTION RINGS THAT PIMP OUT PREPUBESCENT GIRLS.

Or maybe - probably - my patient's story is just actually her life. Real life, it turns out, is often quite messy. To my knowledge, I have never been the target of an undercover sting.

I work hard and I trust my counseling instincts. I am far from perfect, but I know that most of the time I am a professional, supportive, and compassionate counselor. It goes without saying that I - and everyone I work with - understand and abide by all local, state, and federal laws, besides following general ethical principles. But that doesn't mean that I wouldn't ever say something that the antis could turn into a delicious soundbite. They can warp just about anything.

Similarly, I'm sure pictures or videos taken inside a clinic - even if everything they show is perfectly legal, ordinary, routine - can be twisted for devastating means.

On the other hand, everything is fodder for the antis. Why should we worry about how they'll distort things if we know the work we're doing is good and just? But public perception matters. Politics matter. Publicity, especially of the negative variety, has the potential to profoundly affect our very ability to perform our work and provide these services.

I know that the woman behind did not identify the clinic she was at or any of the clinic workers. And obviously her intentions were to support the work that we do, which is in turn supporting people like her who need our services. To my (admittedly biased) eyes, she did not record anything that could be turned against us. Blood and pregnancy tissue is the reality of abortion, and it's better that people should see real pictures rather than the protesters'. I am not saying she shouldn't have done what she did. I don't think.

I guess what I'm thinking is that it sucks to feel this way, to react to a cool radical project with defensiveness. In theory, I support 100%. In reality, what she did scares me because I don't want to think about people recording undercover in my clinic. Anything. Period. And I hope patients who might think to do something similar can understand that.

I wonder if her clinic would have let her take the pictures if she had just asked. Patients should certainly be allowed to see the abortion if desired, so why not take a picture? Maybe we should work to create spaces where patients have access to all the information they want, and the photos they take are out in the open.