More Thoughts About Abortion Storytelling and "Coming Out"

Posted on 7.25.2012 by Lily

In the midst of all the abortion storytelling that's been going on lately, I wanted to highlight two recent articles that bring different perspectives to the table. You may have seen the first one if you've been following recent abortion stories, called "Why I Won't Come Out About My Abortion." The anonymous writer writes,

My abortion is no one's business. My abortion is something that should be between me and my doctor, and going public with the details in an attempt to destigmatize choice could ruin my career. So why would I ever "come out" about it?

She continues,

Wearing a tee-shirt that reads "I had an abortion" might remind the average Joe Abstinence Only Education that all kinds of women have abortions and they're not all irresponsible sluts trying to erase their mistakes by taking the easy way out, and that they don't all look like Courtney Love during the nineties. But coming out pressure from women's groups places many women in an awkward position: do what's being asked of you for the greater good, and all of the risk falls on your shoulders, while all of the reward goes to the movement. That's hardly incentive to come forward. Remaining silent is an act of self-preservation.

Which ties into the second piece I've been thinking about lately, called "'Coming Out' on Abortion: Who Wins?" written by Kai Gurley of the Abortion Access Project. Gurley argues that the abortion rights movement is taking its cues from the queer rights movement in putting pressure on women to "come out." The problem is that being out, whether about sexual orientation or having had an abortion, can also be dangerous:

But there is a limit to this thinking – with all of the culture change that the LGBTQ community has seen, stigma and violence are still perpetrated every day. I was reminded of this as I read the story of Mollie Olgin, 19, and Mary Chapa, 18, two young lesbians who were shot (with Mollie being killed) in Texas just last month. And I am heartbroken, remembering exactly how terrifying it is to be a 17-year-old kid coming out in the South, and how challenging moving through the world in this queer body of mine continues to be. [...]

Similarly, abortion providers, clinic workers, and the people that utilize their services experience violence and harassment every single day. The National Abortion Federation reports 5,165 incidents of violence and disruption at abortion clinics in 2011 alone, including stalking, vandalism, picketing, and attempted bombings and/or arson. [...]

If the abortion rights movement is going to ask women to be more visible and vocal about their experiences with abortion, we must do so with thoughtfulness about the potential impact on individual people – particularly people living in rural communities and conservative states. We must be working to address stigma in these communities. And we must be vigilant about supporting people – providers, clinic staff, and individual women – once they go public.

Go read the whole thing. It's powerful stuff. She's 100% right that the call to "come out" about having an abortion needs to be done thoughtfully and sensitively, with regard for the circumstances that may make coming out risky for people in different communities. Depending on your circumstances, demographics, community, and a million other factors, coming out can be an act of privilege. Or it can put your life in danger. And tying back to the first piece, of course coming out needs to be a personal decision made by the individual who knows her life and situation best.

However, I do still believe strongly in the potential to destigmatize and normalize abortion by way of coming out. When a full third of the female population has had at least one abortion, it's just implausible to imagine that the stigma could continue as powerfully as it exists today if all of these people were open about their experiences. I don't believe that coming out about your abortion is just a "trendy" thing to do in 2012, as Anonymous argues (somewhat flippantly and disrespectfully, in my opinion). I think it is an enormously powerful and empowering statement, and to say that it's just trendy now ignores a pretty long history of feminist activism laying the groundwork for today's sociopolitical climate.

At the same time, Gurley is right that the call to come out cannot be made in a vacuum solely to patients who have sought abortions. The pressure is on all of us - abortion care workers, pro-choice activists, and the larger community supporting and defending women and our very right to exist and own our bodies - to create the space in which patients can safely come out. No one should have to risk their personal safety for the greater cause.

I negotiate my own "coming out" as an abortion care worker all the time. I'm fortunate to have an extremely supportive family and group of friends with whom I can be fully, proudly out. But every time a less familiar acquaintance or stranger asks me the innocuous "what do you do?" or "where do you work?" questions, I have to evaluate the situation and judge whether it's okay for me to say I work in abortion care. How potentially confrontational do I feel like being right now? Depending on the circumstances, I might say I work in health care, women's health care, or that I'm a pregnancy options counselor. I wish I felt comfortable saying I'm an abortion care worker in all situations. But sometimes I'm tired, uncomfortable, not willing to risk hostility, or just want to avoid any potential awkwardness and discomfort. Sometimes coming out leads to amazing conversations. But it's always a social risk, however minimal the risk to my own personal security may be.

This is my own personal challenge. The call to come out does not just lie with those who have had abortions. It's with all of us.