Happy Abortion Wellbeing Month! The danger of the single abortion story

Yesterday on the Community site, Leah reminded us that this April is the 2nd annual Abortion Wellbeing Month. Organized by the awesome pro-voice folks at Exhale, it’s a time to recognize and respect each person’s unique experience with abortion.

As someone who has written publicly about having an abortion–and about speaking about having an abortion (so meta!)–I’ve been a big fan of Exhale’s work for awhile.

The hostility of the extreme anti-choice movement makes sharing abortion stories rare. Even after working in reproductive rights for nearly three years, the near-total absence of the voices of women who’ve had abortions in the public discourse still sometimes astounds me. I mean, when Rep. Jackie Speier spoke of her own abortion on the House floor back in February, it was called “shocking” and “brave.” To talk about making a choice that 1 in 3 American women will make in their lifetimes.

That shouldn’t be brave–and yet, of course, it was. Because the rhetoric around abortion really is that charged–and the silence surrounding it really is that deep. After all, we live in a cultural environment where the #Ihadabortion hashtag created a huge stir last fall and Angie Jackson, the woman who live-tweeted her abortion, was criticized even by some within the pro-choice movement.

In such a context–with a polarized issue and a scarcity of personal stories–it becomes nearly impossible to speak publicly about having an abortion without it being treated as a political act. As Exhale found Aspen Baker wrote in the aftermath of #Ihadanabortion:

“Given how polarized abortion is in this country, women’s experiences with abortion become just another tool to make a political point. Unfortunately, this may actually make women less likely to share their personal abortion stories in such a public manner in the future because they don’t want their stories to be manipulated or misunderstood.”

The problem reminds me of Chimamanda Adichie’s amazing TED Talk on “the danger of a single story.” She’s talking about something else entirely but she explains, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

In order to break the single story of abortion, we need more women to speak honestly about their experiences. We need to hear from diverse women who had abortions for many different reasons and who feel happy, sad, relieved, carefree, regretful, empowered, ashamed, unconcerned, conflicted, joyful, or any complex combination of emotions. At the same time, with so few stories of abortion comes the heavy weight of representation; the pressure to make your story fit into a certain narrative–as well as the risk that it will be manipulated, judged or rejected–is heightened. It’s a tough catch-22.

That’s why the space that Exhale provides for women to speak openly about their experiences–away from the politicized public sphere–is so valuable. Because telling your story–and feeling heard–can be important for individual wellbeing after an abortion. And all women deserve that–regardless of how our fucked-up political context currently limits our ability to tell these stories as freely as we should be able to.

As for me, I will continue speaking publicly about my abortion as a consciously political act. In the hopes that someday other women will be able to do so and it won’t be political. It will just be an experience they had–perhaps similar to a lot of other women’s but an experience that’s, ultimately, theirs and theirs alone.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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