Say­ing it out loud

A new gen­er­a­tion of ac­tivists is call­ing it “abor­tion,” not “choice”

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Twit­ter: @Jil­lFilipovic Jill Filipovic is a jour­nal­ist and lawyer based in New York.

In 2013, Lucy Flores, then 33, told a re­mark­able story to her col­leagues in the Ne­vada leg­is­la­ture. As one of 13 chil­dren born into an im­pov­er­ished His­panic fam­ily, she had joined a gang, gone to ju­ve­nile detention and dropped out of high school. “At 16, I got an abor­tion,” she told law­mak­ers. “I don’t re­gret it.” When Flores ran for lieu­tenant gover­nor the next year, what cap­tured the at­ten­tion of Ne­vada vot­ers — and the na­tional me­dia — wasn’t that she had trans­formed her­self from a teenage gang mem­ber into a law stu­dent who won her first elec­tion to the state as­sem­bly just af­ter grad­u­at­ing. It was that she spoke openly and re­morse­lessly about one of the most con­tro­ver­sial acts in Amer­i­can so­cial life. She didn’t sprint away from the topic, as gen­er­a­tions of politi­cians have done.

Even more sur­pris­ingly, pro-choice and Demo­cratic elec­toral groups cheered Flores in­stead of ad­vis­ing her to keep quiet. She faced a bru­tal an­tiabor­tion back­lash — she re­ceived death threats and lost the lieu­tenant gover­nor’s race by 26 points — but she did so with en­thu­si­as­tic endorsements from Emily’s List, NARAL Pro-Choice Amer­ica and Harry Reid, who was then ma­jor­ity leader in the U. S. Se­nate.

That’s a turn­around from a decade ago, when elected of­fi­cials and even abor­tion rights groups shunned the word “abor­tion” in fa­vor of eu­phemisms such as “pro-choice” that they thought might earn broader voter sup­port. Even popular cul­ture seemed squea­mish. The 2007 teen-preg­nancy film “Juno” de­picted just a few slightly trau­matic min­utes at a clinic, and “Knocked Up,” re­leased the same year, tried so hard to avoid us­ing the A-word that it subbed in “shmash­mor­tion.” Both Barack Obama and John McCain evaded the is­sue in their 2008 pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns. And in the lead-up to the 2004 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, the Na­tional Abor­tion Rights Ac­tion League, one of the largest re­pro­duc­tive rights ad­vo­cacy groups in the coun­try, changed its name to NARAL Pro-Choice Amer­ica, strip­ping out “abor­tion” al­to­gether. Its then-pres­i­dent, Kate Michel­man, told the New York Times, “It is the right name for this mo­ment in his­tory.”

But in this new mo­ment in his­tory, “abor­tion” is back. The coded lan­guage of the older guard is giv­ing way to frank talk from a younger gen­er­a­tion of ac­tivists, who cut their teeth in LGBT work and on­line fem­i­nist spa­ces.

Ad­vo­cat­ing “choice” didn’t stop the re­cent wave of losses for re­pro­duc­tive rights. To­day, ac­tivists are re­al­iz­ing that the only way to erase the stigma is to talk about it.

Since the tea party sweep in the 2010 midterm elec­tions, abor­tion rights have been rolled back ag­gres­sively. Ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis by the Guttmacher In­sti­tute, more abor­tion re­stric­tions were passed in the three years af­ter the 2010 midterms than in the pre­vi­ous decade, and al­most en­tirely at the state level. “What we’re experiencing right now is the peak of a 40-year plan on the part of the anti-choice move­ment to get what they want,” NARAL Pres­i­dent Il­yse Hogue says. “I think that has caused a reckoning within or­ga­ni­za­tions and the move­ment to say, we can suf­fer death by a thou­sand cuts, or we can ac­tu­ally cre­ate our own long-term plan.”

Younger ac­tivists are shap­ing the dia­logue, tak­ing cues from the In­ter­net, where con­ver­sa­tional norms re­ward un­abashed hon­esty about the fe­male ex­pe­ri­ence — some­times to max­i­mal shock value — whether with a dozen “this is so brave” retweets or a by­line in the “It Hap­pened to Me” sec­tion of XO Jane. To them, ex­cis­ing the word “abor­tion” from abor­tion rights work makes lit­tle sense. “I am very de­lib­er­ate about us­ing the word ‘abor­tion’ ver­sus say­ing I am pro-choice,” said Re­nee Bracey Sher­man, a 29-year-old NARAL board mem­ber who has writ­ten a guide to abor­tion story-shar­ing. “I didn’t have a pro-choice. I had an abor­tion.”

That in­ten­tional rhetor­i­cal shift has left the con­fines of move­ment board­rooms. In the 2014 midterms, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) put abor­tion rights at the cen­ter of his un­suc­cess­ful re­elec­tion bid, us­ing his first cam­paign ad to crit­i­cize his op­po­nent’s “his­tory [of ] pro­mot­ing harsh anti-abor­tion laws” and ded­i­cat­ing close to half his ads to women’s is­sues— his em­pha­sis on re­pro­duc­tive rights earned him the nick­name “Mark Uterus.” In Jan­uary, Pres­i­dent Obama used the word “abor­tion” in one of his State of the Union ad­dresses for the first time. A Planned Par­ent­hood video from 2013, ti­tled “Mov­ing Be­yond Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice La­bels,” re­jects the “pro-choice” moniker that the abor­tion rights move­ment has used for decades, while its nar­ra­tor says the word “abor­tion” six times in less than two min­utes.

Ad­vo­cates and politi­cians are also putting a hu­man face on the pro­ce­dure: Planned Par­ent­hood Pres­i­dent Ce­cile Richards wrote about her abor­tion for Elle mag­a­zine; Texas gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date Wendy Davis (D) told her abor­tion story in her mem­oir; clinic coun­selor Emily Letts filmed her own pro­ce­dure. Or­ga­ni­za­tions that en­cour­age abor­tion story-shar­ing, in­clud­ing Ex­hale, Ad­vo­cates for Youth and the Sea Change Pro­gram, have cre­ated plat­forms and guides for women who want to speak out. So many women told their abor­tion sto­ries in 2014 that sev­eral jour­nal­ists and com­men­ta­tors deemed it “the year of the abor­tion story.”

The shift is not just po­lit­i­cal; it’s cul­tural, too. In­stead of “smash­mor­tion,” movie­go­ers in 2014 got “Ob­vi­ous Child,” a ro­man­tic com­edy with an hon­est and de­cid­edly un-tragic por­trayal of abor­tion at the heart of the plot. In 2013, New York mag­a­zine fea­tured 26women’s abor­tion sto­ries. A year later, Elle had a mul­ti­me­dia “abor­tion is­sue.” And while sit­coms are no­to­ri­ous for deal­ing with char­ac­ters’ un­in­tended preg­nan­cies with con­ve­nient mis­car­riages, the new CW show “Jane the Vir­gin” in­cluded a frank dis­cus­sion about abor­tion as an op­tion for Jane’s preg­nancy. To­day, the per­cent­age of Amer­i­cans who say they’re pro-choice is at a seven-year high.

Ac­tivists now have a new set of dig­i­tal tools at their dis­posal. “Sto­ries that would never get into the New York Times or The Wash­ing­ton Post re­ally came alive through so­cial me­dia, and then were forced onto the front pages of those more main­stream pub­li­ca­tions,” says Planned Par­ent­hood’s Richards.

The wed­ding col­umn in the Times, for ex­am­ple, men­tioned a cou­ple’s abor­tion and how it strength­ened their re­la­tion­ship. Au­thor Mer­ritt Tierce told her own thor­oughly nor­mal story of hav­ing two abor­tions for the Times’ op-ed pages, writ­ing that “the most com­mon abor­tion is a five-to-15-minute pro­ce­dure elected early in the first trimester by some­one who doesn’t want to be preg­nant or have a child.” And Bracey Sher­man told her abor­tion story on video for Fu­sion’s dig­i­tal mem­oir project called #nofil­ter. Hav­ing an abor­tion at 19, she said, “was the best de­ci­sion ofmy life.”

While ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tions have long used the hor­rors of danger­ous pre- Roe abor­tions and par­tic­u­larly tragic sto­ries of rape or se­vere fe­tal ab­nor­mal­i­ties to il­lus­trate the need for abor­tion rights, younger women are push­ing back on what they call the nar­ra­tive of “the good abor­tion.” In­stead, they’re talk­ing about the whole range of their ex­pe­ri­ences, in­clud­ing the nearly 90 per­cent of elec­tive abor­tions that oc­cur dur­ing the first 12 weeks of preg­nancy. Most women who ter­mi­nate preg­nan­cies aren’t fac­ing life-threat­en­ing tragedies but rather more mun­dane ones: The most com­mon rea­sons women give in­clude not be­ing fi­nan­cially ready, poor tim­ing for a baby, is­sues with a part­ner and the need to care for the chil­dren they al­ready have. Ac­tivists say play­ing down that re­al­ity — and the im­por­tance of abor­tion ser­vices for all women — con­trib­utes to the stigma that keeps abor­tion shame­ful and po­lit­i­cally con­tentious.

The ques­tion of how much space to give abor­tion in the broader con­text of other re­pro­duc­tive-health is­sues, not to men­tion the many other is­sues women face in their lives, re­mains a tough one for the pro-choice move­ment. The same ac­tivists push­ing for the word “abor­tion” are part of the most di­verse co­hort of young adults in Amer­i­can his­tory, and they came up as ac­tivists at a time when “in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity” — the idea that dif­fer­ent forms of op­pres­sion and dis­crim­i­na­tion over­lap — gained cur­rency in the fem­i­nist move­ment. At the same time, women of color were push­ing the con­cept of re­pro­duc­tive jus­tice, which Mon­ica Simp­son, the ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Sis­terSong: Women of Color Re­pro­duc­tive Jus­tice Col­lec­tive, de­fines as “the hu­man right of ev­ery in­di­vid­ual to have a child, to not have a child, to par­ent the chil­dren they have in healthy and sus­tain­able en­vi­ron­ments, and the hu­man right to bod­ily au­ton­omy.”

With Amer­ica be­com­ing more racially di­verse, Simp­son says more tra­di­tional prochoice or­ga­ni­za­tions are re­al­iz­ing that they need to ap­peal to a wider de­mo­graphic in or­der to sur­vive. And the model pi­o­neered by re­pro­duc­tive-jus­tice groups — talk about abor­tion hon­estly, con­tex­tu­al­ize it as one piece of women’s lives, fo­cus on the most vul­ner­a­ble — is one that main­stream re­pro­duc­tive rights and health groups in­creas­ingly seem to em­ploy.

“We are very fo­cused on mak­ing sure that abor­tion ac­cess is cen­tral to a spec­trum of rights that make up the def­i­ni­tion of re­pro­duc­tive free­dom,” NARAL’s Hogue says. “What does a pol­icy pack­age look like that matches our own lives, and doesn’t put abor­tion over here as a so­cial is­sue and eco­nomic equal­ity over here? Be­cause that’s not the way real peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence it. We have a gen­er­a­tion of women who have ev­ery ex­pec­ta­tion that they’ll be in the work­force their en­tire re­pro­duc­tive life­times, and we need a story and a pol­icy agenda that talks about that, with abor­tion and the abil­ity to con­trol what hap­pens to your own body and there­fore your own life at the cen­ter of it.”

No “shmash­mor­tion” nec­es­sary.

TAMIR KALIFA/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

ABOVE: Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis, who drew na­tional at­ten­tion af­ter her fil­i­buster against a re­stric­tive abor­tion bill, wrote about her own abor­tions in a mem­oir re­leased dur­ing her 2014 cam­paign for gover­nor.

MICHAEL LARIS/WASH­ING­TON POST

LEFT: Lucy Flores, a Ne­vada leg­is­la­tor now run­ning for Congress, en­dured crit­i­cism and death threats af­ter she said she’d had an abor­tion as a teenager and didn’t re­gret it.

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