A few weeks ago, Girls actress Jemima Kirke shared her abortion story with Draw the Line – a national campaign launched in 2012 by the Center for Reproductive Rights. Her abortion narrative is common – her life wasn’t “conducive for raising a happy, healthy child.” Kirke was frank about her experience, focusing on the financial toll seeking an abortion took on her, as well as the isolation that she felt after the abortion. Kirke’s shame about being pregnant drove her to pay for her abortion procedure out of pocket. Paying for the abortion herself meant emptying her bank account and forgoing the anesthesia because she couldn’t afford the additional cost. Towards the end of her video Kirke makes a profound statement, linking stigma to the inaccessibility of abortion: "It's the obstacles and the stigma that makes [abortion] not completely unavailable...and that's the tricky part. We think we have free choice...but then there are these little hoops we have to jump through to get them."
Abortion stories, as I’ve mentioned before (here and here), are crucial for combatting abortion stigma – the potent force in our culture that shames women and encourages them to remain silent about their abortion experiences. Sharing stories helps break this enforced silence. But, according to The Daily Beast writer Emily Shire, sharing abortion stories does very little to change the tangible barriers to abortion access that many people experience. Shire asks what good Kirke’s story does “for an undocumented immigrant in the Rio Grande Valley who may have to travel hundreds of miles – never mind the cost itself – to have an abortion? Or the woman living in the ‘nearly 1,200-mile-wide desert of abortion providers’ in the Midwest who is struggling just to find a place that will let her exert her constitutionally protected right to choose whether or not to have a baby?” Shire questions whether or not fighting abortion stigma is as important as fighting policies that restrict abortion access - policies that create travel, financial, and logistical barriers for people seeking reproductive health care. She also notes that abortion rights advocates have been sharing stories and fighting abortion stigma since 1972 – she cites Ms. Magazine’s debut issue in which 53 U.S. women shared their abortion stories. Ultimately, Shire looks at the over 40 years of anti-stigma work that abortion rights advocates have been doing and wonders if “sharing our stories isn’t enough to bring about concrete policy changes that adequately secure abortion access.”
The truth is that sharing abortion stories is just one strategy. Abortion rights are aggressively under attack every day, in every state, and in every legislative session, and our efforts to defeat these attacks requires a multi-pronged approach. That approach includes policy change, public education, and the eradication of abortion stigma. Sharing abortion stories is a crucial part of this work. And while it's sometimes difficult to figure out which comes first - policy change or cultural shift - it's clear that these two fights are inextricably linked. As Jennifer Dalven, director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project says:
We are working almost around the clock to stop restrictions – lobbying legislators, mobilizing supporters, and mounting legal challenges. But here’s the catch 22: Abortion restrictions lead to shame and silence. And shame and silence make it easier for politicians to pass more restrictions. No movement can survive and no right can be protected in a culture of silence. On some level, cultural change is policy change. It’s tough to have one without the other.