How Many More Stories Do We Have to Tell?

On Tuesday, as Republican legislators in Alabama voted to pass what amounts to a total ban on abortion in the state, the actor Busy Phillips tweeted out a call for people who have had abortions to share their stories, using the hashtag #youknowme:

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Hundreds of people, largely women who have had abortions, responded, sharing everything from the traumatic (“Back alley. Catheter and clothes hanger. I was 19, it was 1966. I didn’t die. But I could have.”) to the mundane (“I was 16 and the condom broke. There was never any question about what I was going to do and I have never regretted it”).

These kinds of testimonies are intimately familiar. In 2015, two women—the former Jezebel writer Lindy West and the activist Amelia Bonow—launched a social media campaign called #ShoutYourAbortion that went viral, during a time when Congress was voting to defund Planned Parenthood. The goal was storytelling as social change—as Bonow explained, they were meant to challenge “the assumption that abortion is still something to be whispered about.”

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“Telling our stories at full volume chips away at stigma, at lies, at the climate of shame that destroys the lives (sometimes literally) of women and girls and anyone anywhere on the gender spectrum who can become pregnant,” West later wrote in an op-ed for the Guardian. Many of these stories are now catalogued on their website, a seemingly endless compendium.

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Those stories are important to share (and at Jezebel, we have shared them over and over again through the years). The movement for full abortion rights was built largely on the strength of women opening up about obtaining what were then-illegal abortions. There is a catharsis in speaking publicly about private truths. But it’s dispiriting that once again, women feel compelled to participate in what feels like an endless drip of confession, one whose intended audience refuses to not only listen but ideologically refutes the very premise of those experiences.

Since 2010, Republican-dominated state legislatures have passed hundreds of abortion restrictions. Brett Kavanaugh has been appointed to the Supreme Court, and dozens more anti-abortion judges now populate appeals courts around the country. The recent abortion bans passed this year alone in Alabama, and Missouri, and Georgia, and Ohio, and Arkansas, represent just a few of the bans that have been enacted (and almost as swiftly challenged) in the last several years. Seven states now have only one abortion clinic left.

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What this outpouring of abortion stories has highlighted is the yawning gap between the power of narrative and how little actual power we wield, a gap that can only be narrowed through collective action. For stories of women’s pain or trauma or the mundane experiences of our lives have never meant much on their own, nor do they change the minds of those who wield the power to ruthlessly contract the space of our autonomy.

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