Something Big is Changing in the Fight for Reproductive Freedom—Women are Done With Being Shamed

1 in 3 SpeakOutJudge less. Listen more. Tell your story even if your voice shakes. — Can a new approach help us past the abortion impasse?

Women, especially young women, are coming out of the closet and talking openly about how access to abortion has empowered their lives. On November 20, a reproductive rights nonprofit, Advocates for Youth hopes to take that to a new level with an eight-hour live broadcast they are calling the 1 in 3 SpeakOut. Celebrities including comedienne Lizz Winstead, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, and author Jessica Valenti will “speak out,” telling their abortion stories in an act of defiance against stigma and shame.

As a woman who went public with my own abortion story after the murder of Dr. George Tiller, I am grateful and deeply optimistic about the rising chorus of voices.

The speakout event will be hosted and organized by the 1 in 3 Campaign, so named because 1 in 3 American women has an abortion at some point before reaching menopause. It is being promoted by a coalition of women’s groups including Advocates for Youth, Planned Parenthood, and Lady Parts Justice. And the 100 participants are part of a growing number of women who are saying firmly and publically, Stop telling me how I should feel about my abortion—guilty, conflicted, grieved, relieved—my experience is my own.

In 2000, a group called Exhale pioneered what they called the pro-voice approach, offering non-judgmental support for women (and men) who wanted to talk about their experiences. The safe space they carved out for people who reached their call line has been a small bubble in a wide sea of shame and stigma. Surrounded by shrill public debate in which any woman’s reproductive decision is a political act that perfect strangers feel entitled to judge, most women choose to remain silent.

Silencing women is a core tool of abortion opponents. That is because when the voices and faces of abortion seekers and compassionate providers vanish, the right to end a pregnancy become a legal or theological abstraction. When opponents don’t have to look into the eyes of real women who are managing full, complicated lives and families, they feel free to manipulate emotions by focusing on gritty details of the surgical procedure itself. The big picture—a young person’s hopes and dreams, our responsibilities to the world around us, the fiercely intense challenges and joys of parenthood, the human flourishing made possible by family planning, the medical and psychological risks of an ill-timed pregnancy, the mercy of a fresh start—all of these powerful and personal dimensions of childbearing fade from view, papered over with pictures of gestation sacs and fetal remains.

Even conversation among friends and family members gets muted. Today abortion need is dropping fast thanks to better birth control technologies. Even so, abortion is more common than recognizable miscarriage. (Most miscarriage simply takes the form of an odd period.) And yet, according to sociologist Sarah Cowan at NYU, only 52 percent of people say they know someone who has had an abortion, while 79 say they know someone who has had a miscarriage. In reality, virtually all adults are close with someone who has had an abortion. They just don’t know that because they haven’t been told.

But times may be changing.

In 2012, the 1-in-3 Campaign offered a platform for women and men who wanted to tell their stories more publically, and over 500 responded. Then a young woman who called herself Jane published photos online of her first trimester abortion. They were seen by millions and ultimately covered by mainstream news outlets around the world. Jane chose to stay anonymous because, as she said,

“The power in anonymity is placing my little story in a much larger context and making it relatable to anyone and everyone. I could be from the deep south or live in your neighborhood. I could be a minor or perimenopausal. I could be a high school graduate or a PhD professor. I could be Christian or Muslim. I could be your daughter, your mother, your sister, your boss, your friend. I could be all of these things to this audience. This isn’t about me. This is about all of us.”

In January of 2014 another young woman took the opposite approach, going public with her own name and face. Emily Letts chose to be filmed as she reacted to the news of her unintended pregnancy, then during the abortion procedure and a month later. Her three minute video has been played over a million times.

In the months that followed, Cosmopolitan Magazine, better known for fashion and sex tips than advocacy, made waves by leaning into the conversation about reproductive choices rather than leaning away. One story featured a young Texas ob-gyn, who told of performing a hysterectomy on a 16-year-old after a botched self-induced abortion. Another interviewed Kate Cockrill and Steph Herold, the young founders of Sea Change, (tagline Stigma divides, isolates, hurts. Lets make shift happen).

In October another mainstream women’s magazine, Elle, took up the torch, publishing “I had an Abortion—Real stories from real women,” followed by an article in which Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, spoke openly about her own abortion. Despite screams from the Right, the Elle editorial team hasn’t backed off. Most recently they have showcased award-winning poet and columnist Katha Pollit, who is on tour with her new book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights.

In the book and related interviews, Pollit goes beyond shame and stigma to embrace the other end of the moral spectrum, honoring women who make childbearing a thoughtful, intentional decision regardless of when and how they find themselves pregnant. She is unflinchingly pro-choice and unflinchingly critical of the Religious Right.

Pollit embraces abortion with the same confidence that she might hold forth on the benefits of appendectomy, knee replacement, or antibiotics. She points out that abortion is normal, that nature itself eliminates many conceptions that are off to a poor start. (More than half of all fertilized eggs and 30 percent of early pregnancies self-abort, including many that are defective.) And she reminds us that induced abortion has been common through history as it is today in the U.S., where 1 out of 3 women choose to end an ill-timed, unwanted, or unhealthy pregnancy. More importantly, she talks about the ways in which abortion enables families to thrive psychologically and economically.

Pollit is far from the first to explicitly endorse abortion as a social good. In 1978, five years after abortion was legalized nationally via Roe vs Wade, the Washington Association of Churches published a six page document in which members articulated, in religious language, some of the issues at stake: freedom, justice, balance, compassion, responsibility—and humility. The document opened by acknowledging that earnest people, including earnest Christians found this issue challenging:

Clearly there is no Christian position on abortion, for here real values conflict with each other, and Christian persons who seek honestly to be open to God’s call still find themselves disagreeing profoundly.

Given the competing values at stake, member denominations (save Catholics alone) asserted that whether to keep a pregnancy was a decision best left to a woman and those from whom she sought guidance. Alas, Evangelicals and conservative Catholics decided they knew better. They affirmed a traditional set of beliefs that value women as incubators and men as deciders. Then, from their position of “male headship” church leaders pronounced that the personhood of fetal life (however microscopic or malformed) and female life (however cherished or self-actualized) were equivalent.

But they are wrong, and therein lies the power of telling our stories.

When women come out of the shadows, the world is reminded that we are as individual as snowflakes, each with a life story that has its own intricate pattern and beauty. We are playfulness and big dreams, confusion, creativity, complexity, maternal love, wisdom, responsibility, partnership, sensuality, sexuality—all qualities that are utterly absent in an embryo or fetus. Our decisions to bear or not to bear children, to carry pregnancies or end them, are inseparable from the gloriously tangled web of our loves and our lives.

When women come out of the shadows, the world sees the self-aware determination that leads almost a third of us to end an ill-conceived pregnancy despite the toxic culture of stigma that condemns our decisions rather than honoring the wisdom of a woman who knows her own limits, responsibilities, and dreams.

When we come out of the shadows, the purveyors of shame are exposed for who they are—bullies who are frightened of change and who have been wielding self-righteous judgment as a weapon for far too long.


Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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7 Responses to Something Big is Changing in the Fight for Reproductive Freedom—Women are Done With Being Shamed

  1. john zande says:

    Definitely a positive thing, and well overdue.


  2. For libertarians, such as myself, this is a difficult issue that technological advances will never fully address. Eventually, birth control will be foolproof and bringing a fetus to maturity outside the womb fully practical, but that doesn’t solve the problem. It gives more options, but doesn’t determine who has the right to terminate a pregnancy.

    I see a huge difference between a three month and nine month pregnancy. At three months, I feel strongly that it’s solely the pregnant woman’s choice. (The most important factor to me is the fetus has no sensation; no capacity to suffer.) At nine months, however, I feel just as strongly that it should not be allowed. Somewhere between those extremes is where I would draw the line.

    (I had a friend argue, in all seriousness, that birth was “a convenient point” to draw that line. She’s right about convenience, but I don’t see what that has to do with what’s right or wrong.)

    People can honestly disagree about where that point is and when it’s too late. That’s the part of the problem, to me, which will never go away. In any case, the vast majority of abortions take place early enough that I see no justification for outside interference, so I’m “pro-choice” in the way most people mean by the term (as, I suspect, are the overwhelming majority of ideological libertarians).

    A turning point for me was a conversation with a 38 year old friend, a successful, well paid computer programmer with three children. She told me when she was sixteen she aborted herself with a coat hanger. At that moment (after I finished shuddering), I realized no matter how anyone feels about it, abortion is inevitable. The only real question is whether it will be done the traumatic way she did, or as a proper medical procedure. She could easily have died or sterilized herself.

    I had a vasectomy fairly early in life. It always seemed easier to avoid pregnancy than to be in the position of having to deal with this.


  3. Allan Avery says:

    (I’ve not been keeping up with my AwayPoint. Problematic stress that I need to get under control better.) Anyway, Excellent. And where are the rest of the “Comments?” Surprisingly few. Anyhow, Mr.Pickens’ comment is thoughtful, and sympathetic. Still, it’s unrealistic to think that there will be a time when all Women of any childbearing age will be so fully mature and self educated, in complete self control , and positively clear about their intentions and relevant capabilities, that contraception will be the “solve.” (We’ll have pushed and poisoned ourselves off this planet well before that’s likely; and the actual prospects for moving to another one are not all that good in the near future. :-)) We’ll still be having to reach some sort of detailed Communal standards, in our own and all other of the World’s diverse “Communities,” if we are to achieve a successful, adequately “peaceful,” compromise between personal liberty and fundamental human rights. So what Now?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Allan –
      I’m very hopeful about the new contraceptive technologies that simply switch the default setting so that childbearing is the result of an intentional decision.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Foolproof birth control does exist but isn’t exactly a “switch.”

        Years ago, I knew a couple of whom she wanted another child and he did not. On a business trip, without telling her, he had a vasectomy. She never realized it. (I’ve had a vasectomy myself, so I know it doesn’t take much exploration to note that “Hey! These tubes don’t connect,” but apparently she never checked that closely.)

        The problem (aside from the fact that she could discover his secret at any time) was that they were no longer using any other birth control and after months told him she was afraid she’d “become sterile.” She was planning to see a specialist to see if the “problem” could be fixed. Guess who was going to be checked next?

        In a bit of a panic, her husband asked me what he should do. (I’m guessing he was on the verge of asking me for some sperm so he could “pass the test” but realized the futility of that upon learning of my own surgical history.) To put it mildly, I was appalled at how callously he created that situation. It showed bad judgment on an almost biblical scale. Given that he’d already been busted for some rather sleazy indiscretions, this could easily mean the end of their marriage.

        My thought was if she’s going to find out anyway, he needed to get ahead of the curve and tell her first. (Was I ever glad not to be in his shoes!) I had a few ideas how he could spin it, but no good ones. (My doctor told me tubes could be reconnected and sometimes — at least somewhat — normal function could resume, but he only gave it 30%. The way he explained it, the body often identified AWOL sperm as pathogens and became immune to them.)

        We lost touch because I left San Francisco about a week later and haven’t been back since, so I don’t know what happened. I know I could have maintained contact, but we weren’t particularly close, had no friends in common (I’d only met her once, and that was brief). Every time I thought about calling, I realized I wanted nothing more to do with him.

        I guess the moral is don’t lie to your spouse. Trust is a lot easier to break than to fix.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Oh great. Barely able to keep my head above water and stay out of jail and now I’m supposed to stay “thoughtful and sympathetic?”

      As a radically ideological libertarian, I don’t see any possible conflict between “personal liberty and fundamental human rights.” The only way that conflict could exist is if rights are unequal. In other words, equal rights means (as my mother used to put it) “your right to swing your arm stops where my nose begins.”

      No compromise with this principle should be tolerated. (I suppose some people actually like being punched in the nose. If weirdos and perverts are into that, who am I to judge?)

      Anyway, I’m responding because you’re dead wrong about being “pushed and poisoned off this planet.” The unstated (and widely shared) assumption is technology isn’t going to change much in coming decades, whereas in fact, it will change radically. Technology is advancing at an accelerating pace and this will continue until we reach the limits of physics.

      In another twenty or thirty years, things will be manufactured in vats of chemicals, atom by atom, by microscopic machines. The cost of doing this will be essentially zero, with no waste (pollution) created. Food created by this process will be chemically identical to food grown in the ground and take days to mature, rather than months.

      Microscopic machines will also repair our body’s cells atom by atom, eliminating any possible disease. I’ll stop here, even though this only scratches the surface of what this technology will be able to do.

      The threat is offensive capabilities of nanotechnology might be developed before defensive ones. If that happens, in the worst case scenario, the Earth could literally be scoured of all life, right down to the microbial level.

      Assuming that doesn’t happen, poverty and disease will disappear virtually overnight.

      For details, see “Engines of Creation,” “Unbounding the Future,” and “Nanomachines” by Eric Drexler. The best source on progress toward this goal is the Foresight Institute:


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