Following the U.S. Congress's attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion became a viral conduit for abortion storytelling, receiving extensive media coverage and positioning real human experiences at the center of America’s abortion debate for the first time. This online momentum quickly launched a grassroots movement, inspiring countless individuals to share their stories in art, media, and community events. Shout Your Abortion is a collection of photos, essays, and creative work inspired by the movement of the same name, a template for building new communities of healing, and a call to action. This book sheds light on the individuals who breathed life into this movement, illustrating the profound political power of defying shame and claiming sole authorship of our experiences.
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About the Author
Amelia Bonow has developed Shout Your Abortion (SYA) into a nationwide movement to create places for people to discuss their abortions online, in art and media, and in public events. Bonow's writing has appeared in BUST, the Huffington Post, the New York Daily News, Salon, and the Stranger. Emily Nokes is a musician, writer, graphic designer, and illustrator. Her work has appeared in the Stranger and she now serves as the music editor at BUST . Lindy West is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. Her work has also appeared in This American Life, the Guardian, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere. She cofounded #ShoutYourAbortion and authored Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman.
Read an Excerpt
When I try to recall details, they are frustratingly blurry: a ride up and down in a stainless-steel elevator, beige industrial carpeting, walls the color of cold oatmeal. Perversely, I remember reading an Us Weekly most of all.
I chose the clinic — the only one I ever considered — because a few years before I'd gone out to a bar with a friend who'd introduced me to her best friend. At some point, I asked this woman what she did for a living. "I help women get abortions," she said, beaming. "I love my work."
That I remember so little has been hard for me to accept. Ten years later, it still feels like a wobbly dream. It's not because the day was difficult or emotionally overwhelming. I suspect it has more to do with the combination of anti-anxiety and pain medications I was given. In the days after, I felt a tremendous sense of loss — not for the embryo, but for the physical sensation and memory of something that was important to me. For a long time, it struck me as wrong that my boyfriend, who held my hand through the procedure and is now the father of my children, holds more details of my abortion in his brain than I do.
It took years — five different jobs, a marriage, achieving financial stability in my career as a writer, giving birth to a child — before I could tell this story. Before I could tell my parents, the people who love me most in the world, safely and without damaging our relationship. And even then, it was out of necessity, an unavoidable truth. I consider it a privilege to be able to tell this story at all.
My parents are immigrants from the Philippines, a devoutly Catholic country. Abortion is illegal there and, for many years, birth control was too because "God will always provide." They've proven to be remarkably adaptable in their adopted country, including always supporting the girl who defied all their expectations of who their little girl would be. The high schooler who, when our church handed out bumper stickers saying "Life: What a Beautiful Choice," cut hers up and affixed it to the bumper of the old Volkswagen (purchased by her parents) to deliver a new message: "What a Beautiful Life."
HOW MANY STORIES DO THE PEOPLE WHO CARE FOR US HOLD?
I never told my mother and father because, while it is true that it's none of their business, it is also true that I wanted to protect them. Children who have seen their parents struggle to make sense of a culture, and repeatedly try their best to fit into that culture even as it denigrates and overlooks them, feel an extra sense of responsibility. As much as you need to rebel against them, when you watch them sacrifice comfort, home, being fully seen and understood — all for your benefit — you want to shelter them too.
Three years ago, I wrote an article about my experience with miscarriage that also revealed that I had an abortion. For me, life and loss, motherhood and independence, reproductive choice and lack of control over my body's workings are all tied in an inextricable embrace. The day before the article was published, I sat my mother down to tell her. I knew it wouldn't be easy, but I couldn't let her find out by reading it on the internet.
She began crying immediately.
"Well, it was your choice," she said. "But you have to know it goes against everything your father and I fundamentally believe in our hearts."
She went on to tell me about how she would have taken care of my baby, how my cousin in the Philippines, who is unable to have children, would gladly have taken my baby. How so many people would have wanted my baby.
My baby. I realized quickly there was nowhere for the conversation to go. The life she was concerned about was that of a weeks-old embryo. I was thinking of my own.
When my abortion was over, and I remember that it was over quickly, I lay there for a while, then got dressed and walked into the hallway. The woman I had met while out drinking years before was waiting outside the door for me in her scrubs. She gave me a hug, one I will never forget. She didn't say much and, in the 10 years and many social interactions that have followed, has never said a word about it. Her unfailing respect for my privacy moves me to this day.
How many stories do the people who care for us hold?
Abortion requires trust, placing yourself — vulnerable — in someone else's hands. For me, it meant turning my body and its memories over to others for safekeeping. For a lifetime. Now that I am a mother, I see that it was my first object lesson in the surrender that underlies my most important and rewarding relationships. There's another word for this submission: Love.
I lived in Jerusalem from 1966 to 1979. The brief story is "I went for the summer and stayed for 13 years." The whole story? It hangs on an abortion.
I was as young and dumb as every 20-year-old has every right to be. Not that dumb though, since I was using a diaphragm thanks to the Marie Stopes Clinic, the one place in the whole of England at the time that thought unmarried women should be able to get contraception. And the diaphragm worked — until that first summer in Jerusalem, when it didn't. Not because of any fault in the device but because I hadn't put it in. Late in my menstrual cycle, I'd said, "Come on, it'll be fine." And three weeks later, I realized it wasn't.
The guy was good-looking, but that's about the best that could be said for him. We split up, leaving me a pregnant tourist in a foreign land, with a newly minted degree in psychology but no idea of where I wanted to go from there. The only thing I was sure of was that I was damned if I'd go back to England with my metaphorical tail between my legs. That and the certainty that since I could barely handle myself, no way could I handle a child.
But abortion was still illegal in Israel. And besides, I was dead broke.
I found my way to the Jerusalem branch of an aid organization for Brits — a single room with a single occupant. She took one look at me as I hovered miserably in the doorway, and before I could open my mouth she said, "You're pregnant, aren't you?" I nodded a mournful yes. "And you need an abortion?" Another mournful nod. "And you don't know where to go. And even if you did, you don't have any money?" I just kept nodding. "Sit down," she said, and picked up the phone. She made three calls. The first was for an appointment with a leading gynecologist who didn't believe in forcing women to have children. The second was to her HQ to get approval for a loan to pay his fee. And the third was to a publishing house to get me a job as a copyeditor so that I could pay back the loan. I walked out of her office breathing free again.
The procedure itself was a nonevent: a D&C under sedation, which was the standard procedure at the time. The doctor gave me a prescription for the pill, I languished on a sofa for the rest of the day, and, in the half century since, I've never had a single regret.
By the time I'd paid back the loan, I was in love again, so I stayed. I got my masters degree in psychology, became a journalist, and helped form the modern feminist movement in Israel — thus the newspaper photograph of me leading a pro-choice demo in front of Jerusalem's main department store. The sign I'm carrying says, "women, demand the right to decide." We did, and we got it. Abortion was legalized in Israel in 1977.
And the woman who made those phone calls? It turns out abortion can create lifelong bonds. Her family became my adopted family in Jerusalem. And even though I'd eventually move half the world away, first to New York and then to Seattle, we've been firm friends ever since.
When Life Gives You Lemons
I have no idea what prompted me to walk over to Walgreens and buy a pregnancy test. Maybe women really do have a spiritual phone to our magic triangles. I never thought I did, but that day I bought the thing, peed on it a little bit, and on my hand a lot, and these two pink lines appeared.
This was not at all what I was expecting and also was exactly what I was expecting. My boyfriend at the time was of the "I have grown accustomed to you because I have no one else" variety. We were careful, mostly, but sometimes people just fuck up. So I did what I always did when I needed a common, legal, routine medical procedure — I made an appointment to see my doctor. I was proud of my chill 'tude in her office. "So what's the game plan, doc?" I asked, popping the collar of my leather jacket like somebody who probably skateboarded there. "Why don't you go ahead and slip me that RU-486 prescriptsch and I'll just [moonwalks toward exam room door]."
As it turns out, THE DOCTOR IS NOT WHERE YOU GET AN ABORTION.
I went home and called a clinic (which had some nighttime soap name like "Avalon" or "Falcon Crest"), wobbling on the edge of hysteria. Not for all the reasons the fanatics would like you to think: not because I couldn't stop thinking about my "baby's" tiny fingernails, but because I was alone and it was hard. The woman on the phone told me they could fit me in the following week, and it would be $400 after insurance. I had just paid rent; I had about $100 in my bank account, and payday was in two weeks.
"Can you bill me?"
"No, we require full payment the day of the procedure," she said, brusque but not unkind. I felt like a stripped wire. "But ... I don't have that."
"We can push back the appointment if you need more time to get your funds together," she offered.
"But you don't understand. I can't be pregnant anymore. I'm not supposed to be pregnant." I sobbed so hard she went to get her boss.
The head of the clinic talked to me in a calm, competent voice — like an important businesswoman who is also your mom. "We never do this," she sighed. "But if you promise me you'll pay your bill — if you really promise — you can come in next week and we can bill you after the procedure."
I promised so hard. Yes, oh my god, yes. Thank you so much. Thank you.
I like to think the woman who ran the clinic would have done that for anyone — but I also wonder what made me sound like someone worth trusting. I certainly wasn't the neediest person calling her clinic. The fact is, I was getting that abortion no matter what. All I had to do was wait two weeks, or have a conversation I did not want to have with my supportive, liberal, well-to-do mother. Privilege means that it's easy for white women to do each other favors. Privilege means that those of us who need it the least often get the most help.
I don't remember much about the appointment itself. I went in, filled out stuff on a clipboard, and waited to be called. Before we got down to business, I had to talk to a counselor, I guess to make sure I wasn't just looking for one of those partybortions that the religious right is always getting their sackcloth in a bunch over. (Even though, by the way, those are legal too.) She asked me why I hadn't told my "partner," and I cried because he wasn't a partner at all.
I think there was a blood test and an ultrasound. The doctor told me my embryo was about three weeks old, like a tadpole. Then she gave me two pills in a cardboard billfold and told me to come back in two weeks. The accompanying pamphlet warned that, after I took the second pill, chunks "the size of lemons" might come out. LEMONS. Imagine if we, as a culture, actually talked frankly about abortion. Imagine if people seeking abortions didn't have to be blindsided by the possibility of blood lemons falling out of their vaginas via a pink flier. Imagine.
That night, after taking my first pill, as my tadpole detached from the uterine wall, I pulled a friend into a corner at a work event I couldn't miss and confessed that I'd had an abortion that day. "Did they tell you the thing about the lemons?" she asked. I nodded. "Don't worry," she whispered, hugging me tight. "There aren't going to be lemons."
The next day I lay in bed and ached. No lemons came out. It was like a bad period. The day after that, I felt a little better, and the day after that was almost normal. I wasn't pregnant anymore.
I sometimes hesitate to tell this story, not because I regret my abortion or buy into the narrative that pregnancy is god's punishment for disobedient women, but because it's easy for an explanation to sound like a justification. The truth is that I don't give a damn why anyone has an abortion. I believe unconditionally in the right of people with uteruses to decide what grows inside their bodies and feeds on their blood and reroutes their futures. There are no "good" abortions and "bad" abortions; there are only pregnant people who want them and pregnant people who don't, pregnant people who have access and support and pregnant people who face institutional roadblocks and lies.
For that reason, we simply must talk about it. The fact that abortion is still a taboo subject means that opponents of abortion get to define it however suits them best. They can cast those of us who have had abortions as callous monstrosities and seed fear in anyone who might need one by insisting that the procedure is always traumatic and painful. Every abortion story is as unique as the person who lives it. Some are traumatic, some are regretted, but plenty are like mine.
Paradoxically, one of the primary reasons I am so determined to tell my abortion story is that my abortion simply wasn't that interesting. If it weren't for mangled fetus photos, I would never think of my abortion at all. It was a medical procedure that made my life better, like the time I had oral surgery because my wisdom tooth went evil-dead and murdered the tooth next to it. It was a big deal, and it wasn't, but the procedure itself was the easiest part. Not being able to have one would have been the real trauma.
With my baby brother on my hip and my four-year-old sister trailing behind me, I found the VHS tape of their favorite movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and popped it into the VCR. It was the summer of 1990. I was 14, and I was often alone with my young siblings like this. We lived in New Mexico, and my stepfather worked in Georgia. He and my mom were effectively separated, and he'd been gone long enough for her to have already gone through a few boyfriends. This latest guy was a few years younger than her. He and a handful of his friends became my mom's party posse, including Steve, who was only 18. Mom frequently left for days with these friends, leaving me in charge of my little sister and brother. Steve started staying behind to hang out with me, rather than partying with the rest of them. We fell in love.
Steve wasn't my first boyfriend, nor was I a virgin when we started sleeping together in his bed. It was a love wrought with a feeling of impermanence that we pretended not to notice. He was a runaway from Lubbock, Texas, whose life seemed adventurous. Steve had no obligations, and he had a car. When he had a few dollars, he would take my little siblings and me to McDonald's. They'd play while we made plans to run away to California, because it was the furthest from anything either of us had ever known.
THERE WAS NOTHING ON THE SCREEN THAT RESEMBLED A BABY. IT LOOKED LIKE THE EYE OF A STORM.
About a month into Steve and I playing house, my stepfather came back. The babies were watching cartoons while Steve and I napped on the couch when my stepfather walked in with a shotgun. He nestled the end of the barrel firmly into the flesh between Steve's eyebrows and told him to leave. He was a rough-looking man, so big that he was ironically nicknamed Shorty. Six foot two, enormous belly, sticks for legs, dip in his lip. He'd been beating me and my brother Ian (who'd recently been sent to Louisiana to live with our dad) since we were six and three. He molested me when I was nine. He'd been reported to CPS, only to pack us up and move us to another state overnight. "I hate you," I screamed at him repeatedly, tears hot on my face. Shorty lowered the gun to his side and laughed. He said to the babies, "Come give Daddy a hug." He looked at me and said, "You done good taking care of them." Then he turned to Steve: "Go on, boy. Get outta here."
Shorty instructed me to stay put with the babies and left to look for Mom. I walked around the house in despair. I took care of the little ones. I didn't play with them. I yelled at them. I lay in what had been Steve's bed — a foldout mattress in the living room — and sobbed while they watched episodes of The Smurfs. The third morning after he left to look for her, Shorty walked through the front door with Mom. He had us packing everything up in a matter of minutes, and we were soon on our way to Augusta, Georgia.
On the road, I cried my broken heart out in the back seat. We stopped in Monroe, Louisiana, to visit family. I begged them to let me stay there with my dad, thinking that if I stayed a little closer to New Mexico, Steve might come for me and take me to California. It was summer, so Mom and Shorty let me stay, planning to return for me before the start of school.
I'd been at Dad's for about a week when I started having shooting pains in my abdomen and extreme nausea. After a couple of days of this with no fever and no sign of letting up, Dad took me to the ER. There was palpable tension in the car. I think we both suspected that I was pregnant. I couldn't remember my last period. My breasts hurt. The way I felt reminded me of my mom's complaints when she was pregnant. The ER confirmed it.
I did not want to be a mother. My mother was 17 when I was born and forced by her father to marry the first man who showed interest in this young woman with two small children. I didn't want that life.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Shout Your Abortion"
Copyright © 2018 PM Press.
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Table of Contents
FOREWORD by Lindy West,
PREFACE by Amelia Bonow,
INTRODUCTION by Amelia Bonow,
CREDITS, NOTES, ACKNOWLEDGMENTS,