With the Supreme Court gearing up to hear potentially multiple cases concerning abortion, advocates are leaning on the personal anecdotes of people who have had the procedure. In the Southern states where these battles are being waged, especially, that means relying on low-income women and women of color to share their stories.
Supreme Court justices on Tuesday weighed whether to allow the Kentucky attorney general to defend the state’s restrictive abortion law. Abortion providers in Texas have asked the court to reconsider its decision to allow the state’s near-total abortion ban to go into effect.
And in December, the court will hear arguments in the highly anticipated Mississippi abortion case, which stems from a state law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks and could challenge Roe v. Wade.
“In Mississippi, we have one of the highest African American populations,” said Shannon Brewer, the clinic director at Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Mississippi’s only abortion clinic and the clinic at the center of the Supreme Court case. “A lot of these African American women are living at or below poverty. With Black women not even being able to afford or have access to health care for them as pregnant women, that’s a failure in itself.”
People who have had abortions have increasingly been moved to share their experiences with the procedure when anti-abortion legislation and lawsuits take center stage. Advocates say this not only destigmatizes the procedure, but could prompt lawmakers to pass pro-abortion-rights legislation.
States have enacted 106 abortion restrictions so far in 2021, the most passed in a single year since Roe v. Wade was decided, according to the Guttmacher Institute. At least 19 states have passed the restrictions, including 12 policies that severely limit when a person can have an abortion, with five states boasting the most new provisions: Arkansas, Oklahoma, Indiana, Montana and South Dakota, according to the institute. Meanwhile, a recent NBC News poll showed that 54 percent of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Wula Dawson of SisterSong, an organization dedicated to reproductive justice for women of color, said she has not shied away from sharing her abortion story over the years. But she wasn’t always so open about her experience. Dawson, a Black woman now in her 40s, was 16 years old when she had an abortion, she said. Although she had many things in her favor — a positive faith community, financial security and a caring partner — Dawson recalled still feeling “shame” about her decision.
“I think most of it has to do with just the discomfort of being a sexually active Black teen. I was coming out as someone who was having sex, and adults weren’t necessarily comfortable or adept at navigating that with me,” Dawson said, noting that she initially told her friends, siblings and eventually her mother before sharing it more broadly.
“My mom was not receptive or supportive,” she said. “When I told her my story, it took her some time to get there. We dialogued about it for some months, if not years. My dad, we didn’t really talk about it, but he was supportive of me emotionally. But it was so important for me, especially in those first few years, to share my story. I had to, so I taught people how to be supportive.”
Dawson highlighted that the power of abortion stories isn’t only found in an individual’s experience, but people’s proximity to someone else who has undergone the procedure.
“Being one person away from abortion is a really valuable story,” Dawson said. “So many of us have an abortion story to tell even if it’s not our personal story.”
Social media campaigns like #YouKnowMe have encouraged conversation about the procedure to break the stigma around it and to counter anti-abortion attacks. Last month, Reps. Cori Bush, D-Mo.; Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.; and Barbara Lee, D-Calif., shared their personal stories of abortion with a House panel.
“The absence of stories from this conversation, I think, has allowed abortion opponents to dehumanize people who have abortions to make it seem like we are bad, like we’re murderers,” said Amelia Bonow, co-founder of Shout Your Abortion, an organization working to normalize abortion through art, media and community events. “We should not have to speak out, but the more of us who do are creating a safer world for future generations, and it’s going to lead to better access.”
“I had an abortion. It was not traumatic whatsoever,” Bonow said. “I was very grateful to receive the care that I received. I felt really sure about my decision. And, for me, talking about it was empowering.”
The sharing of abortion stories has been lauded as a way to encourage policy and attitude changes. But some advocates have acknowledged that society doesn’t make it easy for Black people to be so transparent.
Black reproductive justice advocates have long complained that matters of race and class have largely been left out of the conversation around abortion access. But, in recent years, advocacy groups have begun discussing how Black people are disproportionately impacted by anti-abortion legislation.
Anti-abortion sentiment in Black communities — though softening in recent years, according to a 2020 Gallup poll — often keep people ashamed of discussing their experiences with abortion, Brewer said. But this isn’t the Black communities’ only approach to abortion conversations.
Many, like Brewer, understand the abortion debate to be linked to race and call on people to recognize the social, economic, and even political disparities that impact Black people and, in turn, their parental decisions and outcomes. In 1989, 16 Black women made history by publishing the first collective statement advocating for Black women’s equal access to abortion, “We Remember: African American Women Are for Reproductive Freedom.”
“Black women have been taught that abortion is something to be ashamed of and not to be talked about,” Brewer said. “That’s affecting Black women, all because of what they were brought up to believe by these so-called Christians.”