An Abortion on Twitter: Why Shame Remains

One hundred thousand people have watched Angie Jackson's abortion. Late last month, Jackson posted a video of herself to YouTube, recorded after she took RU-486, a medication used to end pregnancies. "I found out about a week ago, Saturday, that I was pregnant," the 27-year-old mom from Florida explains in the two-and-a-half minute clip. "For a variety of reasons, including very high health risks for me, I'm having an abortion. Right now." Jackson also tweeted her experience, detailing the cramps and bleeding she experienced.

Jackson says in the video that she wants to "demystify abortion," to show it's "not that bad, not that scary." Perhaps her largest accomplishment has been setting off a media frenzy. The story of the woman who is live-tweeting her abortion has traveled as far as the United Kingdom and Australia and has been featured on ABC's World News, earning Jackson an outpouring of accolades and denunciations—and a few death threats.

While Jackson's use of Twitter is novel, her mission is not. In the nearly four decades since Roe v. Wade, in magazines and blogs, in tweets and T shirts, thousands of women have publicly told some form of their abortion story. Media vary but the motivation is generally the same: make abortion less shameful and secret. Yet abortion does remain stigmatized, both in society (one in five Americans believes it ought to be illegal in any circumstance) and among the women who have the procedure. About 40 percent of American women have had abortions, but, as Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out in a 2004 New York Times op-ed, "only 30 percent of women [are] unambivalantly pro-choice, suggesting that there may be an appalling number of women who are willing to deny others the right that they once freely exercised themselves." Have abortion stories failed to "demystify" the procedure? Have the tellers been doing something wrong, or not speaking up enough? The answer is a bit of both.

(Read more about the statistics on the number of American women who've had abortions.)

In 1972, the year before the Supreme Court would rule on Roe,Ms. magazine's debut issue had a petition signed by 53 prominent women, including Gloria Steinem, who had had abortions. Around the same time, a group of radical feminists called the Redstockings were organizing abortion "speak outs," where women shared abortion experiences, both legal and illegal. "It was a very important step in creating a public sense that abortion is better when legal," says Jeannie Ludlow, a professor at Eastern Illinois University who studies the pro-choice movement.

After Roe made abortion legal throughout the country, the need to speak out seemed less pressing.. The post-Roe, pro-choice movement was immediately entrenched in a battle to defend abortion rights. Discussions of the actual abortion experience, which could be complex and emotional, were often sidelined. "We've been on the defensive since 1973," says Ludlow. "When you're working really hard to try and keep abortion legal, safe, and accessible, it's really hard to say at the same time sometimes it hurts." But by ignoring the conversation about abortion, even if it was a difficult one to approach, pro-choice organizations lost control of the narrative. Groups that opposed abortion rights started telling those painful stories exclusively: one such group, Silent No More, solicits testimonies of women who regret their abortions.

The past decade has been rife with efforts to restart a public discussion, largely owing to the Internet providing such an easy public form for private experience. A few women have blogged their abortions. Online forums for abortion stories started up; 45 Million Voices, I'm Not Sorry, and Project Voice have collectively amassed hundreds of recollections. As Project Voice explains on their Web site, they "hope to show that women need not feel alone, as abortion is a choice many women have made, and continue to make, for their own reasons." Offline, a new generation of pro-choice activists experimented with other tactics. A 2004 documentary, The Abortion Diaries, gathered 12 women at a dinner party to share experiences. That same year T shirts with the straightforward declaration "I had an abortion" made frequent appearances at pro-choice walks and rallies after Planned Parenthood sold them through its Web site. "People are upset to be confronted by a real person who has had an abortion as opposed to thinking about it as an abstract issue," says Jennifer Baumgardner, who created the T shirts as part of a larger "I Had An Abortion" project.

Even with the new openness, talking about abortions largely remains taboo. In part, experts say, this has to do with the stories being so disconnected. "For one woman to do this, it's one media blip; another woman blogs her experience, and that's another blip," says Kate Cosby, a researcher at University of California—San Francisco who focuses on the stigma and emotions involved in abortion. The discussion often turns to one about celebrity and fame seeking, as it has with Jackson, rather than a more thorough discussion of the procedure.

Perhaps it's something about the nature of abortion itself: it generally does not define a woman's identity nor engender community formation. "When you're gay, you're gay forever, it's an identity," says Cosby. "But when you make an abortion decision, it's probably not going to define you, so there's less motivation to advocate for that right." In fact, Cosby's research has shown women who have abortions specifically try to distance themselves from others who have had the same experience. They don't want to consider themselves part of the stereotype, the woman who is sexually promiscuous and careless about birth control. Like one woman who terminated a pregnancy when she learned her baby would have Down syndrome. "I don't look at it as though I had an abortion, even though that is technically what it is," she told the New York Times. "There's a difference. I wanted this baby." The irony, of course, is that by removing themselves from their abortion experiences, these women are perpetuating the same stereotypes they seek to avoid.

Changing the stereotypes that come with abortion, and the stigma they engender, is not necessarily impossible. But it requires a larger, more complex discussion. A few sporadic stories are insufficient in representing how widespread abortion really is, the fact that 45 million women in the United States share the experience. "[Jackson] is very brave, and we need 10,000 more of her," says Peg Johnston, chair of the Abortion Care Network. "I very much think that, although it's a private experience, we really need more people who are make it public." More women speaking, says Johnston, would break down the stereotypes we associate with abortion today. Secondly, those discussions must be honest and recognize abortion as a complex experience that, as Ludlow says, "sometimes hurts," rather than a clear-cut policy issue. "I understand it's not an easy place to acknowledge the complexity," says Johnston, "but it's where we need to go." She hopes for a day when pro-choice bumper stickers with quick quips are a thing of the past. She already has a slogan dreamed up in their place that could be slapped onto notebooks and laptops. ABORTION, it would say, TOO COMPLEX FOR A BUMPER STICKER.