Advocates for Youth

Abortion-rights movement calls on women to speak out about their abortions

More than 100 women participated in the first online abortion speakout, part of a new wave of activism

WASHINGTON – Michelle Kinsey Bruns was on an Amtrak home to Alexandria, Virginia, when 55 Louisiana Catholic schoolkids, fresh from a field trip to the annual March For Life rally in January 2013, boarded the train.

A product of Catholic schooling herself, Bruns felt the sudden need to announce to the entire train car – voice shaking – that one in three women will have an abortion, that she was one of them and that it saved her life.

"I realized that there was every possibility that these students had … never heard a woman stand up and tell the story of their abortion," she said. "And say, 'I'm glad that I did it. I don't have any regrets.'"

Bruns went to her Catholic school more than once with two black eyes by the time her mother finally left her stepdad and they moved in with family in Georgia. When she found out she was pregnant shortly before her 18th birthday, Bruns said her head was so messed up that she asked her boyfriend whether she should kill herself then, or after she gave birth, in case he wanted to raise the child.

Bruns is now 38, a Web developer, digital strategist and – ever since the murder of abortion provider George Tiller in May 2009 – an abortion clinic escort. She's also told her story several times: on that train car, on a feminist blog, at activist gatherings, to the Virginia Board of Health and, on Thursday, on a live video stream on the Internet.

"It's a blend of just pure adrenaline, of standing up and speaking the truth," she said. "It feels terrifying and like a triumph all at the same time."

Bruns was one of more than 100 women who participated in the first online "abortion speakout," held by the 1 in 3 Campaign, a project by the sexual health nonprofit Advocates for Youth. The eight-hour live stream was a mix of Skype calls, in-studio conversations and pre-produced videos, anchored by a rotating cast of young women – PBS NewsHour with a dash of righteous sisterhood. There were some technical glitches and a few awkward transitions, but as the hashtag #1in3Speaks trended nationwide, the message was a radical one: So many women have an abortion and so few ever talk about it.

The abortion speakout idea is a throwback. The first one took place in 1969. That session in a West Village church basement, and the ones that followed, paved the way for Roe v. Wade. More than 40 years later, as a wave of abortion restrictions pass in states across the country, the core message was very much the same: Women should be able to decide when they become mothers. But there was a newer theme, too: No abortion is worse than another.

The crowd on Thurday was strikingly and deliberately diverse – black and white, privileged and scraping by, older moms and women in their 20s. Many didn't feel ready to have kids or learned the baby would have a serious developmental disorder. Many others felt they were too broke or depressed or unstable to manage a child. Some found the decision wrenching or complicated, others easy and obvious. Some felt it was important to justify the decision; others resented the need to justify it at all.

It's rare for abortion to be highlighted in such a public forum and even rarer for it to be discussed for eight consecutive hours. The conversation dug into unvarnished particulars – blood, boyfriends, cramps, waiting rooms, second abortions, covering the cost. The backlash on Twitter was also gritty, as opponents used the #1in3Speaks hashtag to explain their views – an outpouring that proved why the stigma has been so intractable. Views on the legality of abortion have been pretty much static since Roe v. Wade, with almost as many Americans describing themselves as "pro-life" as they do "pro-choice."

But even as the poll numbers stay stable, the strategies on either side have evolved. The past year has seen a cascade of abortion stories, from the cover of New York Magazine and the op-ed pages of The New York Times to the website, which has been collecting video testimonials since last summer. This year saw the first wide-release comedy about a woman getting an abortion and the first abortion filmed for YouTube.

Using personal stories to build a political groundswell isn't new for the pro-choice movement. "Consciousness-raising" – women telling the truth about their lives in public – was the secret sauce of the women's liberation movement. But the abortions then were criminal. Rally placards showed coat hangers. Activists campaigned on the platform of equality, as well as the fact that abortions were happening anyway and taking women's lives. (A year after New York legalized abortion, New York City's maternal mortality rate plummeted by more than half.)

In the decades since, as the abortion debate continued into a grinding turf war, the pro-choice movement often chose poster women whose circumstances could draw sympathy even from people made squeamish by the deed – women who found out their babies would have debilitating disabilities or women who had been raped.

Michelle Kinsey Bruns demonstrates at the Abortion and Contraception Clinic of Nebraska in support of its doctor.

The idea that some abortions are better, or more understandable, was directly attacked by many of the participants in Thursday's speakout.

Jessica Valenti, the feminist author and columnist, told the story of her two abortions. The first was in her 20s, in a dead-end relationship, when she said she simply felt unready. The second was after she'd already had a child with her husband. That pregnancy had almost killed her, and advised the same or worse would likely happen again, she aborted her desperately wanted second pregnancy.

"We often have this hierarchy of good and bad abortions … I don't buy that," Valenti said. "I feel differently about each pregnancy and those two abortions. But I don't feel that one was more right or correct than the other. At both points I was doing what was right for me, what was right for my family, what was right for my future family."

A Texas woman, Skyping in to the speakout, recounted how she had her first abortion when she was 21, broke and uninsured and wholly unready. She'd happily told that story many times, including to Texas Legislature during the debate over its controversial anti-abortion bill last year. Last year, the woman, a 30-year-old financially secure professional in a stable relationship, got pregnant again. She decided she didn't want the baby and had an abortion. Even as an activist on the issue, she said she kept quiet about it. The second one, somehow, just felt worse.

As the pro-choice movement focuses on shattering the stigma, it's forced to confront the uneven spread of shame. Bruns knows that her abusive childhood, her youth, her poverty, her mental health, all explain her decision to have an abortion 20 years ago. But to her, they aren't justifications, because they don't need to be.

"It really boggles my mind every day that one in three women have an abortion but it's stigmatized in this country, where we think its young teens or 'welfare queens,'" she said. "It's not. It's people you know, who are silenced by the assumption of what their lives are like."

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