Angie Marie Luna never thought she’d talk about the abortions she had at ages 18 and 19. Raised in a religious, Mexican-American Catholic household in Chicago, Luna was always told that abortion was a sin — by her parents, her sibling, her uncle and the abusive boyfriend who, she says, refused to wear a condom as a means of controlling her behavior. “He told me later that he intentionally tried to get me pregnant so I would drop out of college.”
Luna stayed in school, and today, at 25, she’s part of a rising chorus of voices embracing one of humankind’s oldest art forms — storytelling — as a tool to strip away the stigma and shame that surrounds abortion. Luna works as an ambassador for Youth Testify, an offshoot of the storytelling projects We Testify and the 1 in 3 Campaign. The program trains young people who have had abortions on how to effectively share their stories with lawmakers, the media and their own peers. The goal is to humanize a procedure that is often demonized by encouraging empathy over judgment; by raising awareness around issues of reproductive access; and ultimately, by impacting policy.
Using narratives to break taboos around abortion isn’t new, of course. In the early 2000s, the now-defunct ImNotSorry.net launched as a forum for people to share their experiences with abortion. The sheer volume, and variety, of similar efforts that have sprung up in the nearly two decades since — from hashtags and podcasts to comics, plays and photography exhibits — has made it tough to get an accurate count of just how many there are (though the nonprofit Abortion Conversation Projects keeps a semi-up-to-date list).
Sharing can be therapeutic, and no doubt that finding a community of nonjudgmental peers can foster camaraderie among those who feel they can’t disclose their own abortion to their friends and family. But can narratives around abortion actually change people’s minds? Do they, in fact, reduce stigma?
“When you see or hear or read the narrative around people’s abortion experiences, it humanizes that experience and you are no longer able to consider the person getting the abortion as an ‘other’ or as someone who isn’t like you,” says Gretchen Ely, an associate professor of social work at the University of Buffalo who studies access to reproductive health care.
Julia Reticker-Flynn, the director of organization and mobilization at Advocates for Youth, which runs the 1 in 3 Campaign that Luna is involved in, points out that for many people hearing these stories, abortion shifts from being strictly a political issue to one that hits closer to home.
“In theory, because abortion is common, everyone knows someone who has had one,” Reticker-Flynn says. (According to the Guttmacher Institute, roughly a quarter of all U.S. women have an abortion by age 45.) “Knowing someone in your own community has [probably] gone through this experience makes it much more personal.” And when people begin to realize that someone they work with or live next door to, or even someone they love, might very well have had an abortion, it can be transformative, she says.
Anecdotally, at least, this seems to be true. In 2015, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, a formerly anti-abortion Democrat, penned a widely covered op-ed in an Akron newspaper titled “Why I Changed My Thinking on Abortion.” In it, he explains that his attitude shifted after talking with women in his home state: “These women gave me a better understanding of how complex and difficult certain situations can become.”
THE SCIENCE BEHIND STORYTELLING
The rise in publicly owning one’s abortion coincides with a growing body of research on the effectiveness that storytelling has on changing people’s attitudes. A 2014 study in the journal Sociological Science found a link between a person’s attitudes on abortion and whether or not they know someone who has had the procedure; specifically, those who believed abortion should be illegal were 21 percent less likely than Americans who favor abortion rights to have heard that someone they know had one.
That’s despite the fact that elective abortions are far more common than unintended pregnancy loss, even though more people claim to know someone who has experienced a miscarriage. So how can that be? The study concluded that “individuals’ attitudes can be influenced and changed by personal information, but personal information about abortion is being carefully managed.”
Another study published in the journal Culture, Health & Sexuality in 2017 was more decisive, albeit limited in scope. In it, over a dozen women’s book clubs around the country read and discussed a nonfiction book that included stories of pregnancy and abortion. Roughly one in five women disclosed their own terminated pregnancies to their book-club peers. In surveys afterward, the majority of women reported having developed more positive feelings toward women who have abortions as well as toward abortion providers. The researchers wrote that “exposure to the stories of women who have had abortions can reduce abortion stigma.”
But people who share their personal experiences with abortion are often harassed and subjected to vitriol, especially online. The rub, of course, is that the power these stories wield directly depends on how many people hear the message.
“There’s so much silence and stigma around abortion, but when people share their stories, they create space for more people to feel like, ‘Oh, I can enter that conversation and I’m not alone,’” says Reticker-Flynn. “Storytelling inspires storytelling.”
In this way, the fight to lift the stigma that accompanies abortion has parallels to the gay rights movement. As greater numbers of people come out to family and friends, the more “normal” being gay seems to ever larger swaths of the population. In other words, it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that as more Americans report knowing someone who is gay, the more overall support there is for gay marriage.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Stigma exists not only on a societal level, but also a personal one. “It can be self-directed,” says Katie Gillum, the executive director of the International Network for the Reduction of Abortion Discrimination and Stigma. Mick Moran, the editor of DIY Doula: Self-Care for Before, During, & After Your Abortion, a 48-page illustrated ’zine published by The Doula Project in New York, agrees: “Sometimes even the people having the procedure hold an internal stigma about it,” Moran says. “[We tell them] this is OK, we’re not judging them, and that it’s safe for them to be there and feel whatever they’re feeling.”
As mentally wrenching as it can be, the consequences of self-directed stigma can lead to more than just feelings of isolation. It can actually delay care, experts say.
“It impacts the help-seeking process from beginning to end,” says Ely, the University of Buffalo researcher. “If you have a complication or question, you might be less likely to call [your caregiver] back or tell someone you’re close with that you’re having a problem because you are worried they’ll find out that you had an abortion.”
And then there are U.S. abortion laws. Or rather, the chipping away of them, mostly at the state level — another repercussion of widespread cultural stigma, say advocates.
“The real impact of stigma are the laws that we allow to go into place, which are framed in terms of, ‘We need to protect women from themselves because they don’t know what an abortion really is,’” Ely says. “One of the most damaging ways that plays out is it controls the conversation around abortion and makes it sort of a clandestine topic. And the policy that we allow to go into place based on the stigma is very troubling.”
MORE STORIES = LESS STIGMA
Ask anyone who works to destigmatize abortion, and they’ll be quick to point out the range of stories they hear from people who have had one. You can’t paint the experience with one brush stroke because no two abortions are the same — an important distinction when it comes to storytelling campaigns.
“Sometimes people try to portray the ‘perfect’ abortion story, in a rosy sort of ‘I have no regrets whatsoever’ kind of way,” Moran says. “But when we talk about stigma, it’s important to make sure that people have access to a variety of stories.”
“There’s a lot of pressure, especially around policy and advocacy storytelling, for the stories to be really positive,” adds Gillum. “But for those who get abortions the reality is that you’re going to feel a range of emotions.” If you suppress that emotional complexity, Gillum argues, then you’re not helping destigmatize the procedure.
Though she’s an activist now, Luna remembers the feelings of doubt that clouded her decision to have an abortion. Having to look at an ultrasound and listen to the fetal heartbeat certainly didn’t make things any easier for her. “I was in the waiting room and was like, ‘Is this really what I want to do? I mean, so many people have kids, why can’t I do it?’” Guilt dogged her even afterward, for a while. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, God. I hope you don’t punish me.’”
Luna ended her abusive relationship soon after her second abortion, and is now pursuing a master’s in medical physiology. With Youth Testify, she participates in retreats and workshops, and was also paired up with mentors who helped her get comfortable talking about her experience. “It really, really taught me a lot,” she says. By sharing her story, Luna hopes she can help other young people who find themselves facing the anguish of an unwanted pregnancy.
Even though Luna was initially scared to make her story public, she says, “It’s more important to me to let younger people know that abortion is health care, and through sharing my own story, I also want them to realize there is a supportive community out there.” Luna now knows she made the right decision to wait to start a family, wanting first to embark on her dream of becoming a doctor.
“And here I am,” she says, “one step closer to my dream.”