Telling Abortion Stories Without Disrespecting People Who Have Abortions

18 May

Imagine that you just had an abortion. Imagine that you had to travel out of state for the procedure and stay overnight at a stranger’s house after your first day at the clinic. Imagine, a week later, relieved that everything is over, to find the story of your abortion online, posted by the person who so generously welcomed you into her home. Your story, posted without permission, lacking your name, but going into specific details about your scenario.

We are all guilty of doing this–using the stories of people who have abortions, with and without their permission, to decrease abortion stigma, raise money for our abortion funds, or raise awareness of the lengths people will go to in order to access abortion care. We have the best of intentions. But at what point are we crossing the line and exploiting these stories for our own political or research purposes instead of empowering these folks to share their own experiences on their own terms? If we host someone in our home, or give them money to fund their abortion, does that person then “owe” us their story in return?

Exhale has a Story Sharing Guide for Ethical Advocates that, to my knowledge, is the only publication that begins to address these issues. They open their guide with this:

A woman who is an equal partner with an advocate, who is able to direct when and how her story will be used, and who has full decision-making power over the advocacy agenda in which her story is used is a woman in an empowered position. On the other hand, it is a form of exploitation to take all or parts of a story from a woman and use it for advocacy purposes without receiving her consent or without empowering her with the authority to make decisions about how her story is used.

It’s not just women who have abortions, but you get the point. If someone comes into our clinic, obtains funding from our abortion fund, or even stays at our home during her two day abortion procedure, she doesn’t owe us anything. If we’re going to use abortion stories in a fundraising pitch, in a letter to the editor, or in an advocacy packet for legislators,  we need to let the people who have abortions be the storytellers. We need to do more than ask their permission–we need to actively engage them in the process of sharing their own story, if they choose to do so, on their own terms, in their own way.

There is no doubt that sharing abortion stories is a powerful advocacy tool, whether used for legislators or in your organization’s emails to supporters. In an ideal world, abortion would be part of routine medicine, and we wouldn’t need to use abortion stories to convince others that access to safe, compassionate abortion care is a human right. But because abortion is both political and personal, it’s up to advocates to create safe spaces for people who’ve had abortions to share their experiences free from political posturing. And then we can let people who’ve had abortions decide for themselves whether they wan their stories to be used for advocacy purposes.

What could this look like in practice? It could mean following the model of the Chicago Abortion Fund’s My Voice, My Choice Leadership Group, a group led by young women who’ve received funding from CAF that provides them with community organizing and advocacy skills. It could mean using the My Abortion, My Life model to engage patients from your clinic who’ve had abortions in a public awareness campaign around abortion stigma.  Or it could be participating in the 1 in 3 campaign, a project of Advocates for Youth which allows folks to share their own abortion stories through self-made videos. These efforts allow people to share their own experiences on their own terms, and allows the person who had the abortion to dictate how and in what context their abortion story is used.

As Exhale says in their guide: “Each [person] must have the information, resources, and support she needs to share her story in ways that further her wellbeing, uphold her rights, and keep her in control of the use of her own narrative. Work with people, not stories.”

7 Responses to “Telling Abortion Stories Without Disrespecting People Who Have Abortions”

  1. Serena May 19, 2012 at 10:58 pm #

    Thanks for this important reminder, Steph. We have been talking a lot about this at the Abortion Access Network of Arizona. We want to engage the people we have helped and invite them to share their stories – but we certainly don’t expect it. We DEFINITELY don’t want to tell their stories for them. That is not our role.

  2. Lily May 21, 2012 at 7:03 pm #

    This is such an important piece, Steph – thank you for it. I am definitely guilty of this type of thing and I have to think very seriously about how to be mindful of the way I share my patients’ stories. Thanks for starting the conversation (or bringing it to my consciousness, as I hadn’t seen the guide from Exhale).

  3. placenta sandwich May 22, 2012 at 5:58 pm #

    Steph, I love this post. I and so many colleagues have grappled with the ethics and processes of storytelling, story-sharing, and what you might call story-taking. It occurs within the Abortioneers blog team, too — and we don’t all have the same feelings about it. Your post and Exhale’s writing gives us more tools to talk about it, though.

  4. Steph May 22, 2012 at 6:59 pm #

    Thanks for these great comments. I’m still learning a lot about story sharing/story taking (great word, placenta s.!) myself and keep changing my mind. I’m really thankful for this public learning space.

    • Amy Littlefield May 28, 2012 at 11:34 am #

      This is a very important issue — thanks for bringing it up. I think the ethical standards for advocacy/fundraising and journalism are different, because the stakes and end goals are not the same. But from a journalist’s perspective, I guess I approach patient stories with the same guidelines I use for most journalistic subjects, by asking: Am I treating this person’s story with respect and representing him/her with the full human dignity he/she deserves? The Provider Project ( collects the stories of providers, all of whom make the informed choice to share their own stories. In interviews, I often ask providers to tell me about one or two patients who have really affected them. Gaining informed consent from those patients retroactively is not practical, so the guideline becomes: Is the patient’s anonymity respected, and are they represented with dignity? I do feel these stories are important to share, in part because they are inextricably tied to the lives of the people I’m interviewing; patients’ stories become part of our lives and become our stories, too, just as we become part of the patient’s story. Part of my thinking in developing the project is that we can’t understand the reality on the ground (all the various new laws and regulations, for example) unless we understand how patients are being impacted. Since patients often can’t or don’t share their own stories, providers can be a vehicle through which to — carefully, respectfully — reveal the truth.

  5. placenta sandwich May 31, 2012 at 4:06 am #

    Late to follow-up here, I know, but Amy’s point about how it’s not ONLY “someone else’s story” bears repeating: We become part of our patients’ stories and they become part of ours. That’s not only a truth about why we do have a role in talking about our patients, I think it’s also a key to HOW we can do it ethically.

    To wit:

    If I aim to tell MY story of working with a patient in order to share MY experience on the ground, I should be able to do that without diminishing the patient’s dignity or self-narrative.

    But if I’m telling the story of the patient, and leave invisible the context of my meeting her? Then I’m trying to tell HER story in order to share HER experience on the ground. And that just isn’t authentically possible.


  1. Storytelling | Everysaturdaymorning's Blog - May 23, 2012

    […] I read a powerful blog post the other day by The Abortion Gang.  It’s entitled “Telling Abortion Stories Without Disrespecting People Who Have Abortions.”  You can read it here. […]

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