This post is by Echo Zen.
I’m starting to feel like a skipping record.
Every so often there’s a local pro-choice event where my mates and I are invited to speak. I stand before an audience of likeminded students or professionals, talk about reproductive politics in the States, and end on a call to action: “We can’t win the fight for reproductive equality unless we counter anti-choice lies with facts and stories about our own experiences.”
It’s hardly a novel point. Gloria Steinem knew it back in 1972, when she worked to de-stigmatise abortion by publishing, in her first issue of “Ms. Magazine,” names of prominent women who’d had abortions. Today we have a variety of venues – blogs, websites, etc – through which to talk about our reproductive choices and experiences. And for those with the access and inclination, there’s no shortage of resources like RH Reality Check or even Wikipedia to debunk anti-choice fairy tales about women’s health – from claims that women who seek abortions are irresponsible sluts, to comically inaccurate anti-choice posters of fetuses, equating abortion with baby-killing.
Herein lies the problem – we’ve told our stories, publicised the facts and debunked their lies for four decades. And yet, vocal as we’ve been, we’re still not being heard.
In the realm of media, our stories are virtually nonexistent. The imagery on American TV is overwhelmingly that of anti-choice protesters “yelling about babies being slaughtered,” or claiming that women who have abortions are somehow “destined for clinical depression.” Of course, anyone with even a cursory background in reproductive health can attest that postpartum depression is a far greater – and more substantiated – threat than abortion, but facts tend not to matter when one’s main goal is to stigmatise women who exercise their reproductive rights.
Over in Hollywood, we’ve actually regressed – from films like “Cider House Rules” (1999) that openly address abortion, to films like “Knocked Up” and “Waitress” (2007) where no character dares to even utter the word. In the online realm, it is common knowledge among women’s health advocates that most Internet searches for abortion turn up anti-choice websites – blatantly disguised as nonpartisan – that disseminate fiction about how aborted fetuses are “cut into pieces and scraped out into a basin,” or how aborting a rapist’s baby is more traumatic than rape itself. Similarly, most Internet searches for abortion stories turn up regret counseling sites, promulgating propaganda about women being “coerced into abortion,” and the “physical, emotional and spiritual damage” they invariably suffer from the “tragedy of abortion.”
Needless to say, these representations bear no resemblance to reality for the vast majority of women. Relief is “the most common reported emotion” among women after an abortion, without question. That’s fortunate, because considering abortion is the most common (and safest) surgical procedure in the States, there’d be an epidemic of women seeking mental help if most women regretted their abortions. (If anything, anti-choice stigmatisation of abortion seems to be a major cause of “negative mental health consequences” among women after abortion – which is why one should take anti-choice claims of “concern” for women with a cube of salt.)
That’s the irony. Forty percent of American women exercise their right to end a pregnancy in the course of their lives, yet reproductive choice is the most assaulted constitutional right in modern times – over 900 anti-choice measures introduced by state legislators, in the first quarter of 2011 alone. Given how countless women have exercised their right to abortion, and how “a solid majority of Americans” support abortion rights, why haven’t millions of women stood up to drown out the voices of an extremist minority, known for death threats against people they disagree with?
Oh, wait – I think I answered my own question. Because we can gripe all we want about how the media refuses to represent our voices – but unless enough of us speak out as a critical mass about our experiences and against the abrogation of our rights, like we did in the 1970s, then we’ll never defeat the stigma around reproductive choice, ever. The media has no need to cover women who’ve proudly exercised their constitutional right to reproductive choice, not when the anti-choice noise machine is so much louder – and without qualms about passing off tales of abortion regret as being representative of women’s experiences generally.
Our voices aren’t being heard. That’s why we’re losing the fight for reproductive rights. We might be speaking out through social media and through the women’s health community, but we’re being drowned out by an anti-choice noise machine that’s succeeded in framing women’s health on their terms – through factually baseless language like “partial birth abortion,” “sex without consequences” and “abortion on demand,” language whose sole purpose is to smear women who dare to exercise their reproductive rights.
It’s how the anti-choicers almost derailed U.S. health care reform in 2010, by screaming “abortion!” and claiming it would fund “the biggest advance of the abortion industry” in U.S. history. It’s how they nearly derailed the federal budget for 2011, claiming their fight to de-fund Planned Parenthood was somehow about stopping abortion. Given that most Americans support abortion rights, the use of abortion to smear health care reform and the federal budget was possible only because most people evidently don’t want to face the stigma of being identified as abortion rights supporters.
Of course, the media engaged in its usual complicity by reporting that these anti-choice efforts were about abortion – when anyone with basic knowledge of the 1976 Hyde Amendment would know this was a lie. These efforts were about attacking the next target on the anti-choice movement’s hit list: contraception.
It’s a testament to how brazen the anti-choicers’ tactics have become. They know politicising contraception will only expose their “pro-life” movement for what it really is – “anti-contraception, anti-sex education, and homophobic.” Yet they’re confident they can attack contraception access the same way they’ve attacked abortion – because even if 98 percent of sexually active women use contraception, it’s still oddly invisible in public discourse. Americans networks routinely refuse ads for birth control pills, on the grounds that “contraceptive advertising must stress health-related uses rather than the prevention of pregnancy” – because everyone knows pregnancy isn’t a medical condition, right? And since contraception, like abortion, is still a marker of promiscuity in U.S. culture, anti-choicers like Bill O’Reilly and Sandy Rios have free reign to smear users of contraception, attacking them as sluts. Statements by anti-choice politicians who de-funded Planned Parenthood in New Hampshire have made clear that it’s not about abortion – it’s about punishing women who dare to be sexually active, period.
I remember in 2010, Angie Jackson of Florida chose to live-tweet her abortion – knowing the countless death threats she’d incur – to help de-stigmatise a procedure that most anti-choicers had spent decades characterising as destructive and genocidal. The former ED of Rhode Island’s Planned Parenthood disapproved, writing in “Salon” that her generation had spent years fighting for the right to private medical decisions about one’s reproductive health, and that Jackson’s tweets were an “abuse of reproductive rights.” That would make sense… if reproductive choices were truly private, and women could make decisions sans societal stigma or judgment. Such a world is possible – after all, breast cancer was once taboo, yet (most) women with breast cancer can now make choices about discussing their experiences without fear of being stigmatised as defective or unfeminine.
But reproductive choice isn’t yet at that stage in U.S. history. Until then, we have no choice but to make our voices heard and to exhort family and friends to do the same – not just so people realise the women who’ve had abortions are our sisters and mothers, but to once again normalise our voices into the public discourse, like we did in the 1970s. Ever wonder why marriage equality seems to be outpacing reproductive equality in the States? Maybe it’s because LGBT Americans have had more success at normalising their voices into the public discourse than we have – for Pete’s sake, the marriage equality people have a Prop 8 musical with Jack Black as Jesus. Where’s our pro-choice Neil Patrick Harris? Where are the humourous adverts acknowledging that women use contraception? Where are the pro-choice comedians who crack jokes about fetuses being people? (Such things are possible – remember the deleted scenes for “Knocked Up”?)
Yes, it’s scary to defy a movement that regularly employs threats and domestic terrorism against those who refuse to be silent, who refuse to feel shame or stigma. But, in the words of one barrister who inspired me to keep fighting for women’s health: “Silence is what the anti-rights people pray on – literally. They want us hiding in shame, in the shadows – silent, unspeaking. Then only their voice can be heard.”
Well, we’re not going to let that happen.
Echo Zen is Co-President of Voices for Planned Parenthood. This piece is dedicated to my friend Aiyana, and sister Tisha – who remind me everyday why I have to keep fighting.