Entrusted with Women’s Sacred History

Entrusted with Women’s Sacred History

by Jennifer Baumgardner

In 2004, frustrated by the gridlock around abortion, I embarked on an awareness campaign to put a face on abortion statistics. More than a million women have abortions each year, and for most, it’s a secret—even a shameful secret. The truth is, however, that women who have abortions are religious, mothers, grandmothers, smart, rich, poor… they are our loved ones and deserve safe spaces in which they can tell the truth about what has happened to them in their lives. Merely making the film “I Had an Abortion” (and creating the T-shirt emblazoned with that statement) prompted hundreds and hundreds of women and men to tell me their abortion story. I felt as if I was suddenly in the position of a priest, entrusted with people’s sacred history.

One day, after a screening in Fargo, my hometown, a childhood friend approached me. I remember D. as a talented musician with a sunny smile and a slightly fast reputation. “I had an abortion once,” she said, quietly. “I was raped and a couple of months later, I found out I was pregnant.” She told almost no one of the rape, and when it was time to have the abortion, she endured that alone, too. I had become accustomed to teary eyes and a mix of relief and emotion when people told their stories, but D.’s was different. I was struck by the double shame and silencing inherent in her story.

This past summer, those two common (yet silenced) personal experiences intertwined publically. First, Congressman (Republican, Missouri) Todd Akin responded to a reporter’s question regarding abortion in cases of pregnancy as a result of sexual assault. “From what I understand from doctors,” he said, “that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” A few months later, the Indiana State Treasurer and U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock stated that pregnancy from rape was “something that God intended.”

Leaving aside Representative Akin’s confusion about the female reproductive system and both men’s belief that their God has the final say in the fate of an individual woman, their comments shed light on how rape and abortion interact. To men like Akin and Mourdock, rape is regrettable but, one senses they believe, inevitable. It’s abortion that is horrendous. For feminists, having one’s body used by others against one’s will, whether by forcible sex or enforced pregnancy, is a crime against humanity. Akin and Mourdock and their allies can continue to spout irrational and misogynist theories, at least in part, because there is so little cultural space for women to tell the truth about what has happened to us.

To wit: about 15 years ago, I was having drinks with a friend, Felicia, from college when she revealed that she first attended a different school than our shared alma mater. Surprised at this new information, I pressed for the story. At a party during fall term of freshman year at that initial school, Felicia had a little too much to drink and ended up in a room with a guy who didn’t take no for an answer. Like D., she soon discovered she was pregnant. She turned to her Catholic parents for help, and they shepherded her through the adoption placement process. The next fall, having experienced pregnancy, childbirth, and placement of her daughter, Felicia began freshman year anew at our small liberal arts college. She never mentioned the momentous things she’d been through and she never received comfort, affirmation, or just a compassionate listener. “No one ever asked,” she says now. “And there was never a moment to bring it up.” Her parents, too, conveyed in their own quietness that the best policy was to go on as if that year never happened.

Now a mother of two sons, Felicia recently met her daughter, who’s 20. Their reunion coincided with the scandal over Representative Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment, and I called her to ask how she was doing. “I look at this girl I gave birth to and think that something good came out of a terrible thing,” she said. She doesn’t feel the rape and the pregnancy had much to do with God, except that her family religion and her youth were factors in carrying to term. “Had it been a few years later, would I have made that same decision? Probably not.”

Since all those years ago when D. revealed her rape and subsequent abortion to me, I have been working on another film and awareness project. This one is called “It Was Rape” (see trailer at https://vimeo.com/53027180and it was motivated, like the abortion project, by how common this experience is—and how suppressed. In the documentary, eight women tell their diverse personal stories of sexual assault, from a Midwestern teenager trying alcohol for the first time to a Native American woman gradually coming to terms with her abusive childhood. The film is an opportunity to empathize with people—not just absorb faceless statistics—and to puncture the silence and denial that allow sexual assault to thrive. Since it began screening, a young woman in the South has reached out to me to see it as she carries her pregnancy, the result of a rape, to term. Ultimately, these stories shed light on how this epidemic of sexual assault affects us all—and provides space for that most basic feminist step: Speaking.

“It feels good to talk about it,” Felicia said before we hung up last summer, “because I still never do.”

Join the conversation on twitter with hashtag #itwasrape