by Jennifer Baumgardner
Just over eight years ago, I decided to make a T-shirt that said “I had an abortion.” It was not just a shirt, but a campaign — I wanted to find ways for women to have the space to say, “I had an abortion and you know what? I’m not sorry. I don’t feel bad about it.”
The shirt was controversial, though, and ended up lampooned by Rush Limbaugh, drubbed by the Drudge Report and pilloried by many local affiliates of Planned Parenthood. It also had countless numbers of supporters, including Gloria Steinem and the Third Wave Foundation, people and organizations who got that the point was to say that abortion wasn’t a shameful secret, but part of the lives of women we know and love.
The project itself had several inspirations. I participated in conversations online with second wave feminists, especially on the listserv History-In-Action, where women often were infuriated that their experiences of abortion — often trauma-free and liberating –were not part of the media presentation or common understanding of the issue. At the same time, I was talking with a writing partner, Amy Richards, who was one of the first people in my life who was willing to talk on the record about her abortion experiences, using her full name. Amy had an abortion as a college student and then later when pregnant with triplets, she had a selective reduction down to one fetus. She was interviewed about the second abortion in the New York Times Sunday Magazine and her honesty about what is an increasingly common abortion procedure was bold. To this day, I don’t know another feminist who was as straightforward about selective reduction as she was.
The final inspiration emerged from frustration with how activists, myself included, would yell loudly about abortion rights, but rarely placed ourselves inside the issue. What experiences have pro-choice and pro-life leaders or senators and congressional representatives personally had with abortion? My irritation with the lack of personal stakes in reporting on this issue led me to want to approach it primarily from a personal perspective — getting right to women and their stories, their faces and their lives, and moving away from their political opinions.
Off — and On — Our Chests
The basic elements of the project are: a shirtthat says simply “I Had an Abortion,” which launched in 2004 and sold out immediately; resource cards for people who are struggling with access, emotions or advocacy around abortion; a film, made with director Gillian Aldrich recounting the abortion stories of ten diverse women; a photo project with the artist and photojournalist Tara Todras-Whitehill; and a book Abortion & Life, which tells stories about where the reproductive justice movement is going and needs to go.
I learned that every woman (and man) experiences abortion differently and that they often revise their feelings over the course of their lives as new things happen to them. At the moment of having an abortion, women often feel relief for having made a decision. There is often some sense of sadness around the fact that a relationship isn’t strong enough to bring a baby into it, even though it resulted in the pregnancy.
Many women are surprised that they are getting an abortion — they never thought they’d be in this position and had not seen themselves as “someone who would get an abortion.” There’s a fear by many who are religious that they have “sinned.” And, I have met women who feel some sadness or nostalgia at age 45 for their abortion at age 16 when they realize that it was their one pregnancy. Other women I met suffered with self-hatred when they got the abortion, but later found a way to make peace with themselves and even to help other women with their abortion feelings.
At the same time as I began working on the I Had an Abortion project, other women started organizations like Exhale and Backline, which provide after-abortion counseling. Meanwhile, Penny Lane made the movie, The Abortion Diaries, while Ayelet Waldman wrote a book, Bad Mother, which included a chapter about her later-pregnancy abortion.
I also learned how much discomfort there is, even among pro-choice people, with abortion itself: the physicality of the actual procedure, the fact that it is killing, the brazenness of a woman choosing herself over someone else.
Eight years into the project, are there things I would have done differently? No, because the mistakes are helpful, too. I tweaked the shirt initially from “I had an abortion. I’m not sorry” to the much more open-ended but courageous “I had an abortion” in response to women who supported me, but felt the “I’m not sorry” statement didn’t quite describe their feelings. While the revised shirt provoked a strong angry response, I appreciated hearing from the people it upset, as well as the people who were grateful for a tangible way to acknowledge their common secret. I’ll never forget watching the scene in the documentary Beyond Life and Choice by Anne Macksoud and John Ankele in which the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the great peace activist then retired from Riverside Church in New York, says he found the shirts dubious. His wife, Randy, shaking with emotion, disagrees. She imagines how powerful it would be to see legions of women who share that experience walking together in solidarity down the street with that private knowledge made public.
Once More, Again
Now, in honor of of a new presidential election season, I’m relaunching the “I had an abortion” T-shirts and, along with some young activists called RadFem (a splinter group of n+1, the literary magazine), launching tote bags — please enjoy, Rush Limbaugh! We are also creating a book called Urgent!, which will document 40-plus years of feminist action around abortion: from the original Redstockings speakout on March 21, 1969 to Carol Downer’s arrest for practicing medicine without a license (that is, doing a vaginal self-exam) and the the Jane women’s health group in Chicago that began providing abortions while it was still illegal.
To look at the 2012 Republican presidential candidates (whose platform holds that life begins at conception) is a reminder that fighting for reproductive rights is extremely urgent business, indeed. Urgent, too, is the need for women who have had abortions to be visible — not as an abstraction of the 1.2 million women in the U.S. who have abortions each year, but as individuals, like you.
Or like me. I had an abortion almost two years ago, just after my second child was born. You know what? I’m not sorry.
Jennifer Baumgardner is the author of “Abortion & Life,” “Look Both Ways” and “F’ em: Goo Goo, Gaga, and Some Thoughts on Balls.”
Also see: “Silent Choices”: African American Women Open Up on Film by Faith Pennick in this edition of On The Issues Magazine
Also see: Where the Reality of Abortion Resides: Intimate Wars by Merle Hoffman in this edition of On The Issues Magazine
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