With social conservatives calling for the defunding of Planned Parenthood and reproductive freedom otherwise under attack, some pro-choice activists recently sought to borrow a page from the gay rights movement by urging women who have had abortions to “come out” and tell their stories. Using the Twitter hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion, they seek to destigmatize abortion.
The results thus far have been mixed. As reported last week in The New York Times, the initial post drew over 150,000 replies. Many were supportive in exactly the way that #ShoutYourAbortion creators Amelia Bonow and Lindy West had hoped. But there was also a backlash by pro-life activists who believe that abortion ought to be stigmatized. Needless to say, given the strong feelings the subject provokes and the tendency of the Internet to reduce inhibitions, some of the backlash has been extremely angry.
It remains to be seen whether #ShoutYourAbortion will succeed in changing public opinion and ultimately public policy regarding abortion. As I explain below, while there are parallels to the gay rights movement, there are important differences as well.
The Value of Coming Out
“Coming out” narratives played a very important role in the gay rights movement. Closeted gay men and lesbian women felt ashamed of who they were and, because of their isolation, were easy prey for discrimination and homophobic violence. By coming out of the closet in significant numbers they discovered a supportive community and dispelled common myths that the larger straight society believed. Confronted by the fact that friends, relatives, neighbors, and respected community members were gay, people gradually let go of hateful stereotypes.
Coming out created a positive feedback loop. Seeing others come out gave individual gay men and lesbians the courage to do so themselves, and the more people who came out, the harder it was for straight society to marginalize gay men and lesbians, which in turn encouraged more to come out.
Other movements and organizations have been able to capitalize on the same dynamic. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt hid the fact that he used a wheelchair, but the modern disability rights movement eventually succeeded in showing that there should not be anything shameful in living with a disability. As a recent Los Angeles Times article on #ShoutYourAbortion noted, Betty Ford’s public acknowledgment of her breast cancer, her alcoholism, and her drug addiction helped break down stigmas relating to these conditions and inspired countless people to seek treatment. In general, coming out combats stigma.
Will Coming Out Work For Abortion Rights?
There are reasons to think that women telling stories about their abortions will work in the same way. After all, about 30 percent of women (or fifteen percent of the population) have had or will have an abortion at some point in their lifetime. That is comparable to the high end of estimates of the proportion of the population who feel same-sex attraction and substantially higher than the low end of approximations of the gay and lesbian population. It is, in any event, a lot of women. If even a small fraction of them were to “shout” their abortions, that would go a long way towards normalizing abortion.
Moreover, many women have compelling stories to tell. Some women have abortions to save their lives. Some have abortions when a pregnancy was caused by rape. And whatever her story, just by telling it, a woman tells the world that “normal” people have abortions.
Nonetheless, there is one potentially very important difference between coming out as having had an abortion and coming out in most other contexts. The message of coming out as gay or lesbian is that there is nothing wrong with being gay or lesbian. Many people used to think (and some people still think) that homosexuality is simply wrong in itself. When gay men and lesbians came out, they prodded the straight majority to ask themselves why they thought homosexuality was wrong. Thinking about the question sincerely, no one could come up with a good answer.
A similar dynamic has worked for other instances of coming out. People came to realize that there is no reason to blame or stigmatize anyone for having a disability or suffering from a disease, whether the disease is breast cancer, HIV/AIDS, alcoholism, or drug addiction.
It is possible that #ShoutYourAbortion will persuade people that there is likewise nothing wrong with having an abortion. We are social creatures, including with respect to our moral judgments. Seeing that otherwise respected and ethical women have abortions could lead people to regard abortion as a harmless and thus blameless act.
Yet unlike in the other contexts, that seems like a lot to ask of coming-out stories. A great many of the #ShoutYourAbortion narratives involve abortions based on difficult personal circumstances. Women explain that they were teenagers, or poor, or already struggling to raise several children when they unexpectedly became pregnant, and that having an abortion saved them and their other children from a very dire situation. One quite possible reaction is sympathy. We can come to understand why a woman would choose abortion and not regret the choice.
But that is not the only possible reaction. If one begins with the strong conviction that a fetus has a right to live, one will think that abortion is a morally permissible choice, if at all, only where a woman has an extraordinarily good reason for the abortion—such as a life-threatening medical condition. At least given the possibility of giving a baby up for adoption, someone with a commitment to fetal rights will hear the standard narrative and think that the women should regret their abortions. The hypothetical pro-life listener will understand how the women telling the narratives benefited from having abortions but will think that those benefits did not justify killing a fetus.
That is not to say that women who have had abortions are obliged to remain silent. Coming out as having had an abortion may be therapeutic for women who have been told that having an abortion reflects a moral failing. Even if one thinks that some, most, or even all abortions are immoral, one can acknowledge that shame and stigma are also harmful.
Whatever benefits #ShoutYourAbortion may have for individual women, however, it is unlikely to have a substantial impact on American public opinion on abortion, which has been quite stable for the last four decades. Compelling narratives can change minds but with respect to abortion, people are already committed to their respective narratives.