Radical abortion advocacy groups push to claim moral high ground despite the experiences of post-abortive women
According to one abortion advocacy group, it took the Biden administration 224 days to use the word abortion in a notable public statement. That might be an exaggeration, but the group, We Testify, is basically right: The administration prefers euphemisms like “reproductive health,” “right to choose,” and “access to care.” The Biden press release on the 2021 anniversary of Roe v. Wade failed to use the word once.
Renee Bracey Sherman, the activist who runs We Testify, sees use of the word abortion as a “signal that someone is fully supportive of abortion access and unapologetically loves and cares for people who have abortions.” Biden’s failure to use the word signaled insufficient support.
Today’s radicals want to “shout their abortions,” but radical activists have been around for a long time. In the 1960s Patricia Maginnis, who died this year at age 93, was a radical abortion activist who traveled California teaching women to perform abortions on themselves. Although Maginnis was never a household name, she got what she wanted: ready abortion with women in charge. But she didn’t get abortion regarded as a moral good.
That’s what the shouters want: abortion freed from any negative connotation, which would be a fundamental shift in the long history of abortion. It’s an audacious goal with one problem: the post-abortive regrets of many women who learned the truth of abortion too late.
THIRTY-YEAR-OLD Amelia Bonow was in her Seattle apartment in 2015 when she found out on Sept. 18 that the House of Representatives had voted to defund Planned Parenthood. According to her account of the moment on Oprah.com, she cried on her couch and wondered who was standing up for abortion facility workers and women who’ve had abortions. She later opened Facebook and wrote 153 words about her own abortion experience that she said made her “happy in a totally unqualified way. Why wouldn’t I be happy that I was not forced to become a mother?”
Her friend and Jezebel writer Lindy West shared a screenshot of the post on Twitter with the hashtag #shoutyourabortion to her 60,000 followers. It blew up. Just three days later, BBC News reported that it had been used more than 100,000 times in 24 hours. Other women also used the hashtag to share their own abortion experiences, many of them also incredibly positive. West’s later post about her own abortion under the hashtag was typical of the tone: “My abortion was in ’10 & the career I’ve built since then fulfills me & makes me better able to care for kids I have now. #ShoutYourAbortion”
Within five weeks of sharing that post, Bonow had quit her graduate school studies in mental health counseling and put all her time and attention toward promoting Shout Your Abortion (SYA) as an organization with a website where women can post their abortion stories and buy “Congratulations on your abortion” notecards and “Thank God for Abortion” baby onesies.
Six years later women continue to use the hashtag to celebrate their abortions, but other posts to the website inadvertently expose some of the problems with Bonow’s loud approach. Although she dismissed the concern for unborn life in a 2019 New Republic op-ed, claiming that “the question of when life begins is deeply personal, and there will never be anything approaching consensus on the matter,” many of the women who write on her website see their babies as living humans.
An anonymous Ohio woman who wrote about her abortion in July said she never regretted her decision. But seeing her 6.5-week twins on the ultrasound machine made her heart sink. “I found myself loving them. … Having them made me feel less alone for that short period of time.” Her abortion led to severe depression.
Other mothers said they “mourn the loss of my child every day” and “don’t want my babies to think that they weren’t wanted or loved for one minute, because they were, more than anything.” Another woman, writing in August, still thinks she made the right decision, but “it doesn’t make it any easier. I grieve every day for my little one.” Imagine sending a “Congratulations” card to one of these sorrowful mothers.
THE YEAR 2015 was a seminal one for abortion-shouting organizations. That was the year David Daleiden released his undercover videos of Planned Parenthood executives talking about selling baby body parts. Just as the abortion industry was on the political ropes, pro-abortion groups rose up to try to destigmatize abortion.
One of these was Bracey Sherman’s We Testify, a 2016 offshoot of the National Network of Abortion Funds, a network of local abortion funding organizations. We Testify trains and supports, financially and logistically, storytellers who speak at advocacy events with the goal of shifting “the culture around abortion experiences.”
One page on the website shows pictures of the group’s more than 60 abortion storytellers with links to their bios. Nancy Cárdenas Peña calls her abortion a “miracle,” Isabelle got a uterus tattoo to honor her abortion, and Kelsea McLain says her abortions “are a beautiful part of who I am.” Many of the women mentioned feeling lonely after their abortions and turning to abortion storytelling as a way to get rid of the stigma they felt, and more than one called abortion an act of self-love.
Lexis Dotson-Dufault, a We Testify storyteller, spoke at an August event hosted by several pro-abortion groups in Charlotte, N.C. Standing in front of a microphone with balloons behind her, Dotson-Dufault talked about how her 2019 abortion changed her life. She acknowledged feeling some emotional turmoil after her abortion but attributed that to “internalized stigma.” The abortion had allowed her to live out her hopes and dreams, she said. It renewed her physical body: “Like even before I was pregnant, my body hadn’t felt that good, so it was a complete reset.”
In 2015 Viva Ruiz launched Thank God for Abortion, an art collective that promotes Thank God for Abortion T-shirts. It also develops videos and costumes promoting the philosophy behind that phrase: that God thinks abortions are good and wants people to have them. Ruiz, also artist-in-residence at Shout Your Abortion, reacted to the recent Texas abortion law with a video on SYA founder Amelia Bonow’s Instagram page. Ruiz said it is “a blasphemy to force childbirth on a person,” adding, “abortion is about self-love and is actually sacred.”
Ruiz, a self-proclaimed Catholic who often dons a cross necklace and incorporates Christian symbols into her work, told a Jezebel reporter that people who have had abortions “are more holy” and that “abortion providers are doing Jesus-work.”
FOR A LONG TIME Grayson Dempsey felt she was fighting a lonely battle to get abortion advocates to claim the moral high ground for abortion. WORLD wrote about her background in 2004 when she was 24 and known as Grayson Crosby. A volunteer at Planned Parenthood at age 13 who later worked for the organization as an educator, Dempsey made Choice USA’s Top 30 abortion rights activists under 30 in the early 2000s. Around that same time, she was a birth doula, a counselor at an abortion facility, and a board member of an adoption agency.
According to Dempsey, women who choose abortion, adoption, and parenting are “all the same women at different points, often, in their lives.” She said she saw some who came to her Portland abortion facility and insisted they were pro-life and not like the other women in the waiting room. She grew frustrated with mainstream abortion groups that insisted they weren’t pro-abortion and that stuck vigilantly to the language of choice.
In 2004, Dempsey and her friends used funds from their grandmas to start a phone hotline called Backline (now called All-Options). The 800 number went to a landline on the top floor of Dempsey’s house. By 2009, it was getting 1,000 calls a year from families facing complex pregnancy situations. Dempsey and her team would discuss abortion with these families as an equally valid option to adoption and parenting.
Backline’s unapologetic approach to abortion set it apart at the time. “There was a real lack of feeling that we could also hold moral high ground,” she said. Since then, things have changed, and Dempsey is glad to see other groups echo her view: She says people who create access to abortions that are safe for women are the morally right people in this argument.
Their power is growing in some abortion circles. It’s no longer enough to be “pro-choice” at Planned Parenthood. It’s now necessary to be pro-abortion, as former Planned Parenthood president Dr. Leana Wen learned.
Wen describes in her book Lifelines her surprise in 2018 at finding out that many of her new colleagues described themselves as pro-abortion rather than pro-choice. They found her pro-choice perspective outdated. “Of course I’m pro-choice and agree that abortion should be safe and legal,” she recalls saying. “But that’s not being an advocate for abortion. It’s more accurate to say that we’re advocates for all aspects of reproductive health, including birth control and sex education to reduce the need for abortion, right?”
Apparently not. National Planned Parenthood staffers would correct her, saying that talking about reducing the need is equivalent to covering up abortion. “If we don’t talk about abortion openly, loudly, and proudly, as a positive moral good, then we are further stigmatizing it and the people who need it,” they would say. Wen lost her job with the abortion giant in July 2019.
Wen learned that radical abortion advocacy demands acceptance. Groups like SYA and We Testify are bold in their safe spaces, but they aren’t willing to talk to those who disagree with them. I contacted Thank God for Abortion, We Testify, and Shout Your Abortion to request interviews. Thank God for Abortion did not respond. Both We Testify and Shout Your Abortion declined. Shout Your Abortion did so by suggesting “the 12th of never” as a possible date for an interview.
When I pressed both to reconsider, they sent incendiary email responses accusing me of not respecting people’s decisions by asking multiple times. But SYA’s Bonow said she was not surprised I asked again, “since your position is rooted in trying to enforce your will on others without their consent.” At the end of the message, she told me if I ever needed an abortion in the future, “I hope you know that there’s a whole universe of people out there who don’t think you’re a bad person; at least, not for that!” She signed the email “In Jesus [sic] name.”
IF ABORTION SHOUTERS could build a big enough bubble, they would never have to interact with those who oppose abortion, and maybe they could stay protected from the reality of abortion. But that’s not the real world. Who knows when truth will break through: a playground, a cute baby on TV or in a magazine, a sound, a smell?
For Pat Layton the trigger was a Christian talk show playing on her car radio. Women who’d had abortions mentioned their struggles with drugs, alcohol, anger, depression, and shame. Layton had experienced all of those problems and realized they were a result of post-abortion trauma. “The whole reason that I had wanted an abortion was to be independent and to have a good job,” Layton said. She had accomplished what she had wanted but was still “the most miserable woman in the world.” Layton later authored the post-abortive Bible study Surrendering the Secret. She said her recovery from her abortion started that day in the car.
For Pamela Whitehead, the executive director of ProLove Ministries, the trigger was learning the science of unborn life. She became convinced that she had played a part in killing her own child: “I’m the one that has to live with that.” But understanding God’s redemptive love helped her move past the attempts to punish herself for what she did: “That’s been the answer for me: knowing that Jesus Christ is the propitiation for my abortion, just like with every other sin I’ve committed.”
Grayson Dempsey and the abortion shouters say those guilt feelings after abortion come from the “shame and stigma” surrounding abortion rather than the abortion itself. Try telling that to AK, who this past February on Shout Your Abortion wrote about her chemical abortion in the United Kingdom. She described how she was a 17-year-old college student struggling to work with morning sickness and not getting any support from the father, so she decided to abort.
“Its been a week since I said my last goodbye to you,” she wrote. “I remember sitting on the toilet, I saw you. That’s when I felt guilt. … Words can’t explain how I feel. I want you back. You’re my baby. … Mummy loves you. Sleep tight. I’m sorry.”
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