Ethical Storytelling: sharing someone's abortion story
By Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts | Dec. 8, 2021, 5:21 p.m.
Category: Abortion Access, This Is Health Care
You probably aren’t hearing for the first time that we’re in a watershed moment for abortion access — and reproductive health more broadly. (As a reminder, on September 1, Texas banned almost all abortions, inspiring politicians in other states to introduce copycat bills; on December 1, in only a few days, the US Supreme Court will hear a case that could have devastating consequences for millions of people who need abortions across the country. By July of this year, more than 100 other abortion restrictions were enacted across the country, making 2021 the worst year for state legislation restricting abortion since Roe v. Wade.)
Legislation like Texas’s ban, 2021’s new abortion restrictions, and the decimation to abortion access in at least 22 states if the Supreme Court overturns or undermines Roe v. Wade are anything but theoretical threats. Abortion becoming inaccessible has concrete, visible consequences on people’s lives.
The single most effective way of making these consequences feel real and immediate — at least to people who haven’t faced them personally — is through storytelling. When people who’ve had abortions or faced obstacles to abortion share their own experiences, their stories demonstrate the importance and value of abortion — and can expose the real-life effects of abortion bans. Their stories show the role that abortion plays in people’s ability to direct their own destinies, care for themselves and their families, and thrive. Storytelling is the most direct demonstration of how the personal is political — and why the political is always personal.
If you’re involved in pro-abortion advocacy and don’t have a firsthand story about abortion, you might want to share others’ personal stories about abortion when you’re explaining why abortion matters and why restrictions cause so much harm. This can be a powerful and effective way to contribute to the movement for reproductive freedom — when done ethically and with the focus on the needs and boundaries of the person who had an abortion. Because abortion stories are personal accounts of personal medical decisions, they should always be shared by strictly adhering to the storytellers’ boundaries and agency.
These guidelines for ethical story sharing are most appropriate for volunteers and private advocates, looking to share abortion stories as part of your volunteer work and in conversations with your family, friends, colleagues, and community. If you’re a reporter, a member of an organization, or seeking to share someone’s story in an official capacity, check out the resources below in addition to these toplines.
If you’re sharing someone else’s abortion story in any context, always:
Ask permission in advance to share a story and include specific details about when, how, and with whom you would share it.
Keep in mind when and whom it’s appropriate to ask about sharing a story. Consider the relationship between you and the person whose story you want to share and decide whether it’s okay to even ask them about sharing their story. If your relationship includes a power imbalance — for example, if you’re a teacher with a student or a respected advisor with an advisee — the person you’re asking might not feel comfortable saying no, even if they want to.
One way to do this with a friend: “I’m writing a letter to my US Senator to ask her to vote for the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would protect access to abortion. I want to explain how important abortion has been to me and people I know, and I was wondering if I could write a sentence or two about your abortion and what it meant to you. Is that okay with you?”
Share only the details of the story that the storyteller has given you permission to share — don’t embellish their story, try to make it more dramatic, or add in your own opinions on their experience. You’re not recounting a fictional narrative; you’re relaying a real-life account of something that happened in a person’s life.
In the same vein, avoid “trauma porn” — deliberately exaggerating or hyperfocusing on sad, traumatic, or grotesque aspects of someone’s story.
Share the story only in the context in which you have permission to share it: don’t assume that permission to share the story in a letter to a lawmaker, or in private to a friend, means you have permanent permission to share the story in any other way.
Center the agency and humanity of the person who had an abortion. Their needs, boundaries, and preferences are always the most important part of sharing an abortion story. Any way that their story is shared should serve and empower them — never use someone as a symbol or a token; always represent someone in their full humanity.
Ways to share your story
If you have an abortion story that you want to share, you can always share online with the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts or We Testify. The New York Times is also collecting stories which may be used in a future piece.
Media requests for storyellers
If you’re a member of the media looking to interview an abortion storyteller for a piece you’re working on, you can call PPAF’s media line at 617-515-0531 or email [email protected]; we may be able to put you in contact with a patient advocate. You’ll find this guide for reporters on working with abortion storytellers useful before you make your request.
Organizational support for storytellers
Renee Bracey Sherman, an abortion storyteller, writer, and founder of We Testify, created Saying Abortion Aloud: Research and Recommendations for Public Storytellers and Organizations to support both storytellers and the organizations they work with.