By: Karen Harris Thurston
Picture this. I am standing in front of a roomful of strangers, introducing myself. I tell the crowd my name and offer that I am 56 years old, live in Georgia, and work as a teacher’s aide.
And then I say this:
“I had two abortions in my teens.”
It’s a simple sentence. But how these seven words came to fly from my mouth into the minds of a bewildered audience is anything but simple.
Coming out about my abortions has been a life-long process of conquering my fears, inching away from the shadows, and standing up straight in the light of truth.
If you are on such a journey, I want to ease your way. So I am sharing how I came to talk openly about my abortions. I hope you will find a strategy or two you can use, or at least a measure of inspiration.
First, the backstory: I got pregnant in 1973, when I was 13, after experiencing pressure to have sex by an older boy. I was uneducated about sex and had no idea what was happening. Weeks later, I walked through the halls of my school telling everyone I had a weird illness that made me throw up every morning.
My parents grasped the situation, arranged an abortion, and swore me to secrecy. “You must tell no one,” my father commanded, “not even your husband when you are grown and married.”
I got pregnant again when I was 19. I was in an unhealthy relationship with a man who did not love me. He arranged an abortion and left me at the clinic alone. I believed I was the only person so contemptible to have two accidental pregnancies, two abortions.
Living in the deep South, I was surrounded by messages that reinforced my self-loathing. Billboards, bumper stickers, politicians, and preachers all told me I was a ‘whore’ and a ‘baby murderer’.
I never once heard a compassionate word about abortion care, the physicians who provide it, or the people who need it.
Without the Internet and no one to talk to, I lived in solitary confinement around my abortions. I feared everyone I loved would abandon me if they discovered the truth. My relationships felt fragile and fraudulent under the menace of my secret.
The story-telling part of my journey began soon after my first abortion, even though I didn’t realize it at the time, and it continues to this day. These are the main lessons from my experiences:
Write your story first as a form of self-love.
As a young teen with no friend to confide in, I conversed with myself using pen and paper. I wrote poems, anecdotes, and narratives to release my thoughts and feelings. Writing for no audience, I was free to be authentic. These writings would later play a large part in my story-telling journey.
Sharing with just one caring person can set you on a path of disclosure.
When I was 40, a friend confessed that she had gotten pregnant in her youth. Her parents had sent her to a home to give birth and then put the baby up for adoption.
Suddenly, with my heart pounding wildly, I poured out my own long-hidden truth. To my astonishment, her face did not twist with contempt. We just kept walking and sharing, giving each other the compassion we’d been missing all our lives.
I felt an extraordinary lightness, as if a load of bricks had been lifted off my shoulders. If not for that friend, I may never have found the will to share my story with anyone.
Telling those closest to you may be essential before you can tell others.
Over time, I was able to tell my husband and two grown sons about my abortions. For decades I had imagined my loved ones would reject me. Instead, they listened with compassion, expressed sorrow for what I had gone through, and assured me of their steadfast love.
Once I knew my most important relationships were safe, I felt secure enough to consider telling my abortion story to others.
Reach out to organizations for help in sharing your story.
The Internet accelerated my ability to share. I discovered — with unspeakable joy — that many organizations are working to solve the problem of abortion stigma. I knew I had to try to help.
All I could think to do was share my writings. So I committed to a disciplined schedule and, over several months, I complied and edited all of my writings into a 115-page project.
In 2013, I mailed off my work to The Sea Change Program, and since then have received guidance and support from the organization, allowing me to share my story with the world.
They’ve given me practical support, such as helping me find venues for sharing, updating me on stigma-busting efforts, and advising me about how to protect myself online. They’ve also provided invaluable moral support, giving me a sense of belonging in the movement to end stigma. They respond quickly to my questions, validate and ease my fears, and send me encouraging feedback after I’ve shared with the public.
Make friends with brevity.
A frustrating aspect of telling my story is having to condense it. I ache to lay out every context and nuance. I want to release a flood of words and drown out the dehumanizing stereotypes ingrained in our culture.
But a succinct story is more apt to reach people in a world straining under information overload.
How can a few inches of text or a few minutes of talk possibly convince the world I am not a monster? Remember that a microbe can slay a beast, and keep faith that a story can slay the shame.
Forgive yourself for not being fearless.
I still feel scared to share and the fear varies by degrees. It’s most acute when I speak to people and face their reactions. It’s most tolerable when I write and have more control over my words.
Pushing through fear means replacing unhealthy habits of thought with new perspectives. I read encouraging books, listen to positive music, and search the Internet for inspiration from others who have shared abortion experiences.
But the best antidote to fear is focusing on the people I want to help.
A framed drawing on my desk helps me do this. It’s a picture made by a kindergartner who sketched me soaring in the air, red cape flapping in the wind, with the words: She had a job to do. It was important.
My job is to tell my truth to help end the stigma that undermines reproductive health care. Born into the white middle class, I easily accessed abortion and it rescued my future. Many people, particularly the poor, are not so fortunate. I want everyone to have the same care I received.
Accept that some relationships will weaken or end.
I’ve been lucky that my truth did not destroy my closest relationships. But after I told my story earlier this year to a close friend of 20 years, I can feel a cool distance. Grief is not too strong a word for what I feel as I watch our friendship fade.
But loss is the price of truth, and owning the truth is worth it.
Keep love at the center of the story.
Living with stigma for most of my life gave me a tremendous gift — profound compassion for everyone, even the people who hurt me. I intend never to think, speak, or act in any way like the people who have judged and shamed me for so long.
Rather than criticizing or arguing with those who are cruel, my purpose is to love the people I want to help. Maybe one day I will read or hear your story, and I will gain a new insight that will help me succeed.
Karen Harris Thurston is an elementary school teacher’s assistant. She lives with her husband of 31 years and their two rescued dogs in a suburb south of Atlanta. She volunteers at The Feminist Women’s Health Center and with The Abortion Conversation Project. You can follow her on Twitter @OliveMercies.