Inside The Campaign To Join #TogetherForAbortion
Amelia Bonow talks the importance of shouting about abortion — and taking action to protect it.
I n September of 2015, as political campaigning against Planned Parenthood intensified, Amelia Bonow posted an announcement to her Facebook. She’d had an abortion. And she wasn’t ashamed about it.
“I am telling you this today because the narrative of those working to defund Planned Parenthood relies on the assumption that abortion is still something to be whispered about,” she wrote. “Plenty of people still believe that on some level — if you are a good woman — abortion is a choice which should be accompanied by some level of sadness, shame or regret. But you know what? I have a good heart and having an abortion made me happy in a totally unqualified way.”
The poignant, honest post struck a nerve with Bonow’s friend, feminist badass Lindy West, who shared the story on Twitter with the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion.
And just like that, a viral campaign was born. The hashtag has since been used more than 250,000 times, by people all over the world who’ve loudly, unabashedly shared their own stories.
After the campaign took off, both Bonow and West immediately faced backlash and threats. For Bonow to decide that — in the wake of these threats, and having her address published — she wanted to quit her job and grad school to turn #ShoutYourAbortion (SYA) into a full-fledged organization shows amazing bravery.
‘I have a good heart and having an abortion made me happy in a totally unqualified way.’
Just 14 months later, SYA has established itself as a leading organization in the pro-choice fight — “a decentralized network of individuals talking about abortion on our own terms and creating space for others to do the same.” Its latest initiative is a national collection of actions between January 18–26 for the Roe v. Wade anniversary, called #TogetherForAbortion. Events include, but are not limited to: dinner or drinks, storytelling events, discussion groups, music/art shows, film screenings, galas/fundraiser, marches/protests/rallies, performances, potlucks, online actions, parties, craft circles — and any other abortion-themed get-together local organizers around the country are moved to put on.
Bonow took time out of her ridiculously packed schedule to chat with me about SYA, #TogetherForAbortion, storytelling as a political and cultural tool, and what comes next for her during an era of intense hostility to abortion care.
Lightly edited for context and length.
What moved you to compose your Facebook post in September 2015? And how did you make the decision to quit your job/grad school and turn #ShoutYourAbortion into more than just a viral hashtag?
Like many people, I was stunned by the video attacks on Planned Parenthood in the summer of 2015. The campaign had been dismissed as propaganda by a number of bipartisan agencies, but the allegations were damaging PP’s credibility with the public and Republican lawmakers were capitalizing on this distrust in order to decimate abortion access nationwide. I felt helpless and pretty close to losing it.
During that time, I was constantly talking about abortion rights with people in my life — customers at the bar where I worked, friends, family — but I was rarely invoking my own abortion experience in these conversations. In some of these conversations, I would bring up my abortion, and women around me would say “Yeah! Me too!” and then we would be like “How have we not ever discussed this when we’ve been friends for five years?” That disparity felt glaring to me; it felt like a huge part of the problem.
I began to realize that not fully owning my positive experience with abortion was deepening my feeling of helplessness and anger; I just wasn’t using the full range of my voice as a citizen and as someone who had an incredibly positive experience with abortion.
‘I began to realize that not fully owning my positive experience with abortion was deepening my feeling of helplessness and anger.’
Once Lindy tweeted my status and added #ShoutYourAbortion, the floodgates opened and the hashtag became a conduit for people all over the world to speak about their abortion experiences on their own terms, relating to others, and realizing that they were not alone.
As all this was going down online, a tidal wave of energy began to build in my community in Seattle. People were just ready to talk, ready to make art, ready to get together and figure out how we could make our community one that supported those who choose abortion. It was beautiful, and the energy behind it felt boundless.
Leaving grad school was not even a choice. It was obvious that people needed an outlet and that what was building could have much larger implications in terms of transforming the national discourse. So, I just never went back to school and I started working to understand the national landscape of the movement and how to organize the people who were ready to create something new. A few months in, I wrote a proposal to an anonymous funder based on what it seemed SYA was becoming. They approved my request for funding and we got to work.
Your declarative statement (I find the word “slogan” to be condescending, so I’m going with “statement”) — “Abortion is normal. Our stories are ours to tell. This is not a debate.” — is one of my favorite things about SYA. Why did you feel it was so important to discourage “Well, actually…” and “Yeah, but…” responses to those sharing their experiences?
#ShoutYourAbortion emerged from acute collective frustration — not only with the landslide of abortion restrictions that have been enacted in the last five years [388 since 2010], but also with the language that the pro-choice movement has used to defend abortion rights.
Even proudly pro-choice women who have abortions have been taught to beg for forgiveness in the way we tell our own stories — even if we don’t actually believe abortion is implicitly wrong, even if we felt like our abortion was the best decision we’ve ever made. Even if we felt nothing more than relief.
‘Even proudly pro-choice women who have abortions have been taught to beg for forgiveness.’
SYA is about people speaking the truth: Abortion is not a necessary evil, it’s common medicine which helps millions of women live their best lives. Playing into abortion respectability politics has crippled the effectiveness of the abortion rights movement; we’ve got to stop talking as though there are good abortions and bad ones.
I have no interest in attempting to pander for the approval of people who will never respect me, no matter how I talk about my choices. It doesn’t really matter what tone you use to beg for mercy from people who are absolutely merciless. [Conservative abortion opponents who’ve decimated the social safety net] have created an absolutely sinister system which is designed to fuck all of us, especially those of us who weren’t born with wealth and white skin.
What are some of the creative forms “shouts” have taken since you went viral?
Tattoos, murals, music videos, comic books, zines, outfits…it’s endless. Take a peek at our site and you’ll see what I mean.
What makes storytelling such a powerful tool?
Talking about abortion has a ripple effect. One person’s disclosure often inspires others to tell their own stories; authentic conversations start happening and, gradually, talking about abortion becomes normal. It’s also incredibly empowering for people to ditch the burden of secrecy and start talking about their experiences with other people who don’t judge them whatsoever and have had similar experiences.
I’ve watched women reject shame that they carried for years but never felt that they deserved, and I’ve watched as these women found support through SYA that they never knew could exist. I’ve watched men join the conversation and begin to say “we want to hear what this is like so that we can support you better.” I have watched so many people get free and learn for the first time that they’re actually deserving of respect. It’s the best thing ever and I am wildly lucky.
‘Talking about abortion has a ripple effect.’
In your video on the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade last year, you said “This fight is ours to lose.” A year and a whole new political climate later, do you still feel that way?
In June of last year, the Supreme Court struck down a set of anti-choice regulations that had shuttered over half the clinics in Texas. That ruling had the potential to block similar regulatory bills from infiltrating the rest of the country — especially in the south, where poor women and women of color are most gravely affected. Between the SCOTUS decision, the success of movements like SYA in expanding public discourse, and the assumption that we were about to elect a solidly pro-choice female president, it felt like the pro-choice movement was finally poised to get off defense and begin working to expand access.
Then, that terrible thing happened in November and now everything in the abortion world is looking pretty fucking ghastly. I no longer feel like this fight is our to lose; in the next four years, we will witness unfathomable loss. The incoming administration — with the support of the House and Senate — is going to try to eliminate access to abortion care altogether. State by state, abortion bans will begin to decimate access like never before. People will die, people will be forced to endure unthinkable medical trauma, and people will have children they do not want and cannot care for.
Though we rarely talk about it, many women who have an abortion already have at least one child.theestablishment.co
In terms of fighting for abortion rights, things are so grim that it’s hard to know where to begin. But one thing is clear: We’ve got to start talking about abortion. Not a woman’s right to choose, not reproductive rights, abortion. People on both sides of the aisle are totally uncomfortable with the conversation; most people have never talked to someone who has had an abortion about their experience. We can’t just expect people who absorb anti-choice propaganda all day long to magically develop nuanced, compassionate understandings of abortion until it becomes totally clear that people who have abortions are the people that they know.
I’m SO down to be #TogetherForAbortion! This is the second year SYA has marked the Roe v. Wade anniversary with a national action of coordinated events that include everything from craft circles to potlucks to marches. What are you hoping to accomplish through these events?
YAY! Be down!
Participation is totally self-defined and the possibilities are basically endless. TFA is about inspiring people who care about reproductive freedom to join some abortion-related action or event the weekend of 1/20. We want people to gather their friends and neighbors and begin building community around a shared desire for more open conversations about abortion. TFA works to create spaces where women can discuss their abortions and where people who want to be better advocates can develop better tools to listen. With the Inauguration on the 20th, national Woman’s Marches on the 21st, and the anniversary of Roe on the 22nd, now is also a critical time for people who care about abortion rights to stand up and force the rest of the country to see us.
All you have to do to get #TogetherForAbortion is visit the site and sign up. Your event can be large or small, public or private. You can host a dinner party or a movie night, do some crafting, or have an abortion storytelling party at your apartment. If you want to do something, just sign up and we’ll help support you as best we can!
What comes next for SYA? Does this year look different — does your approach change — with an overwhelmingly hostile administration in office?
In our first year, SYA and all sorts of other abortion storytelling movements ignited an undeniable shift in the way that culture talks about abortion — on social media, on television, and in our relationships. SYA is going to continue to provide people as many outlets to talk about their experiences as we possibly can, by facilitating events and building community online, and by encouraging people to engage with the conversation through all sorts of creative mediums.
‘Abortion access comes down to freedom.’
In 2017, we want to begin to reach people who haven’t necessarily been exposed to any conversations about abortion whatsoever. We want to move the conversation out of urban centers and start talking to people in flyover states, finding folks in more conservative areas who are ready to tell — or are already telling! — their stories in ways that resonate in their communities.
Abortion access comes down to freedom; people who have lost their ability to choose have lost their right to [a self-determined] life. The vast majority of Americans don’t want to live in a country where the government makes this decision for them, but that’s what we’ve become. We’ve got to start illustrating that truth in terms that resonate with people who don’t think anti-choice legislation affects them at all.
Can people still share their stories with SYA? How can people who are unable to share safely support SYA and other abortion storytelling work?
We have a gorgeous new website that allows visitors to share their stories in all sorts of different mediums. You can submit a written story, a photo, or a video. You can submit anonymously or you can slap your name on it and publish it with a photo.
You also don’t have to have had an abortion to participate! There are videos from abortion care providers about why they’ve chosen their work and testimonials from friends, family and allies who are shouting their intention to respect and support those who have abortions.
It’s really something; it’s unspeakably beautiful to see people standing up for themselves and each other and teaching one another how to do it better. It won’t be enough to save us from the next four years, but I really believe it’s the only place to start.