Does It Make a Difference When Politicians Tell Their Abortion Stories?

Abortion storytelling projects, aimed at reducing stigma, have proliferated in recent years, but what's their real effect on public opinion?
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People carry pro-life and pro-choice signs during the 2016 March for Life in Washington, D.C.

People carry pro-life and pro-choice signs during the 2016 March for Life in Washington, D.C.

Representative Pramila Jayapal's abortion story begins with the child she gave birth to first. Janak was born heart-rendingly early, Jayapal writes: at 26 and a half weeks' gestation, weighing only one pound and 14 ounces. Doctors had to fight to keep both baby and mother alive, and, in the years after, Janak continued to need intensive medical care, the congresswoman writes, in an op-ed published last week in the New York Times. That's why, when she became pregnant again years later and doctors said it was very high-risk, Jayapal decided to get an abortion.

"I knew that I simply would not be able to go through what I had gone through again," she writes. "Janak was far from out of the woods, and I needed to preserve my strength for them." (Janak, now a recent college graduate, identifies as non-binary and prefers the pronouns "they" and "them.")

The representative from Washington State's seventh district, which encompasses Seattle and the surrounding suburbs, is among the 24 percent of American women who have had an abortion. She's one of the 54 percent of those who get an abortion after having had at least one child. And she hopes that, by sharing her experience, she'll help slow state and federal efforts to tighten abortion restrictions in America.

"I have never spoken publicly about my abortion. In some ways, I have felt I should not have to, because it is an intensely personal decision," she writes. "But I have decided to speak about it now because I am deeply concerned about the intensified efforts to strip choice and constitutional rights away from pregnant people and the simplistic ways of trying to criminalize abortion."

Will it work?

In recent years, American culture has seen a proliferation of campaigns encouraging people to share their stories of getting abortions, to try to normalize and de-stigmatize the procedure. There's We Testify, which focuses on the stories of people of color, people who identify as queer, and people living in rural and conservative communities. There's 2+ Abortions, which seeks the stories of those who have had more than one abortion. There's Shout Your Abortion, which took off after Congress tried to defund Planned Parenthood in 2015. And there are many, many more. In addition, there's a history of politicians speaking about their abortions, often in an effort to create legislative change—to get a bill passed, or to prevent bills from passing, as in Jayapal's case.

However, there's little research about whether these campaigns effectively shift public opinion and change laws. Stigma is well-studied, and scientists know it's generally bad for people's health because it discourages them from getting help. And a few studies do suggest abortion storytelling collectives may help people who have had abortions feel less alone and stigmatized. But how they affect folks who have not had abortions is unknown. We're in uncharted territory—though not anywhere that American women have not tried to go before.

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The idea that spending time with people who are marginalized in a society, that hearing their stories, will change you, is called contact theory. Over the last 50 years, sustained campaigns, including contact-based programs, have reduced stigma against Americans with mental-health conditions, addiction, and HIV/AIDS, as a big national review found in 2016.

But it doesn't always work. One study found that, as the years went on and they saw more of these patients, medical students came to feel that people who misused alcohol and drugs took up too many resources, and weren't satisfying to care for. Other studies have found that study volunteers are biased against fatter people, despite the fact that the weight of the average American has climbed steadily over the past few decades. "One might expect that the more public something becomes, the more that it becomes normalized," says Brenda Major, a psychologist at the University of California–Santa Barbara who studies stigma, "but that certainly hasn't been true with weight."

Major and every other researcher I talked to emphasized that there's been little work done on the effect of stories and contact on people's feelings about abortions specifically.

There is one study that's had promising results. In 2013, researchers recruited 13 all-women book clubs in nine states to read a collection of first-person, non-fiction essays about reproductive inflection points in people's lives: getting pregnant when they didn't want to, struggling with infertility, or choosing abortion or adoption or parenting alone. In interviews with researchers, club members reported feeling more positively about people who get abortions and doctors who provide them, after reading the essays. In 10 of the clubs, at least one member was inspired to share that she had had an abortion herself. Such disclosures led to even stronger positive feelings among club members about abortion, which lasted longer than in the clubs in which no one had shared a personal story.

The study suggests that storytelling really does alter people's attitudes on abortion, but it's just one case, compared to the richer, deeper work that's been done on campaigns to de-stigmatize other health conditions, such as mental-health disorders, says Kristen Shellenberg, a researcher who studies stigma at Ipas, a group that works on improving abortion access internationally.

The evidence is a little stronger that abortion storytelling programs can have a positive effect on the people who participate. Most recently, a survey of 18 women in Mexico, who got abortions and then joined several small story circles, found that the circles helped them feel better about their abortions. All had initially said they thought abortion was the right choice for them, but most had felt some guilt or shame. After, they said they felt "lighter," "freer," and "more secure." Some felt empowered to achieve new goals, including seeing the doctor for a health problem, for one participant, and moving cities, for another.

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Beyond abortion stories' personal effects, however, can they precipitate political change? There's definitely no research on this, scientists say. A look at past politicians who have shared abortion stories shows there's been bare progress, but no definitive wins.

The earliest example I found pre-dated Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that made early abortions legal everywhere.

Lorraine Beebe was a Republican and the only woman in the Michigan Senate in 1969, when she advocated for the liberalization of the state's abortion law, which then only permitted pregnancies to be terminated if the mother's life was in danger, according to a contemporary New York Times report. Beebe wanted additional exceptions for instances when the mother's physical or mental health would be endangered by pregnancy, when the baby might have birth defects, and in cases of rape and incest.

On the Senate floor, Beebe said she'd terminated the pregnancy she'd had in between her first and second children, when doctors feared the fetus was dead. "I am a woman who had a therapeutic abortion in a Catholic hospital," Beebe said, according to the Times. "And don't think I didn't come face-to-face with my conscience. But I never, never would have had the opportunity to have more children if I didn't have this."

Many of her male colleagues applauded her, but, in the end, the bill was defeated. When she saw the vote results, Beebe wept, Gongwer News Service reported at the time. A year later, she lost her re-election bid, at least in part because of her Senate-floor confession, according to a more recent Gongwer story. Her family endured death threats and her house was firebombed, according to the Michigan Women's Historical Center, but she remained involved in abortion law and other political issues for the rest of her career.

The women I found who came after Beebe fared better.

In 2011, the then newly conservative House of Representatives spent several hours one night arguing about whether to defund Planned Parenthood because it's a major provider of abortion services in the United States (although it's already forbidden from using federal money to pay for that portion of its work).

During his argument, Representative Christopher Smith (R–New Jersey), described a common type of abortion as "hack[ing] that baby to death." In response, Representative Jackie Speier (D–California) stood up and said: "I had really planned to speak about something else, but the gentleman from New Jersey has just put my stomach in knots because I'm one of those women he spoke about just now."

Speier had undergone the procedure, dilation, and evacuation, that Smith had described, she said. Her pregnancy was wanted, but complications, at about four months' gestation, forced her to end it. "I lost a baby, but for you to stand on this floor and to suggest, as you have, that somehow this is a procedure that is either welcomed or done cavalierly or done without any thought, is preposterous," she said. She went on to argue that the House should move on and discuss job creation.

The amendment to defund Planned Parenthood passed the House, but not the Senate. Both Speier and Smith are still serving in the House.

In 2013, Texas Senate member Wendy Davis riveted the nation by filibustering for 11 hours, in an attempt to stop anti-abortion restrictions from passing in her home state. In a memoir published the next year, Davis wrote that she'd thought about saying that she had had two abortions, both terminating wanted pregnancies that had gone terribly wrong, but decided the disclosure would distract from her filibuster.

The Texas law, too, passed, despite Davis' effort. After her book published, the pro-life response to her revelation was muted, the Associated Press reported at the time. "While our heart goes out for the decision she had to make, again, still the value of life is precious," Texans Right to Life spokeswoman Melissa Conway told the AP. Davis won the Democratic nomination to become Texas governor in 2014, but lost the race, by double-digit margins, to Republican Greg Abbott.

So none of these disclosures led to the outcomes the lawmakers hoped they would. At least however, Speier's and Davis' speeches didn't put them in danger, the way Beebe's had.

Mary Ziegler, who studies abortion law at Florida State University, says she wouldn't expect politicians' stories to make much of a difference to their colleagues. Even if they are personally moved, there are too many strong political forces that decide state and national congresspeople's abortion stances. Much depends on their constituents' beliefs, Ziegler says.

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We may see more such disclosures in the future. After a historic year for the number of women elected to state and national offices, particularly among Democrats, a lot of stigmatized issues have popped up on legislative floors, where they were uncommon before. Nancy Mace, a Republican representative in South Carolina's state house, spoke about her rape, at 16, in order to argue for exceptions for victims of rape and incest in state abortion law. Jayapal, in addition to writing about her abortion in the New York Times, also openly discussed her postpartum depression.

"Of course, women are the ones who have postpartum depression and can talk about it," says Jean Sinzdak, associate director for the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "It really drives home the point that representation matters. When you have people with different experiences and perspectives, it shows in the issues that they talk about and the issues that they care about, and this is just one example of that playing out in real time."

Amelia Bonow, for one, thinks she's already seeing hints of the ripple effect, on the ground. Bonow founded Shout Your Abortion, which has several online platforms where people can share their abortion stories.

"When a high-profile person, such as Busy Philips or Representative Jayapal, shares their story publicly, we always see a bump on all of our platforms," Bonow says. Philips, an actress, testified at a House hearing about reproductive health access earlier this month.

In fact, Bonow is a Jayapal constituent, and she's thrilled about her representative's op-ed. "She's the hometown hero of all the hometown heroes," she says. "I think someone like Pramila doing that has the power to be a human stigma intervention."

Maybe in the future, research will show that abortion storytelling does make a difference, not only to the tellers, but to the political system. The next several years could provide the perfect opportunity to find out.

*Update—July 1st, 2019: This post has been updated with the correct spelling of Kristen Shellenberg's name.

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