It's a courageous move: Telling stories of women who have had abortions. Not ashamed and no longer a secret to hold, Amelia Bonow posted her personal story on Facebook in 2015, and Lindy West reposted it under the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion. Thousands of stories later, women's truths about their abortion experiences are now immortalized in a book under the same name, and the SYA organization exists to, primarily, give women the space and means to talk about abortion on their own terms.
Our Founder and Editor In Chief, Amanda Carter Gomes, chatted with Bonow about the SYA ethos, how it's evolved since inception, and what's next for abortion in the daunting current political landscape. She is, however, hopeful that her voice and the many women who echo hers will give space for support, strength and compassion. "We hope to weaponize this privilege in a way that makes the world kinder and more just for everyone, and we hope that those who don’t shout may still find healing and solidarity in the stories of others." Read on for more from this incredible force for women's rights.
For those unfamiliar with the Shout Your Abortion (SYA) ethos, will you explain how the organization began? How has it evolved since the initial hashtag prompting the eventual movement?
I had an abortion in 2014 at Planned Parenthood (PP). Overall, it was a positive experience: I was sure about my decision and didn’t feel upset or guilty, I was able to afford the procedure and didn’t face any barriers to access, and I knew that I was surrounded by pro-choice friends and family who would support me if I called on them to do so. The procedure itself was brief and relatively painless. I left that experience feeling deeply grateful for the people who took care of me and happy that I was no longer pregnant.
A year or so later, Planned Parenthood was under attack after some ludicrous videos started circulating that made it look like PP was illegally selling fetal tissue. I was furious. In part because I’d had my abortion there the previous year, and the injustice of the whole situation felt strangely personal. At the time, I was tending bar and working my way through graduate school and I was so fixated on the situation that I brought it up with people constantly, but I generally didn’t reference my own abortion in these conversations. And the angrier I became, the more that omission weighed on me. I felt like I was dancing around the very core of my conviction, even in conversations with totally like-minded people.
The morning that the House of Representatives voted to defund Planned Parenthood, I couldn’t stop thinking about the staff at my neighborhood clinic, and I unraveled. I blurted my feelings into a status update on Facebook, which read in part: I’m telling you this today because the campaign to defund Planned Parenthood relies on the assumption that abortion is something to be whispered about…I have a good heart and having an abortion made me happy in a totally unqualified way. Why wouldn’t I be happy I wasn’t forced to become a mother?
I sent a screenshot of the post to my friend Lindy West, who posted it on twitter along with her own abortion disclosure and added the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion. Within a couple of days, the hashtag had gone viral as hundreds of thousands of people flooded social media with abortion stories of their own. Offline, the hashtag immediately started inspiring all sorts of grassroots mobilization, in the form of art and meet-ups and projects. The momentum was undeniable. I immediately left school and started connecting with people all over the country and looking around for funding. About four months later, I secured a major grant and SYA became a fully legit organization, and we’re now in our fourth year of operation!
SYA works to create places in art, media and real-life events all over the country for people to talk about abortion on their own terms. We’ve helped organize comedy shows, storytelling events, film screenings and book clubs, we’ve painted murals on abortion clinics, we’ve made zines and clothing and commissioned all sorts of guerilla artwork. Our website is a place where you can go add your abortion story in text or video; there are hundreds of stories at this point and it’s used almost every day. We published our first book in November, which is a collection of 43 abortion stories from all sorts of people all over the country alongside a sort of creative organizing guide, featuring art and projects and ways to help you start the conversation in your own community, whether you’ve had an abortion or not.
Are there any common misconceptions or perpetuated myths surrounding SYA? How can we all join you to combat those?
Shout Your Abortion is not a directive or a political imperative. We don’t believe that speaking out is a better or more righteous path, or that anyone needs to speak publicly about their abortion in order to be a “good feminist,”—we simply believe that we’d all be better off if conversations about abortion were normalized. For some, speaking publicly about their abortions would be unsafe, traumatic, or just not worth it for any number of reasons.
SYA was started by white women from middle-class families in the most liberal part of the country; we knew we weren’t jeopardizing our most important relationships or acceptance in our communities when we decided to speak. Our bravery is a product of privilege and having been able to access and afford our abortions is a privilege in and of itself. We hope to weaponize this privilege in a way that makes the world kinder and more just for everyone, and we hope that those who don’t shout may still find healing and solidarity in the stories of others.
People sometimes think that SYA is aggressive, brash or that shouting your abortion is equivalent to people “bragging about their abortions.” First of all, I don’t think there is any right or wrong way to talk about abortion, and I don’t think that people who support abortion rights need to come to any sort of consensus about the best way to do so — we just need to start doing it, and everyone can do it in the way that feels right to them. The expectation of silence around abortion is killing us, as individuals and as manifested in policy, and telling the truth is much healthier, both for people who have abortions and society at large.
Sometimes people accuse SYA of promoting happy abortion stories only, but when people say that I just know they haven’t spent any time looking at our materials. You simply cannot generalize the kinds of stories shared through SYA or the tone in which they are delivered, because there are just too many stories. SYA is not a traditional organization with membership criteria and finite parameters and messaging — we are literally hundreds of thousands of people talking about our own lives however we want. And we have every right to talk about the things that happen to us!
I refuse to believe that talking about your abortion is rude but banning abortion at six weeks or forcing people to cremate their fetuses is normal. As far as the idea that SYA is a bunch of people who are “proud of having abortions,” I think that it’s a beautiful thing to be proud of the person you are and everything you’ve been through to become that person. It’s totally reasonable to be proud of making a choice that is best for you in a society that promises to punish you for doing so, and to refuse to act like your life is something that it’s not. It’s brave to own your abortion, and bravery is something to be proud of.
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What has been the most rewarding part of your work with SYA? What has been the most surprising?
I hear from people all the time who tell me that SYA has affected their lives in some profound way — by allowing them to process something which has been buried for many years or helping them find their voice (in a more general sense). People often tell me that their abortion disclosure allowed for greater closeness in their most important relationships with family, a partner, best friends, kids. I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me that they agonized over telling their mother, only to tell her and find out their mother had a story of her own. The energy I get from stories like this is indescribable and will probably keep me doing this work forever.
We, like many, recently fell in love with the series Shrill based on the book by fellow SYA activist, Lindy West. In the first episode the protagonist has an abortion. Do you think the SYA movement influenced how the storyline was presented? Has SYA created a space for abortion stories to be portrayed as a standard medical procedure (without all the typical media hysteria)?
Lindy was finishing Shrill (the book) right when SYA blew up, and she ended adding the abortion chapter because all that was going on. That chapter went on to become episode one of Shrill on Hulu, introducing an enormous audience to the idea that abortions can be quick, relatively easy, empowering choices. So yes, that episode is absolutely a shout! That episode of Shrill is the first time I’ve ever seen abortion portrayed in this particular way on television — it’s usually used as some sort of tragic plot device, or at the very least, the abortion is a huge deal.
I loved the portrayal of the actual procedure in the show, because it shows that an early abortion (like Annie is having) literally takes about three minutes, and you can tell by her face that she’s not in excruciating pain. Also, the portrayal of her emotional experience probably felt radical to most people — Annie isn’t torn up or sad, and her choice to have the abortion actually ends up sparking a larger awakening of her own self-worth. In reality, relief is by far the most common emotional reaction to abortion. It might seem like a radical portrayal, but it’s just the truth for many people. And I LOVE that Lindy wrote it that way. In the first episode no less! So many people have just never been exposed to the idea that abortion is normal, that you don’t have to experience it in total isolation or carry it as a shameful secret forever.
Currently much is at stake for the pro-choice movement as several states are attempting to ban abortion altogether — Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee. What can we do to support organizations that support a woman's right to choose?
If you can, donate to the National Network of Abortion Funds. All these state level abortion bans mean that more and more people are going to be traveling out of state to get the care they need, which creates major financial barriers to access — that’s the whole point. NNAF helps low income people pay for their abortions, as well as the transportation and lodging the need to get to and from the clinic. There is no more direct way to help people get the abortions they need than donating to NNAF.
My other go to place for donations is the Abortion Care Network, which is a national group of independent abortion care providers and their allies. Indie clinics are vital and important and community focused in the same way as your local indie record store, and they actually perform about two thirds of abortions in this country. They do the vast majority of abortions after the first trimester, and they are very often the last clinics left standing in a given area — there are six states with one remaining clinic, and four of those are indies. Indies literally do the abortion care that no one else will do, and they’re significantly under resourced compared to Planned Parenthood, because Planned Parenthood has such strong name recognition (for better or worse). By donating to ACN, you are directly supporting indie clinics all over the country.
Legislatively, things are horrible and they are only going to get worse. Whether or not Roe is overturned, Republicans are going to gut access at a state level until legality is arbitrary for poor folks. This should be a very unpopular political course for them, considering that 70% of Americans support Roe and one in four people who can get pregnant will have an abortion at some point in their lives. But we are going to have to get really, really loud to ensure that they pay political consequences for this.
Abortion access as we know it is ending. If you are a person of certain privileges and you find this upsetting, you need to talk about it all the fucking time — with your friends and family, at the PTA meeting, on your social media accounts. Bring it up when the barista asks how you’re doing. Say the word abortion out loud. Wear it on a t-shirt. Seek out abortion stories so that you can get more comfortable with the topic and dismantle your own internalized stigma. Start a Shout Your Abortion book club! Get on our mailing list for more details about book clubs and all sorts of other ways you can get involved. Just find every way you can to TALK! ABOUT! ABORTION! We cannot advocate for something we can’t say out loud. The other side is winning because they’ve terrified us into silence, but they don’t have the numbers to win if we actually start talking. They’re calling our bluff.
We are on the cusp of another fierce election cycle, and history shows that abortion is usually used as campaign rhetoric. 70% of Americans support the right to legal abortion, so why are politicians still having this conversation?
The people who are trying to make abortion illegal know that their wives and mistresses and daughters will always be able to have secret, safe abortions, regardless of legality. They’re not actually trying to end abortion, they just want to decide who gets to have them. They want to keep poor people poor, keep white people in charge of everything, and make reproductive autonomy into a class privilege.
The SYA book and digital site are filled with a variety of abortion stories from women all over the world. Tell us about the response from women about this the space created for their voices.
Feedback about the book has been just…beyond! My favorite response has to do with abortion clinics — we got a grant from Abortion Conversations Project to help us send this book to abortion clinics all over the country. So far, it’s sitting in the waiting and recovery rooms of about 220 different clinics. This means thousands of people are going to see it before or after they have their abortions, and I really believe that for some people this will be transformative.
So many people have just never been exposed to the idea that abortion is normal, that you don’t have to experience it in total isolation or carry it as a shameful secret forever. And that you don’t have to hate yourself for having an abortion! Good people have abortions all day, every day. You are surrounded by people who are living their best lives because of abortion, you probably just don’t know it. Tolerance will begin to happen naturally, as soon as we start showing up everywhere. It’s inevitable — there are far too many of us, and we are way too lovable.