American Women Are Finally Talking About Their Abortions

A new online community and a growing chorus of female politicians are de-stigmatizing the controversial choice.

Illustration by Josh Covarrubius

“The antidote to shame is connectedness,” says Emily Letts, an abortion counselor in New Jersey who created a viral video documenting her own abortion earlier this year. Letts, along with Texan Sherry Merfish and her daughters Beth and Brett Merfish, founded the Not Alone project, an online community where women and men are encouraged to share their abortion stories through written and video submissions. Letts hopes her own video shows other women that most abortions aren’t scary or complicated.

“It’s our responsibility to tell our stories,” says Sherry Merfish, a women’s rights advocate with a resume that includes EMILY’s List, Planned Parenthood, and the Houston Area Women’s Center. “Not everybody is going to make a video like Emily and I have, not everybody is going to have their story in The New York Times, but what we’re trying to communicate is, yes, you may have some level of discomfort about this and maybe at some other point in history you would have preferred that this be a private matter, but by keeping it private we’re losing our voices.”

The inspiration for Not Alone can be traced back to June 2013, when Merfish and her daughters stood in the Texas capitol gallery during state Sen. Wendy Davis’ now legendary filibuster of abortion restriction laws, which, despite being momentarily stalled, eventually passed. This week, the Supreme Court blocked parts of the law, allowing 13 clinics to remain open and giving hope to abortion rights activists.

Another glimmer of progress for the pro-choice movement? The growing number of politicians speaking out about their personal abortion stories. “Any kind of politician that tells their personal story is using it as a tool. It’s a tool to get things done. And luckily the majority … are using their story as a tool to help support other women,” says Letts.

As Letts hinted, not all politicians sharing their stories are pro-choice. Molly White, a Republican and passionate anti-abortion advocate currently running unopposed for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives, has come forward about her two abortions only to say that women who have such procedures are prone to mental health issues and substance abuse, a claim that is scientifically unproven. Fellow state Rep. Dawnna Dukes rebuked White’s claims last month when both politicians were on a Texas Tribune Festival panel about women's health, revealing her own abortion in the process.

“I think there seriously is a shift that we’re seeing through politicians coming out and telling their story, [and] through the movie Obvious Child,” says Letts. “There is something different of [abortion] being a choice, of it being something that you can decide not to do. I think we live in a culture that doesn’t really respect female autonomy and doesn’t really respect or understand female sexuality. Or motherhood.”

Not Alone hopes to create a community for women to support one another through the abortion process while also de-stigmatizing the procedure. Approximately three out of 10 American women have an abortion before their 45th birthday. These women come from all walks of life and choose to have abortions for myriad reasons. Yet we don’t really know who they are.

“Most women, I think based on the work we’ve done, thought that they were the only one they knew who had had an abortion,” says Merfish. “And that’s clearly not the case. We need women from all sectors—from the public sector, yes, politicians, private sector, telling their stories in a way that makes this a conversation people can have without regret, fear, or shame.”

The website is really only just beginning, with a handful of videos and written submissions currently on display, but its message is already making waves. Merfish, Letts, and their co-founders have been in the media’s spotlight frequently since founding Not Alone. Though many states are still pursuing abortion-restrictive laws, the Not Alone team’s brazen efforts, much like the public “coming out” of politicians who’ve had abortions, are sparking a much needed conversation among Americans.

“We’re not saying that every person will make a video, but the ones who do will offer encouragement to other people to tell their story,” says Merfish. “By telling your story to anyone, you are combating the stigma. You are eradicating stigma as a woman who is open about her life and instructs others to do the same. So that the next time someone says the word ‘abortion,’ the hope is that that person you told won’t think about the proverbial bloody fetus, they instead will think about you: a person who they love and respect and made this decision.”