National Institutes of Reproductive Health
Thank you, Sabrina. You have known me intimately for (grumble) years, have celebrated and created with me. I honestly can’t imagine my life without you, and luckily I don’t have to!
And thank you to the National Institute for Reproductive Health. You are at the front lines of keeping women’s health care accessible and safe. It is an honor to be here today.
Sometimes these days, as I curl up with a cup of tea and meditate on the horror show that is now our government, I muse on the following statistics: In the United States,
- 19% of elected officials are female.
- Women make up only 4% of CEOs in American Fortune 500 companies, a drop in recent years.
- 1 in 3 American women suffer from domestic violence.
- 1 in 5 American women are raped.
So below, as above. As a former religion major and forever anthropology nerd, I am also interested in the fact that the “male god” is a relatively recent invention. Arguably, Goddess worship lasted longer (7500 BCE to 2000 BCE by most estimations) than the Greco-Roman and Abrahamic systems that persist to this day. The supremacy of the male was created myth. As Elinor Gadon writes:
We must go beyond the old ways so deeply ingrained in our culture, the “truths” sanctioned by religious and secular authorities, that have come to be accepted as inalienable:
- A male god created the world
- Humans have the right to dominate nature
- Man has a right to dominate woman
Maybe that is why those thorny tendrils of shame and insecurity take hold so easily; in addition to actually being told that we don’t know our minds or are irresponsible floozies or are nonmaternal monsters (it does go on, doesn’t it?) we also have a cosmology that reinforces these beliefs.
I think of the tendrils of shame like the thorny thicket at the end of “Sleeping Beauty.” They grow in slowly, delicately, but then take hold with muscular branches that literally choke our own voices. If that vine has been growing since 2000 BC, we have some bushwhacking to do.
I had an abortion at 21. My boyfriend and I knew it was the right choice for us. We found a doctor who was respectful and treated us both with care. Afterwards, I gasped with relief and gratitude. It was the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and I got my life back – I got to finish school and start working and become a mother when I had the resources to do so, which is what I did. I’ve been in a 23-year relationship with my husband Brad and we have two children, one with special needs. I look back at my 21-year-old self and applaud my choice. Motherhood is indeed a big, big deal.
I never regretted my abortion. But over subsequent years it became clear how few of us actually speak about our specific experiences. A dear friend, wildly pro-choice, used to say: “I never had a child I didn’t want.” Nudge nudge, wink wink. We hide behind euphemisms. Words meant to be thoughtful like “safe, legal and rare” lay unintended judgment on us. We are rare, if we have an abortion. We are out of the norm. We have done something wrong.
1 in 3 women have had abortions. 6 in 10 of them are mothers.
This is not rare. We should not be alone with our choice.
Ancestral shame thickens the vines over our collective psyche and slowly but decisively chokes back the truth. For me, the truth was that my abortion was full of gratitude and profound relief. My secret shame? I had no shame.
So joined the Center for Reproductive Right’s “Draw The Line” campaign where women told their abortion stories. This led to my being part of an amicus brief to Whole Woman vs. Hellederstedt and ultimately to the steps of the supreme court in March of 2016, where I helped lead the rally during oral arguments. The abortion “issue” was not conceptual anymore. This person – me – had had an abortion. I joined many, many other women – lawyers, legislators, pastors – who also told their stories in an effort to impress of upon the court that 95% of us do not regret our choice.
And we won.
Of course, I was trolled and scolded on social media, but I also had many more women and men say, “I never knew you could just talk about it. Like that.” A baseball mom whispered during batting practice, “I never felt bad about my abortion either. But I felt bad that I didn’t feel bad, so I never talked about it.”
Imagine how powerful those ancestral branches of shame are, that we can be ashamed of our own mental health.
Thank you to the NIRH for all the bold work you do. Thank you for the Center for Reproductive Rights, Lizz Winstead, the Shout Your Abortion gals and my mentor Ellie Smeal for showing me how to be bold. Thank you to Sabrina for sharing this path of using all of our selves – our experiences, history, bodies – in service of activism and art. We are not alone. We only know that when we speak up.
One last story. During a particularly horrific trolling episode, I was asked on Twitter: Do Charlotte Tucker and Bodhi Russell know you killed their sibling? I don’t have to explain why this was so terrifying. Mentioning my children by name – including their middle names – was chilling. The judgment – that I was a bad mother to them because I’d had an abortion at 21 – was loathsome, but even so, I had to take my own personal weed-wacker to some shame-branches before they took hold.
From that time on I’d wondered how and when I would talk to my children about this.
About four months ago my 11-year-old son was doing what any self-respecting 11-year-old guy in 2017 does in their spare time: Googling himself. I was cooking and I heard him say: “Amy Brenneman – my abortion story?” I froze for a minute. He had stumbled on the Center’s recording of me telling my story. Then, as the onions sizzled, I heard the following words come out of my mouth: “Yeah, honey. Abortion is a backup to birth control, for when it’s not the right time for the baby or the mom. Some people think it should be against the law, but since I had an abortion I work to keep it legal.” He had long since drifted on to Sponge Bob.
I don’t know if he’ll ask more questions as he gets older, he probably will. But the experience of hearing a calm, reasonable voice explain abortion was astounding – to me as well. I hadn’t planned it, but I can tell you there was no trauma or sticky shame, no shaky voice, no awkward silence.
The people in this room gave me my voice that day. We inspire one another to continually bushwhack through the thorny branches of our present political climate and collective ancestral baggage. We do this together, one branch at a time. We do this for future generations — and for ourselves as well.