January 22nd marks 40 years since the Supreme Court affirmed a woman’s right to a safe, legal abortion. Reports from nationwide rallies celebrating the landmark decsion will inevitably include photos of women wearing “I had an abortion” t-shirts and holding signs with slogans that tie their personal to the political.
And if 2013 is anything like years past, very few of those women will be Black.
Of course we, like other women, decide not to carry our unplanned pregnancies to term. In fact, we tend to do so at higher rates because of barriers to quality birth control and accurate information about our bodies. But when we do choose abortion, few of us go on to share our experiences in online and offline spaces. We don’t purchase t-shirts or offer testimonies that open us up to having to defend our decisions.
This week, the DC-based reproductive health organization Advocates for Youth will release a book that builds on its “1 in 3” campaign. The name references the fact that one in three U.S. women will have an abortion in her lifetime. Out of the 31 moving, intimate videos posted online, four appear to feature Black women. Why so few, given our rates of choosing these procedures? As Steph Herold, an advocate who tracks abortion storytelling, has noted, middle class, young, White women are more likely to offer up their stories and have them published.
Black women have been targeted in recent anti-choice attacks, including a billboard that read “The Most Dangerous Place for an African American is in the Womb” and others like it that popped up in Atlanta, New York, Oakland and elsewhere beginning in 2010. Anti-choice advocates use images of Black women and girls to sell their agenda. Why the cultural gap when it comes to telling our own stories?
One reason, says Mia Herndon, is that it’s not clear how this gets us closer to securing the healthcare we need. Herndon is a reproductive justice leader and former executive director of Third Wave Foundation.
“We need leadership in terms of connecting the dots,” Herdon told me. “How does me telling my story actually change the conversation rather than get me more judgment?”
Many of us just don’t believe in putting our personal business in the street. And some of us fear blowback from family members or religious communities if word gets out. But Black women face the added burden of having our stories colored by media depictions that tell the world we’re oversexed, poor decision-makers or both.
“Because images of Black women are so compromised, the idea of coming out and saying ‘I had an abortion’ and feeling like you can still hold your head high and be fine, that’s just not our experience,” Herndon said. “We don’t have that many experiences of being treated well publicly.”
When 28-year-old Brittany Mostiller got an abortion in 2008, talking about it with her family was hard enough. She never expected she’d be telling her story in high schools or in the Chicago neighborhoods where she now passes out condoms and information on laws related to reproductive health.
But the organization that helped pay for her procedure, Chicago Abortion Fund (CAF), invited her to join a group of women who meet regularly for peer support and to organize in their communities. Last year, CAF raised $60,000 to help 184 low-income women access second trimester abortions. Four out of five women who receive funds from CAF are of color, said its executive director, Gaylon Alcaraz.
The process of getting these women engaged takes time. After checking in to see what help they need post-abortion – from sexual health information to housing and employment referrals – the organization supports the women in building trust and friendships. That’s the necessary foundation to storytelling.
“I think that women of color want to tell their stories,” Alcaraz said. “There’s no platform. And let you be poor, or let you be fat, or let you be gay. The media is not friendly to that.”
To get around the gatekeepers, CAF creates its own media, including a monthly local TV show called “The A Word.” Mostiller, who is mother to four girls and attends college full-time, has been on the show. At the start, the host introduces herself by saying, “My name is ________, and I’ve had an abortion.”
It was difficult to speak those words on camera early on, Mostiller said. But that’s changed.
“It’s my story. It’s mine to tell,” she told me. “And it’s someone else’s truth also.”
Dani McClain is a Nation Institute fellow, reporting on reproductive health and sexuality.