Stories matter. Whether contemporary or historical, personal narratives are powerful tools. For a long time, North American abortion history has focused on laws and the efforts of interested parties (politicians, physicians, lawyers, clergy, activists) to direct policy. More recently, greater emphasis has been placed on the experiences of those trying to access abortion and amplifying the voices of those who have sought abortions. Numerous contemporary projects, especially online initiatives, are recording women’s stories about abortion, which are crucial if we are to destigmatize the procedure. Several books have also sought to record such stories, including my own Without Apology: Writings on Abortion in Canada.
Viewing the documentary film After Tiller (2013) made me think a lot about how abortion stories are told. In the film, we follow four American doctors who perform late-term abortions. One, Dr. Susan Robinson, works in Albuquerque, New Mexico, having relocated from Kansas, where Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider, was assassinated in 2009. The segments on Robinson are compelling for their focus on the role and significance of storytelling. In one scene, we see a receptionist on the phone with a woman from France who is looking for a late-term abortion. In reference to the woman’s story, Robinson asks the receptionist “was it very compelling?” She then explains to the camera that while practicing in Kansas, the law required that the patient present “a story that compelled you, the physician, to believe that this pregnancy threatened her life or her emotional health, family health or safety or well-being.”
Although she now practices in New Mexico, where the law does not require a “compelling” story, the story remains important to Robinson. She relates that “it’s a struggle for me to figure out is it okay for me to say ‘yah, that’s not a good enough story, I’m not doing an abortion for you.’” In part, she recognizes that choosing whether or not to perform an abortion is challenging because she knows that her clinic, for most patients, is “the court of last resort.” Robinson also acknowledges the limits to this process. She notes,
Women come here having decided that this is a pregnancy they neither can nor want to sustain and where does it come from that I get to say ‘oh yah, well why?’ … Why is that fair? What if you’re just not a good storyteller? … If a woman comes in and says ‘I want an abortion,’ whether or not she is articulate about it, let alone whether she has a great story to tell, isn’t the point. The point is that she has made this decision.
When we look at global abortion access historically, there are many examples that show the need for women to be good storytellers or to have compelling stories in order to gain access to abortion services. At different points across the twentieth century, several countries modernized their abortion laws; such campaigns were diverse, variously motivated by physician concerns to clarify existing laws, feminist campaigns for reproductive autonomy, court challenges, and so on. Abortion narratives were a tool used by proponents both for and against changing those laws.
Michelle Celeste Condit, who studied such narratives, noted that the stories that were told in magazines and newspaper accounts in favour of expanded access depicted women in need of abortion who were “ideal” patients. That is, they were often depicted as young women, generally virgins, who were raped or seduced and abandoned—and who found themselves pregnant as a consequence (the famous 1938 trial of Dr. Aleck Bourne centred around just such a case). These women, who bore no responsibility for their pregnancies because they had not willingly acted in a way to defy sexual norms, were victims and, as such, sometimes gained access to abortion—or, at least, an increasingly large section of the population believed they should have such recourse. In these instances, storytelling created sympathetic composites that advocates could use to press for legal change.
Another setting where stories were important was the therapeutic abortion committees (TACs) that were often created as part of Canada’s increasingly liberal twentieth century abortion laws. In Canada, these were formally established in 1969, although some existed before then, when the Canadian abortion law was liberalized. Women could gain access to abortions if they could prove to a TAC, comprised of at least three doctors, that their pregnancy endangered their life or health. The establishment of such committees were voluntary and many hospitals never participated. Evidence from the Badgley committee, which was established in 1975 to study the effects of the 1969 abortion law, indicates that the results of requests to TACs were uneven across the country.
In 1970, anti-poverty activist Doris Power, one of the leaders of the Just Society Movement, shared that her effort to obtain an abortion was stymied by the therapeutic abortion committee that heard her case. She believed that she might have been granted an abortion had she been willing to consent to being sterilized. She also related, “when I was refused the abortion, the doctor asked if I would obtain an illegal abortion. I replied that many women did. He then said, ‘Well, take your rosary and get the Hell out of here.’”[i] In this case we see that not only were TACs unfair, they could be unresponsive and even hostile.
Even by the 1980s, women still encountered roadblocks from TACs, underscoring the importance of good storytelling and performances. Clarissa Hurley shares her experience in which she was instructed by her family physician to “put on a show” and cry so that her request would be received with greater leniency. Her abortion narrative is excerpted here:
My doctor was sympathetic, directing my performance in her office as she explained the process by which a committee of physicians would adjudicate my situation and approve, hopefully, my termination.
“I need to see tears,” she prompted.
“I don’t feel like crying,” I protested.
“I know, but the committee likes tears.”
I obliged, summoning tears of frustration at the humiliating insult added to the bewildering injury of contraception-evading fertility. But her letter convinced the jury of my nonpeers. I received notice of my appointment, sent to a postal box I had rented for the purpose.
Although these examples are anecdotal and cannot tell us how widespread the need to tell a good story for the TAC was, it demonstrates that for some women, the story and how it was told mattered.
Today, telling abortion stories continues to be important, although it plays out in different ways. The telling and collection of abortion stories can be an important part of a political process that galvanizes and transforms of local attitudes and abortion access. In January 2014, for example, a research team from the University of Prince Edward Island, led by Dr. Colleen MacQuarrie, released findings from a study they had conducted to examine how women living in Prince Edward Island (PEI) were affected by the province’s harsh abortion restrictions. The study’s findings infuriated the participants. They came to see themselves as victims of a harsh and unfair government. Their anger was transformative. Supporters from across the small island province came together to advocate for the return of abortion services to the island and, in 2016, after two years of intensive campaigning (a part of 30 years of activism), the provincial government announced that abortion services would be returned to the island.
Telling and collecting stories remains important, but we should also consider which stories we retell and why. When collecting abortion narratives, I opted to include examples of women who struggled with their decision and who had challenging abortion experiences. I did so in the interest of adding nuance to our discussions of abortion, which too often gloss over difficult experiences. While the overwhelming majority of women who have abortions report feeling relief as a primary response, some women experience more troubling emotions. Stigma can create or compound feelings of guilt. Including complex stories in our discussions of abortion helps illuminate the diversity of reasons for which abortions are sought and indicates where there may be shortfalls in the support offered to women who need it.
Sometimes we shrink away from sharing more difficult stories because we can’t control how they will be received (and manipulated) by those opposed to abortion. But, for those of us who support reproductive justice, we can ask more of ourselves as readers and listeners. When we ask for people to share their abortion stories in the current North American political climate, we are opening them up to further judgment. There’s a pretty good chance that none of them are the “ideal patients” conceptualized in mid-twentieth century narratives. Simply put, they may not be good storytellers.
More challengingly, their stories may be ones that we don’t want to hear. We may hear that women want or had abortions for reasons with which we may not personally agree or like. It may mean disrupting our own perceptions of why abortions occur and how women feel about them. All stories that diverge from the narratives with which we are more familiar enrich our understandings of abortion. Ultimately, when we ask people to tell their stories, we need to be prepared to listen without judgment and to respect the words and emotions involved in the telling of those stories.
[i] Doris Powers, “Statement to Abortion Caravan Rally,” in Canadian Women’s Issues. Volume I: Strong Voices, eds. Ruth Roach Pierson, Marjorie Griffen Cohen, Paula Bourne, and Philinda Masters (Toronto: James Lorimer, 1993), 125.
Shannon Stettner teaches in the Women’s Studies Department at the University of Waterloo. Her research examines women’s abortion rights activism, reproductive justice, and public opinion on abortion in Canada. She is the editor of Without Apology: Writings on Abortion in Canada (Athabasca University Press), and co-editor of Transcending Borders: Abortion in the Past and Present (Palgrave MacMillan) and Abortion: History, Politics, and Reproductive Justice After Morgentaler (University of British Columbia Press). She is also a founding member of the Reproductive Activism and Abortion Research Network. Shannon tweets from @slstettner.
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