Abortion experiences are transforming

Melinda McKew, a board member of Georgia Reproductive Justice Action Network, has written a moving post about helping a woman get her abortion and remembers her own experience. GRJAN is a grantee of the Abortion Conversation Project and we are proud of her for being willing to use her own experience to help others. Stigma runs deep, but open and honest conversation is the best way through it. Melinda, we salute you!

Read her post, My Abortion, My Activism: The Impact of Stigma.

Abortion Monologues, election discourse too!

The Abortion Conversation Project is very proud to have supported a successful production of the “Abortion Monologues” by the Concord Feminist Health Center in NH. They put it on right before the election and hopefully that stimulated some positive dialogue in New Hampshire. Read about the performance of Abortion Monologues here; staff at Concord Feminist participated as actors and there was a panel discussion afterwards.

It is quite remarkable to have abortion go from “a word that must not be spoken” to more or less THE topic (besides JOBS) in the election discourse. Of course, there were code words for abortion, but it was more out there than ever before. We think it is a huge step to have abortion discussed as part of the War on Women, as one of many ways that women are attacked or held back by our culture, our laws, or by the free floating stigma surrounding women’s choices. Some of us are old enough to remember the early second wave of feminism when all women’s “issues” were more or less versions of the same thing. Over the years, we have gotten divided into domestic violence issues, or abortion issues, or other causes that were eventually not connected with the general status of women.

The Abortion Conversation Project realizes that women are stigmatized by many of the choices we make, so we were very happy to support another campaign, “You are a Good Woman” by Unite Women.org. More to come on that project, but check out their great videos here.

Fall 2012 Funding Cycle: ACP awards six grants


The Abortion Conversation Project announced six successful grants totally $5,750 in its first round of mini-grants in keeping with its mission “to challenge the polarization that characterizes abortion conversation, lessen the stigmatization of abortion, and promote speaking and listening with empathy, dignity, and resilience about even the most difficult aspects of abortion.”

  • Grantees include an innovative project called Plants for Patients submitted by Meg Roberts, an artist and potter, who started by creating hand thrown pots with houseplants and offering them to abortion patients. The exchange was transformative for all and Roberts wishes to extend it to other sites.
  • Unite Women received funds to create videos that encourage women to claim their goodness. UniteWomen.org is a new organization that has been extraordinarily successful at social media organizing.
  • The Arizona branch of the Abortion Access Project will be using their funds to reach out to faith communities and facilitate conversations with activists.
  • The Concord Feminist Health Center will stage a community production of The Abortion Monologues with a panel discussion after the performance.
  • The Georgia Reproductive Justice Action Network (GRJAN) received funds to for a Transformative Connections Outreach and volunteer training for their advocacy and funding project for women seeking abortions in NE Georgia.
  • Inspire is a new online support group for women who have had an abortion and need a place to discuss their experiences. They will use the ACP funds to make clinics and other organizations aware of the resource.

Good Women are everywhere

We are pretty excited about the new Good Women videos because they directly challenge the stigma that society throws at women for who they are and the choices they make. Especially during an election cycle, women’s lives can feel like political football.

If you have not seen the videos–they release a couple every day, all with different women asserting their goodness, check them out. But we were very touched by UniteWomen.org’s blog post by Karen Teegarden. She spoke about her own personal experience with being stigmatized. And she talks about the good woman concept and how much it has affected the women who participate in the videos. Read all about it.

Good Women videos!

Watch these Good Women videos!

These videos are really quite historic! Women all over the country, many of whom work in clinics have sent in their photos and signs, “I am a Good Woman” to assert our essential morality to a society that labels us bad for who we are and the choices we make. This is a collaboration with UniteWomen.org a very new organization that already has an incredible social media reach and chapters in every state. They have the capability to respond quickly to the news and to push back against those who would deny us birth control or abortion services, or cut programs to domestic violence survivors.

Creativity will save the day

A beautiful portfolio called “This is an Emergency” arrived in the mail the other day. As someone who talks with women every day about abortion and works nationally in the reproductive rights movement, looking at artistic expressions about reproductive justice is a real treat. Earlier this year the Abortion Care Network sponsored a Reproductive Rights Poetry Contest–the winner reading her poem “Women vs Ernie” was the hit of their conference.

One criticism of our movement is that it has been “professionalized” by large organizations, at the expense of grassroots, individual action. But lately, individuals, helped by the internet and social media, are launching all kinds of projects to take on anti choice legislators or organize support for reproductive justice. The “Repeal Hyde Art Project” is another great example that has engaged people in expressing their realities through art. (See Facebook page)

And, our very own ACP Board member, Heather Ault, has trail blazed using her art to educate, empower, and inspire people to work for reproductive justice. Her first project “4000 Years for Choice” created beautiful posters about 4000 years of women and men trying to control their fertility. Now she is experimenting with memes in beautiful graphics on her facebook page by the same name.

All of which leads me to say that “Creativity will save the day!” We need new voices. We are desperate for many more access points for people to support reproductive justice. We are starving for people’s creative energies. It may be that the only thing that will save us IS creativity.

That’s why the Abortion Conversation Project has decided to offer financial support for small creative projects. We want to offer seed money but also our support and engagement in promising, innovative grassroots projects. We know that there are many ways to have conversations about abortion and we need all of them!

Destigmatizing: Lessons from the history of HIV/AIDS

By Jeannie Ludlow, PhD, ACP Board Member

On July 17, I heard Sir Elton John interviewed on NPR about his new memoir, Love Is the Cure. In the interview, he talked about how his own life, particularly his struggle with addiction, has been influenced by his work to destigmatize HIV/AIDS. In particular, he credits his friendship with Ryan White with inspiring him to overcome his cocaine addiction and put his energies and talents to work in support of people with HIV/AIDS. I was particularly struck by John’s final statements, in which he made a direct connection between stigmatization and the failure of government responsibility to help and support its citizens.

For those who may not remember: Ryan White was an Indiana teenager who was diagnosed as HIV positive in the mid-1980s. After his diagnosis, he was denied admittance to school, even though doctors, county health officers, the Indiana state health commissioner, and the CDC were very clear that he posed no risk to the health or safety of other students. The school system administrators, parents, and teachers rallied against White, and much of his 7th grade year was spent at home. There was a series of lawsuits, which the school system repeatedly lost and then appealed. At the same time, White and his family were stigmatized in town: people shouted hateful things to them; people on his paper route canceled their subscriptions because they didn’t want to touch papers he had touched; when White was allowed to go to school on Feb. 21, for one day, almost half of the students in his school were kept at home by their families. In March, a group of citizens held an auction in the school gym to raise money to try to keep White out of the school. The next year, White attended the school but was ostracized. He was not allowed to take P.E., had to use a separate restroom, and had to eat with disposable utensils. White and his family were subjected to stigmatization until they moved to a new town, where White attended high school and became a national spokesperson for HIV/AIDS awareness.

White’s story stands as a strong statement about the damage stigmatization can do, not just to the stigmatized individuals, but to all who are touched by its influence, and about the power of destigmatization. When White was diagnosed, HIV/AIDS was highly stigmatized and misunderstood. White’s story got the attention of many powerful people, who made sure we all understood the effects of stigmatization on White and his family. In part through this public sharing of White’s experiences, we learned to see HIV/AIDS differently. After his death, President Reagan wrote, “We owe it to Ryan to make sure that the fear and ignorance that chased him from his home and his school will be eliminated. We owe it to Ryan to be compassionate, caring and tolerant toward those with AIDS, their families and friends. It’s the disease that’s frightening, not the people who have it.”

 While I certainly do not want to seem to compare abortion—a safe, legal medical procedure—with HIV/AIDS, I do want to think about what we in the abortion rights movement can learn about destigmatization from Ryan White’s story. Here is what I’ve learned about destigmatization from revisiting Ryan White’s story and from Sir Elton John’s interview:

 1. Call out stigmatization: make it visible and critique it publicly. If people had not said, loudly, that what the community was doing was unjust and inappropriate, Ryan’s experience would not have had the culture-shifting effect that it did. We need to say it loud when people—whether they identify as prochoice oR prolife—say stigmatizing things.

 2. Stand united: have spokespersons who refuse internalized stigmatization. Although the phrase was used often in the news, White and his family refused to speak of him as an “innocent victim” of HIV because that language was used to imply that gay people with AIDS were guilty. His mother says that he often said, “I’m just like everyone else with AIDS, no matter how I got it.” Similarly, we need to refuse to separate out “innocent” abortion patients (victims of violence, those with anomalous fetuses or severe health problems) from all other abortion patients.

 3. Use our biggest voices: have high-profile allies who are not afraid to speak truth to power.  These should include people in all walks of life, particularly those in the arts and those with public platforms from which to speak; Ryan White’s public champions included his family, friends, and doctors, certainly, and also Elton John, Michael Jackson, Phil Donahue, John Cougar Mellenkamp, and Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. We need our biggest voices to start addressing stigmatization, NOW!

 4. Focus on justice: insist of the rights of the stigmatized to live without fear, discrimination, and judgment. White’s champions all insisted that he, like all persons with HIV/AIDS, was entitled to live a life free of these forces. We need to keep our message focused on the injustice of stigmatization. No more excusing stigmatization on the grounds that it is “someone’s personal belief.”

 5. Follow the money: hold government officials responsible for their failure to act with care and compassion. In his interview, Sir Elton John says that he wrote a letter to Florida Gov. Rick Scott, when Florida cut funding for AIDS program. Apparently, someone suggested, in response, that John hold a concert to raise money for the programs. John’s response: “It’s not my job to [fund a state’s AIDS program]. It’s the government’s priority to do that. . . . It’s their responsibility; they need to do what’s right.” We must not allow our government to make decisions that strengthen social stigma. We must follow the example of John and of the women in Michigan who are holding government officials responsible for doing their duty to their citizens—all of their citizens.

Ed. Note: There is a related blog on this topic at RH Reality on “Coming Out” by Kai Gurley.

Mini-grants announced!

The Board of the Abortion Conversation Project is jump-starting many conversations about abortion by offering small support grants for projects that are in keeping with our mission. The Abortion Conversation Project will consider small grants for travel expenses, materials, and other tangible expenses for projects in keeping with ACP’s mission to challenge the polarization that characterizes abortion conversation, lessen the stigmatization of abortion, and promote speaking and listening with empathy, dignity, and resilience about even the most difficult aspects of abortion.

 ACP’s mission is to challenge the polarization that characterizes abortion conversation, lessen the stigmatization of abortion, and promote speaking and listening with empathy, dignity, and resilience about even the most difficult aspects of abortion.

 The ACP Board is committed to ongoing, collaborative engagement with our grantees; we respect your project and want to give it the best possible support. In that spirit, we encourage each prospective grant applicant to discuss her/his project with a member of the ACP Board or ACP Grant Subcommittee before submitting an application.

 Grants are available for project costs (printing, facility rental, etc.), technological costs (internet access charges, photocopying, etc.) travel expenses (including transportation, lodging, and meals), and other material expenses. We regret that we cannot provide grant money for salaries/person hours/honoraria, etc.

 Grants are available in amounts up to $2000.00 per project; recipients may not apply for two grants in one twelve-month period. We do accept applications for collaborative projects. We want to maximize the limited amount of money we have to give, so we will appreciate smaller requests that will allow us to assist more projects.

 We strongly encourage applicants to talk with us about projects before submission. Deadlines are Sept 1 and March 1. For more information and application, email Info AT abortionconversation.com.

They Say/I Say . . . Who Says?

 By Jeannie Ludlow, PhD, ACP Board Member

Pop quiz: when was the last time you learned something or heard something new at an abortion debate? Yeah, me either—not for a very long time.

In recent weeks, several events in my professional and activist work have inspired me to think about the act of debating—what it can and cannot accomplish and, more to the point, whether we should be doing it at all.

In March, I received an invitation to be the “prochoice person” in an abortion debate at my graduate alma mater. The person who invited me was a minister with the local Catholic church and an advisor for a student organization positioned on the “pro-life side.” He wrote, “This is an issue which is often on the minds of many during an election year, but is too often not discussed in a civil manner – and that is our aim with the debate.”

I was not able to participate in the debate (in fact, I was uninvited after the students involved chose different representatives for their sides) nor to attend it, but my son was there. He called me immediately afterward with a report. His take away: the debate was about personhood—is abortion never OK because it kills a person or only OK before 20 weeks, when the fetus is more of a potential person than a person?

In other words, there were no surprises in this debate. No women’s voices, either. Both debaters were men, and apparently neither one brought women’s perspectives or stories of abortion to the stage.

Just a few weeks later, my department hosted a big-name literary scholar who spoke to us about the value of  “argument” in advancing thinking and writing. In the discussion of his ideas, the concept of “argument” pretty quickly dissolved into “debate”—a binary (two-sided) model in which one proves one’s point by explaining how the other side is incorrect.

These two events solidified for me the problem with debate, most particularly with abortion debates.

First of all, debate imposes a binary structure onto a complex issue and assumes a single best answer. The debate at my alma mater, like every abortion debate I’ve ever witnessed, was “prochoice vs. prolife,” a “civil” discussion between two sides. The assumption is that one side will win the debate. But how many people really think in such simplified terms?

More to the point, how many people live in such categories? This brings me to my second criticism of abortion debate: debate moves us out of the realm of life experiences and into the realm of abstract (and important) ideas like rights and personhood.

In my work as an abortion clinic patient advocate, I learned from patients that abortion is almost never a yes-or-no (or rights-or-personhood) proposition for women and their loved ones. For the women who sought our care, abortion was not a question of “is this fetus a person or not?” nor of “do I have the right to have an abortion or not?” Most women’s abortion experiences are best charted along a path with many detours and cul-de-sacs. Abortion is a complex part of people’s complex lives. No debate has ever been able to address such complexities.

So what we need is decidedly not more debates about abortion, civil or otherwise; what we need are difficult dialogues. Difficult dialogues require us to communicate with people whose ideas and experiences are very different from our own. The idea is that this communication will move us all toward a more authentic, compassionate understanding of the issue at hand. According to the literary scholar Darcy Brandel, in her essay “Performing Invisibility,” difficult dialogues “perform a kind of ongoing dialectical process that never fully reaches a final synthesis.” What this means is that difficult dialogues do not seek common ground, nor do they resolve easily into satisfactory answers. The whole purpose of difficult dialogues is to keep the issue in conversation, always in question—to ensure that “as many contradictory voices as possible can be heard and considered.”

Obviously, difficult dialogues are not simple and never predictable. They can be very uncomfortable. Brandel says they reflect a “messy process of negotiation” among a wide variety of stories, fictional and real, complete and interrupted, public and private (pages 78-79). But, above all, they are irresolvable—if we are going to engage in difficult dialogues about abortion, we must let go of the notion that we can figure out abortion, can come to some kind of knowledge or answer about it. We must be willing to stand in the middle of the messiness that is people’s real lives, to join one another in those life experiences that don’t always make sense.

One of the most important differences between debate and difficult dialogue is how we listen. In a debate, I listen in order to prove my opponent wrong. In difficult dialogues, I listen in order to learn, to complicate my understanding and challenge myself, to hear others’ perspectives, even when I do not agree with them—in short, I listen in order to have a more authentic understanding of humanity. When I picture a debate, I see people standing next to each other, looking in the same direction (toward winning), talking alongside one another. When I picture a dialogue, I see people looking at one another, talking and listening to each other.

 What would a difficult dialogue about abortion look like? How can we find the courage to engage in difficult dialogues? More importantly, why would we even bother? Picture that debate, again—the one with the two men on stage at my alma mater, speaking civilly about the limits of women’s right to abortion and the limits of an unborn child’s personhood. Now, imagine a woman joining them on the stage, looking at them both and saying, “I had an abortion so I could keep my job and be financially able to support my two children.” Suddenly, a woman’s life is real, her abortion is real, and the discussion could be real. Now, that’s a debate I would show up for.

The casualties of war

It is becoming obvious to most people that there are many casualities of the Culture Wars in the U.S. Barack Obama’s famous rhetoric “there are no red states or blue states, there are only Americans” now seems quaintly naive. Bipartisanship, freedom of speech and thought, civil discourse, and democracy itself are severely wounded.

The battlefields of the Abortion War are littered with casualties. Women and their loved ones and abortion caregivers are obvious victims, but so too are those caught in the crossfire of the extremes and those who have been forced to choose sides. What cannot be heard, and is mostly silenced, is the complexity of an individual abortion experience, the deep moral thoughtfulness that can go into a pregnancy decision, the range of beliefs, feelings, experiences of all who are touched by abortion.

Against the din of the Abortion War, a small group of people who care about women and support quality abortion access have decided to re-start the Abortion Conversation Project. Courage or folly or both? Time will tell.

This time we want to employ a “conflict transformation” approach for our work. We do not expect those who are pro choice and pro life to sit down and talk like lambs and lions. Not at all. We want to talk to the people next to us, and those next to them, and the colleagues and friends of those next to them. We want to learn to listen to their complexities and teach them to listen fully to others and on and on, until we can hear more voices and more stories. We believe the war culture will have less opportunity to damage if we have a deeper understanding of people’s realities. We hope to heal some of the damage done.

Let’s start with some simple, small steps and get some practice listening to others who may not completely agree with us. Conversation exercises will be posted here regularly along with some thoughtful presentations. Comments and feedback will be moderated carefully and updated regularly. To join our circle, register if you are not already a wordpress user. We also encourage you to sign up for our mailing list on our website.

Let the conversation begin. It’s time. More than ever.

Welcome back!

"Abortion Stigma is like the weather: everyone gets wet." - Kate Cockrill

As previously posted, we have taken some time to re-vision the Abortion Conversation Project. We are excited to begin sharing our plans for conversations–in this space and in person. For now, here is our revised Mission/Vision statement:

A Focus on Healing the Destructive Impact of the Abortion Conflict

 Problem: America’s entrenched and volatile polarization on abortion is a destructive force that harms virtually every individual and institution that it touches. Too few of us have the language, skills, or context to discuss the complexity, uncertainty, or intensity they feel about abortion without accusation, judgment, politics, or stigma.

Mission: The Abortion Conversation Project works to undo these destructive impacts, heal those harmed by stigma, and promote reconciliation by creating forums, trainings, and models of open communication on abortion that support people to speak and listen with empathy, dignity, and resilience about even the most difficult aspects of the issue.

Vision: The Abortion Conversation Project is working toward a world in which all people can interact constructively with one another about abortion-related values and experiences with depth, respect, and honesty. Working in communities and nationally, we help the general public develop and practice skills for meaningful, direct interactions about abortion that avoid stigmatization and the dehumanizing effects of all-or-nothing, either/or thinking. Though there may never be consensus on the moral value of abortion or the public policies connected to it, we work toward building a world in which abortion can be addressed directly in our homes, schools, workplaces, and public sphere in a way that honors its profound social, moral, and political complexity and alleviates stigma.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more updates on our plans!