Fourteen men and a Catholic nun sat in a committee room of the New York State Legislature sharing "expert" testimony about abortion when a group of women disrupted the proceedings. It was February 22, 1969, and the legislature was considering whether to temper its 86 year old criminal abortion statute.
Two bills were up for debate. One put forward by State Assemblyman Albert H. Blumenthal suggested reform by allowing abortions when "health" rather than "life" was at stake. The other, sponsored by Assemblywoman Constance Cook, wanted to repeal abortion restrictions completely. That frigid Thursday, New York's Joint Legislative Committee on the Problems of Public Health convened to hear a panel of witnesses—including doctors, lawyers and clergymen—discuss the proposals.
The women who stormed the meeting were feminist activists from Redstockings, one of the founding groups of the Women's Liberation movement. They called for repeal of all restrictions rather than reform, pushed for immediate action after years of stagnant debate, and objected to the legislature's conception of "expertise." They distributed pamphlets that read:
"The only real experts on abortion are women. Women who have known the pain, fear, and socially imposed guilt of an illegal abortion. Women who have seen their friends dead or in agony from a post-abortion infection. Women who have had children by the wrong man, at the wrong time, because no doctor would help them."
We are probably the first women ever to talk about our abortions in public. That's something anyway.
The committee chairman State Senator Norman F. Lent attempted to quiet the women at the February hearing, but they refused to sit down or stay silent. The committee was then adjourned and reassembled in a closed session upstairs with police guarding the door.
A battle of wills ensued. The women submitted a request to testify and waited for hours in the hallway outside the hearing room. Ultimately, three women were allowed in to share their experiences, but their calls for a public hearing were dismissed. When the meeting broke up, an article by Ellen Willis in the New Yorker (which can be found in Redstockings' online archive) cites one woman as saying, "Well, we are probably the first women ever to talk about our abortions in public. That's something anyway."
This hearing kindled a tradition of abortion speakouts in the US, whereby women share their personal stories as protest against a culture that stigmatizes abortion and disregards the validity of their testimony. Today, as the rights that were won nearly half a century ago are imperiled, abortion speakouts are reincarnating in a modern form. The #ShoutYourAbortion hashtag has been shared over 250,000 times on Twitter since its inception in September. The women sharing their stories are participating in a long history of abortion speakouts that have helped erode taboos, reclaim and reshape the conversation around abortion, and push for reproductive justice.
Talking about abortions in public
After their bid for a public hearing was rejected by the state legislature, the abortion rights crusaders decided to hold a hearing of their own. A month later, on March 21, 1969, around three hundred people attended an abortion speakout at Washington Square Methodist Church in New York City. For three hours, women testified about their own experiences with abortion, in what Susan Brownmiller described as "the politics of confrontation and catharsis" in the Village Voice.
The tenth hospital said they would only give her an abortion if she was sterilized, at age 20.
One woman shared that she visited 11 hospitals before she was able to get a "therapeutic" abortion, which was legal at the time. The tenth hospital said they would only give her an abortion if she was sterilized, at age 20. Another woman talked about how she could only get an abortion after convincing two psychiatrists to say she was mentally unstable. A third testified that she was "a young little thing" when she got pregnant and had trusted a man who said contraception was unnecessary.
"The whole reform debate around abortion in 1969 was around extreme cases, like someone who already had four children or was a victim of rape," said Jenny Brown, a Redstockings editor and member since 1989. "When women spoke out and compared notes, it took the focus off the extreme cases. They showed that the reform hearings had nothing to do with the reality of their lives. They needed abortion rights because they needed control over their own destinies."
This event set off a wave of abortion speakouts in cities across the countryU.S.. Reproductive rights were a cornerstone of the larger movement for women's equality, and the movement was gaining momentum.
Before and after Roe v. Wade
In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that by banning the use of contraceptives, states violated married couples' right to privacy, thus paving the way for Roe v. Wade. By the early 1970s, 20 states had passed abortion repeal or reform laws, and the Supreme Court went on to legalize birth control for all women, even those who were unmarried.
Abortion has come under attack so many times over the past few decades, but we have been apologetic instead of being forthright.
On January 22nd, 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that criminalizing abortion also violated a woman's right to privacy, which meant that state laws outlawing and restricting abortion were unconstitutional. This set a powerful legal precedent, but the battle was—and is—far from over. Abortion access has remained a fraught issue in the courts, the legislatures, and in public opinion ever since.
In 1989, the Supreme Court debated Webster v. Reproductive Health Services and upheld a law in Missouri restricting the use of state funds, employees and facilities for performing abortions. This ruling represented "a chill wind," in the worlds of Justice Blackmun, for supporters of Roe because it opened the door to future revisioning by states.
The Webster decision triggered a strong response from women's rights advocates who realized that without constant vigilance, politicians would hack away at their rights. Redstockings planned an abortion speakout in 1989 on the 20th anniversary of the first one, but Brown said that it was actually harder for women to testify in 1989 than in twenty years before because the feminist movement was not as strong.
"Abortion has come under attack so many times over the past few decades, but we have been apologetic instead of being forthright," she said. "We really stopped talking about the basic truths of our lives, and the whole idea of the speakout was to make something that was not talked about into something that was talked about among women, in the press, in politics and in the courts. #ShoutYourAbortion is returning to that."
The 21st century speakout
Abortion is no less an issue today than it was decades ago, and for women across the country, access to abortions is unraveling at an alarming rate. Speakouts have begun to reemerge as a powerful and necessary tool in the fight for reproductive rights.
People owning their experiences and telling them with their own voices can be a radical political act.
In 2014, Advocates for Youth, an organization that helps teenagers make smart decisions about their sexual health, held the first ever online abortion speakout as part of its 1 in 3 campaign. The idea was inspired by students at the University of Michigan who held an in-person speakout on campus that attracted hundreds of people. Another strong source of inspiration was Hampshire College's Civil Liberties and Public Policy annual conference, which includes an abortion speakout every year. With the online speakout, 1 in 3 aimed to take these models and engage a national audience.
"People owning their experiences and telling them with their own voices can be a radical political act, because negative stereotypes permeate the political language that is framing this issue," said Julia Reticker-Flynn, the campaign director for 1 in 3. "Silence and privacy haven'thavesn't moved us forward as a movement. When looking at the people who have changed the narrative over generations, we recognize that this is a critical moment. We need to own the narrative."
1 in 3's online abortion speakout encompassed 100 women who shared their stories in a live video stream that unfolded over eight hours. 15,000 people tuned in and watched the speakout throughout the day, according to Reticker-Flynn, and another couple million have watched the footage since. 1 in 3 is planning another online speakout for January 2016.
ShoutYourAbortion is the latest manifestation of abortion speakouts. The movement began when Amelia Bonow posted on Facebook about her personal abortion story, the day after the House voted to defund Planned Parenthood.
"Plenty of people still believe that on some level—if you are a good woman—abortion is a choice which should be accompanied by some level of sadness, shame or regret," Bonow wrote. "But you know what? I have a good heart and having an abortion made me happy in a totally unqualified way. Why wouldn't I be happy that I was not forced to become a mother?"
Well-known feminist and writer Lindy West shared Bonow's post on Twitter with the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion and the movement was off. The hashtag was used 100,000 times in 24 hours and garnered the attention of feminist leaders, such Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, as well as the horror of anti-abortion advocatespro-choice opponents. Tens of thousands of women used Twitter to condense their personal abortion narrative into 140 characters of avowal, solidarity and confidence.
"This movement is more than just a hashtag—it's made up of real women and men whose lives have been affected by abortion," said Ashley Tucker, a lawyer spearheading the New York City chapter of #ShoutYourAbortion. "What we are doing now in this modern way is really not any different from the first speakouts organized by Redstockings, but the Internet means more women have access to the ability to tell their stories and send them out into the universe. The reach is greater than it was in the 1960s."
The women behind #ShoutYourAbortion are currently working to move beyond hashtag activism and build a grassroots movement that destigmatizes abortion, and they're waging a crowdfunding campaign to that effect. Tucker said that while the Internet will remain a central component of #ShoutYourAbortion, the real goal is to stimulate dialogue offline. If funded, #ShoutYourAbortion plans to develop a website, share video testimony on a YouTube channel, and hold a variety of events across the country.
"Now we are bringing it back full circle to meeting in-person, to showing up, showing our faces, and using our actual voices," Tucker said. "Politicians are now saying that abortion should be illegal in every circumstance, and #ShoutYourAbortion gives women a way to feel like they can do something small. And maybe if they do that very small thing, they can do something bigger. That to me is where the real power lies."
The fundamental principles inspiring abortion speakouts are the same today as they were 47 years ago. All women have a right to control their own bodies, and exercising that right is nothing to be ashamed of, demanding neither qualification, explanation nor apology. Where there is silence, there is also stigma, and the risk that women will have their narratives co-opted and corrupted by those who know not of what they speak. #ShoutYourAbortion is not about justification—it's about amplifying the voices of the real experts in the conversation, who don't happen to be men or nuns.