Interview with Carolyn Jonesby Carolyn Jones, David Duhr • 02.04.2013
In 2012, after learning that the baby she carried would be born into a life of pain, journalist Carolyn Jones had an abortion right after a new sonogram law was passed on Texas. She went on to write about the horrible ordeal for the Texas Observer. After her piece went viral, we asked her to write about what it had felt like to make such a private decision public. This week, we republish that piece, When Stories Develop Lives of Their Own.
Managing editor David Duhr recently spoke with Jones about the piece, her recent interview with Terry Gross on NPR, and her ongoing reporting on reproductive rights in Texas for the Texas Observer.
Have you been surprised at all by the attention your story has received, culminating (perhaps?) in your recent appearance on Fresh Air?
Yes, I was astonished that my original story for the Texas Observer was so widely read and even more astonished that Fresh Air chose to highlight it a year later. In fact, when the Fresh Air producer contacted me about doing an interview with Terry Gross, it took all my efforts not to fall off the chair!
But between the media interest in my Observer story last March, and the NPR interview this January, I really haven’t received too much attention. That’s a great relief because it’s emotionally costly for me to relive that horrible event. Moreover, I’m acutely aware that my experience is atypical of most of the women seeking abortions – mine was a planned pregnancy, accessing a clinic wasn’t a problem, and I could pay in cash for the procedure. That’s not the case for many women seeking abortions.
I think that my personal story is most useful when it can be used to prize open the bigger story about what’s at stake for anyone of childbearing age. For this reason, I’m grateful for any attention that my article has attracted, and particularly for journalists who can leverage it into something that’s bigger than just one woman’s loss. In particular I appreciate the way that Terry Gross fit my narrative into the larger Texas context. To me that’s vital because the state is chipping away at all of women’s reproductive rights yet it’s such an insidious process that, unless you’re really plugged into politics, its quite easy to miss.
You write, “Once you tell a story, it develops a life of its own and, like your children, it stems from you but no longer is you.” Not that you’ve left your own story behind, but since the original TXO piece you’ve begun to also write about these issues as a reporter. Can you talk a bit about this transition, the transferring of your energies from your own personal injustice to fighting for reproductive rights for others?
I’m nowhere close to the good work that reproductive rights activists do every day, but it has been satisfying to transfer my energies into something that’s bigger and more important than me. In my short career as a journalist, the best advice I’ve had so far is from my Texas Observer editor who advised me to follow my curiosity. All of the work I’ve done since then has been a result of where my curiosity has taken me. For example, after lurking around more informed folks’ Twitter feeds for a while, I learned that my story is just part of a continuum of anti-woman legislation here in Texas. It’s been sobering to realize that pro-life crusaders have somehow conflated abortion with contraception. This stance has damaged Texas’s complex family planning infrastructure, a mistake that will lead to more unplanned pregnancies and more abortions. The big questions for me are: what will happen to the people who get caught up in all this politicking? What effect will it have on individual lives? There is something humbling about the knowledge that my story – now spinning out there without me – is just one of countless interlocking narratives. Each has power to show what happens when politics gets personal. That’s a supremely inspiring thought.
Have you seen much positive movement since your original piece? What can people do on local, state, and national levels to help force change?
Well on a personal level, I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve emailed to express outrage at Texas’s sonogram law as well as sympathy for my distress. I’m guessing (hoping) that those people will also express their outrage at the ballot box. I think that our votes are particularly powerful in state elections because it’s at that level of government that our rights are being eroded. If our state representatives were lobbied by phone, on email and in person by hordes of concerned constituents, then perhaps they’d stop being so cavalier about the attrition of our reproductive rights.
On a different tack, I can’t speak more highly of abortion funds — grassroots organizations that work directly with women who can’t afford to have an abortion. Abortion funds volunteers are on the frontline of this bitter culture war and they witness first-hand its heartbreaking effect in women’s lives. They need volunteers and donations to keep going so anyone who’s up for a bit of local activism– whether in time, money, or political support — could look here to find their nearest fund.
Are you in this for the long haul? What do you see in your future?
As long as I remain in Texas then I suspect I’ll be working on this for a while. Sadly, I don’t see my state’s anti-woman politics changing any time soon.