When Stories Develop Lives of Their Own
I’d expected to have a baby this summer but instead I have this story. Just as my first child’s birth drew me into a network of fellow mothers, this experience has drawn me into a network of fellow storytellers. By visiting sites like the 1 in 3 campaign and I’m Not Sorry, I undertook an odyssey of discovery about women like me, and women who are very different. Some feel regret, some are relieved, and many are ambivalent about choice within a moral universe. It is hard to caricature abortion-seekers when you understand the diversity of reasons for making that choice.
It turns out that there’s a name for this trend in storytelling. It’s called pro-voice and it’s a term coined by Exhale, an organization offering support to those who’ve had an abortion. Exhale reframes the way we discuss abortion by having women tell their stories from their own unique points of view. At present, the abortion debate is often framed like a cage match between pro-life and pro-choice advocates. Yet this doesn’t always jibe with real women’s lives. In real life we sometimes make contradictory or ambiguous choices, so why should abortion be different? Exhale clears the middle ground for voices as diverse as we are. In this neutral territory, a woman can feel both relief at ending a pregnancy and devastation at the loss of a child. She can have had an abortion but follow a religious faith too. In a pro-voice debate the real people who comprise our complicated, beautiful world can tell us more about what it means to be human.
But despite the many women telling us about their own abortion experiences, there are vast silences from those who don’t have power to speak. Minority women are disproportionately likely to have an abortion, so are disproportionately harmed by restrictions to their reproductive rights. Data from the Guttmacher Institute, an independent research organization, suggest that poverty and racist politics lead to reproductive injustice for women of color. Yet, as the women’s rights activist Spectra says of the entire ‘war on women’ debate: “Where are the voices of low income women of color? Where are the voices of transgender women?” Until we pay attention to who is missing, she argues, the ‘women’s movement’ is something that only benefits the white middle class. This is an uncomfortable truth for someone like me because, as a white middle class woman, I’ve seen how powerful my voice can be. Not to share that power with those who’ve had equally valid experiences of abortion is like stopping a story half way through. But how do we hear the voices of the marginalized when they’re drowned out by the noise of our race, class and gender-riven world? And how, from our eyries of privilege, do we draw those stories out while respecting the political context from which they came? Exhale leads the way by outlining the ethical aspects of story-sharing as well as an intellectual framework for understanding the freighted politics of having a voice. As a woman about whom others have written, sometimes callously, these guidelines make intuitive sense. As a writer who hopes to share other women’s stories, this reminds me how complex storytelling can be.
Since my toddler first rode that city bus, since I went public about my abortion, since my neighbor told me that she’d read about it on Facebook; since my story grew a life of its own, I’ve been in for a truly scary ride. I don’t regret it. Instead, I am struck by how powerful stories can be because they change the way we think about abortion. I am proud to have joined a community of storytellers, glad that we’re talking about the reproductive justice we deserve. But I am also uneasy about all the voices I can’t hear. No-one likes a story that stops half way through, especially when it’s their own. Yet until my voice is on an equal footing with other accounts of abortion then, regrettably, this shared story that’s only half mine is still only halfway told.