One in four women will have an abortion before the age of 45. The #YouKnowMe movement has already inspired thousands of those women to tweet their abortion stories following the Alabama State Senate’s Tuesday vote to ban abortion. I applaud each and every one of them for putting a very personal experience into the public sphere, with the goal of raising a powerful collective voice to protect abortion rights.
While feeling deeply humbled and heartened by the brave women sharing #YouKnowMe stories, I was also troubled by two themes emerging from the narrative. The first is the need for an explanation. The majority of women stepping forward to say, “I have had an abortion,” also included details of the circumstances surrounding their decision. From dealing with the terrible consequences of domestic abuse or rape, to unexpected birth-control mishaps, to personal or economic constraints making parenthood untenable, most #YouKnowMe declarations came with an accompanying rationale. I affirm each woman’s right to tell her story in her own words, and while I do not criticize any individual voice, the collective picture that emerges from these tweets is one of women justifying their choice to have an abortion.
I find this problematic, because personal reproductive health decision-making power and the tools to implement those decisions are fundamental human rights. No woman or man should have to justify the decisions they make about their own body and parenthood. Unfortunately, there remains a strong stigma attached to abortion in our society. Even among pro-choice supporters, abortion is often an experience shared only with close family and friends. The #YouKnowMe movement admirably endeavors to address this by bringing more experiences out into the open. But, when women’s abortion choices are couched in explanations of mitigating circumstances, it unwittingly reinforces the stigma. I want to live in a world where “It was my choice” is justification enough.
The second uncomfortable reality of #YouKnowMe is the minimal presence of men’s voices. Many abortion decisions are made jointly with a male partner. This does not detract from a woman’s right to make the reproductive health choices best for her, but rather involves recognition of that right by a supportive partner and frank discussion of parenthood decisions that affect both. Why then do women continue to shoulder a disproportionate responsibility for sharing abortion experiences and speaking up for reproductive rights? The relative dearth of male #YouKnowMe tweets reflects an ongoing unacceptable status quo in which reproductive health rights are treated as women’s issues — whether consciously or unconsciously. With half the population not fully engaged in the conversation, it’s no wonder that elected officials in Alabama, Georgia and elsewhere find it politically feasible to pass dangerous abortion bans and limit funding for critical health-care providers such as Planned Parenthood.
I write in awe of all women who have gone through the difficult and emotional experience of abortion, and with particular respect for those speaking out as part of #YouKnowMe or other similar forums. I fiercely support their — and all of our — right to make that choice, and to not owe anyone an explanation for why. Alabama is a jolting reminder of just how vulnerable that right may be.
Now is the time for us all — women and men — to stand up and add our voices to this fight.