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More activists who have had abortions are saying so out loud. Here's why

Abortion-rights activists hold signs outside the Supreme Court on Oct. 4.
Stefani Reynolds
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Abortion-rights activists hold signs outside the Supreme Court on Oct. 4.

In 1992, an estimated half a million people gathered on the National Mall for a rally for abortion rights.

The speakers made many of the same arguments that abortion-rights advocates have made for decades, arguing that government shouldn't limit people's ability to make decisions about their own bodies.

But in nearly four hours of speeches, no one stepped up to the mic and said, "I have had an abortion."

In fact, some of the arguments would likely come across as timid to today's abortion-rights activists.

"Nobody likes abortion. Let's get that straight," said Ron Silver, the now-deceased actor and founder of the Creative Coalition, to the massive crowd in 1992. "Nobody here likes it. We all believe it's right that women have the choice, and we all believe it would be better if they did not have to make the choice."

In contrast, unapologetically telling personal abortion stories was a centerpiece of the Rally for Abortion Justice in Washington, D.C., last month. One woman, who simply went by Anna, described the process of getting an abortion in her home state of Texas as a teenager.

​"I had to prove to the judge that I was a good student and mature enough to have an abortion," she said. "Do you know what I wanted to say to the judge? 'I am not a baby-making machine, and I should be able to decide if and when I become pregnant.' "

Kenya Martin from the National Network of Abortion Funds encouraged people to be unapologetic about their abortions.

"It's OK to have abortions after some hot sex simply because you don't want to be pregnant," she said. "I just didn't want to be pregnant, and I want you to know that if that's your experience, that's OK too. Your story deserves to be heard."

Abortion is more common than many people think

Telling personal abortion stories has increasingly become central to the abortion-rights movement in recent years.

There's a number of reasons why advocates believe this strategy might work. One is the hope that telling stories will normalize the procedure, making Americans more sympathetic.

There is evidence that many Americans underestimate how common abortion is. According to a 2016 Vox poll, for example, around half of Americans surveyed believed that fewer than 20% of American women will have an abortion in their lifetimes.

In fact, just under 1 in 4 women will have an abortion before age 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights.

America's trend toward greater partisan sorting also plays a role in changing abortion politics. Democrats who identify as "pro-life" and Republicans who identify as "pro-choice" have grown rarer.

That has opened the door to more people unapologetically sharing their abortion experiences, according to Ziad Munson, a sociology professor at Lehigh University and author of the book Abortion Politics.

"The abortion issue has become so important in identifying partisanship in this country," he said. "The pro-choice movement's no longer thinking about the broader public in the same way because they're not trying to reach everyone. They're trying to reach their people, by which they think of that as Democrats."

That's reflected not only in an increased willingness to be unapologetic about having abortions, but also in the politics of abortion rights. The 1990s-era Democratic slogan "safe, legal and rare" is now deeply controversial, and many abortion-rights activists consider it inherently stigmatizing.

In fact, when people like former Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard said they wanted abortion to be "safe, legal and rare," they were met with backlash.

In other words, belief in "safe, legal and rare" has not entirely disappeared; rather, the group of people who believe that it is an either ineffective or outright-harmful strategy has grown — and grown louder.

Public opinion supports abortion rights, but not without limits

While the rhetoric and political strategies around abortion have changed over time, Americans' broad views have been remarkably stable. Most Americans do not have absolutist views on the topic.

For decades, a plurality of Americans have said they believe abortion should be legal in some circumstances, according to Gallup. Today, another one-third say it should always be legal, and around one-fifth say it should always be illegal.

Within the movement opposing abortion rights, storytelling has long been a strategy — specifically, stories of regret. Activist Abby Johnson spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention about her journey from Planned Parenthood staffer to abortion-rights opponent.

"The tipping point came ... when a physician asked me to assist with an ultrasound-guided abortion," she said. "Nothing prepared me for what I saw on the screen."

Abortion experiences are being heard in the halls of power

Telling more abortion stories isn't just happening on stages at abortion-rights rallies. Increasingly, people with powerful megaphones have been sharing their experiences of having abortions.

When then-NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue talked about her abortion from the stage at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, it made headlines.

"It was a pretty big deal, which, in retrospect, one of the two most powerful figures in the abortion-rights movement disclosing that she's had an abortion — that shouldn't be a huge deal, right?" said Amelia Bonow, founder of the abortion-rights organization Shout Your Abortion. "But it was. Objectively, it was just a thing that people weren't used to hearing from folks in power."

After Texas' near-total ban on abortions went into effect in September, three Democratic members of Congressshared their abortion stories at a congressional hearing. One of them was Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., who shared her story on a national stage for the first time.

"​Choosing to have an abortion was the hardest decision I had ever made," Bush said. "But at 18 years old, I knew it was the right decision for me. It was freeing, knowing I had options."

The push to destigmatize abortion is intertwined with issues of race and class, as lower-income, Black and Latinx patients are disproportionately likely to undergo an abortion.

"Hearing from those communities that are affected — folks that are low income, Black and Indigenous and other folks of color — is very important because they face different barriers to access and care than some other individuals might," said Kamyon Conner, executive director of the TEA Fund, a Texas-based abortion fund.

The push to tell stories and destigmatize abortion has made it to the Supreme Court, which this week heard arguments over Texas' near-total ban on abortions. More than 6,600 people who have had abortions signed an amicus brief in a Mississippi abortion case that the court is set to hear on Dec. 1.

"My mother has never shared her abortion story publicly and never signed anything that I have asked her to sign over the years," said Renee Bracey Sherman, executive director of We Testify, which helped compile that document. "But when it came to this brief, she was like, 'Yeah, I'll sign it.' And I asked her why, and she said, 'Because I'm just fed up.' "

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.