Last night I sat on the floor in a packed room in HGS and listened to Yale women recount their abortion experiences. While I had heard similar stories in different settings, I had never been part of an event like this. The "rules" of the speak-out were that only women who had personally had an abortion could speak to the group and that we would wait up to ten minutes after each speaker in order to give everyone who wanted to speak a chance to do so. The event was very well organized, thanks to the coalition of groups - Nursing Students for Choice, Med Students for Choice, and the Reproductive Rights Action-League at Yale (undergraduate group) - that sponsored the event. The audience (yes, mostly women, but a good number of men as well) was supportive, patient, and encouraging. The speakers ranged from confident to hesitant, matter-of-fact to overtly emotional, but each women who told her story was treated with respect. Many speakers expressed their gratitude for having the opportunity to speak in an environment like this; they hadn't really talked about their abortions before, and they found it truly empowering to do so.
I expected the event to be powerful and moving, but I didn't anticipate the overwhelming sense of community that I felt in the room last night. As one speaker said, women who undergo abortions often feel like they are completely alone, like no one has ever done this before. These feelings of isolation don't reflect the reality of abortion in this country, since approximately one-third of women will have had at least one abortion by the time they are 45, but the stigma surrounding discussion of abortion experiences reinforces such misconceptions. It is important for women to talk about their experiences, both in order to guide other women who have to make choices about their reproductive health (as many noted last night, abortion services remain a mystery to most women who need them) and to process the experiences themselves.
As I see it, though, the speak-out purposes were not solely practical or therapeutic. The opening speaker expressed the importance of talking about abortions in personal, human terms instead of in terms of politics or ideology, but I would also note that speaking out is inherently a political act. To refuse to be shamed into silence, to break free from sexist social dictates, is a powerful self-assertion. The speak-out reinforces a central argument for women's reproductive freedom that is often overlooked in debate on these issues: a woman's right to choose is a civil right; it is a crucial component of her liberty. To determine when and how and with whom to bear children are decisions that shape an individual life. If we deny women the right to decide whether or not to become a parent, then we are revoking their right to self-determination. Most of the women who spoke described how having a child at an earlier time would have radically changed the course of their lives and prevented them from living the lives they wanted to live. Reproductive health and reproductive freedom are crucial components of women's social and political equality.