When the Personal Becomes Political: Exploring the Power of Abortion Storytelling

Kate Cockrill and her research parter Antonia Biggs wanted to know if storytelling could help reduce the stigma around abortion. Aware of the harsh judgement often associated with abortion and other reproductive choices, the two researchers set out to explore what would happen if women were in an environment in which they felt safe disclosing their reproductive histories.

Cockrill and Biggs—Executive Director of Sea Change and Social Psychologist Researcher at the University of California, San Francisco’s ANSIRH, respectively—carefully recruited a total of 109 women from nine different states to form 13 book groups. In each group, participants read and discussed the book Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood & Abortion. The women, who openly expressed their excitement to discuss and debate varying opinions with their fellow book club members, were not made aware of the purpose of the study beforehand.

Most of the women knew each other and were already friends going into the study. However, they had kept quiet about their reproductive histories and had not felt comfortable sharing with their own friends that they had had abortions for fear of how that information would be received.

Of the 19 women who had previously had an abortion, 15 of them told their stories for the first time to their book groups. What they would soon discover is that many of them had more in common with their friends than they had ever known, and what they would soon recognize was that they had the capacity to change their friends’ perspectives on abortion with their own stories.

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Ms. spoke with Cockrill about her experience leading this study and what it taught her about the power and importance of storytelling.

What first motivated you to conduct this study?

For about 15 years, I’ve been studying women’s experiences with abortion. When I first started doing research, I was mostly in contact with women at clinics who were seeking abortion services. Many women in the context of the interviews I conducted recorded feeling stigmatized by abortion, experiencing or fearing judgement from others, holding really harsh judgements about themselves, feeling the need to keep the experience secret and feeling alone. I was also politically aware enough to realize that the social experience of having an abortion was affecting the political conversation. This research helped me realize that there was a strong connection between the silence that is a byproduct of feeling stigmatized and the lack of participation in the fights and debates against restrictions—particularly at the state level. It was jarring for me to see women even accepting the regulations on abortion. I became interested in the stigma because it was both a private struggle—where women were feeling silenced, judged and isolated—and also this public struggle—where the experience of abortion was being dictated by people who had a lack of understanding of abortion because that silence exists.

So then I thought, “What can we do? What experiment can we run to gain some insight on this?” Because if silence is contributing to both the experience of isolation as well as the stigma, what would it take to shift that? I think a lot of research around storytelling in regards to abortion is really centralized on the question of How do we change minds? I really wanted to look at that question at the same time as I was looking at the question of How do we help women tell their stories? If the hypothesis is that storytelling can change minds, then we also are going to need willing storytellers.

Did you have certain expectations in terms of how this study was going to pan out? How were your findings different or aligned with what your expectations might have been?

I would say that my biggest panic was that we would recruit book groups to participate and no one would have a personal experience to share—that we would somehow just hit the wrong sample.

What happened in the first group was that there were six women and five had had an abortion. This was the group we went to to practice our tools and see if our research methods were working. The group of women having the conversation had been friends for years. They were sitting in a living room setting and they were just talking to each other like they would at their regular book club. My research assistants and I were sitting outside of the group so as to not be in the way. And all of a sudden, these stories started coming out, and as each story came out, we were having the same realizations that the group was having. And then they were having the conversation with one another that we had designed this project to create. It was a really surprising first book group. It gives me chills remembering it.

What do you feel are the fundamental changes that need to occur in order for this stigma to dissipate in all other types of settings that aren’t necessarily as safe as the book groups you created?

It’s interesting because we chose book groups because they have these specific characteristics. First, we wanted people who knew each other. We wanted a group in which their reproductive history would not necessarily be known to one another. We looked for groups where they had some kind of customs that helped create debates. They were really interested in having different opinions with one another. We interviewed them about that beforehand and they all said they liked that book groups were a space where they could have disagreements, but where people’s various opinions were respected. So I think that’s pretty critical. Typically, women who did disclose their abortions said they wanted to give a story to this experience, or to show that it isn’t just statistics, or to support someone else who had previously shared their story so that they wouldn’t be alone.

When we live in a culture that really silences abortion experience because women are afraid of being judged, there are things that we can do to create more solidarity and support among women around disclosure. I think the culture also needs to be a space where even if people disagree about abortion, they can listen respectfully. There is also the need for the belief that one’s voice can make a difference. There was a certain trust amongst these groups and the women sharing their stories that really helped to create empathy.

For the women in the groups who shared their stories, they had a reasonable expectation that they would be respected, and they also thought that it would make a difference for someone in the room—whether it was someone else’s attitude or for someone else who had come out before them. If something is really hard to do, people are typically more motivated to do it because it is more likely to make a difference.

My favorite aspect of this study is how it encouraged women to open up about a plethora of other reproductive matters, including miscarriages, infertility, adoption and sexual abuse. Was this something you were expecting going into this study? 

In the same group where three women came out in a row about their abortions, there was a woman who had had a baby in her teenage years and had placed the baby for adoption. There was another woman in that group who had adopted a child because of infertility. So they had this really interesting conversation about the triad of experiences around adoption—which can be all stigmatizing, whether you’re a birth parent, the adoptive parent, or the adoptive child.When you think about all these reproductive issues and realize how stigmatized they each are in their own way, there were so many different things that came up.

People also talked about the changing norms over time pertaining to sexuality. Throughout discussions, they were able to attach these issues to one another. They definitely associated the change in attitudes and norms around abortion with the changes in attitudes and norms around sexuality and gender. There was a lot of education and story sharing about many different experiences.

What do you think the fact that these stories were able to come out that perhaps never would have otherwise says about the importance of destigmatizing abortion?

It shows that this is not an isolated issue and I think the book we chose helped make this point. This campaign was different from other campaigns I’ve seen around abortion because we chose a book that was not solely about abortion. It was about a lot of different reproductive experiences, which allowed the conversations to be much broader, and thus helped people open up more and also realize that this is something that inevitably affects people that they care about. It’s a common experience, but it’s not everybody’s experience.

Something that I think is misunderstood about this kind of storytelling experience is that it is a purely receptive experience—that someone tells a story and others receive it. Really, I think what is closer to the truth is that it’s an exchange. When the exchange feels validated on both endswhen we truly see each other—that’s when the change happens.

You can read the full study here.

Ciarra Davison is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and an undergrad at UCLA, where she studies English and writes for the Politics section of FEM Newsmagazine. She dedicates her time to standing in solidarity with all oppressed groups and individuals and fighting for equal rights. She also enjoys traveling and dancing while cooking.

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