Fifteen Minutes of Feminism

52. Fifteen Minutes of Feminism: We Had Abortions (with Amy Brenneman)


January 19, 2022

With Guests:

Amy Brenneman, an Emmy and Golden Globe nominated actor and producer best known for her extensive television work in shows like NYPD Blue, Frasier, Private Practice, The Leftovers, and Judging Amy, which she co-created and starred in. She has also starred in various films, including Heat (1995), Fear (1996), Daylight (1996), Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her (2000), Nine Lives (2005) and The Jane Austen Book Club (2007). She is the founding member of the Cornerstone Theater Company which specializes in site-specific original theater productions centered on the themes of social justice.  She is a longtime advocate for various social justice causes and organizations including: The Feminist Majority Foundation, NARAL and The Brady Center for Gun Control.

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In this Episode:

Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, marks the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. But it may very well be its last. In a few short months we face the likelihood the Supreme Court will overturn Roe. Already, 2021 was the worst year for abortion rights in almost half a century. And in Texas, abortion has already been virtually outlawed. In 1972, Ms. ran a bold petition in which well-known U.S. women declared they had undergone abortions—despite laws rendering the procedure illegal. We know it is time again. (To add your name to the petition for safe, legal and accessible abortion and birth control, head here.) In this episode, we discuss the relaunch of the iconic “We Have Had Abortions” petition, the history of the evolution of abortion access in the U.S. and the future of abortion rights in a possible post-Roe world.

Background Reading:


00:00:12 Michele Goodwin:

Welcome to “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” and Ms. magazine. This is a show where we report, rebel and tell it just like it is. On today’s episode, we have another 15 Minutes of Feminism and we’re diving in to commemorate 49 years since Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case that secured the right to abortion and bodily autonomy for women and people across the United States, but as we head into 2022, we’re reckoning with the fact that several justices on the Supreme Court seem poised to use their authority to dismantle abortion rights.

Now, in honor of the significant anniversary, Ms. magazine is relaunching its iconic “We Have Had Abortions” campaign. Take a look at the magazine, online too. The campaign first made national news in 1972 when 53 prominent American women including Billie Jean King, Suzan Sontag and Gloria Steinem proclaimed on the pages of Ms. Magazine that they had abortions.

Well, we’re relaunching the campaign because reproductive rights are in jeopardy and the fight for equality, autonomy, liberty and privacy is on. No one should have to tell their medical story or abortion story, but by lifting up our voices, we let women, girls and non-binary folks know that we have their backs. We’re letting them know that they are seen, heard and cherished. The hope is that they may be spared the shaming, stigma and bullying that today accompanies exercising the right to terminate a pregnancy, and sadly, to even seek and obtain birth control.

To join this campaign, you can head to where you can sign the petition and learn more about the original campaign and the fight to preserve abortion rights in 2022.

Now, joining me for today’s show is someone who has signed her name to the campaign. It’s Amy Brenneman. She’s an Emmy and Golden Globe nominated American television, film and theater actress and producer. She’s best known for her extensive television work in shows like NYPD Blue, Frasier, Private Practice, The Leftovers and Judging Amy, which she co-created and starred in.

I’m so pleased to have Amy with us because she’s used her voice and her position to not only tell her abortion story but also to lift up and advocate for others. I couldn’t be more happy than to be joined by Amy as we unpack these important issues for our times. Amy, I couldn’t be more thrilled than to have you on the show with me today, especially as Ms. magazine has relaunched its abortion storytelling campaign where folks are sharing their stories and you are among them, and doing so takes enormous courage and it takes love too, I think.

And so, Amy, I’m curious as to why it is that you’re sharing your story, especially as there’s so much shame and stigma that can be associated, shouldn’t be associated with telling stories about abortions. So, why is it that you’ve joined the fight?

00:03:35 Amy Brenneman:

Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me. I really am a superfan and the way you talk about things and who you are, it’s just a pleasure to be in community with you today for sure.

You know, I feel like it’s, for me, talking more publicly and specifically about having an abortion not just having an opinion about it or supporting it in general was a bit of a process. You know, I never really thought it was that interesting to be honest with you. I never thought that it would be a very useful thing.

I mean, I had … you know, I was thinking actually coming on that I probably have participated in so many different aspects of this conversation, and I’m sure if there’s a particular Supreme Court, they probably would have a say over all of it, right. Meaning, I’ve had an abortion. I’ve used birth control. I’ve done in vitro fertilization and I have a special needs daughter, right, so it’s like all of those are sort of connected to choice and taking on what you feel like, what I feel like, I can responsibly take on as a human and as a mother.

So, you know, it’s funny, I was thinking before I came on with you there was a march, I believe it was in 2004, it was a march for Women’s Lives, which was wonderful and the incredible thing about that is I introduced Ani DiFranco.

00:05:00 Michele Goodwin:

That is a highlight.

00:05:02 Amy Brenneman:

That is a highlight, and at that point … and I was marching with a mentor of mine who’s been active in the movement for a long time, and she had a funny phrase, which was actually really witty and funny, and she would say I never had a child I didn’t want, right. So, the nudge, nudge, wink, wink is I’ve terminated what I didn’t want, and I thought that’s a sassy way to say it, but it stopped short of saying I had an abortion, right. I remember that.

So, not long after that actually was Kathy Spillar of Ms. magazine said, you know, we’re going to reprise the original We Had an Abortion double truck ad pre-Roe, right, and women that signed onto that, and you know, Kathy and the Feminist Majority and Ms. and Ellie Smeal, they really have mentored me in a really gentle, at times with Ellie not so gentle, way, but I think in general, it’s taking what’s in my head and putting it in action and embodying it quite literally.

So, it was just a little bit of a natural thing to say oh, I believe in this thing. I had this thing. I will say that was … there was social media but it wasn’t the vicious battleground it is today, so I was sort of shielded by … and so, that led naturally to … because I also work with the Center of Reproductive Rights, and that very naturally led me to be part of the amicus brief to the 2016 Supreme Court and that, to me, I thought well I already talked about it publicly and I had, but from 2006, 2004, whenever we’re talking about to 2016, in terms of social media, in terms of the intensity around this issue, it was the later date that I got trained in the art of withstanding hate online. I’m a much stronger person for it.

00:07:21 Michele Goodwin:

Right. Well, that’s another … a number of issues come to mind and one of them you’ve just raised in terms of hate mail and the kind of viciousness that can come about. So, it takes a certain level of courage. Were you nervous and have you been nervous? Because one can say well this is important to me and this is where my values are, and yet, at the same time, be mindful of risk to life even by speaking about having an abortion. Have you had those kinds of concerns?

00:07:51 Amy Brenneman:

Not tangibly. No. You know, I wrote a spoken word piece that I performed a couple times that a friend of mind had a theater thing and she said oh, that should be a great subject. It was called #Shameless because it really was about… I think I signed onto the Amicus brief. I did all the work on it, and then, I was in New York … oh, yeah. Okay.

So, it had been March of … sorry, it would be the fall of 2015 and I kind of came back to L.A. to my home and sort of on the plane ride it had come out, and there was a lot of fury and violent language, and you know, my kids were younger, but part of what I wrote about in that piece, and it’s such a big part of how I see my development now is, you know, I was the good girl. I was the people pleaser. I thought you could be a feminist and like have everybody like you all the time.

00:09:03 Michele Goodwin:

One should be able to be a feminist and have people like you, not less.

00:09:09 Amy Brenneman:

I was a little bit hung up on that, a little bit hung up on everybody liking me, a little bit hung up on worrying about the person that didn’t. So, I think it was more that. I didn’t really feel as much bodily harm as much as my psyche, really, reforming itself and getting a thicker skin.

But also what happened was, you know, this is again part of the spoken word piece is there was something in me that wanted to interrogate that space a little bit more because I agreed to show up for the oral arguments and be part of … so, if I was really that afraid … because now I’m going to be physically next to people that are yelling at me and hate me, but my pastor at the time, actually, I called him up and I said how can I show up for this and … I wasn’t raised Episcopalian but I go to All Saints Pasadena and he said just so you know your church has been prayerfully pro-choice since 1984 or something.

00:10:08 Michele Goodwin:

That must have lifted you up.

00:10:08 Amy Brenneman:

Well, and it also, I feel like, is part of this conversation is faith leaders saying hold up, not only can you not hijack the word Christian, you actually cannot hijack women and there’s been a long history of it. So, oh, that gave me a little swagger but even more than that, he said, you know, just … because when I think people are coming at you with that kind of energy, it’s easy to be reactive, right. I think we’re going, just speaking for myself like on a daily basis, right, you read some news that so violent and so mean and so scary, right, and it’s natural that the nervous system reacts, right, but he said, you know, he literally said just love everybody. I was like what?

At first it felt so … but I got there and the intensity of that day, of the oral argument day, I got to love everybody, and I know that the people that feel so passionate about anti-abortion, some of those gals have already had an abortion or they may need one. Life is complex, right. It softened the whole us-them. It just softened the whole thing.

00:11:22 Michele Goodwin:

That was such a powerful day. I was at those oral arguments as well and boy, the energy that day in the crowd of people coming to the microphone and lifting up each other was so powerful. And a point that you make too, that I really feel important, is that so many people, so many women, who identify as anti-abortion have had abortions themselves.

I have friends who are ob-gyns who will tell me that there’ll be folks who come in for services and will say, But I don’t want to call this an abortion. I want to terminate this pregnancy, but you can’t call it an abortion, and of course, for the procedure to go forward, the doctors need to make sure that there is informed consent, that the patients do know what they’re getting, and they do know. It’s just that they’re caught in that language. I mean, they’re having and have had more than one, women who are anti-abortion.

But something else that you mentioned in this episode is airing the week … celebrating the holiday for Dr. King and it reminds me that in 1966, Dr. King received an award from Planned Parenthood and in his speech, his wife gave the speech because he was out of town. Sometimes I jokingly say he was out of town being arrested someplace, but in that speech, he spoke of the importance of women being able to make decisions about family planning on their own and about how it was crucial to their health, their wellbeing and crucial to their fundamental civil rights.

And he talked about how there was much in common between a movement for women’s rights and civil rights, and he used the word cruel to describe when women are forced to carry pregnancies that they don’t want, when their reproductive futures are interfered with. So, back to this point with regard to the congregation that you’re a part of, you know, proudly pro-choice, that it is an important responsibility of those in the cloth who feel this way to come forward as Dr. King did in 1966, seven years before Roe v. Wade.

“There is scarcely anything more tragic in human life than a child who is not wanted. That which should be a blessing becomes a curse for parent and child,” Coretta Scott King read in 1966. (Population Media / Creative Commons)

00:13:36 Amy Brenneman:

Wow. That’s an amazing story. Thank you for that. Yeah. It’s the lifting up of women and the wisdom of women, right, and so, I think buried in this is this lost wisdom. Thank God it’s not lost but writ large right now in certain factions of our culture. Not all is this dismissal of women’s wisdom. You know, whether it’s the wisdom of the earth, which I sort of combine with that, and this idea that you can use and throw away or dictate and it’s like it just doesn’t work that way.

You know it’s funny, there’s been so many we all have had but recently there was, whenever that was, December one.

00:14:24 Michele Goodwin:

Yeah. The Dobbs case. The oral argument. The Mississippi abortion case.

00:14:28 Amy Brenneman:

I could just barely articulate but it was so deep, and then, I got this … you know, out here in California, you’re in California as well, it’s like the wildfire, terrible, terrible, and there was some whiff…thank God it didn’t end up happening but that day it was oh there might be wildfires, dry and you need rain. I thought like you burn. You burn, mama. You fucking burn. You do not get to … you know, whether it’s capitalism, just taking, taking, taking or like Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

My mother was a judge, you know, seemingly talking compassionately. It’s like you don’t get to talk about this. You know, you do not get to talk about this and not … all the feelings, but it’s like the connection of the earth and the women’s wisdom. I was like, Ahh.

Pro-choice activists outside the Supreme Court on Dec. 1 for oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. (Center for Reproductive Rights / Instagram)

00:15:22 Michele Goodwin:

Well, what’s interesting too as you’re mentioning December first and the oral arguments in Dobbs, the Mississippi law was enjoined by a district court judge a few years ago and now the challenge is up before the Supreme Court, as we all know, but Judge Carlton Reeves, it’s such a powerful opinion and his footnote even speaking to the injustices in Mississippi directed at women, directed at Black women. It was as if look, let’s look honestly at what these histories have been.

How dare you say state of Mississippi that this is about protecting women, protecting Black women, when there’s been such an awful legacy of denying voting rights, education, the ability to go into parks, the ability to live where women would want to live, the ability to be able to work where they would want to work and receive a fair wage. I mean, he didn’t say all of that, but he certainly laid the foundation and talked about Fannie Lou Hamer and so much more in the infamous Mississippi appendectomies coercively sterilizing Black girls and Black women. Like this is your backdrop.

Not to mention the horrific rate of maternal mortality that exists because you’d think at least if you’re coercing people to maintain pregnancies that you’d make sure that you keep them alive and you allow them to thrive, but we’re talking about a backdrop with one of the highest maternal mortality rates not only in the nation but in the world, and how does one make any sense of this except to say it doesn’t make sense and there’s no legitimacy behind this. I mean, how can you impose what is essentially a death sentence on some people knowing that in fact a person is 14 times more likely to die by carrying a pregnancy to term than terminating it.

Now, choice should mean that a person has the ability to be able to be pregnant if that person wants to be pregnant but with those statistics, if you don’t want to be pregnant, the state can’t coerce you into something where it knows it is deadly and can be deadly for you, especially when we’re talking about poor people, poor women, poor Black and Brown women. You know, it’s immoral. It really is.

00:17:39 Amy Brenneman:

Thank you for that. I think circling back to the question at the top, you know, I feel like my participation in this is about truth telling and I think that that’s the wonderful disorienting time that we are living in. A friend of mine put it really well, she said, you know, an individual, when the structure isn’t working anymore, they go into therapy and their ego structure falls apart for a while, right, and it’s really confusing. It’s like oh, my gosh. I’m not who I thought I was. I can’t have the habits I used to have, but then, fingers crossed, a healthier ego structure is built, right.

So, we are decentralizing, right. It’s like well, what, we’re in a circle now? What? There’s not the dad? Wait. What? And what I was naïve about and I’m not anymore, but I was up until like six months ago, is the backlash, is the backlash. So, I kind of felt like all right, slow and steady. I mean, I remember my mother, my mother was born in 19 … and that’s the other thing. My mother had an abortion in 1943 and didn’t tell me about it until actually weirdly coming back from that march, whenever that was, I was in New York, and I was like, I was just showing her … I remember it really well.

I was in a friend’s apartment in New York and showing her pictures of it, and then, she was like … this is my mother, first of her class in Harvard law school, powerful, powerful. Powerful. I remember her sitting and she’s like I had an abortion, and I said you know, Mama, I always suspected because what I got as a daughter, right, and this is not unusual with families is sort of this fog of a story or fog of confusion, and I did tell her about when I had an abortion at 21. She was great. She said maybe don’t tell your dad. I was like okay. That was actually one thing that did come out. I was like oh, by the way, dad, decades later, did you know I had an abortion. He’s like yeah, it’s totally fine.

So, I said what happened? I guess it was 1945. She was at Radcliffe and had these great friends, and the war ended, and these sailors flooded Boston and Cambridge, and they beat the Nazis and partying. She said it wasn’t really a boyfriend. It wasn’t somebody I knew well. I wouldn’t say she was blacked out, but they’d been drinking … the shame, right. Shame. Shame. Shame. And then, I got to say to her … and then, she and my dad had problems getting pregnant with my brothers and me. They ended up obviously having children. So, I got to say to her, decades later, you did the right thing. It’s not your fault.

So, I was thinking like wow, if we could’ve skipped those decades of agony and shame for my mom, and also, she could’ve been a mentor to me. Like, hey sometimes you’ve got to do this, and I will be there with you and there’s a safe way to do it. So, I never really spoke about that. She passed away about a year ago. I feel her on my shoulder like it’s okay. Like, so I think the truth telling to what you’re saying about that the justice in Mississippi, it’s like come on. Just tell the truth.

00:21:13 Michele Goodwin:

Thank you for sharing that. Yes, this is right. Well, you know, before we wrap up this show, and time goes way too quickly, it reminds me of the work that Justice Blackmun did in Roe v. Wade. It wasn’t a close decision. It was a seven to two opinion and five of those seven justices were Republican appointed. He was put on the court by Richard Nixon, and he talked about how this was basic common sense, right. So did Nixon.

This is like basic public health when Nixon signed onto further legislation like Title X and so forth, but it’s interesting that Justice Blackmun canvassed history, and I think that that was, in a way, to show that look, nobody should feel stigma and shame right now because historically abortion wasn’t criminalized or made illegal in the United States.

So, kind of this pall, this shaming, this has really come about out of a coercive political space. It’s not come out of some sort of fundamental values that Indigenous people had, that pilgrims had, right, that people who immigrated to this country had. No. This is something that emerged over time and that has been used as a political wedge and sword against the lives of women and people who can become pregnant.

Well, we’ve reached a time, Amy, where I want to ask you about the silver lining going forward. We ask our guests that because we try to think about resilience, hope and keeping the faith in and amongst ourselves and also those who’ve paved the path before us, and I’m thinking about your mom right now. So, what do you see as a silver lining going forward, Amy?

00:22:57 Amy Brenneman:

Yes. When I got that note about your podcast, it made me so happy because I think it’s easy to get into a habit of anger and despair. I actually think there’s a lot of … when I was thinking about that, you know, I think medical abortion, it was like wow, it’s been around for a long time. I remember somebody telling me, I don’t know where this came from, but I want to say it was Jamaica Kincaid and it was this image of women coming to another woman’s house that had some wisdom about this. Here’s some tea. I’m going to rub your back. It was like this moment of oh, why are we going to this medical, you know, if we don’t have to.

You know, so many of these pregnancies could be terminated at home, privately, with somebody rubbing your back. I was like that sounds really good, and also it would give the anti-abortion protesters … they’d have to find something else to do.

Then another interesting, you know, I feel like that word “intersectionality” broadened a connection, you know, I have felt in the work that I’ve been doing on myself, really. Like I lost the thread between my Black and Brown sisters. You know what I mean, and I kind of knew the Hyde Amendment, but I was like we got Roe. You know, it’s like no, baby. No. No. No.

And then, knowing Amy Hagstrom Miller and the connections I’ve made on September 1st when S.B. 8 first came down, I felt it the way … I can’t really describe it, but it was like I was a woman in Texas. There was no part of me that was like thank God I’m in California at all. So, that’s interesting. We’re kind of, you know, connecting more in that way. Just a couple more hopeful things, you know, women in Congress talking about their abortions. You know what I mean, having that … and then, also the way we’re sort of looking at different things like filibuster like things are just not working.

Maybe it shouldn’t be the decision of nine people who more and more display their political … and I say that as the daughter of a judge. Like Gorsuch showed up without a mask the other day, I was like oh, man. Okay. Well, if that is true then that’s a political arm as well, so maybe we should kind of rethink how we’re doing this.

00:25:39 Michele Goodwin:

Wow. Those are important pearls of wisdom that you’ve just shared, every little bit, including the concern about our courts, which is actually shared by so many Americans because the Supreme Court now has the lowest confidence ranking, rating that it’s had in a half century. So, this has been such a pleasure for me, so much fun for me to be on with you today. Amy, thank you so much for joining me for our On the Issues podcast.

00:26:16 Amy Brenneman:

Thank you for having me.