“How is the Truth to be Said?”
Abortion Narratives in Feminist Activism, Politics, and Philosophy
My title borrows from Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “the mother,” published in 1963. Brooks starts: “Abortions will not let you forget/You remember the children you got that you did not get,” and like great poets do, efficiently weaves a complex story in a single page. Brooks conveys the nuanced emotional and moral landscape of choosing to not be a mother: having to choose, being able to choose, and living with your choice. All of this in a time before the constitutional protections of Roe v. Wade, and the ensuing decades of politicizing abortion. The poem shows “the truth” of abortion is heterogenous and pliant: poetry lives with the suppleness and ambiguity at which politics and philosophy whittle away. I offer a close-reading of ten contemporary abortion narratives that comprise the current iteration of the “Tennessee Stories Project,” an online Planned Parenthood project aimed at addressing abortion stigma. I analyze these stories in the context of feminist, and especially Black feminist, online activism, and feminist philosophical methodology. I underscore a feminist methodological divide requiring further exploration, and ideally, reconciliation, with regards to storytelling and abortion experience across activism and scholarship.
Feminist activism of the 20th century mobilized the personal as political. Storytelling is central to advocacy efforts, doing the work of consciousness-raising from rallies to contemporary internet hashtags. A strength of individual story in activism is that it centers particular stories, while holding space for intersectional difference between stories (though the risk of speaking for when speaking as is an ever-present tension internal to feminist politics). Feminist philosophical methodology also took a narrative turn in the 20th century, from Simone de Beauvoir to Patricia Hill Collins and Susan Brison (Beauvoir 2010, Collins 1990, Brison 2002). These, and many other feminist-identifying scholars, addressed the absence of particular experiences from the putatively, but speciously, universal nature of philosophical method to show the incompleteness of philosophy that cannot or does not accommodate the lived experiences of women (and other marginalized identities). Sandra Harding asked “whose experience is to count in formulating ideals of objectivity, rationality, and good method?” (Harding 2009, 193). At the same time, feminist methodology centering first-person experience raises the question of what kind of knowledge situated experience offers: who has access to it, what it means, and how it should be used. These questions are not only levied at feminist methodology from the outside, but create controversy internal to feminism(s) (Harding 2009).
Ten stories are currently posted to the Tennessee Stories Project website. The project started after an amendment passed by popular vote in November 2014 allowing the Tennessee legislature to modify abortion laws in the state. In 2016 the project housed several online pages of stories from people living across Tennessee, sharing first-hand accounts of their abortions (Duncan 2016). Some were recent, others long ago. Some occurred in Tennessee, others in various states with different laws and restrictions. My own narrative was posted in 2016. Like other stories, mine expressed a desire to demystify the abortion experience, and change mainstream narratives surrounding abortion that make them appear fraught, traumatic, painful, or anguished (none of which were the case for me, though any or all of those things may be the experiences of others).
When read as a collected body of work, the current selection of stories affords the opportunity to analyze the activist abortion narrative as a genre. The ten stories represent a cross-section of ages and reasons for electing abortion, though none of them situate their author’s identity markers outside of age (such as race, gender expression, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education, religion, etc.). The stories generally align with the three types of story Arthur Frank identified in illness narratives: quest, restitution, and chaos (Frank 2013), with the addition of what I am calling the “justification” narrative.
Quest narratives set their author on a journey or discovery. Stories by June and Bethany are read in part as quests: June’s story of needing a “therapeutic abortion” to address fetal anomalies that were not survivable in the 1970s is a quest for medical providers to respond to these cases with compassion and understanding; Bethany’s story begins a quest to become a “full spectrum doula” who provides “unconditional support” to people experiencing all kinds of reproductive events. Bethany’s story is also part restitution narrative. Bethany has “a really hard time afterwards coming to grips” with having an abortion. Bethany’s quest to become a doula aims to restore a sense of whole personhood. Stephanie’s story is also part restitution narrative: an abortion at age 16 paved the way for a later pregnancy at 18. Stephanie now has a daughter whose very existence improves “life in a hundred magnificent ways,” and provides “new reasons to keep fighting for reproductive justice.” Krista frames the story of an abortion at age 15 as “a decision that allows me to be who I am today.” Similarly, five years after having an abortion, Olivia is “thriving,” having “finished college” and relocated to New York City. These abortions shaped their storytellers, restoring them to a whole, or setting them on a journey to become themselves.
Chaos narratives defy any particular or easy conclusion. Brandi’s story exemplifies chaos: a tale of abuse and drug use, and being a “horrible” parent as a teenager, who chose to abort a subsequent pregnancy. Brandi says, “I knew I made the right choice for my situation, putting another child into that mess was more cruel than ending the pregnancy in my opinion.” It is a story of making the best among bad choices, and underscores cycles of abuse, drug use, and systemic lack of support, with no ready solutions. Brandi’s is notably the only one of the ten story set that is dominated by themes of chaos. J’s story, which I discuss in detail below, echoes elements of chaos. The chaotic element of J’s narrative is a troubled partnership with a manipulative and deceptive husband, more than the abortion experience itself. Yet many of the storytellers highlight calm rather than chaos in their narratives, such as Stephanie who remembers “being struck by the normality of the process.”
A fourth kind of narrative emerges across these ten examples: the justification narrative. Justification is necessary in a political and social context that threatens abortion rights and access. Like Stephanie, Ebony, reinforces the normalcy of having an abortion: “What I think is interesting about my story is that for me having [an abortion] wasn’t traumatic at all.” In fact “I don’t think it’s a big deal. And I don’t think I would feel the need to share it if it wasn’t under such an attack.” Ebony’s story comes across as saying how dare you tell people who have abortions how to think or feel about it. Let alone that they shouldn’t – or worse, can’t – have them. Despite sharing the story publicly, Ebony’s parents do not know. Part of what leads Ebony to consider sharing the story with family is a sense that having an abortion “is the type of information you have to divulge in order to gain some credibility when talking about a serious topic.” Ebony hits on a motivating premise of feminist methodology, both in activism and scholarship: experience matters. Experience affords specific knowledge, and therefore standing as a knower.
Yet the narratives I call justification stories in the Tennessee Stories Project reveal the complexities of experiential knowledge and standing, produced in a context in which experience is marginalized and moralized. Aurie imagines having to justify the choice to have an abortion to those who view it as “irresponsible,” and a “horrible” act. Months after the abortion Aurie recalls hugging and kissing their child “in desperate attempts to ‘apologize’ for the lack of a sibling.” At the end of the narrative Aurie concludes that “I no longer ask myself the question ‘how do I explain’? because I know that MY decision is both My Truth and MY Story.” Aurie recalls the nuance of Brooks’ poem: the truth is a story, woven into and from other stories.
The justification narratives from Cassie and J are mixed with elements of restitution. Both were already parents when they became pregnant, and abortions restored them to their goal of only parenting one child. Both also justify their narrative within the context of attempted but failed contraception. J was unable to use birth control “without serious side effects” and had been previously “denied any form of sterilization.” J’s partner lied about having a vasectomy. J says: “I had not been irresponsible – as so many judge-mental people say.” Cassie notes that: “even with birth control being used pregnancy can occur. I am one of the 100s that it happened to.” These stories are told in anticipation of, and response to, other circulating narratives about the irresponsibility of people who seek abortions. They justify prior to their audience’s judgements. Ebony does some of this justificatory work around contraception noting that “some people might sit here and say, ‘Well, were you using protection?’” Ebony acknowledges: “I was not using protection…. I was not on birth control. Some people might say that’s incredibly irresponsible, and maybe so, but shit happens. That’s not an excuse, I’m just saying shit happens… I think everyone has their own individual story.”
Stories are individual, yet they also fall into types. These types are shaped by the dominant narratives within which they are produced. Feminist standpoint theory draws a connection between epistemic perspective and socio-political position in the world (Grasswick 2018). A concern with this method is that knowledge generated from the standpoint of a marginalized group is vulnerable to internalized oppression that can shape epistemic understanding (Grasswick 2018). This concern is exemplified by Aurie’s deployment of the tropes that condemn or oppress abortion seekers, and Aurie’s own struggle with internalized critiques of the choice to abort a pregnancy. The justification narrative is doing internal justificatory work, in the face of real or expected opposition, and this shapes individual experience, which conveys knowledge, which is expressed in story.
Feminist standpoint theory takes up the standpoint of oppressed groups (Harding 2009). Yet there are important distinctions between individual experiences, and the collective standpoint of an oppressed group. The Tennessee Stories Project collects stories of individual abortion seekers to generate knowledge, while the plural experiences captured among the ten Tennessee Stories Project entries shows that “abortion seeker” is not a tightly coherent group, and does not share a single standpoint. For example, though abortion is often connected to the oppressed group “women,” I have resisted calling these “women’s” stories or using gendered pronouns. Not all abortion-seekers identify as women.
Black feminist scholars have critiqued the historical dominance of white middle-class voices in “mainstream” feminism. Kimberle Crenshaw’s groundbreaking work on intersectionality (Crenshaw 1989) shows how individuals experience multiple, overlapping, forms of oppression based on their various identity markers (like race and class, as well as sex, gender, age, etc.). Crenshaw found that supposedly mainstream feminist work on anti-discrimination in the workplace, for example, failed to address the racial oppression of Black women workers (Crenshaw 1989). The concept of intersectionality bears on our storytelling practices. As I said at the outset: stories are both particular to individuals, and mobilized as emblematic of group concerns. When storytelling for social change around abortion access and stigma, how does the experiential knowledge within story work?
Abortion storytelling on the internet contributes to “online counterpublic networks” that have been driven by Black women, and which “have played an outsized role in shaping recent national conversations” about race and gender. Sarah Jackson describes the proliferation of “hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter, #GirlsLikeUs, and #OscarsSoWhite,” which reflect the dynamism of Black feminist political activism (Jackson 2016, 377). The hashtags “perform the two basic functions of counterpublic discourse: reflect the experiences and needs of a marginalized community and call on mainstream politics to listen and respond” (Jackson 2016, 377-378). Counterpublic tactics on Twitter addressed abortion stigma in 2019 when actor Busy Phillips posted: “1 in 4 women have had an abortion. Many people think they don’t know someone who has, but #YouKnowMe. So let’s do this: if you are also the 1 in 4, let’s share it and start to end the shame. Use #YouKnowMe and share your truth” (Philipps 2019).
What is notable about the #YouKnowMe counterpublic discourse is that it does not impose any particular content onto the narrative regarding abortion: it is simply the aggregation of stories. Storytellers need not have shared identity markers, politics, or views regarding abortion. They may feel regretful, or without remorse, traumatized, or relieved; they may claim that it was the biggest decision of their life, or merely a mundane fact of it. Collections of online narratives, such as the Tennessee Stories Project, or #YouKnowMe, support the production of situated knowledge while permitting plasticity in terms of who speaks for an oppressed standpoint and how.
I am a philosopher who works with feminist methodology. I care about abortion both politically and philosophically. I am struck by how at odds the philosophical scholarship on abortion is with modes of feminist methodology supported both within activism and the academy. A search for the term “abortion” in peer reviewed articles published in English in Philosopher’s Index, a ProQuest database, yields 931 results published between 1961-2019. Of these, only 20 are also categorized under “feminism.” Searching for “abortion AND narrative” produces seven results. Only one author offers a first personal story: Paul Lombardo on teaching bioethics in Pakistan. The philosophy of abortion largely remains stuck on thought experiments and imagined famous violinists (Judith Jarvis Thompson’s landmark article from 1971 remains a stalwart in the field).
Perhaps stigma remains too great to engage first-personal experience in abortion scholarship. Perhaps we worry engaging first-person experience renders any ensuing argument a post-hoc rationalization, not sound philosophy. Arguments from anecdote and ignorance are both forms of fallacy: stories risk succumbing to either. Yet there are lessons to be drawn from activist abortion storytelling for feminist scholarly methodology. Engaging with feminism’s activist and methodological commitment to storytelling will enrich abortion scholarship. Amidst these stories and arguments remains truth yet to be said.
 All quotes in this essay are from the Tennessee Stories Project website unless attributed elsewhere. Per communication with the Tennessee Stories Project coordinator, the project intends to incrementally upload all previously posted stories from their prior website to their new online platform where these ten current stories exist.
 Drawing on Frank’s archetypes of illness narratives is not a commitment to conceptualizing either pregnancy or abortion as illness, as much as honoring these as embodied, and (most often) medical, experiences.
 Reflecting on and writing about one’s experience may do work to organize a coherent narrative, so it is possible that otherwise chaotic experiences lose their sense of chaos through the narrative process.
 As part of the #YouKnowMe viral campaign, Cecile Richards, the former president of Planned Parenthood, wrote on Twitter: “For me, sharing my story [of having an abortion] has been powerful… But the fact is, we shouldn’t have to share our most personal experiences simply to try to generate a measure of empathy from politicians” (Richards 2019).
 J was told by medical providers that it would not be possible to have a tubal ligation before age 35. J’s narrative suggests that the reasons for this refusal were due to a paternalistic interest in protecting J against future regret.
 Phillips referenced an article by Jones and Jerman (2017) that modeled public health data to predict “if 2014 age-specific abortion rates prevail, 24% of women aged 15 to 44 years in that year will have an abortion by age 45 years.” Of note, this is a reduction in overall abortion rates, which were previously modeled at 30% of women aged 15-44. Also of note, this figure only captures elective abortions done at abortion clinics, not those offered within hospital settings.
Beauvoir, Simone de. 2010. The Second Sex. Translated by C. Borde and S. Malovany-Chevallier. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Brison, Susan J. 2001. Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. 1963. “the mother.” In Selected Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks. New York: Harper & Row.
Collins, Patricia Hill. 2002. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge.
Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1: 139-167.
Duncan, Heather S. 2016. “Fighting Stigma, TN Women Share Abortion Experiences.” Knoxville Mercury. June 8, 2016. https://www.knoxmercury.com/2016/06/08/fighting-stigma-women-share-abortion-experiences/.
Frank, Arthur W. 2013. The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Grasswick, Heidi. 2018. “Feminist Social Epistemology.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Updated Fall 2018. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/feminist-social-epistemology/.
Jones, Rachel K., and Jenna Jerman. 2017. “Population Group Abortion Rates and Lifetime Incidence of Abortion: United States, 2008–2014.” American Journal of Public Health 107 (12): 1904-1909.
Jackson, Sarah J. 2016. “(Re) Imagining Intersectional Democracy from Black Feminism to Hashtag Activism.” Women's Studies in Communication 39 (4): 375-379.
Harding, Sandra. 2009. “Standpoint Theories: Productively Controversial.” Hypatia 24 (4): 192-200.
Philipps, Busy (@BusyPhilipps). 2019. “1 in 4 women have had an abortion. Many people think that they don’t know someone who has, but #youknowme. So let’s do this: if you are also the 1 in 4, let’s share it and start to end the shame.” Twitter, May 14, 2019. https://twitter.com/busyphilipps/status/1128515490559610881.
Planned Parenthood. n.d. “Tennessee Stories Project.” Accessed December 30, 2019. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/planned-parenthood-tennessee-and-north-mississippi/get-involved-locally/tennessee-stories-project.
Richards, Cecile (@CecileRichards). 2019. “I had an abortion. It was the right decision for me, and it wasn't a hard one. My husband and I were working more than full time and had three kids already.” Twitter, May 16, 2019. https://twitter.com/CecileRichards/status/1129039051930185729.
Thomson, Judith Jarvis. 1971.“A Defense of Abortion.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (Autumn): 47-66.