Health

On Choosing to Share Your Abortion Story Online—Or Not

The headlines broadcasting the many attacks on abortion access are nonstop: Georgia signs a 6-week abortion ban into law; Missouri’s last abortion clinic risks closure; Alabama enacts a near-total abortion ban with the most restrictive bill in the nation. Thankfully, none of these bans have actually gone into effect, but the threat remains chillingly real.

After each devastating bit of news, a social media storm erupts with tweet after tweet about abortion—about broken condoms, about sexual assault, about feeling unready, about abusive relationships, about health issues, about just not wanting to be pregnant. Like clockwork, those who have had abortions—including cis women as well as trans men and non-binary people—come forward to lay bare some of their most personal stories.

If you’ve had an abortion and you’re active on social media, you might be grappling with the possibility of adding your voice to the movement. Even though there are equally valid reasons to share and not to share, it’s not always a simple decision to make—especially now that sharing can also feel like begging lawmakers and fellow constituents alike to recognize your humanity.

The power of telling your story

For Chloe Mason, 28, sharing the story of her abortion on Instagram was about owning her narrative. “I got to a point where I had to live unapologetically,” she tells SELF. “Being queer, being a person of color, I just had to take up space. I want to live transparently so that other people can feel supported and free of shame.” After Mason posted about her abortion, people reached out to share their own stories. “It was clear some of them hadn’t told anybody except me,” she says.

“Sharing stories is a way to shatter the stigma by normalizing and humanizing a very common procedure,” Kathryn Stamoulis, Ph.D., president of the American Psychological Association Society of Media Psychology and Technology, tells SELF. “Women’s voices have historically been silenced, especially women of color and women in other minority groups.” And in many ways, the experiences of trans men and non-binary people who have had abortions have been erased from the narrative entirely.

There’s a lot of incentive to make your voice heard. Talking about abortion can help you find others who have had similar experiences and a community you can relate to, which not only can help you feel less isolated and alone but can also be a wonderful well of support to draw on when you need.

On top of that, some want to be part of a larger push to ask people in society to see those who’ve had—and will need—abortions with compassion.

“Anyone who decides to be real about their story and own their life on their own terms is going to cause the world around them to shift,” Amelia Bonow, co-founder of the abortion storytelling movement Shout Your Abortion, tells SELF. “It forces the people around them to confront the fact that they know and work with and likely care about and respect a person who’s had an abortion.”

To be clear, people telling the stories of their abortions isn’t new, and it certainly isn’t always tied to the news cycle or a trending hashtag like last month’s #YouKnowMe, started by Busy Phillips, who shared her own story after the news of Alabama’s potential near-total ban. Though a Twitter feed full of abortion stories might not feel so shocking now, disclosure was considered radical early in the reproductive rights movement—especially in the case of activists fighting for the decriminalization of abortion by publicly talking about their illegal abortions.

“Storytelling has always been a real part of how women of color have organized and has long been a survival strategy for marginalized communities,” Loretta Ross, a human rights activist of 50 years, tells SELF. Ross was a co-founder of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective and served as the National Coordinator from 2005 to 2012. She’s one of the women of color who helped coined the term “reproductive justice” to describe a push for bodily autonomy that centers the most marginalized, a framework that has played an integral part in U.S. reproductive politics ever since. Simply put, Ross has been in this for the long haul. She first encountered storytelling as activism through the National Black Women’s Health Project (now known as the Black Women’s Health Imperative) in 1983, where they used a form of storytelling called “self-help.” “[It was] about telling about your own personal story of reproductive oppression and finding out in the process that you weren’t alone,” she says.

Similarly, organizations and networks like Planned Parenthood, Shout Your Abortion, We Testify, The Stigma Toolkit, Reclaim, and many more have provided platforms to people who have had abortions to tell their stories for years—and while the impact has been undeniable, to say the movement is complicated is an understatement.

When sharing isn’t so straightforward

A lot of people, such as Ellen R.*, 23, prefer not to be open about their abortions for the unambiguous reasons that it’s just too personal and no one on the internet is entitled to their stories. “The whole situation is a very intimate one between me and my current boyfriend,” Ellen tells SELF. “It’s still very much a part of our lives and our relationship, and my decision not to share is just as much about his privacy as it is about mine.”

Unfortunately, some people who might otherwise want to own their stories online choose not to for their own safety and well-being. And it’s not difficult to see why: “Social media has the power to generate contentious, mob-like behavior, and it is impossible to predict what post will spark harassment or rage,” says Stamoulis.

This can pretty easily veer into trolling. “Anti-abortion folks are trolling those who are willing to come out and publicly talk about their abortions at extraordinary rates,” Deana A. Rohlinger, Ph.D., author of Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America and professor of sociology at Florida State University, tells SELF. Rohlinger has spent a lot of time researching the individuals online who actively target people because of their beliefs. Much of her work involves digging through the trenches of online abortion politics, and it’s often not pretty. Cruel jokes, anti-abortion memes, slut-shaming, accusations of murder, and graphic photos are all potential responses if you share about your abortion on a public platform. That response can worsen exponentially if you’re a person of color, queer or trans, disabled, or otherwise marginalized.

This kind of harassment lives mostly on Twitter and Facebook. It’s hard to say definitively if Instagram is any better—researchers typically find it to be a harder platform to research due to analytics availability, according to Rohlinger—but anecdotally, it seems like a slightly more positive community for reproductive rights activists. This makes sense since Instagram lacks some of the sharing features like retweets and large-scale sharing that allow tweets and Facebook posts to spread like wildfire, potentially attracting the attention of trolls. The worst Mason gets on her Instagram, where she has 23.1K followers, is an occasional aggressive DM, which is easier to ignore than the flood of malicious mentions some people deal with on Twitter.

Not all unwanted or potentially violating reactions come in the form of trolling, though. Posting your story online is an invitation for reactions from media outlets that can boost it to virality, from Reply Guys, to annoying devil’s advocates who want to debate, to media outlets rounding up tweets on a given topic. Even the deluge of positive reactions can be depleting; at one point, Mason had to take a step back from the stories in her DMs, which were sometimes incredibly heavy. “I’m not equipped to be anyone’s counselor,” she says.

All of the above can have an uncomfortable consequence: Your story might wind up being used in a way you never intended. “The stories don’t remain in the hands of the storyteller,” says Ross. “Who has the power to determine what our stories mean? Will they be used in narratives that say we’re problematic communities because of our stories? Will they be used in narratives that say our strength and our resilience should be mined for resistance?”

Taking potentially unwanted responses out of the equation, sometimes social media is just…exhausting. It’s easy to get compassion and disclosure fatigue. “When you log onto Twitter, it’s already this Rolodex of every possible political nightmare coming to fruition at once, interspersed with all the people you follow sharing super heavy personal things,” says Bonow. “It’s a lot. I understand people being over it or resentful of the expectation that that’s how we have to engage with anti-choice lawmakers.”

It’s this exact dynamic keeping Melissa Vitale, 26, from talking about her abortion on social media, even though she’s open about it elsewhere. “I personally was not going to join in because I think it’s bullshit that I have to do another fucking thing to compensate for the patriarchal culture we live in,” she tells SELF, speaking of the long history of people—primarily women and especially women of color—who have shared their “traumatic, often life-threatening abortion experiences” in an effort to convince conservative lawmakers to afford them bodily autonomy.

Not to mention, there are certain implications of this public storytelling, like that people need to justify their abortions with appropriately “sympathetic” stories. Actor and comedian Hannah Solow summed it up when she tweeted, “I feel proud and honored to hear people sharing their #YouKnowMe abortion stories, but let’s be clear, you don’t need to have a ‘reason’ to have an abortion. You shouldn’t have to prove to anyone why you want control over your own body and your own life.”

On a related note, you don’t need a reason not to tell your abortion story online. It doesn’t have to pose a threat to your safety or feel like an invasion of privacy or rub you the wrong way. Maybe it just sounds stressful or unappealing or you just don’t want to. “It’s all totally valid,” says Bonow. “The world is a horrible hellscape, and everyone has to survive however they need to.”

Deciding for yourself

If you’re trying to decide whether to tell your abortion story, Stamoulis’s biggest recommendation is to clarify your goal in sharing online rather than through other means. If you’re hoping to gain support or relieve yourself of the burden of a secret, you might want to consider IRL or anonymous alternatives first, like support groups, sharing with loved ones, storytelling platforms, or therapy. “Many people find personal disclosures to a vetted, empathetic group to be a powerful and healing experience,” Stamoulis says.

Beyond that, take time to reflect on all the possible outcomes from sharing your abortion story. Like anything else, your experience will likely be heavily influenced by the reaction you receive. You might be met with support and encouragement; you might receive judgment or harassment; family or coworkers might come across your story; you might tweet something raw and challenging only to have no one respond at all.

“If [any of] that does not sit well with you, reconsider online disclosure,” says Stamoulis. “It’s in our human nature to focus on the negative, so even if you receive many notes of support, you will likely ruminate on the negative notes.”

This is especially true if your abortion was related to rape or other trauma. There’s always the chance of a negative or unexpected response worsening your pain or a Google search down the road that will resurface your history when you least expect it. “I think people hope a story like this would be met with compassion online, but there are always going to be trolls who will mock the story,” says Stamoulis.

Keep in mind that if you have a strong support group of friends and loved ones, harassment can be a lot more tolerable. Mason went out of her way to give her friends a heads up before posting her abortion story on Instagram to ask them for support, which she said made a world of difference.

Above all else, your decision should be about you. In this political moment, as people are voicing their stories and awful legislative news seems never-ending, it’s understandable that you might feel pressured to join in on the conversation. But try to resist guilt or feelings of obligation. “I would never frame speaking out about your abortion story as a political or moral or feminist imperative,” says Bonow.

And if you’re unsure? You can wait to decide. Unfortunately, threats to reproductive rights will be ongoing, and there will be plenty of chances to share your story.

Finding relief and effecting change

With all these reasons to disclose and not to disclose, abortion storytelling has become a sort of delicate and complicated weighing of pros and cons. And while only you can decide what’s right for you personally, it raises the question: Are the benefits even worth the potential harm?

Unlike disclosure in therapeutic settings, there isn’t a ton of research on the mental health risks or benefits of posting such personal narratives online. But even without solid research to back it up, for many, it’s hard not to feel the consequences of staying silent on a personal level. “Not talking about the things that have happened to us, not talking about our trauma and about the people who have fucked us over and hurt us is making some of us sick,” says Bonow. “Not processing our lives in real and honest ways [can have] real, disastrous effects on our mental health.”

But on a bigger scale, coming forward as having had an abortion might not pack the political punch it once did. It can be a strong platform for finding community, boosting voices that have been historically silenced, and fighting stigma, but when it comes to making anti-abortion politicians care about our lives, Ross isn’t optmistic about the power of storytelling. “People are dying, and it’s not changing their minds,” she says. “Women are in detention and immigration centers needing abortion services and it’s not changing their minds.”

Is sharing your story going to change the minds of a lawmaker intent on overturning Roe? Probably not. But will it make an impact on the overall cultural perception of abortion and why reproductive healthcare access matters? Possibly.

“The goal is to change the culture, how we think about people who get abortions, and what we think we know about people who get abortions,” says Rohlinger. “Storytelling can certainly create communities of action that can effect change, and social media platforms are allowing individuals, citizens, and movements of all stripes to come together and organize in a whole new way.”

Maybe that involves storytelling, maybe not. There’s no singular way to make an impact as an activist. You might decide to volunteer, donate, or write your state legislators instead. You might decide to bring meals or signs to protestors, or provide childcare or transportation to activists. The point is, there are countless ways to get involved. Ultimately, it depends on your personal motivation and goals, and it’s up to you if and how you contribute.

*Names have been changed to grant anonymity upon request.

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