My fingers feel nearly frozen from the cold outside, and my eyes are still watering from the wind before we find heat. In El Camino, a small Mexican bar in Ottawa’s ByWard Market, it’s warm enough to wear a tank top and drink margaritas on the rocks. The DJ, an old friend, is playing Biggie Smalls.
“Is it okay if I order more food?” I ask my twin sister, Megan, even though we’ve both had dinner—but those churros at the next table over smell so good.
“Sure, you are eating for two,” she replies with a smirk. I laugh, then silently finish my second margarita. The bartender has only salted half the rim. I don’t care—I want to make the most of my time in Ottawa before the coming school year, and tonight I deserve something light-hearted. My abortion is scheduled for 8 a.m. tomorrow.
In 2017, the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) stated that over 94,000 abortions were reported by hospitals and clinics.
But the media I consumed rarely published articles written by women for women who have had abortions. In daily news, reporters focused primarily on issues of access and the presence of anti-abortionists. Of the narratives I could find, women often had vastly different experiences in which their abortions were life altering and deeply emotional.
Since my abortion, I have searched for stories like mine, personal experiences that normalize abortion from writers who feel confident and content with their decisions. I only began to find those stories in a burgeoning journalistic form: the first-person narrative. “Not everybody wants to read or hear the details of an abortion experience,” says Jessica Shaw, an assistant professor with the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Social Work, “but to see sort of a creative piece that speaks to the heart, that can be one way that we can engage with people creatively to share abortion stories.” Shaw is a fierce advocate for reproductive rights and a full-spectrum doula. She says encouraging first-person narratives on abortion has the power to change what abortion stigma looks like in Canada. Though they felt rare when I initially started my search, these more subjective but fact-driven stories offer a sense of human connection missing in daily news and opinion pieces. They’re also an important—if not the only—tool in reducing abortion stigma through journalism, providing an intimate lens onto the reproductive decisions women make.
“It wasn’t so much the decision to abort that upset me. Rather, the lack of control over my own body felt excruciating.”
December 29, 2017
I am crying on Megan’s old king-sized bed in our mother’s basement, and my older sister, Alyson, is looking up abortion clinics in the city. Ottawa’s Morgentaler Clinic is closed for the weekend around New Year’s Eve, and I’ll have to wait three days to schedule an appointment to terminate an unplanned pregnancy. It wasn’t so much the decision to abort that upset me, rather the lack of control over my own body.
When I became sexually active, I knew pregnancy was a possibility. Should it occur, I also knew I would have an abortion—having a child wasn’t an option. And should it occur, I knew Megan or Alyson would take me to the clinic based on long conversations about reproductive health growing up. So, two winters ago, when I found out I was pregnant, I felt confident in my decision.
I texted a friend who had an abortion. And then I texted another. And another. “I’m with my coworker who’s had two, and she says welcome to the club!” replied my friend Maddy. I believed abortion wasn’t always something detrimental and life changing—a belief that would come and go and come again in the days to follow, encouraged and confirmed by the women in my life who had been in the same situation.
“These more subjective but fact-driven stories offer a sense of human connection missing in daily news and opinion pieces. “
Conversations around abortion gained traction during and after R v. Morgentaler in 1988, when the Supreme Court of Canada found provisions prohibiting abortion unconstitutional, recognizing abortion as a part of safe health care. Thirty years later, journalism still covers the story in a more traditional and political fashion. While covering abortion politics is important, it affected my search for news articles I felt connected with. Searching for the voices of women like me, voices from one of the 35,587 women who were reported by CIHI in Ontario to have had an abortion in 2017. Instead, I found many articles written by and featuring people who seemingly had never—or could never—have had an abortion.
I finally found that first story in April 2018, a BuzzFeed story by Los Angeles-based writer Adriana Widdoes called “My abortion wasn’t like Ben Folds said it would be.” As the deck reads: “Not all abortions are tragic—sometimes, like periods and the other ways we bleed, they’re just a thing that happens.”
“I started to realize there’s a stigma around talking about your abortion in any way that deviates from the norm,” Widdoes tells me over the phone. “When we are allowed to talk about abortion, we talk about it in this way that it’s very traumatic and upsetting and a life-changing thing that you will regret for the rest of your life.” Following her abortion, Widdoes doesn’t write about self-torment or anguish. Instead, she writes about her joint birthday party with her best friend. “That night, I didn’t think much about my boyfriend, or even the baby that could have been,” she writes. “Instead I got drunk, because it was a party.”
Throughout the phone call, Widdoes giggles. In a particularly salient moment, she recalls how she bled through a menstrual pad at a party after her abortion and told a boy she had a crush on it was chocolate cake. “My experience…was really singular and individual to me, and that doesn’t negate the experiences of women who have abortions that are super traumatic for them,” Widdoes continues. “[But] the lack of variety in the narrative that we consume about abortion, if we consume them at all, was troubling to me.”
In her article, Widdoes reminds her audience that these individual experiences matter. Growing up in Northern California, Widdoes’s high school chose to play the song “Brick” by Ben Folds Five during a lesson on abortion in a freshman class. The song, released in 1997, recounts the male singer’s “emotional collapse” following his girlfriend’s abortion. We never hear how his girlfriend feels, and Widdoes wanted to flip that narrative. In her own story, she focuses on her lived experience: how life went on. She has had an abortion, and reminds her audience that it is not a shameful thing.
“When women bring forward their own experiences, it can change how abortion stigma looks.”
January 10, 2018
Alyson brings me to the clinic at eight in the morning. I am hungover. I am scared. And I feel alone. Alyson, while kind, doesn’t understand exactly what I’m going through. The main thing I’m nervous about is the physical ramifications. Is it going to hurt? How long will it last? When can I eat? Why me? I hate not knowing what to expect. My friends were supportive, but I kept feeling like they weren’t treating this like a big deal. Isn’t it supposed to be a big deal?
Then the waiting room begins to fill. Seven women, all in the same outfit: a long night gown brought from home and a blanket. They are young and middle-aged, some with partners, some without. I look at the woman next to me; we are wearing the same red and white socks, part of a three-pack from Costco. I wonder if she too got them as a holiday gift.
“Finding these voices of lived experience can often be the most difficult part of reporting on abortion”
In the Fall 2018 issue of The Advocate, published by the Alberta College of Social Workers, Jessica Shaw ruminates on how much needs to change if our media wants to be inclusive of the women who have had or will have an abortion. For Shaw, it starts with language. She no longer uses the term “pro-choice” to define her position on reproductive rights, noting that she “acknowledge[s] and appreciate[s] what Indigenous people, anti-poverty activists, and women of colour have been telling the rest of us for years: choices are meaningless if you don’t have the rights and resources to realize them.” Shaw also says that abortion is still “hidden under a cloak of shame.” Much of the stigma surrounding abortion, she continues, is rooted in discomfort with female sexuality and the idea that women shouldn’t be having sex outside of a heterosexual marriage. When women bring forward their own experiences, it can change how abortion stigma looks.
But it’s hard to combat this stigma without understanding its impact on women. That’s why first-person narratives can make such a difference. This particular form of journalism has proven useful in further understanding other human rights issues, including North America’s same-sex marriage debates and physician-assisted suicide. According to Kelly Gordon, a political science assistant professor at Montreal’s McGill University, first-person stories help bring often large-scale political issues down to the “individual level,” to see the way they affect the everyday lives of people we can relate to. Lorraine Weinrib, a professor of law from the University of Toronto, agrees. The more stories that offer a glimpse into the experience of women who have abortions, she says, the more public perception will change.
But, Shaw adds, it’s often a lot to ask someone to put their face and their name to a story when they might receive backlash. In this context, more personal accounts of abortion in media is something “we need to encourage, but not demand.” In these cases, reporters and their editors might consider providing anonymity or a pseudonym to sources who don’t feel comfortable being named in fear of persecution. It’s how Shaw and Nancy Janovicek, an associate professor at the University of Calgary who specializes in gender and social history, approached a June 2018 op-ed for the Calgary Herald. The piece, which addresses abortion access issues and anti-abortion protesters, included the perspective of an anonymous woman who was intimidated by the protesters. It’s a happy medium that includes women with lived experience while also protecting them, Shaw says.
Finding these voices of lived experience can often be the most difficult part of reporting on abortion, says the Ottawa Citizen’s deputy city editor Alison Mah. In April 2017, Mah penned a story on the harassment women faced when accessing the Morgentaler clinic in Ottawa. But few women with lived experience wanted to speak on the record. In the end, the only source willing to speak on behalf of these women was the clinic’s director of operations—an interview Mah was only able to secure through a professional connection. “If you’re not able to get first-hand accounts, get the second source…That’s really the only way I can think of getting at that,” Mah says. Another option, Mah suggests, is combing through past articles to find someone who has publicly discussed an abortion procedure, who can speak to the experience on a more general level.
But then reporters run the risk of generalizing the experiences of all women who have had abortions. This can lead to the appearance of sensationalized or extreme abortion stories as the normal experience, devaluing a more mundane procedure.
“I’m excited—not sad, not broken, not sick. It feels like any other day.”
According to Shaw, “Journalists, and the media in general, tend to be drawn to outlier stories; those ones that are either really exciting or really devastating.” Stories like the Vatican’s excommunication of a woman for allowing her nine-year-old to have an abortion when she was raped in 2009, or more recently, the case of the Salvadoran woman who was freed after being jailed for attempted murder following suspicions that she tried to perform an abortion on herself. “What we miss are the everyday stories, specifically around abortion, where someone becomes pregnant, they have an abortion, and it’s not a big deal.”
It’s why Jessica Leeder, the Globe and Mail’s Atlantic bureau chief, chose to include her own experience in a story about the difficulties of abortion access on Canada’s East Coast last September. Leeder says personal storytelling is the most effective way to “add a big drop to the bucket” of reporting on abortion. “I was hoping that because it’s unconventional to lay [your] personal story out there…that could draw attention to the issue,” she says.
As a journalist, Leeder says it’s part of her job to know when Canadians are facing an injustice. Leeder had attempted, and subsequently succeeded, in getting an abortion in Nova Scotia. But it wasn’t easy. Most abortion clinics are hospital-based, and, for women like Leeder, they typically have to wait until between the eight- and 12-week mark of pregnancy before getting access. Leeder knew if she was going through such difficulty to have an abortion, others would be, too. What resulted was a dynamic story exploring these issues of access rooted in both reportage and Leeder’s own perspective as a woman who had an abortion.
Natasha Hassan, opinion editor at the Globe and Mail and assigning editor on Leeder’s piece, thinks the story had a “far greater impact” due to Leeder’s ability to marry her lived experience with traditional reportage. “[Abortion is] one of the very important social issues that we cover, but we tend to cover it in a reported fashion,” says Hassan, “or we cover it in a sort of pure opinion fashion—a more traditional column.” Leeder’s piece for the Globe was a new form to the paper; what Hassan calls a “hybrid.” The story was ultimately successful in prompting a public policy debate in Nova Scotia about whether it was reasonable to ask someone to wait weeks to receive an abortion.
In a similar fashion, Meaghan Winter, a freelance reporter, compiled 26 stories from women who underwent abortion procedures for New York Magazine in 2013. The magazine only published the women’s first names. Cherisse from Illinois says her ultrasound technician told her if she aborted, she would never be able to have children again. Kassi from Vermont says she was sobbing before going into the waiting room, but reminds readers that “the average abortion patient is all of us.” Janet from California was raped. Yolanda from Mississippi was a mother who didn’t want another child. “In the public conversation…abortion is either a right or a sin,” Winter said during a segment on CBC’s Q, “and if you actually talk to your friends, or you talk to people about their actual lives, very few people use those words if they’re describing the day they actually went to the clinic.”
If stories like these create space for women to feel safe and heard, why are they so difficult to find? Leeder thinks most Canadians assume the fight for abortion rights is already over. It’s why she felt responsible for writing about her own abortion experience. “We have to find a way to keep telling [the story],” she says. “And if we don’t tell it and it disappears from our headlines then I think we risk a regression to our access in this type of policy.”
I assumed I would feel some sort of shame if I had an abortion. In actuality, I felt ashamed for not feeling that way at all, a catch-22 of emotion. It was only through conversations with—and reading about the experiences of—other women that I came to accept and embrace my own feelings about abortion. The more we talk about it, outside of the conventions of a close friendship, the more normal it becomes. And if we include and encourage these conversations in the public sphere, more women will come to embrace their own experiences, too.
January 10, 2018
At the clinic, I don’t hear talk of babies or children. The nurse who holds my hand throughout the procedure refers only to “fetal tissue.” When my sister and I leave, I notice a protestor on the sidewalk opposite me with a sign mentioning something about abortion, but rather than shame, I feel relief. And I feel hungry. I couldn’t eat for eight hours before the procedure.
“I did drive directly from the OB-GYN to Boo’s in Silverlake for a cheesesteak (with American cheese) and fries after my abortion!” Widdoes writes to me the week after our phone call. As an afterthought, I had asked her what she had eaten after her procedure. She only touches on it for a moment in her piece for BuzzFeed, but I felt connected to her when she wrote of her desire to learn what Ben Folds’s girlfriend ate after hers.
“Comfort food, I guess? It was a very I-don’t-give-a-fuck moment, and I felt like I deserved whatever I wanted, and what I wanted was meat and cheese and grease in all its glory,” she says. Alyson and I walk out of the clinic and into the McDonald’s located downstairs. I order, and the cashier informs me I can’t get fries yet. They are still only serving breakfast. I am, for the first time over the winter break, awake early enough for two Egg McMuffins, a hashbrown, and a coffee. I’m excited—not sad, not broken, not sick. It feels like any other day.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story, including in our Spring 2019 issue, had mistakenly been formatted in a way that put Alison Mah’s name beside a statement that she did not express. The Review regrets this error.