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Archiving Abortion: Sharing One Story At A Time

“I feel like nobody should have to experience anything in life without sharing it. I feel like through our experiences it teaches us a lesson and I feel like we owe it to the world to share it.” That was Nikki’s response when I asked her the question I ask everyone who shares their story with me for The Abortion Diary: Why do you want to share your story?

Abortion Happens Every Day

Abortion happens every day. In the United States, 1 in 3 women will have an abortion by her 45th birthday.1 It is estimated that over 42 million people worldwide will have an abortion each year.2 Yet how often do you hear someone share their abortion story? Have you ever? Abortion experiences are silenced. These stories often remain untold and lost to the world.

I started The Abortion Diary, an abortion story-sharing podcast, in order to create a community around an experience that can be extremely isolating. I set out to provide an intimate space for sharing, listening and, most importantly, feeling listened to by others. I also wanted The Abortion Diary to be a place where people could share these rarely told stories in order to break the shame, stigma and taboos around talking about their own gendered bodily experiences. But this project has also become something more than I expected.

While it is and will always be a personal space for sharing, listening and healing, it has also become a digital archive. Although I chose to explore non-academic pursuits over the past two years, this (self-funded) project sent me back to the archive. But instead of rummaging through yellowed, tattered papers in the old, dusty archives we all love and know so well, I was inadvertently creating one that resides in the digital world. I didn’t realize this project would ever be viewed as an archive until academic friends started calling it that and adding it to their syllabi.

As a historian, I was trained to conduct research in traditional archives in order to uncover the lives of people in the past and write those stories. Through The Abortion Diary, and with the help of digital media, we are able to listen to the real voices of people as they share their own stories, these embodied experiences, in their own words. I also was able to bring my own story to light. I had an abortion when I was seventeen, and I didn’t talk about it until I was thirty. I created this project based on what happened to me seventeen years ago.

The Abortion Diary is a deeply personal project rooted in my belief that all of our full, complex stories should be shared, listened to, and honored. Our stories are so often reduced to one-dimensional, two minute sound bites, and told for us rather than by us. This project has offered us a way to engage with, voice, and own our experiences. Through this telling we can also reimagine and redefine what we view as the archive. Our body is an archive; it holds our stories, our feelings, our memory. These narratives provide us with a unique opportunity to hear these marginalized, silenced experiences held in the body, and, as we listen, uncover the archive within our own bodies. Moreover, as scholars of Narrative Medicine illustrate, our narratives enable people to understand our experiences by participating in the story through imagination, interpretation, and recognition.3 Most importantly, we are humanizing an experience that tends to be overly politicized.

A microphone on a table

Seeing Through A Historian’s Eyes

I resisted the idea of seeing this project through a historian’s eye for months. I worried that this intensely intimate and sacred experience between me and another person might be tainted by also becoming a historical project. When I knock on their doors and we meet each other, we are complete strangers to one another, brought together by this shared experience. This moment, with only a microphone between us, can be deeply emotional and overwhelming. Sometimes these stories have never been shared with anyone else in the one, five, ten, twenty or even thirty years since they happened.

Then I met Judith Arcana and recorded her story. Judith Arcana is a writer, activist, teacher and a Jane, a member of the feminist underground service (the Abortion Counseling Service of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union) that helped more than 11,000 women and girls obtain safe, illegal abortions in Chicago before the Roe decision in January of 1973.4 When I told a friend, a former birth doula client actually, about my project and that I was headed to the West Coast, he insisted I meet her. Fortunately, she agreed to share her rich history with us.

During my travels with this project over the past ten months, I have also met other people, such as Devra, Sondra, and Judi, with pre-Roe stories and so many other people who offered to share their abortion stories. I came to understand just how important it is to capture all of our experiences in order to preserve our communities’ histories. I was faced with a nightmare only historians seem to have — the ones that we awaken from in a cold sweat. I know that those whose lived experiences we so desperately want to capture will soon die, and their stories will die with them.

I also realized that as I heal myself through the gift of listening to these stories and provide the same balm for the story-sharers and many others, I am also learning about the cultural and social history of abortion firsthand. Every single story provides a deeper understanding about how the experience of having an abortion has changed through space and time, and about people’s relationships with their experiences as well as their bodies. In just over a year, 105 people in 9 states (and counting) have shared their stories with me for the podcast. The experiences are quite diverse across geographic location, socioeconomic background, age, ethnicity, race, religion and gender, and span from the late 1950s to 2014. We are listening to a community of voices.

Historian Brain Reboot

Through the use of my microphone I am fostering healing and community while simultaneously providing another platform for history that engages the general public through the sharing of stories of everyday life, stories that emphasize the agency of human actors in their daily lives. As West German historians have argued, Alltagsgeschichte, the study of everyday life, offers us new spaces, “households, streets, neighborhoods, bars, recreational spaces,” and, in this case, the abortion clinic, to examine how people adapt, engage, shape and experience these spaces.5 These stories of everyday life are also a gateway to a larger conversation about sex, sexuality, relationships, and reproductive experience. When we share our stories, we are talking about all the aspects and realities surrounding our own choices and varied abortion experiences. We are myth breaking just as we are risk taking when we share our stories.

Moreover, these narratives allow us to include within the historical record the experiences and perspectives of groups of people who might otherwise have been hidden from history.6 Very few people ever find the space to share this personal story. Only recently have abortion storytelling projects become more visible and have more people been able to come out of the closet about their own stories.7

During her interview, Judith Arcana said: “some people are desperate to tell their stories and don’t have the space for it. But this too is crucially important.” My hope for The Abortion Diary is that it becomes the vital, personal space that people are looking for so that they can release their stories. Most importantly, that it be a place where we can listen to each other and know we are part of a community.

So now, I wonder, how to recognize and acknowledge the way this personal project and intimate community of story-sharers has grown into an archive with historical value? What responsibilities do I have to my community as a story-listener, story-sharer, and trained historian? What, if any, should be my next steps?

Notes

  1. Guttmacher Institute, Induced Abortion in the United States Fact Sheet, July 2014. Return to text.
  2. Guttmacher Institute, Facts on Induced Abortion Worldwide Fact Sheet, January 2012. Return to text.
  3. Rita Charon, Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness (Oxford University Press, 2006), 9-10. Return to text.
  4. For more on JANE see, Laura Kaplan, The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service, (The University of Chicago Press, 1997). Return to text.
  5. Paul Steege, Andrew Stuart Bergensen, Maureen Healy, and Pamela E. Sweet, “The History of Everyday Life: A Second Chapter,” The Journal of Modern History, 80 (June 2008): 358-378. Also see, Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (Verso, 1991). Return to text.
  6. Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, The Oral History Reader, (London and New York: Routledge, 1998). Return to text.
  7. For written and video abortion storytelling online see, Advocate For Youth’s 1 in 3 campaign, Not Alone, and Project Voice. Exhale Pro-Voice provides after abortion resources and sponsored the Sharing Our Stories Tour last year. The Abortion Diary is the first and only publicly accessible collection of audio abortion stories. Return to text.

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