Advocates encourage Mainers to destigmatize abortion by sharing their stories
The day after the draft opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court that would overturn Roe v. Wade was leaked, hundreds of people filled the streets outside the federal courthouse in Portland to rally in support of abortion rights. Nicole Clegg of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England urged the crowd to become activists, and not just at the polls in November: with their stories.
"How many people know someone who's had an abortion?" Clegg asked a loud crowd. "Alright. But we don't talk about it. I mean, the shame and stigma that our opposition has attached to the issue of abortion has silenced us and we have to stop. Abortion is normal. It's a normal decision that people make."
According to the Guttmacher Institute, nearly 1 in 4 women have an abortion. Many took to social media last week to share their stories. But more organized efforts are underway to encourage people to share their experiences, including women who had abortions before they were legal.
Lisa Kushner, 75, lives in Midcoast Maine, but in the 60s she was a college student in New York. And in the fall of 1966, despite using contraception, she became pregnant.
"And it was pretty devastating because you didn't know what to do," she said.
There was no clinic to go to, no health provider she could talk to for advice. Kushner started calling every woman she could think of who might be able to help. She was a first generation college student from a working class family. Graduating was a must, she said, and she wanted an abortion. But the prospect was scary. She had heard stories about women being sexually assaulted by the people purporting to help them and that others had to be hospitalized from complications like sepsis. After countless phone calls over several weeks, Kushner finally got a call from a woman who told her where to go.
"I really felt like she was giving me a life preserver so that I could have a future," Kushner said.
She traveled several hours away to a darkened office building where a hospital orderly performed the abortion. It was an isolating and painful experience, Kushner said, but she recovered and graduated from college. She went on to become a family planning counselor, and then a social worker. Still, she didn't tell many people about her abortion, aside from immediate family and a few friends. But now, she said, it feels like a duty.
"When you want to make a baby with a partner, it's like, fantastic," Kushner said. "But if your heart isn't open to that, you shouldn't be forced to do that because of somebody else's religion, and especially a man who has never had a menstrual period or knows anything about having a uterus."
Though Kushner feels compelled to share her experience more publicly, she said it's not easy to do. So she signed up for a training offered by Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights, or GRR. It's a national organization based in Maine that's partnering with another group, WeTestify, to offer the virtual training.
"It's really about a culture change," said Kelli McCannell, executive director of GRR.
McCannell said when women share their stories, whether with family, friends, or the larger community, it personalizes who chooses abortion and the varied reasons why they made that choice.
"Women who had these abortions, you know, decades ago, can now reflect back and say, this is what that choice made possible in my life," McCannell said. "Because so much of abortions are talked about as this ending, you know, this decision that stopped something, when really it opened up lives for people."
"I mean, I was sad, but I didn't regret it," said Anne Fowler, 76, of Portland. "I felt that I had done the right thing."
Fowler was pregnant when Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. Her husband had just left her, so she was also newly single. Even though abortion was an option, she wanted to keep her baby and had a daughter. But several years later, Fowler became pregnant again. This time, she chose abortion. She wasn't married, and said she couldn't support another child. She was also working to become an Episcopal priest.
"God says, in Deuteronomy... 'I put before you life and death, life and death, choose life.' And I felt I was choosing my life," Fowler said. "Choosing my life over a potential life."
Fowler served as an Episcopal priest for more than two decades in Massachusetts. She said abortion is a moral choice, and she wants to share that view, and her story.
"As widely as I can," she said. "Because I think people need to hear it, they need to hear it. Because I'm a priest. And they need to hear what my moral thinking is about this. And they need to feel I'm with them, whoever they may be."
Fowler is also doing the storytelling training, called "Insight to Incite," which Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights launched this week.
Esta Pratt-Kielley produced the video for this story.