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The Pro-Choice Movement Has Won the Culture War

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I own a tote bag that says “I had an abortion” in blue block letters. I also have a T-shirt that says “Everyone loves someone who had an abortion.” You can get a pro-abortion holographic fanny pack as part of a fundraiser for the National Network of Abortion Funds. In Shout Your Abortion’s online store, there’s a gold necklace that reads “Abortion” in the script font of a nameplate and sweatshirts that read “El aborto es normal” in gothic letters reminiscent of the New York Times logo. There are simple statements, like the T-shirts that implore “Ask me about my abortion” in plain sans serif white letters on a black field. Some items are snazzier, like the gold notebook and the pair of shiny purple earrings from the NNAF, both of which proclaim “Fund abortion, build power.”

These items are supposed to be bold, even provocative, attracting stares and prompting questions. This is the whole point: to interrupt the silence around abortion, to get people to talk about it more frankly. They’re supposed to make viewers a tad uncomfortable, taken aback—and are also supposed to make them wonder why they feel that way.

An estimated one in four women will have an abortion before the age of 45—along with a number of trans and nonbinary people, as activists are quick to point out—but the experience of abortion is wildly more common than the opportunity to safely speak about it. Perhaps no other hot-button cultural issue or area of political controversy and certainly no other health care procedure is spoken about with such a strange distance from the experiences of those who have gone through it. This is doubly strange because these people are all around us, in our homes and in our families, working beside us in the office and playing games on their phones in the subway.

The expertise of abortion patients is everywhere, but it’s largely unsolicited, largely concealed, and mostly absent from our public conversations about reproductive freedom, which are rarely conducted in the first person. Everyone knows women who have had an abortion, but many of us don’t know who in our lives—or who besides ourselves—is among them. If you ask the women in your life, probably only some of them will tell you the truth.

The recent wave of pro-choice merchandising is part of a growing effort to change this, an effort that has a long history. For years, feminists have embarked on public projects meant to change hearts and minds about abortions and the people who have them. Many of these have focused on the confessional, with women speaking about their abortions in an effort to humanize and contextualize the issue.

The most visible effort to move first-person abortion storytelling into the public eye began during feminism’s second wave era. In March of 1969, the New York City socialist feminist group Redstockings arranged for women to tell their abortion stories not in whispers or behind closed doors but in public, on the steps of Greenwich Village’s Washington Square United Methodist Church. Twelve women spoke about their experiences as abortion patients in front of about 300 people, four years before the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.

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