Every year, the Lilith Fund honors a community partner demonstrating outstanding commitment to reproductive rights and abortion access. In 2012, we honored Amy Hagstrom Miller, the Founder, President and CEO of the Whole Woman’s Health network, for her unfailing dedication to safe, affordable and stigma-free abortion access in Texas and beyond. Here is an excerpt of her incredibly moving award acceptance speech:
For me, abortion care is a calling.
Sometimes I introduce myself as someone who works in women’s health, in other circles I say I am an abortion provider, but really, the business I see myself in is The Identity Examination Self Esteem Boosting Stigma Eradication business.
Abortion involves all the big things in life – sex, death, life, religion, family, money. Providing abortion gives me the opportunity to have heart-to-heart conversations about these things every single day. I get to sit with a woman as she examines what she believes – as she looks at what matters most to her. What are her intentions? What are her dreams? Abortion is a rite of passage for many women – it is often one of the first times where women take a look at the values that they have inherited from their family/church/culture/education and decide which ones are applicable or meaningful to them, and which ones are not.
As you know, in Texas we have endured more than our fair share of legislation targeting abortion providers. These laws are seldom in the true interest of the health and safety of women and are one of the most damaging products of abortion stigma. These regulations arise out of a political agenda designed to make abortion almost impossible for practitioners to provide and for women to access. They make false assumptions about a woman’s capacity to understand what it means to be pregnant, and to make a sound moral choice on her own.
We know that women are the right and moral decision makers for the most fundamental of choices – whether or not to give birth and whether or not to parent. Throughout time women have made decisions to control their own fertility. Women have always had abortions. Sometimes the available choices are safe, sometimes they are not. With these greater restrictions we see women take matters into their own hands – we see street use of Cytotec – in fact we have seen women come to the clinic with an entire bottle of 50 pills inserted into their vagina. We hear about things like the baseball bat incident in Michigan – where a teenager asked her boyfriend to hit her with a baseball bat to induce a miscarriage so she could avoid the parental consent law. These incidents are the byproducts of legislative restrictions. This is what happens as a direct result of the silence and stigma around abortion in this country. Unsafe abortion is back.
Many Americans have no idea what abortion care providers go through on a daily basis to ensure that women have access to the care they deserve. The harassment we face is profound, and it is constant, like a slow rolling boil. The fact that it is tolerated by law enforcement and the general population is very directly related to abortion stigma.
We providers know about the continuum of violence – and that if the small infractions – like sign ordinances or trespassing – are not addressed quickly and formally by law enforcement then the anti abortion forces are empowered and they act out even more.
In the United States since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 there have been over 47 million women who have chosen to have safe, legal abortions. 38% of women, that is more than 1 out of 3, in the USA will have an abortion by the age of 45. And nearly all those women have one or more loved one support them through their abortion. That is a lot of people.
So, why is stigma around abortion so successful? Why does the shame persist and silence pervade when so many people share the abortion experience?
Most of the time these 47 million women are silent. Most of the time the loved ones who helped them with their abortion don’t talk about it either. Most of the time abortion providers and workers are silent once they leave the clinic. In fact, the pro-choice majority is often silent.
Most of the people talking about abortion in our society are anti-abortion.
As abortion providers, we often feel and are looked at as the “radical fringe of the pro-choice movement” – even among our friends and supporters. In fact some of the most judgmental and stigma filled comments (therefore the ones that hurt the most) I have heard over the years are from people who claim to be supportive or pro-choice.
We providers do the “dirty work” of abortion – we deal with the blood and the fetuses, we handle the money, we deal with the emergencies – all the things pro-choice people don’t want to talk about and that the anti’s love.
When I talk about my work in the mainstream world people are often pretty quiet. Eventually, when they feel comfortable enough with me I am often asked, “so, why abortion care?” or “how can you do this work?” Even by supporters, by pro-choice people I see this question on their face or experience the silence or separation when I talk about providing abortions. When the theory of abortion rights collides with the messy medical and challenging emotional issues that bubble up in the reality of provision our movement is very challenged. Fetuses, blood, emergencies are not glamorous. Neither is repeat abortion or sex selection abortion or regret after abortion or patients who worry about killing and murder.
I EXPEREINCE stigma all the time in my work; the hospital will not give privileges to our physicians, we can’t secure local back up doctors, we can’t get anyone to provide us with bottled water or replace our tile floors or replace our roof or resurface our parking lot.
I HEAR stigma everywhere:
“Abortion should be rare”
“Abortion is a tragedy”
“Abortion is only 3% of our budget”
“I am pro-choice but I’d never have an abortion”
“I am not like those other women”
“I don’t believe in abortion as birth control”
You may have heard these statements. You may have said these words yourselves. You may have thought these thoughts.
The reality is, however, that without us there is no choice. Without providers, the right to abortion is just an idea – it is just something on paper that means nothing to women in actuality.
So, what does it take to keep 47 million women and their loved ones silent? You have to spend millions of dollars to shame them – to tell them they are murderers over and over until they believe it themselves. And you must threaten and intimidate and ultimately murder those who provide them this care. For over 35 years abortion providers have been the buffer between the anti-abortion movement and the women who have abortions. We have tried to protect women and shield them from the hostility of the antis as well as provide them with impeccable medical care. This is not working.
To me, eradicating stigma is the single most important thing we can do for abortion rights in this country and it is my life’s work.
I believe my work is to honor women. Making an abortion decision is a time when a woman acts with intention. When she chooses a path for her life and the direction she will travel. I want to NOTICE that moment of acting with intention and hold it up high for the woman to notice and to feel and own as hers. I invite her to experience her life as though she were in charge of it. There are many times in a woman’s life where “life happens to them” and abortion stands out as a time when I can support a woman to be the actor in her own life – the chooser – not a victim but an intentional, deliberate and ethical person choosing what is best for them.
Sitting with a woman as she examines her abortion decision provides me an opportunity to plant seeds that will change the world. I can invite a woman to look at her life differently than she may have before she came to my clinic. I have a moment to affirm that she is good, to affirm that she is moral and kind, and to affirm that she is not selfish. I can witness her dreams and her desires and affirm that she is put on this Earth to see them out and to act on her own gifts, not just to receive the lot that has been dealt to her. I have an opportunity to shine some light on her situation and turn on a light bulb or two in her thinking – especially about what is possible, what she is capable of, etc.
Whole Woman’s Health clinics offer an oasis from the stigma and shame surrounding abortion in our culture, from the voices and the judgments of others that often make it difficult to sit quietly and contemplate a big decision.
The opportunity to invite women to accept themselves and to live out their dreams is a byproduct of abortion care to some people, but to me it IS abortion care. I can make a contribution that matters – I can truly change the world one woman at a time, simply by sitting next to a woman, listening to her story, witnessing her experience and gently nudging her to be all that she can be.
This changes the world.
And this is why I provide abortions.