Caution: Personal Abortion Stories in the Marketplace
ACP believes cultural change happens in connection. Sharing your own abortion experience story can be healing for those who find their voice and for those who hear you and grow stronger.
Be warned, she advises if, among other conditions, editors are “Asking readers to send in a particular kind of abortion narrative to fit a specific frame.”
For decades, stories in the media about abortion have been told by everyone from preachers to politicians, but rarely by those who have actually experienced abortion.
Since 2014, that skewed dynamic has changed. More people are breaking their silence, challenging the stigma, and sharing the complex situations around ending their pregnancies. They are opening up in highly public venues, from Facebook and Twitter, to digital magazines and traditional newspapers.
Ideally, every personal abortion story would be handled with respect in the media, encouraging more people to talk about this common medical procedure. But in reality, some venues will exploit abortion stories to sell subscriptions, advertisements, and political points of view. Story tellers and readers alike should approach every media venue with healthy wariness.
Consider TheAtlantic.com, which since early January has been inviting readers to send in their intimate experiences of abortion.
Personal Stories of Abortion Made Public is part of the digital magazine’s ‘reader engagement’ effort — a business strategy to attract consumers and advertisers in an intensely competitive field crowded with social media platforms, blog sites and news apps.
The editors post prompts pegged to various news events in the Notes section, and readers are encouraged to write in with their opinions and experiences.
What happens next is hidden from our view. People we know nothing about make undocumented changes to the text, create headlines, and add introductions, all in a bid to attract and keep reader attention.
Here are key questions to ask when reading The Atlantic series, as well as other first-person abortion narratives published in the popular and profit-driven media:
Do the headlines and other editor-created text contain stigmatizing language? Several of The Atlantic’s abortion narratives are topped with emotionally charged headlines: Blood Was Pouring Down My Face and Down My Throat, screams one. I Got Down to the Basement and Blood Was Everywhere, blares another. Roe v. Wade ‘Unleashed a Beast,’ warns another.
Introductions to the stories prime readers with subjective appraisals of what’s in store. The editors size up the stories for us, characterizing them as gruesome, tragic, heartbreaking, and harrowing. We are told this author is anguished and that author struggles.
At one point, an editor adds her own commentary after a story, introducing the term infanticide and elaborating that the topic is “particularly charged, not least because of the common-sense ‘disgust’ factor.” She includes a handy link to a dense, 29-page academic paper titled, Infanticide.
Do the editors hold personal biases about abortion? The two editors whose names appear with The Atlantic’s reader-generated content, Chris Bodenner and Emma Green, do not state their individual views on abortion. This lack of transparency leaves readers to wonder about their editing decisions.
Some indications of editor bias include:
- Asking readers to send in a particular kind of abortion narrative to fit a specific frame. Green, the publication’s managing editor who also writes about religion and culture, did just that after one reader’s abortion entry. Green asks the audience to send in more stories, “particularly ones that show some of the moral ambiguity in these choices.”
- Offering a negative assessment of the words others use when they talk about their abortions. That’s what Green did when she launched the abortion story-telling section with a ‘note’ titled The Power of Making Abortion Personal. Her prompt, which focuses on the 113 attorneys who filed briefs about their abortions in the Supreme Court case Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, spotlights what she terms the “cognitive dissonance” in the language of the briefs:
“My child” is a way of talking about a person, an entity that can think and has a moral identity. But that’s the opposite of the argument that this brief is making—it’s not a moral issue, these women are saying. It’s a health issue, and a lifestyle issue, and a career issue. The vocabulary seems to fall short of that.
- Including stories that are not told by people who have experienced abortion. The Atlantic editors included a lengthy entry by a man whose narrative is about rejecting abortion, headlined Fathers Have Virtually ZERO Rights.
- Expressing a viewpoint about abortion in other published pieces. For example, last summer, Green wrote this piece headlined, Why are Fewer American Women Getting Abortions? It’s not, she concludes, because women have better access to affordable birth control. It’s because “fewer women feel comfortable getting an abortion.”
Millennials, she declares, are deeply conflicted about abortion for moral reasons, as their views are shaped by religious faith. And Americans in general, she asserts, “are moving away from embracing abortion, not toward it.”
How heavy a hand do the editors have in altering the reader-generated stories? We cannot ask The Atlantic’s reader-authors if or how much their words were changed or rearranged, because their identities are kept anonymous. We can only consider the high quality of the writing and wonder: Do the editors take liberties to accentuate certain scenarios and heighten emotional impact? Do they embellish, omit, or rearrange any details to shape the stories for maximum attraction?
Also, as gatekeepers, do they exclude any stories that don’t fit a preferred frame?
These are mysteries embedded between the lines of the abortion series in The Atlantic’s Notes section, as well as in other media venues publishing abortion stories.
If you want to share your abortion story with the public, spend time researching the site to help ensure your story will be presented with the respect and dignity it deserves. Also, consider sharing through the many grassroots venues listed on our website.
Karen Thurston is an elementary school teacher’s assistant in Georgia. She has shared her abortion experiences in several public venues, including elle.com, refinery29.com, thinkprogress.org, msnbc.com, and The Abortion Diary Podcast.