More activists who have had abortions are saying so out loud. Here's why Advocates for abortion rights used to commonly assert that the procedure should be "safe, legal and rare," but that motto has become deeply controversial as the movement tries to remove stigma.

More activists who have had abortions are saying so out loud. Here's why

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The Texas law that almost completely bans abortions, which is now before the Supreme Court, has provoked some abortion rights advocates to share their own abortion stories.

Democratic Congresswoman Cori Bush of Missouri shared her experience at a congressional hearing.


CORI BUSH: Choosing to have an abortion was the hardest decision I had ever made. But at 18 years old, I knew it was the right decision for me. It was freeing, knowing I had options.

INSKEEP: Telling personal stories is a prominent strategy now for the abortion rights movement.

Here's NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: In 1992, an estimated half a million people gathered in Washington, D.C., for a rally for abortion rights. Celebrities like Jane Fonda spoke at what was one of the largest protests in the city's history.


JANE FONDA: For those of you who aren't here and are watching on television, I don't even see the end of the crowd that's here.


KURTZLEBEN: In nearly four hours of speeches, no one stepped up to the mic and said, I have had an abortion. In contrast, personal abortion stories were a centerpiece of the Rally for Abortion Justice in Washington, D.C. last month.

One woman, who simply went by Anna, described the process of getting an abortion in her home state of Texas as a teenager.


ANNA: I had to prove to the judge that I was a good student and mature enough to have an abortion.


ANNA: Do you know what I wanted to say to the judge? I am not a baby-making machine. And I should be able to decide if and when I become pregnant.


KURTZLEBEN: Kenya Martin from the National Network of Abortion Funds likewise encouraged people to be unapologetic about their abortions.


KENYA MARTIN: And it's OK to have abortions after some hot sex simply because you don't want to be pregnant. I just didn't want to be pregnant. And I want you to know that if that's your experience, that's OK, too. Your story deserves to be heard.

KURTZLEBEN: Telling personal abortion stories has become central to the abortion rights movement. One hope is that telling stories will normalize the procedure, making Americans more sympathetic. There is evidence that many Americans underestimate how common abortion is. Just under 1 in 4 women will have an abortion before the age of 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights. In addition, people have grown more sorted by party. In other words, Democrats who identify as pro-life and Republicans who identify as pro-choice have grown rarer.

Ziad Munson is a professor of sociology at Lehigh University.

ZIAD MUNSON: The abortion issue has become so important in identifying partisanship in this country. The pro-choice movement's no longer thinking about the broader public in the same way because they're not trying to reach everyone. They're trying to reach their people, by which they think of that as Democrats.

KURTZLEBEN: That's reflected in the politics of abortion. The 1990s-era Democratic slogan safe, legal and rare is now deeply controversial among abortion rights activists, many of whom consider it stigmatizing. And yet, many Americans do not have absolutist views on abortion. For decades, a plurality of Americans have said they believe abortion should be legal in some circumstances. Today, another one-third say it should always be legal. And one-fifth say it should always be illegal.

Within the movement opposing abortion rights, storytelling has long been a strategy, specifically stories of regret. Activist Abby Johnson spoke at the 2020 Republican National Convention about her journey from Planned Parenthood staffer to abortion rights opponent.


ABBY JOHNSON: When a physician asked me to assist with an ultrasound-guided abortion, nothing prepared me for what I saw on the screen.

KURTZLEBEN: The push to destigmatize abortion is also intertwined with race.

Kamyon Conner is executive director of the TEA Fund, a Texas-based abortion fund.

KAMYON CONNER: Hearing from those communities that are affected - folks that are low income, Black and Indigenous and other folks of color - is very important because they face different barriers to accessing care than some other individuals might.

KURTZLEBEN: Now the Supreme Court is hearing from people who have had abortions.

Renee Bracy Sherman is executive director of We Testify, which helped compile a brief filed in a Mississippi case the court is set to hear next month.

RENEE BRACEY SHERMAN: My mother has never shared her abortion story publicly and never signed anything that I have asked her to sign over the years. But when it came to this brief, she was like, yeah, I'll sign it. And I asked her why. And she said, because I'm just fed up.

KURTZLEBEN: More than 6,600 people who have had abortions have signed on.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.


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