'We need to stop tiptoeing around the word abortion': Human rights group says key to access is open dialogue

(CNN) — Meg Schurr was 22 years old when she says she was sexually assaulted. A college student in New York with dreams of working in public health, Schurr’s life came to a halt when she found out she became pregnant as a result of the assault in 2014.

“My pregnancy couldn’t have been more unexpected or unwanted: It was the result of an encounter I didn’t want to have and I asked it to stop,” Schurr told CNN.

Abortion felt like her only option. But Schurr, raised in a conservative Catholic home, was terrified of what that meant.

“I was afraid to trust only information from Planned Parenthood, because all my life I had been told how biased they were and how they only provided abortion services for profit,” Schurr said, referring to falsehoods being spread against the sex organization. and nonprofit reproductive health care provider offering abortion services.

But browsing crisis pregnancy center websites, which sometimes rely on misinformation to discourage women from having abortions, only scared her more. Eventually, Schurr’s doctor referred her to a Planned Parenthood clinic.

“I was free to choose without hesitation or barriers just because I was lucky enough to live in the New York metropolitan area,” said Schurr, who now works as an administrative assistant for the reproductive rights think tank Guttmacher Institute.

The freedom to make that choice is something many Americans don’t have; one that people like Schurr fight for.

Republican-majority legislatures, including those in Oklahoma, Idaho and Arizona, have passed a series of new restrictions on abortion in recent weeks. They range from limiting access to abortion to making it a felony to perform or attempt to perform the procedure. In many of these cases, the legislation does not provide exceptions in cases of rape, incest or medical emergency.

In December, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in one of its most important cases in decades, one that is seen as holding the future of abortion rights in the United States at stake. A final ruling is expected in June.

A decision that overturns current Supreme Court precedent on abortion rights, and one that specifically reverses the landmark Roe v. Wade Act of 1973, could lead to the implementation of new bans on abortions and the confirmation of existing bans in states across the country.

Proponents of such legislation often invoke religious doctrine and values, viewing abortion as equivalent to murder. But abortion rights activists say the decision whether or not to give birth is personal and enshrined in civil liberties. They also say that access to abortion can save lives.

Meg Schurr

“Abortion is a human right,” Schurr said. “Political attacks on our fundamental right to abortion, the right to bodily autonomy, the right to chart our own course in life, the right to protect our health and well-being, are grossly unconstitutional, immoral, shameful and pathetic.”

While abortion rights protests often take the form of rallies, donations, and political action, there is another weapon some wield: their stories.

Activists Say “Scream Your Abortion”

In 2015, after Republicans in Congress tried to defund Planned Parenthood, Amelia Bonow took to Facebook with her own abortion story. Inspired to tell the truth, she shared her experience without “sadness, shame, or regret.”

Her Facebook post was shared by feminist and social justice activist Lindy West, who added the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion. Within days, the hashtag went viral, with thousands of women across the country adding their own stories.

The goal of the social media campaign, Bonow told CNN, was “to create ways for people to share their abortion stories and normalize abortion in the broader culture.”

Now Shout Your Abortion (SYA), a nonprofit abortion rights organization co-founded by Bonow and West, shares thousands of stories from people of all ages, races, and gender identities.

“We’re here. We’re having abortions and we’re talking about them, at whatever volume we choose,” says the Shout Your Abortion website. “It’s time for us to take back our own stories.”

Despite the controversy surrounding abortion, it is a common health intervention in the United States, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Six out of 10 of all unexpected pregnancies end in abortion, the WHO reported in 2021.

About one in four American women will have an abortion by the age of 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

But because abortion is considered taboo, most people don’t share their experiences, SYA says, leading to feelings of shame, guilt and isolation. Avoiding the subject also creates an environment riddled with misinformation and, ultimately, harmful legislation.

That is why SYA believes that sharing stories, as well as supporting and funding clinics, is key to protecting the right to abortion.

“We believe that doing all of these things openly, to the extent that a person is comfortable doing so, is how we will build a broad and uncompromising base of support for abortion access,” Bonow said. “We need to start thinking about abortion access as a community responsibility.”

To some, the discussion may seem too public, too open. But women like Arielle Cohen disagree.

In 2012, Cohen was a college student at SUNY Purchase, a campus leader who dreams of becoming a writer.

When she got pregnant mid-semester, with only $1,000 left to last her to the end, abortion felt like her only option.

“I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t been able to come up with the money for those two pills,” Cohen told CNN.

Ariel Cohen

Sharing her experience wasn’t easy, says Cohen, noting that abortions are hard to get, hard to pay for and hard to talk about.

“The stigma and isolation I faced made me very depressed,” she said. “I was embarrassed that I was depressed and I was embarrassed that I didn’t know how to talk about it.”

“I am still deeply troubled by the overwhelming stigma I faced, that so many in my shoes still face,” Cohen said.

Joining the #ShoutYourAbortion movement has allowed Cohen to see firsthand the impact sharing her story has had on others.

“Today I am very proud to say that I had an abortion,” says Cohen. “I’m proud to know that when I first spoke publicly, it created a ripple effect of other people telling me their stories for the first time. I’m honored to share those stories with others.”

A long road ahead

Heather Young remembers being 17 years old and facing the crowd outside a clinic in Middletown, Ohio, where she had a surgical abortion.

“The procedure was not bad, the clinic was quiet and very clean,” Young, now 23, told CNN. “I’ll never forget the protesters outside ranting about Jesus…all the looks I got when I walked in.”

She remembers lying on the table with a nurse holding her hand, talking to Young about each step of the procedure and never once letting her go.

“Although it was a difficult period in my life, I will never forget the incredible people who helped me access the care I needed and deserved,” he said.

Young also feels that the screaming men and women outside the clinic didn’t know enough about her situation to pass judgment.

As a high school student, Young says she was already struggling with mental health and financial issues when she became pregnant.

“The boy who got me pregnant immediately changed from seemingly loving and sweet to mean,” she said.

“I absolutely did not want to bring a child into the world at how young I was and definitely not with the person I slept with,” she said.

Young says she is grateful for the kindness of the clinic staff, as well as all the women who inspired her to share her abortion story. Only then, she says, will the subject be easier to tackle.

“We have to stop tiptoeing around the word abortion,” Young said. “People need to know that people have abortions for many reasons, not just life and death situations. I was 17 years old and scared. I probably wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for my mom and the doctors who helped me.”

The campaign that Bonow and West started has made great strides since 2015.

In addition to sharing thousands of abortion stories, the group now focuses on raising awareness of abortion pills to help expand abortion access, especially for patients living in states where it has been restricted.

The group has a long way to go, with recent legislation including a measure in Oklahoma that would impose a near total ban on abortion. But SYA says their work is more important than ever and the fight for justice will continue, one story at a time.

“I’m not ashamed that it took me years to say it,” Cohen said. “I’m not ashamed that it was difficult. I’m not ashamed that I still think about all the aspects. I’m not ashamed that it was painful. And I’m not going to shut up.”

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