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Abortion storytellers and the harassment they face

Abortion storytellers and the harassment they face
© ANNA GASSOT/AFP/Getty Images

Next month, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in June Medical Services v. Gee, the first major abortion-related case to come before the Court since Justice Kavanaugh’s appointment to the bench. The case largely focuses on a Louisiana law designed to close abortion clinics by imposing the exact requirements that the Court declared unconstitutional in the 2016 case Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt

Yet this time around, abortion opponents are arguing that only patients, not abortion providers (such as Whole Woman’s Health or June Medical Services), should be able to bring these cases and that nothing prevents patients from doing so. This raises an unusual and pertinent question: is it reasonable to expect people seeking time-sensitive, stigmatized health care to drop everything and sue their state? 

If an abortion patient were to bring a case to the Court, they’d undoubtedly be subject to increased public scrutiny, just like Norma McCorvey (“Roe”) endured in Roe vs. Wade, the case that legalized abortion in the United States. Yet much has changed in our society and media environments since 1973. 

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To understand the experiences of people who come forward with their abortion experiences today, my colleagues and I at the University of California, San Francisco conducted an exploratory survey, published today in the peer-reviewed journal "Contraception X."  Led by Dr. Katie Woodruff, we surveyed people across the United States who have shared their own abortion stories online, in legislatures, on panels, and through many other venues. Though many reported on the rewarding aspects of abortion storytelling, they also revealed the emotional toll of harassment and threats.

According to the Pew Research Center, about 40 percent of Americans have experienced some form of online harassment. However, abortion storytellers face much higher levels of harassment; 60 percent of them reported experiencing harassment or negative incidents related to being public about their abortions.

Anonymity was no protection: the majority of people who used tactics like only sharing their first name or using an alias to try and conceal their identities still reported such harassment. 

One person disclosed their reasons for using a pseudonym, saying: “I fear some of these people might come after me and attempt to harm my family or me if they know who I am.” We found that these negative experiences were more common for people who shared their stories more than five times compared to those who shared less frequently.

This is especially concerning considering how often a patient would have to share their story in the course of a lawsuit, and the fact that their anonymity would likely not protect them from harassment. 

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Abortion storytellers reported especially hostile and aggressive harassment, including being called offensive names, receiving distressing images online, and even receiving death threats or threats to their physical safety. The most common offensive names reported included: “baby-killer,” “murderer,” “bitch,” “slut,” “whore,” and “killer.” More detailed insults included being called an “unfit mother,” a “diseased cow,” and “devil worshiper.” One person recalled a more specific string of insults, “I’ve been called a baby killer online, an absolute piece of shit and disgrace to the...family, disgusting.”

Another shared just how far one person went to harass her: “I’ve had a person create a fake account and follow most of my friends and me online and share my pots to ‘prove’ that I’m a murderer. Thay tagged my friends in posts where they called me...insults and posted graphic photos.” 

Almost half of the abortion storytellers reported that this virulent harassment contributed to emotional stress, problems with friends and family members, or difficulties at work or school. Some storytellers were fired from their jobs as a result of being public about their abortions, and others faced different kinds of consequences at work: “Someone emailed my boss and told him I was a pedophile and murderer and should be fired. Luckily, the police were called, and he recanted.” Others faced harsh judgment from long-cherished friends: “I had a dear friend...tell her family...I was no longer welcome in their home. After telling one or two friends, they stopped speaking to me. Some called me [a] baby killer.” 

Despite these harrowing stories, the majority of people who took our survey also had positive experiences, noting that sharing their abortion publicly was empowering and an effective way to influence policymakers. Some even channeled the harassment into motivation for their continued storytelling: “I see the harassment as emotional and psychological violence, and I want to do all I can to stop the brutality.” 

Our survey, the first that we know of that documents the experiences of people who share their abortion stories publicly, provides cautionary context to the questions under consideration at the Supreme Court. Though modest in scope, our results suggest that people who share their abortion stories publicly experience considerable harassment, resulting in lasting negative consequences in both their personal and professional lives.

Given that our survey sample was both older and whiter than the population of abortion patients in the United States, a more extensive study might find even higher rates of harassment, especially considering that both people of color and young people experience more harassment than their older and white peers. 

Nevertheless, considering the increased magnitude of scrutiny that a hypothetical abortion patient would encounter as a plaintiff in a court case, these accounts of harassment are enough to give anyone pause. It makes me wonder: How much vitriol and emotional abuse should we expect people to suffer for trying to protect their right to a safe and common health care procedure?

Steph Herold, MPH, is a researcher at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco. She studies abortion and culture with a focus on television and film.