The Beyoncé of Storytelling
2019 - which so far has given us more Lizzo than we deserve, Booksmart, and the glory that is Megan Rapinoe - has also been filled with serious challenges to abortion and reproductive freedom. More than 37 states have adopted new restrictions on abortions in 2019, the Alabama State Legislature passed a near-total abortion ban, and Planned Parenthood was forced to refuse Title X funding in order to continue providing abortion services. These new, and old, restrictions on access to abortion continue to place the heaviest burden on marginalized communities and women of color. While none of this is new, we’re seeing Republican-led state legislatures emboldened to challenge Roe.
While we hear a lot about the politics of abortion and the partisan fight over access - the voices of those who actually access abortions are rarely centered.
Honeybee decided to call up Renee Bracey Sherman, the self-described Beyoncé of abortion storytelling, to better understand why storytelling is essential in de-stigmatizing abortion, why reproductive justice needs to be the leading framework, and how sharing her abortion story has changed her life.
ON HOW SHE GOT INTO ABORTION STORYTELLING
Gosh, how did I get into this? The short answer is I had an abortion. But the longer answer is that I feel like I was raised this way. When I was in college, I took this class on the Sociology of HIV and AIDS and it changed my life because my professor was HIV positive. He was an anti-racist white dude and he was the first person to teach me the word intersectionality, which gave me a word for what I had been feeling in my life as a biracial black woman who experienced privilege in some places but oppression in others. That class showed me how important structures are in deciding who gets access to care and information.
I had had an abortion a couple years earlier, but I didn't really talk to anyone about it. I knew my family would support an abortion but I just didn't want to be seen as a failure.
After college I moved to California and started working with LGBT youth doing lobby days and sharing their stories with legislators to really change the conversation. But I realized that I could not ask them to share their stories and bear their souls if I wasn't willing to do that myself. I finally started sharing my abortion story in 2010, and it really changed my life. It was quite amazing to be met with such love and kindness.
EVERYONE LOVES SOMEONE WHO'S HAD AN ABORTION
Everyone loves someone who's had an abortion. You may not know it because they haven't actually told you, but that might be because you are using terms or saying things that are extremely stigmatizing.
At the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF) we fund abortion. We are not afraid of it. That is what we do. We want our tax dollars to fund abortion. We are very clear about what we do and why. We want to build the power of people who are having abortions. We need to make sure that people who have had abortions are the leaders in this movement, that they are centered, that their leadership is lifted up. I feel like that's something that I learned from the LGBT community because they would never let a straight person run a queer organization.
ON WHY IT'S ABOUT MORE THAN ABORTION
A lot of people think that reproductive justice is a synonym for abortion, and it is not. It is an entire framework created by black women to not only address the decision not to have a child, but also to have children, to be able to parent them with respect and with resources and all of those things. It's all human rights. If we cannot decide who we are, what our family size is, what do we have control over? It’s really scary. People seem to think that they're going to stop with abortion, which they are not. We need to have a larger conversation about what it means to be a community and what it means to be able to raise a family in our country. And people have wildly different views of what that looks like.
ON WHY IT'S NOT A "BOTH SIDES" ISSUE
“Someone would rather kill me than let me get healthcare.” - RBS
At the clinic, there’s a bullet-proof, bomb-proof door. When I got my abortion, it was quite terrifying to think, “Wow, they would rather bomb this clinic, and I'd be inside, and that would be a win for them.” There’s also the constant barrage of death threats that I get in my email and on social media all the time. From the moment I got my abortion, it really hasn't stopped.
My experience is nothing compared to providers and clinic staff who deal with it every single day. For a lot of people when they're having their abortion, they're not really thinking about the protest aspect of it or the, “Oh, this is my constitutional right aspect.” They're just like, “I need an abortion right now because I need to get out of this situation.”
I've clinic escorted and I remember one woman was terrified to come down the block to the clinic. She said, “Are they going to kill me? Oh my God, are they going to kill me?” So I ran her in the back door and assured her that they were not. But that doesn't change the fact that it's quite terrifying. Now I'm at the point where people tell me they're going to kill me, and I'm just like, “Okay, cool.” The violence is so normalized in our situation that it doesn’t really stay with me anymore.
People are violent outside of clinics and it's still looked at as a “both sides” issue. The fact that news outlets constantly interview the providers and the patients and then go out to the protesters who are threatening their lives and show them as equal in documentaries drives me up the wall, because those are not equal.
ON CALLING BULLSHIT
None of these restrictions are based in any sort of science or medical evidence. Abortion is one of the safest procedures and there is no medical justification for any of these bans. And an abortion ban is an abortion ban whether it's a six-week or a 24-week ban. It is a ban because that means someone is not able to get it.
One of the things people misunderstand is justifying the need for an abortion based on exception cases like fetal anomalies, rape, and incest. It doesn't actually help the cause. All of us deserve to have an abortion, and people shouldn't have to bear their reason to you. If someone does not want to be pregnant, or they do not want to continue the pregnancy, they have that right to have an abortion.
ON WHY SHIT-TALKING THE SOUTH IS SERIOUSLY UNHELPFUL
I'll hear people talking about how backwards the South is, and it’s so disrespectful. There are advocates on the ground who are fighting tooth and nail to make sure that abortion is safe and that it is accessible and that people are supported and they really don't need to hear this. They already know how hard it is, they live there. We need people who are ready to get down in the dirt and help. The South is also gerrymandered to all hell, and states across the country are going on 10 years of minority rule. This anti-abortion extremism is not what the general population believes. So not only are they fighting to make sure that abortion stays legal and accessible, they're also fighting for their right to vote and making sure they don't get shot in the face by police. And conservatives are not going to stop with the south, that's just where it's starting. And if you are not going to recognize the resistance that's in the south then you actually have no business in the organizing.
ON BEING VULNERABLE WITH YOURSELF AND YOUR STORY
I'm going to tell you a secret that I only tell people when I am prepping them for abortion storytelling: I actually don't tell my entire abortion story. No one is entitled to your abortion story. You can tell them as much or as little as you want. It’s more than enough just to say, “I had an abortion.” And you don't even have to do that. There are a number of things about my abortion that I keep to myself, and that is really important for me.
People don't really think about how much labor and emotion goes into sharing an abortion story because it can be quite exhausting. You're delving into sometimes a really difficult part of or moment in your life, maybe not because of the abortion but maybe because of a relationship you're in or a place you were living in or a place where you are mentally, so it's all of those things.
I do not care what people who haven't had abortions think about me, to be quite honest. That is not the goal of my work. I do not debate my humanity with anti-abortion advocates. I'm a black woman and I'm also not going to debate my humanity and my existence with a white supremacist. Oddly enough, those are the exact same people.
Any time I'm speaking, my goal and my audience is making sure that people who've had abortions are the ones who are hearing me. If you're out there and reading this, you're not alone. I love you. I'm here for you. I'm unapologetically here for people who've had abortions.
ON THE SPECTRUM OF RAGE
There's so many moments.
It's complicated because sometimes there is a moment that I am enraged but it just looks like me putting my head down and saying,“Okay, what do I need to do?” One of those moments was when Alejandra Pablo, one of our abortion storytellers, was detained by ICE. I was enraged and upset at this country. She was being detained because of a piece of paper. But the way my rage showed up was, “Okay, how do we sound the alarm? How do we get past this? How do we get people talking about this?” So there's that version. And then there is the rage that shows up that's probably really unhelpful, like when I was in a hearing with former Representative Trent Frank.
He is a creep, but also he's Steve King. He began by narrating an ultrasound and he was just going on and on about how precious this little fetus was. And I was like, “Well, is he going to have healthcare?” Trent Frank turned to me and he was like, “Well if he can make it to live.” That whole scene enraged me - this fetish that they have with a fetus instead of the real people who are in front of them, instead of the actual babies that are out there that need help, that need food. And they literally put an ultrasound on the chair to the point that women didn't actually have seats. It was so ridiculous.
Those are the moments that enrage me the most. Seeing the disdain that they have for black people, in particular black women, in real life, and then how much they just glorify this fetus, this idea of a person. I think their obsession with this fetus is simply because it is a black person that does not speak back to them. It is a black person who does not challenge them on their hypocrisy, does not ask anything of them, does not ask them to do their job, does not ask them for the right to vote, does not ask them for healthcare.
ON WHAT'S NEXT
The tough part about all of this is that what is happening right now has been happening for years. It was the logical next step. Abortion has never really been accessible, ever since the Hyde Amendment which bans any sort of federal funding to pay for abortions.
But that's also where abortion funds come from. Abortion funds came out of necessity and abortion funds will always be there because there will always be some sort of financial or logistical barrier to an abortion - whether it's your health insurance, not having the money, or you simply just don't have a ride or need somebody to watch your kids. Even with no restrictions that's always going to be there.
My hope is that with all of the attacks that are happening, people are going to wake up to the alarm that's been sounded for more than 20 years and start getting involved. That means donating to their local abortion fund, volunteering at their local clinic, doing clinic escorting, or doing practical support with their local abortion providers. Because it's about to get rough.
Also, a shout out to all the providers who are doing amazing work. I had my abortion at an independent provider and I think it's really important to lift them up right now because all of the clinics in states that have only one or a handful of clinics left are independent clinics. They don't have the infrastructure or the legal support, so it's really important that we lift them up.
SOME GOOD ADVICE
“Do it again.” If you do it again you're learning.
ADVICE TO RUN AWAY FROM
The worst advice is what they told us in our yearbooks. They would write, “Never change,” and, “Stay the same.” That is the worst advice anyone could ever give, because if you never change that means you are never trying to learn, never trying to do better, never trying to grow.
WHAT'S ON HER BOOKSHELF
An American Marriageby Tayari Jones
The Untellingby Tayari Jones
We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhoodby Dani McClain
Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Libertyby Dorothy Roberts
Comics for Choice
Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister
I Might Regret This by Abbi Jacobson
SHE'S OBSESSED WITH …
Dorothy Roberts. She’s the author of Killing the Black Body, and she is a brilliant mind and speaks to all the things we’re dealing with right now when it comes to reproduction and the way in which bodies are treated.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: I’ve been crushing on her because I recently found out that she learned Swedish to translate Sweden’s law code.
Beyoncé: Beyoncé is always the Queen.
Meghan Markle: I'm obsessed with Meghan Markle to the point that one of my friends was like, “Are you a Royalist?” And I was like, “Maybe, I don’t know.”
Marsha P. Johnson: I have a picture on my wall and the P stands for “pay it no mind.”