Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Is “coming out” a useful frame to reduce abortion stigma?

Almost a year ago, I launched a campaign on twitter called #ihadanabortion.  I asked women who were comfortable doing so to “come out” about their abortion experience using the hashtag to aggregate all the responses.  I hoped that this would lessen the stigma associated with abortion in some way and give women who’d had abortions a sense of community, a new way to explore their experiences.

What happened was overwhelming—there were hundreds of women talking about their abortions on twitter, giving voice to their experiences and proving statistics correct (1 in 3 US women will have an abortion in her lifetime). The media picked up on this, and soon the pro-choice world did too.  I understood the mainstream media’s hesitation to embrace the idea that twitter is a legitimate place to talk about abortion; they almost always cover abortion from a political perspective, not a personal one. It was more difficult for me to grapple with the critiques from the pro-choice world—not only that abortion is “too private” a  decision to tweet about, but that “coming out” is not a useful frame to use in trying to reduce abortion stigma.

This week’s Butler reading helped me understand this much more in depth. In talking about lesbians coming out, she asks, “So we are out of the closet, and into what?” (p. 122). When asking women to come out about their experiences on twitter, I didn’t anticipate the hostile environment that would ensue. Within a few hours, cruel comments from anti-abortion folks were dominating the conversation. Since twitter is completely public and unregulated, I had no way of protecting or informing the women who’d entered that space to tell their stories.

When I started the hashtag, I had no idea that it would balloon into a media phenomenon. But I also didn’t ask some critical questions: what would be the consequences of “coming out” to the women who participated? What environment would follow their “coming out”? And then, there’s Butler’s observation that some people “coming out” can be at the expense of others: Being ‘out’ always depends to some extent on being ‘in’; it gains its meaning only within that polarity. Hence being ‘out’ must produce the closet again and again in order to maintain itself as ‘out'” (p. 123).

Does one woman “coming out” about her abortion on twitter disable others from doing so? Are we constantly pushing each other into the closet instead of helping each other speak truth to power? Is there a way to empower people to tell their own stories, on their own terms, reduce stigma, and not create the theoretical closet over and over again?

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