The best coffee table book you can buy is about abortion

By Zosha Millman
November 7th, 2018

You should be talking about abortion more.

That’s a simple idea behind both the movement and the new book, “Shout Your Abortion.” Co-founded in 2015 by Amelia Bonow and Lindy West, the movement grew seemingly overnight; as the book notes in the foreword, what began as a simple Facebook post turned into a voice that one in four uterus-having people have experienced.

The book itself is an extension of the movement. Edited by Bonow and Emily Nokes (lead singer for Tacocat, among other things), it continues to share

people’s abortion stories (40 included here, plus three comics and a couple interviews with providers) without judgement and is bright and vibrant like a zine.

Flipping through the pages is powerful, to see so many different types of tales about the same experience. But Bonow and Nokes wanted the book to be more than just a confirmation. This is a book that they plan on putting in waiting rooms at clinics, and hopefully something that’s accessible to all the people who get abortions — which, as statistics show, is a big portion of the country.

Bonow spoke with the SeattlePI about how they went about compiling the book, what she hopes people take away from it, and how the SYA movement is still working to normalize abortion.

The book is called “Shout Your Abortion,” and is out now on the SYA website. You can listen to a reading at Elliott Bay Books on Nov. 10, and then attend a big event at the Neptune with Bonow, West and a bunch of special guests (including some “secret music guests”) on Dec. 5.

How did the book come together?

We were initially talking (to PM Press about a different project). And then after the election it just felt really critical to create a tool that could go be in abortion clinics, that could be in college campuses, and just a thing that people find in bookstores and all the other places you could find books that communicates that this conversation and this movement are happening in all sorts of different ways, and there are all sorts of different ways to find your way in.

Regardless of your comfort level with the conversation, you can start by picking up this book and reading people’s abortion stories — which might not be a thing that you’ve ever done before, and I think might be a thing that most of us haven’t done before, because most of us haven’t really had a culture that talks about abortion. … I think that there’s something that works well about presenting a whole bunch of different people doing a whole bunch of different things and trusting that the reader will be able to find something in this sea of documentation of individuals that resonates with them.

And so I think we wanted the book to feel the same way, and really represent the vast and amorphous nature of this movement, and what it’s been in the last few years. Which is just this really free-form idea that people can talk about their abortions however they want, and that that looks all sorts of different ways depending on who you are, where you live, what your community is like, and how you feel about it.

One of the things that stuck out to me reading through the book and the website is how important it is to emphasize that whatever these reasons are for getting an abortion, they don’t matter. But it’s also part of the story; part of each of these abortions that happened, is the reasoning behind them. Did you gear or steer the writers when they were writing for the book?

No, I did not. It’s interesting because I think there are certain through-lines in how people present their stories in various emotional scenes and circumstantial scenes, and just the way the experience impacts the person’s life. There are through-lines that just exist naturally and we did not do anything to bring those to the surface; we literally just talked to people.

Geographical diversity was one of the most macro (criteria); like, OK I have met thousands of people that have had abortions that they want to talk about at this point. Where do we go about choosing 40 of them to be in a book? And geographical diversity was an easy place to start, because it’s such a determinant of what someone’s experience is like, from the literal ease of access to the service to the entire cultural context in which they lived. So we chose cities where we had strong connections to people either in the movement or through clinics, or just art people we knew or people who had done SYA stuff in the past. And then we started talking to people that might be interested in telling their story.

And really the only guidelines we gave people were word lengths. We were just like “Give us an essay that’s 600 to 1,200 words. You can tell it in whatever way you feel comfortable with, it can be sort of prose-y or a straight-up personal essay.” There were no guardrails.

And I think you bring up a really interesting point which is — you know, my own story, which I wrote a long time ago, right after SYA blew up, starts with me saying “I’m not going to explain the circumstances behind getting pregnant, and here’s why.” Because I feel like people so often — even pro-choice people who have abortions — people are so subliminally trained to rationalize or apologize or justify our choice. And I just fundamentally don’t believe that choice requires any of those things. I think it’s all justified, full stop. I think there should be exactly as many abortions as people want there to be. And people wanting to have an abortion is needing to have an abortion.

And I think that a number of other people’s stories start in a very similar way.

A passage from the book,

Photo: Screenshot From “Shout Your Abortion”

A passage from the book, “Shout Your Abortion.”

Something that struck me reading a lot of the essays in the book is that a lot of them invoke bigger concepts like “bipartisanship,” or “patriarchy,” or “feminism” — but it doesn’t necessarily feel “political.” It feels more than just drum-beating and saying “this is the patriarchy, and we need to fight about it;” it’s really grounding those stories.

It sounds like that was something you guys were definitely hoping for, but was that crucial to the #ShoutYourAbortion movement overall?

I’m glad that’s how you experienced it. The fact is that … women who consider themselves to be “pro-life” and anti-abortion have abortions all day, every day. Like every abortion care provider will tell you, they have provided abortions for people they’ve seen protesting their clinics. Like I say in the preface, every single kind of person has abortions, and for every different kind of reason, and it makes people feel every different kind of way.

I think it’s all justified, full stop. I think there should be exactly as many abortions as people want there to be. And people wanting to have an abortion is needing to have an abortion.

And it really is an issue that’s been turned into this super super partisan issue. When it’s actually one of the most universal issues that we have. It’s so disingenuous to say that abortion is a women’s issue, or democrat’s issue.

Yeah, like Lindy West says in her foreword, abortion has a branding issue.

Yeah, absolutely! And I think abortion stigma as we experience it today, and the modern anti-choice movement, the demonization of doctors, and the horrific anti-choice billboards — these things are all the product of the rise of the “moral majority and religious right” in the 1990s. And it hasn’t always been like this; it’s totally a branding thing, where the other side realized that they could essentially re-brand abortion as murder, and that they could give poor white folks in the south and religious folks a place to feel morally indignant. And they just dumped a gas on that fire and created a really militant anti-choice movement.

But I just truly believe that the vast majority of Americans are a lot more reasonable about this issue than we think they are. And we know that because they’re having abortions! And because 70 percent of people support Roe v. Wade. Abortion has always been part of our lives, and our communities and our families and our lives have been shaped by abortion. It’s a fact.

Especially — to go back to your point, of not being a “smash the patriarchy manifesto” or whatever: We got a grant pretty early on in the production of this book to mail this book to dozens of abortion clinics for their waiting and recovery rooms. So people who are going to have abortions are going to be able to read this book right before and after they have their procedure.

And it’s really important to me that we didn’t make a book that would totally alienate people of faith. Or people who vote Republican, for that matter. Or people who don’t identify as feminists. I didn’t want to use language that felt inaccessible, even just jargon-y, feminist words like patriarchy. It’s fine if a person who’s telling their story wants to use those words, but if I frame the whole thing as “this is a tool to help you destroy white supremacy and smash the patriarchy” — those aren’t universally appealing concepts, and I want to help give people an opportunity to engage with abortion stories and potentially tell their own. And that’s really all that we’re trying to do.

People celebrate the Supreme Court’s ruling on Texas abortion rights, Monday night in Capitol Hill during a #ShoutYourAbortion event, June 27, 2016.

One of the almost tensions of the book is that you underscore a lot that you think it’s important to talk about abortion and reduce stigma, but not everybody owes their story to everybody.

I think that’s a totally fair statement but how did you process that, for yourself or for the movement, where it might be case where someone didn’t feel safe — is the end goal for everyone to feel safe to talk about it? Or is it something more like a colonoscopy where you can talk about it but maybe not in a work meeting?

I hope that I do say, throughout — I hope that readers gather that I truly don’t think there’s anything morally or politically better or more righteous (in) choosing to be public or share your abortion story. [Editor’s note: Don’t worry! She makes this extra clear in the book.] And for all of the reasons that you just alluded to; it’s not feasible for some people because it’s just not. And it’s also just not a thing that a lot of people want to do, because they don’t want to talk about sex with other people.

I mean, there are just so many reasons and all of that feels valid to me. I think that we can say that that’s all valid, but we can also say the collective silence around this issue and the super pervasive expectation of silence surrounding the experience of abortion is something that we are all collectively on the hook for. We are all being damaged by silence, because the anti-choice movement is leveraging it against us pretty effectively and filling that silence with lies.

The fact that there aren’t real human people and real human stories (means) they’re able to dehumanize the people that choose abortion and the people that perform abortion because there aren’t real people standing there saying, “Hey, you’re talking about me.” I’m just your neighbor

It’s true that states aren’t required to submit abortion data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but an overwhelming majority of them do. A controversial issue, abortion is a medical procedure with a lot of ideology and political tension stoking the fire of controversy. Here are the facts, as reported to and presented by the CDC, about legally-induced abortion.

…. I just think it should be a thing people can talk about if they want. And that we will all be better off if the conversation is not — if it’s something we’ve engaged with at all! It’s just incredible to me how many people have not had a conversation with another person about their abortion. Of course we’re totally weird about it! And of course our politics around it are warped and don’t represent people’s actual needs and lives. We’ve like never talked about it. We’ve like never made art about it; it’s totally avoided in pop culture, to a really conspicuous degree considering how common of an experience it is. And I think people are really ready to talk about it, because it’s a part of life.

Definitely. I know you mentioned at the top of this interview that we’re in a much different place than when you were first approached about this book. But I think in a lot of ways we’re in the same place, or an extension of the same place we were in 2016.

What has it been like gearing up to release this book in the political atmosphere we’re in now? I know social media was really important to the early #ShoutYourAbortion movement, and even that has changed since 2015 when the movement started.

Abortion access has been decimated over the last five years, and now we know under this administration, and especially with Kavanaugh on the bench, that it will continue to be decimated. We know that Roe v. Wade is very likely toast, and access will be eliminated at the state level.

And at the same time — (while) that’s all really horrible, and devastating — we’re living in a country where there’s seven states with one abortion clinic. Over 90 percent of counties lack a single clinic. And millions of Americans just don’t have access to the service, and essentially never did — especially because of the Hyde Amendment, which makes it so you can’t use Medicaid to pay for abortion.

So abortion has already been a service that is not available to people based on their level of means, and on class and on race. So if you’re a person who lives in Mississippi who couldn’t drive 100 miles and had a baby that you can’t care for three years ago, the fall of Roe probably does not feel like a new layer of catastrophe to you. So when we think about the fact that the system as we know it — which has been providing abortions — is crumbling and failing, it’s really alarming, but it’s also like, OK, well it’s already failed. It’s failed many many people, and we have to come up with something better.

A passage from the book,

Photo: Screenshot From “Shout Your Abortion”

A passage from the book, “Shout Your Abortion.”

Which I think is going to look like more and more people accessing abortion regardless of legality by buying abortion pills online, and using resources like (our) resource section in the back of the book that I’m super proud of. (It) essentially lists a number of organizations that you can use to have a safe abortion outside of a medical context and that you can use to acquire abortion pills regardless of the legality in your specific geographic location. And I think that looking to the future, that knowing what those resources are, and really proliferating that information is critical. It’s how we have to be good community members that know how to take care of each other.

And I guess the other thing I would say … even if we were under a Clinton administration right now, we would still be needing to do all of the same work around normalizing conversations around abortion, and beginning to dismantle this expectation of compulsory silence around abortion, and dismantle abortion stigma, and begin building communities where people can find support and talk about their experiences with other people that have had similar experiences.
The work is still totally undone.

Definitely — I mean, you started this under Obama, right?

Yeah, yeah. And it’s still just a thing that fundamentally most people have never talked about. The access landscape has certainly changed really dramatically, and I think that just culturally … the stakes feel higher in some ways. But also, people are more ready to talk and put themselves out there than they have ever before, and possibly more so than they would have been under a Clinton presidency.

There was a woman who was a former editor of Glamour named Cindi Leive, who wrote an op-ed I think in (June) for The New York Times, right after Kennedy retired but before Kavanaugh was appointed. And (she’s) been a public feminist intellectual, a public feminist thinker for decades and she wrote this op-ed being like, “You know, I’ve spent all this time in public talking about reproductive rights and sitting on panels with Cecile Richards, and I’ve never actually said that I had an abortion.”

… People like (former president of Planned Parenthood) Cecile Richards, people who are out there publicly owning their abortion experiences, are absorbing a disproportionate amount of harassment and emotional distress and emotional detritus, and emotional labor because more people are not out there speaking publicly. And she was like, I don’t really want to be out there talking about this but I can’t afford not to because the anti-choice movement is leveraging people like me, like my silence, against everyone.

She basically framed it as “We can’t afford to be quiet about this anymore.” … and it sparked a ton of abortion disclosures after.

… And it was kind of a different tone in some ways from the first emergence of SYA, (which) was very like, You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, and everyone has different levels of privilege that affect the responsibilities of speaking publicly. But Cindi Leive’s thing was kind of framed as a political imperative that was a product of the times. And I think people are feeling more and more motivated to live truthfully than we have been in previous years, because of the political climate.

A passage from the book,

Photo: Screenshot From “Shout Your Abortion”

A passage from the book, “Shout Your Abortion.”

That dovetails into my next question: You mentioned places like rural Mississippi, where if you don’t have the money or you can’t drive to an abortion clinic than the fall of Roe v. Wade isn’t necessarily going to rock your world.

But there’s also the other side of that spectrum which is Seattle and Washington, where we legalized abortion a year before the Supreme Court made it legal. If Roe v. Wade falls we’re one of the few places in the country where that infrastructure there isn’t going away.

What should those in Seattle or Washington reach and help other places or people in the country?

There’s a writer and activist named Robin Marty who is publishing a book … called “A Handbook for a Post-Roe America.” And it shows you basically how to start organizing and creating support networks, and what you need to know about self-managed abortion.

… It’s all very individualized, because a lot of what determines the answer to your question is, “Well what are you willing to do?” Are you willing to drive a minor across state lines? Are you willing to let someone stay in your home? Are you a person who has $1,500 per month you’re willing to donate to people who are having second-trimester abortions and need to travel four states away?

So it is a really individual answer. But I’m really looking forward to Robin’s book because I think that it’s going to give a lot of practical in-roads to those various ways to be involved that people will be able to find their way in and make it work for themselves, based on where they are, and what they have to offer, and what they do.

And they’re totally right that Washington, Oregon, and California are very likely going to be this oasis of abortion rights, but at some point I think that will probably mean a lot of people coming here to access the service. And I think there will be organizations springing up to help them do that.

Obviously abortion funds have already been doing this; the National Network of Abortion Fund has been filling the huge hole left by the Hyde Amendment and all the other regulations that make it so that poor folks can’t have abortions. The National Network of Abortion Funds has been making this service possible within a really restrictive legislative framework for a really long time. And I think that those organizations are run by people on the ground, and people who we should be looking to and asking for instructions about how we can support, instead of trying to create something new.

… So I think donating to NNAF is great, and interfacing with your local abortion fund, and making yourself available in whatever way that you can be is really the best place to start. And really beginning to ask yourself what you are willing to do, and make yourself able to help.

Tell me a bit about the design of the book. I read that you kept it all in color which I’m sure cost a lot extra, but why did keeping the design so accessible and vibrant feel important to you?

I think we (Bonow and Nokes) both want the book to be beautiful and feel really alive. And the portraits of these storytellers were shot — we sent this awesome photographer named Elizabeth Rudge to seven different cities to shoot people in their homes, their lives, and the parks where they hang out. We just wanted it to feel like this is what life is like, and there are totally stories in there that are really sad and heartbreaking.

And at the same time, in aggregate, these stories feel really triumphant and empowered. These people are standing here looking at this camera and smiling. It wouldn’t really have made sense for it to feel dour, you know? Because I don’t think the people in this book feel that way, even if their abortions were difficult for them to process for any number of reasons or the circumstances surrounding them were painful. There’s something really electrifying about — especially in this cultural context — choosing to stand up and really own your life. And I think that we wanted the design to reflect that.

A passage from the book,

Photo: Screenshot From “Shout Your Abortion”

A passage from the book, “Shout Your Abortion.”

Another thing — thinking about the fashion section and stuff, and the other sections that come after the stories — I don’t think the abortion movement has really been great at branding. I’m kind of being tongue-in-cheek, using that word but even just the word, (abortion), there’s so much avoidance of the word. And I think that just making art about abortion and putting that word on a beautiful dress, and wearing that beautiful dress with a bunch of lipstick on — there’s just something really radical about that.

… A lot of the stories, and again this not at all something we editorialized or tried to bring out at all, but so many of their stories end with “And then I didn’t talk about my abortion for a really long time, and then I started to talk about it. And starting to talk about it had this incredible ripple effect in the rest of my life and I started doing advocacy work with my local clinic and now I’m a clinic escort.” Then reaching some point new self-actualization, and giving some of that back to other people. Which is was really a cool thing to see; so many people talk about being compelled to do some sort of activism through supporting them, after they got around to processing their own.

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