Abortions are health care! Keep abortions safe and legal! Legal abortions now! These are some of the most tried and true slogans of pro-choice advocates -- but with a fresh new twist. Did you catch it?
The difference is both subtle and profound: an s.
Today we explore the importance of plural language in abortion advocacy with our guest Karen Thurston, founder of 2+ Abortions Worldwide.
While envisioning this post, the HowToUse blog team reached out to Karen for her thoughts on the importance of inclusive language in abortion advocacy. Her reply blew us away. In fact, Karen’s responses to our questions were so candid, compassionate and thorough that our team decided to leave them in their unedited entirety. We have structured the questions and answers to read as an interview transcript.
We are deeply grateful to Karen for sharing her time and experience. We hope you enjoy the piece, and we invite you to share widely for a continued conversation.
To get us started- can you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your involvement with abortion advocacy?
I’m a retired elementary school teacher’s assistant, wife, mother of two, and grandmother of two.
My involvement in advocacy traces back to my abortions, although I did not start fighting stigma publicly until six years ago.
In 1973, when I was 13 years old, I was pressured into a one-time sexual encounter with a boy who was older and I got pregnant. I did not understand anything about my body, sex, relationships or pregnancy, and the entire series of experiences was traumatic. My parents arranged the abortion and swore me to secrecy for the rest of my life, and from then on I lived in silent shame.
This sense of shame and isolation intensified when I was 19. I was involved in an unhealthy relationship with a man who treated me terribly. I got pregnant again, despite using the diaphragm. The man arranged the abortion and dumped me off at the clinic alone. I believed I was the only person on earth to ever have two abortions, and my sense of shame was deeper than the oceans.
Ending those pregnancies did not hurt me, but the stigma did. Living in the conservative Southeast United States, I only heard shaming messages about abortions. These relentless messages made me fear that all of my relationships — even with my own two sons — would dissolve if my abortions were discovered.
To cope with the isolation, I journaled and wrote poetry sporadically through the years. Then one day, thanks to the internet, I chanced to learn that researchers in California were studying abortion stigma and seeking ways to defeat it. I knew instantly that I must get involved.
I wove my journaling into a cohesive piece of writing and mailed it to those researchers, who then invited me to submit my story as an essay to be published in the book Untold Stories: Life Love and Reproduction.
That was in 2013. Since then, I have been passionately devoted to educating myself about all aspects of reproductive justice, and seeking out ways I can help end the emotional violence of the stigma. I’ve shared my story in many public venues; served as a clinic escort walking patients past protesters; driven patients to their abortion appointments; and assisted with abortion funding campaigns. Currently I volunteer as a pregnancy options talk-line counselor; and I run the 2+ Abortions Worldwide website and associated social media accounts. The main feature of the website is the “Our Stories” section, a safe space where people can find and share true experiences of more than one abortion to ease the stigma they may be enduring.
Adding an "s" to abortionS seems like a small change in our messaging. What larger impact does it have?
To me, the letter “S” is a love letter. Spelling abortions with an S throws a much needed lifeline of compassion to people who’ve had more than one abortion but are drowning in a sea of singular phrases, including ‘abortion is’ and ‘an abortion.’ I know from experience, and research has confirmed, that people who end more than one pregnancy can feel more intense judgment from others, from themselves, and even from pro-choice advocates. Acknowledging that millions of people have ‘abortions’ expands the circle of human compassion so that everyone feels a sense of dignity and belonging. Pluralizing abortions is simply the right thing to do, regardless of whether it has any measurable impact on stigma.
But more than that, using the plural ‘abortions’ is a way to push back against the cruel stereotype marketed by people who want to ban abortions. Those people say we are all one, merciless, murdering monolith. But the truth is that abortions — and the people who have them, provide them, and fund them — are multi-faceted and richly diverse. Spelling abortions with an S is accurate, because there are different methods of abortions and different settings in which they take place. Also, people’s experiences of abortions are varied, as are their emotions. There is nothing singular about abortions
Aside from the singular phrases “abortion is” and “an abortion,” — what other phrases may unintentionally stigmatize plural abortions?
There are two harmful terms to avoid when talking about people who have more than one abortion. The first is ‘repeat abortion.’ Abortions do not repeat, just as pregnancies and the other outcomes do not repeat. Each experience is different and unique, occurring in variable contexts. We do not say, “They had a repeat child,” or, “She had a repeat miscarriage.” Finally, ‘repeat abortions’ is harmful because it sounds disturbingly similar to ‘repeat offender,’ giving credibility to those who would criminalize people who have and provide abortions.
The second term to avoid is ‘multiple abortions.’ Even though it’s expedient to use this term in speaking and writing, it’s an academic word that is simply not commonly used in everyday conversations about pregnancies and their outcomes. Also, the imprecise ‘multiple’ is often used in other contexts to mean ‘lots of, many and legion,’ which allows the anti-choice crowd to use the word to imply that people who have more than one abortion are ‘out of control.’ Although it’s wordy and cumbersome, we recommend the respectful phrase ‘people who have more than one abortion.’
What are some examples of abortionS-positive slogans that you would love to see advocates champion?
Almost all of the abortion positivity campaigns have slogans that can be written with the plural abortions: Abortions are healthcare. Abortions are normal. Shout your abortions. We fund abortions. People who have abortions are good people. Abortions should be safe, legal and accessible. At times the singular, of course, must be used, but the opportunities to use the plural are virtually limitless.
What are other strategies you suggest allies keep in mind as they advocate for a representative, inclusive abortionS space?
The most important strategy is to ask ourselves this one question at the start of each day, “What is a loving and compassionate thing I can do to serve the people who are right now suffering the extreme stigma of having more than one abortion?” The answer is so simple — send them a love letter. Add the love letter S to abortions to let millions of people know they are seen, respected, understood, included, and loved, no matter the number of their abortions
If you are looking to learn more about safe medical abortion, you can visit our website or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org You can also follow us on social media: we’re on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.
Claire is a teacher, reproductive rights advocate, and the manager of https://www.howtouseabortionpill.org/