I waited forty-five years to tell my story. I’d told my husband and a few close friends but I was never public about having had an illegal abortion when I was 19.
Throughout my life, I’d been a huge supporter of reproductive rights, seeing abortion as part of a set of options that should always be available to women, and yet, in my own mind, abortion still carried a stigma. I’d tell other people that having an abortion was nothing to be ashamed of but the truth was I was ashamed.
And then I snapped while listening to a radio report about a proposed law to require a woman seeking an abortion to first undergo a trans-vaginal ultrasound. Now I know that people have very different views about abortion so I won’t argue the pros and cons here. I offer this information just by way of context for the decision I made to write about my illegal abortion.
First, I posted my essay, The Wire on my blog, Red’s Wrap, on August 23, 2012, and then put a link to it on my Facebook Red’s Wrap page. There, another blogger, who months earlier had introduced me to Open Salon, urged me to post the essay there. I was very hesitant. At the time, Open Salon operated as the community blogging site appended to Salon.com. The site was curated by a Salon.com editor who, each day or so, would designate certain posts as Editor’s Picks. An Open Salon Editor’s Pick was guaranteed a good readership with 5,000 to 10,000 views not uncommon. Open Salon readers were a very sharp bunch, not the least bit afraid to be critical or argumentative, although there were unwritten community standards that most people respected. (Open Salon is still an active site although it is no longer curated; the last Editor’s Picks have been displayed on the Open Salon front page for over a year.)
The thought of putting my story on Open Salon was very scary. It was one thing to post it on my blog which, at the time, had fewer than fifty followers, practically all of them friends, and a much different thing to hang my abortion story on the line for thousands to read. But I went ahead, posting it the same day, again titled The Wire on Open Salon. Then I went for a very long walk along Lake Michigan. Every few minutes I’d pull out my phone and check my email where one notification after another registered, all coming from Open Salon. I was relieved and terrified at the same time. The piece was made an Editor’s Pick that night.
A day later, the Open Salon editor sent me an email that read:
“Hey Jan, I thought you wrote a beautiful story, and I’d like to cross-post it to Salon. Please let me know if I have your permission to do so.
JS, Open Salon Editor”
I said yes immediately. I didn’t think two seconds about it. I didn’t ask for compensation; it never occurred to me. Nor did I think to ask about copyright or editorial control. I just said yes and waited to see the piece show up on Salon.com in my Facebook feed which it did on August 26, 2012.
Salon.com changed the title to My Illegal Abortion. That bothered me because the piece to me was The Wire and, if you read the story, you know why it was The Wire. But, obviously, the new title would grab more attention and show up quicker in search engines. The title also had a tagline which sounded like it was an excerpt from the essay but wasn’t. It represented the essay’s intent but was not the way I would have said it. I saw it as another instance of Salon.com knowing better than me what would bring readers to the story. It never occurred to me to complain. I had, after all, just said yes to its publication with no conditions.
Then there was the accompanying photo of a young woman sitting alone, her head bowed. The picture hit home. Salon.com seemed to really get it, I thought. Someone there understands how alone and unsupported I was during that time. Since then, I’ve seen other Salon.com articles use the same photo, so my appreciation for their choice has ebbed a bit.
The Salon.com piece got a lot of attention. There were an enormous number of comments, most of which I didn’t read. On Open Salon, the piece has gotten 131,015 views with dozens of comments, nearly all of them insightful and supportive. On my blog, The Wire got only 156 views with two likes and one comment. But it was this one comment that made the whole endeavor worthwhile.
“I’m very much against abortion. Your article didn’t change my mind, though that probably wasn’t your intention. It did something better. It helped me to see the struggle and fear and conflict that you experienced. It made you, and all women in your position, more human and real to me. The first step to any constructive conversation on a matter so personal and so important, is that each side empathize with the other. Thank you for helping me to take that first step.”
A few weeks after the piece was published, a young woman at Central Michigan University, the college I was attending when I had my abortion, asked me to speak at an event sponsored by the campus chapter of Planned Parenthood. So in October of 2012, I stood on a CMU stage, held a microphone in my hand and told my story, out loud and in public. It was forty-five years later. Writing my essay and then letting it go replaced the stigma with strength. It was a lucky and wonderful thing.