Full Frontal Offense
There's a new front in the battle for abortion rights – the literal front, that is, of a T-shirt designed by writer and feminist activist Jennifer Baumgardner that proclaims "I had an abortion." The shirt, initially for sale on Planned Parenthood's national web site and now available on Clamor magazine's web site, has generated controversy among not only the anti-abortion community but also pro-choice feminists.
Inspired in part by the bold irreverence of second-wave feminists, who circulated a petition proclaiming the fact of their own abortions and published it in the first issue of Ms., Baumgardner created the T-shirt in order to remove the stigma that relegates those who have had an abortion to shame and silence. The shirt is one component of a multipart project Baumgardner conceived to draw attention to women's experiences of abortion. Other elements of the project include a film that will debut at the anniversary of Roe v. Wade in January, featuring interviews with women who have had abortions; a guidebook to busting through the gridlock on the abortion debate, with a photo essay by Tara Todras-Whitehill, that will be published by Akashic Books; and the creation and distribution of resource cards that help women locate abortion services and obtain post-abortion counseling.
Only the shirt, however, has become a phenomenon. Because of its public nature, the tee has sparked a national response that neither Baumgardner nor Planned Parenthood anticipated.
"The shirt was always the least significant part of the project," Baumgardner says, explaining that she printed 500 shirts, mailing some to influential feminists and selling the rest at last April's March for Women's Lives in Washington, D.C. Soon afterward, Planned Parenthood offered to carry the shirt on their web site to "remind everyone that abortion policy affects real people," according to Gloria Feldt, president of the organization. When the Drudge Report posted a photograph of the shirt on its opening page, however, what a Planned Parenthood media representative termed a "media tsunami" soon followed.
The shirt has certainly fulfilled Baumgardner's hope that it would start a conversation about abortion, but the very brevity of its message has had an unanticipated consequence. Although it's no surprise that individuals such as Jim Sedlak, executive director of the American Life League's STOPP International, think the shirt "celebrates an act of violence" and demonstrates that Planned Parenthood "lacks any sense of integrity, tact and compassion," it's interesting to note that many pro-choice feminists are ambivalent about – or even angered by – the shirt's message. Why, they ask, is the abortion fight taking place on something as public and casual as a T-shirt?
In one respect, creating a T-shirt to proclaim the reality of abortion in the plainest of language is the perfect antidote to the climate of fear that informs the ongoing battle for women's reproductive rights. The Bush administration's attack on public health – including sex education, as well as abortion – is taking place in multiple arenas. Family-planning organizations that receive federal funding are forbidden to present information about abortion to their clients. President Bush has refused to provide federal funding for research on new stem-cell lines because the cells are garnered from embryonic tissue. The successful passage in Congress of the partial birth abortion ban has caused doctors who perform abortions to fear for their medical licenses because the law's wording is so vague. The recent passage of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which allows a defendant to be charged with two federal crimes when a fetus is killed or injured during an attack on the pregnant woman, presents an even greater challenge to Roe v. Wade, because it creates a precedent in which the fetus is granted the legal status of a person. The House has also passed a bill that allows healthcare providers who oppose abortion not only to refuse to give their patients information about abortion or perform the procedure but also to deny them emergency contraception; it would also prevent government officials from penalizing healthcare institutions for refusing to provide information or services to their patients. The Republican Party platform contains a plank calling for an explicit ban on all forms of abortion, even if the health of the mother is endangered.
In the face of such a far-reaching anti-choice agenda, the presence of women wearing T-shirts proclaiming their decision to have an abortion would seem a forceful response. As Barbara Ehrenreich recently reminded readers in a New York Times editorial, "Abortion is legal – it's just not supposed to be mentioned or acknowledged as an acceptable option." Since Roe v. Wade, she writes, "at least 30 million American women" have had abortions, "a number that amounts to about 40 percent of American women." Yet according to a 2003 survey conducted by a pro-choice organization, "only 30 percent of women were unambivalently pro-choice." Ehrenreich logically surmises that many women who refuse to state publicly that they are pro-choice have nevertheless obtained safe, legal abortions. By remaining silent about their experience, or by refusing to call the act of terminating a pregnancy because of fetal birth defects an abortion, these women are tacitly supporting those who seek to outlaw abortion. To be vocal about abortion – not by supporting an abstract "freedom of choice," but instead by naming abortion as a fact of women's experience – is thus to break the dual threat of political and private shaming that keeps women silent.
That both Ehrenreich and Baumgardner have called upon women to speak publicly about their abortions is no coincidence; rather, it represents their desire to honor, and perhaps resuscitate, a tactic integral to the politics of second-wave feminism. Many of the political agendas of second-wave feminists were the by-product of consciousness-raising groups, which encouraged women to speak out – not only to break the silences that foster discrimination but also to build community. This legacy of speech-as-activism is still found in Take Back the Night vigils – in which women name their experiences of physical and sexual abuse – as well as in the explosion of feminist zines and the music of riot grrrls.
Like Ehrenreich, who called for women to "take your thumbs out of your mouths, ladies, and speak up for your rights," Baumgardner sees a direct correlation between the increase in women's speech and the increase in their rights. "When women were most vocal about their experiences of abortion," she said, "Roe. v. Wade was enacted. Now that women are silent about their experiences of abortion, we are seeing a decline in their reproductive rights." Given this history of feminist politics, it's no surprise that Planned Parenthood, which initially agreed to sell 200 shirts on its web site, sold out so quickly that it had to refer potential customers to Baumgardner's site to meet the demand. Ehrenreich wears her shirt to the gym; Ani DiFranco wore hers to an interview with Inc., an apolitical business magazine. When the photograph of DiFranco sporting the shirt and holding her guitar appeared, readers wrote to the editors to protest, sparking an extended dialogue about abortion rights on Fresh Inc., the magazine's blog.
One of the most fascinating things about the shirt is the fact that it says so little and yet is interpreted in such radically different ways. I spoke with many women in the Atlanta area about the shirt, most of whom were pro-choice feminists, and heard it called tacky, cavalier, simplistic, arrogant, cool, shameful and brave. One 24-year-old woman found the shirt offensive because it returns the abortion debate to the public realm. "The whole purpose of abortion rights," she told me, "is to ensure that a woman can make her own decision about her body, in private, without having to seek permission from anyone else – not even her partner." A woman wearing the T-shirt, she explained, is asking for comments of approval or disapproval from men and women. "My body is mine," she said, "and I shouldn't have to justify or announce my decisions to anyone else."
Another woman told me that, though she's pro-choice herself, she couldn't understand why a woman would announce her abortion unless she was doing so as a matter of pride. "Does she want me to think about the fact that she had an abortion every time I see her?" she wondered out loud. "Because if I saw her wearing the shirt, that is what would stay with me, even if she never wore it again." I asked why she was associating a factual statement with the sentiment of boastfulness. "Because it's on a T-shirt," her friend chimed in. "Like the one I have that says 'No One Knows I'm a Lesbian.'" Her statement was greeted by nods of approval from the other women who were listening to our conversation. Because there are so many T-shirts that function as affirmations of identity, people have a hard time seeing the shirt outside of a pre-existing context. The logical question to ask, then, is the extent to which the fact of having an abortion is an aspect of a woman's identity. The decision to have an abortion is complex. A woman may respond to having an abortion with relief, guilt, grief or any number or combination of emotions, each of which will contribute in some way to her identity.
And what about the shirt as a fashion statement? If a woman wears the shirt because she likes it but hasn't had an abortion herself, she could be seen as an ally in struggle, or she could be faulted for appropriating another woman's experience – or, worse, disregarding it altogether. It all depends upon the way others perceive her. An activist from California told me that she wants to see as many women as possible wearing the shirt, regardless of whether they've had an abortion, to "participate in the collective destigmatizing of the procedure." To represent the fact of abortion, as the shirt certainly does, is not equivalent to representing experience. It's only an opening line.
But the question of representation is not limited to the shirt itself. The woman who wears the shirt creates a context for its reception in multiple ways. Her appearance, the location in which she wears it, and the fact of her being alone or in a group all add to the shirt's meaning. A woman wearing the shirt in a progressive city like Madison, Wisconsin, or Olympia, Washington, or in a "hate-free-zone" neighborhood like Atlanta's Little Five Points would probably get a reaction, but she'd be as likely to receive positive as negative comments.
What about the shirt's power to belie the stereotype of the kind of woman who has an abortion? A married suburban mother keeping a distracted eye on the children spilling out of her minivan is just as likely to have had an abortion as a single woman in her early 20s. If it comes as a shock to picture the shirt worn by a middle-aged, middle-class woman, it's a testament to the success of conservative rhetoric in casting woman who choose abortion as irresponsible, selfish, or overly careerist.
The negative reaction many feminists have to the shirt reveals a fundamental contradiction in the current state of pro-choice politics – or, more precisely, the extent to which those who are pro-choice feel ashamed, at some level, to support abortion. The fact that so many women read a simple statement as a "celebration" of the procedure speaks volumes about the feelings women have internalized as a consequence of the conservative assault on women's rights. Although most of the women I spoke with were uneasy about their response to the shirt, repeatedly insisting that they were pro-choice even as they told me they would never wear it, some reacted to a photograph of the shirt with anger.
"The only reason anyone would wear such a shirt would be to piss people off," one 19-year-old woman snorted. "No one who was serious about supporting abortion rights would wear it." Those who saw the shirt as an aggressive tactic also thought it was perfect ammunition for the anti-abortion movement, playing into the propaganda that paints pro-choice women as glorying in the selfish taking of a life. And judging from the comments on conservative blogs like Outside the Beltway and Baby Center, this argument has some merit. Amidst the usual vitriol and sardonic humor (one person wrote that the back of the shirt should say "Roe v. Wade – Eliminating Future Democrats One Choice at a Time") is a sense that, by creating a T-shirt so many would see as offensive, the pro-choice movement had intentionally sought to outrage the Christian right.
In fact, the fear that the shirt could inflame the existing passions of the anti-choice movement has led some Planned Parenthood affiliates to condemn it. Here in Georgia, I first learned about the shirt when Denise Noe wrote an editorial in the Aug. 2, 2004 edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution criticizing the shirt and calling for "famous women who have had babies and given them up for adoption [to] announce this fact." The following Sunday, the paper's Woman to Woman column featured a point/counterpoint discussion of the shirt by a liberal and a conservative female commentator. Because the shirt's reception in Atlanta was anything but positive, I was curious to see if Planned Parenthood of Georgia was selling it. When I spoke with Leola Reis, the organization's vice president of communications, education, and outreach, she told me the chapter had not been consulted about the national organization's decision to sell the shirts. When media attention to the shirt escalated, she reported, the chapter had a lengthy and difficult discussion about the issues it raised.
"Women have enough trouble trying to secure a safe and legal abortion without having to become the unwitting victims of pro-life wrath," she says. Though she understands the intention behind the shirt, she's not sure it will have a positive effect on the actual experience of women trying to attain abortions in such a conservative time. Chapters of Planned Parenthood in Idaho, North Carolina, and South Carolina have criticized the shirt outright, and Planned Parenthood Canada distanced themselves from the controversy by saying, via their web site, that they "cannot comment on the approach" taken by Planned Parenthood of America.
It's important to recognize the extent to which the attention of the pro-choice movement has shifted away from the bodies and lives of women who need abortions and toward those who aim to strip women of the right to control their reproductive lives. So it's not surprising that a large part of the movement is plagued by the notion that anti-choicers riled up by the sight of women proclaiming their abortions on their chests will want to step up their efforts to deny them this power. Given this fear, it would seem a smart strategy to keep quiet, stay under the radar, and hope that women will vote anti-choice legislators out of office. Such a focus, however, ignores the effect pro-choice speech, including the shirt, might have on a woman feeling isolated and ashamed because she had had an abortion or is considering it. A public sisterhood of those who have chosen abortion, for a variety of personal reasons, could do a lot to counteract the hateful rhetoric of the anti-choice movement.
Baumgardner's T-shirt is a lightning rod for the emotions that surround the abortion issue – especially among feminists – because it forces the current unspoken contradiction of the pro-choice movement into public speech. It's smart to recognize the current political climate, the fact that abortion providers have been targeted and killed and clinics bombed, and that women's health clinics operate under the awareness that their staff might be assaulted or murdered for doing their job. In the face of real violence and real political majorities, it might seem logical to lie low and safeguard the rights of women by creating an environment in which they can exercise their right to terminate a pregnancy without fearing for their lives. At the same time, some of the most powerful slogans from both the feminist and gay rights movements focus on the act of speaking up: "Your silence will not protect you." Keeping quiet might seem like a smart political tactic, but when women muzzle themselves because they are afraid, their silence can masquerade as the appearance of support for the anti-choice agenda.
If we don't break the silence about abortion, our right to control our reproductive destiny will never seem as natural as the right to wear our political opinions on a shirt.