Last week, Emily Letts changed the conversation about breaking the stigma associated with abortion and reproductive rights when she became the first person known to film her own surgical abortion. The YouTube video she made has since gone viral, and become the source of backlash. Letts spoke with AlterNet about her abortion experience and why empathy is the key to the future of reproductive rights.
When Emily Letts filmed her abortion, she did it at the Cherry Hill Women’s Center in New Jersey, where she works as an abortion counselor. The center is located less than a quarter mile away from Options Pregnancy Care Center, a crisis pregnancy center listed as a resource on the New Jersey Right to Life website. Chapel Avenue separates the short walk between the centers but despite their proximity, what happens in these buildings and what they stand for are light years apart.
The pro-life community has built its entire reputation on perpetuating misinformation about abortion and reproductive healthcare in the name of “life” and “women’s safety,” seemingly oblivious to the contradiction that the lives impacted by such body politics are those of the women. They’ve misled the public with junk science, character assassinations and the application of sweeping generalities to the procedure that erases the spectrum of emotions and reflections people feel when planning their reproductive future. When they accuse providers, supporters and people who get an abortion of murder and a lack of moral scruples, it is like watching a black and white movie. We see two shades, yet it was filmed in color. Letts' video, consequently, helped add context to the procedure.
“I just want to share my story,” Letts said in her video, a sentiment she shared in an interview with AlterNet, adding that one of the main reasons she put it online was to help other women share their stories.
“It’s like a call to arms to support other women and their stories and it’s happening,” she said. “You tell a woman that she’s safe and you’re not going to judge her, and the floodgates will open.”
When Letts learned she was pregnant, she admits she was lucky enough to have a strong support system that made her abortion a positive experience, especially because she able to decide who would be in the room during the procedure.
“I felt extremely safe and extremely supported by all the people in there,” Letts said. “They were holding my hand and whispering that I was strong and brave.”
During the video, Letts is heard humming during the procedure, a practice she said allowed her to achieve “a safe and quiet place” in her mind while experiencing uterine discomfort. Despite the slight pain associated with the procedure, Letts recalls that “this experience was very empowering to me” but recognizes that not every woman has a support system that can create a positive experience like the one she had.
“I could never imagine doing this alone and feeling like I needed to keep it a secret,” she said. “I told everyone and wanted to invite them into my life and invite them into this big, huge decision.”
Although her abortion is in the past, Letts said she still watches the video which is like “looking into a glass ball and seeing your past and seeing it through my memory. It still feels so surreal and profound.”
The Backlash of Sharing Abortion Stories
The importance of having conversations about abortion and reproductive healthcare is something that neither the pro-life or pro-choice community minimizes. The difference between the camps is that while anti-choice advocates pepper their dialogue with respectability policing and religious damnation, the pro-choice community understands that having more conversations involving personal stories will abate the stigma, shame and guilt associated with it when people learn that no experience is the same and that every choice has its own story.
There have been many pro-life responses to Emily’s video, including right-wing outlets like Breitbart which inaccurately frames it as “a campaign to normalize the execution of a child.” This kind of interpretation completely misses the point of the conversation and what having an abortion is really about: the woman who is having it, her future, and the choice about her body that is hers and hers alone. By erasing the pregnant woman from the equation, it’s easy to develop a narrative around anything else — but in doing so, we don’t acknowledge her agency and right to plan a future on her own terms.
Letts admits that she has received backlash from the pro-choice community as well, and she feels like the noise from both sides confounds what the fight for reproductive rights is really about.
“It’s not about a war — it’s about a woman, and what it means for her to look down at two pink lines and have her stomach drop out of her body and the wind out of her breath and terror and stress,” she says. “It’s about that. It’s just a practice of empathy. Treat others as you wanted to be treated yourself. Isn’t that some sort of golden rule?”
The Need for More Story Sharing
Despite the backlash, Letts has received an outpouring of support. The Cherry Hill Women’s Center has even received calls from people who have lauded Letts for her courage and bravery.
Robyn Swirling, a reproductive rights advocate who has publicly shared her abortion experience, believes telling these stories are crucial and that Emily Letts has done it in a new way.
“[S]he shows us that honest storytelling about our experiences doesn't have to conform to anyone else's narrative of what an abortion is like, or how someone who's having an abortion should behave,” Swirling said. “In telling my story, I've often felt the pressure to leave out details about my decision-making or emphasize certain reasons behind my decision more than others. Emily's video debunks myths and brings people behind the scenes, which demystifies the experience — that, more than anything, can help us destigmatize abortion.”
One of the myths Letts helped debunk is that abortions and the clinics that provide them are unsafe — a narrative often used by the pro-life community as a scare tactic to dissuade support for the procedure and peripherally, the choice that has been a constitutional right since 1973.
“Emily's video brings people inside the abortion experience in a way that I don't think has been done before,” Swirling said. “For one thing, for all the talk from anti-choice folk about the horrors of abortion clinics, the video shows the kind of sterile, clinical environment in which abortions are performed, and that it really is just a routine medical procedure that's uncomfortable but safe.”
Describing her experience in a positive way, Letts believes that she has a sacred connection with her body, uterus and pregnancy that is, she said, “mine, and mine alone.” Much like other stories surrounding reproductive healthcare, the story Letts shared with the world stands for more than her single experience. It stands for the millions of people who deserve to have their choices and bodies respected without being victims of ideological policing that serves only to appease the hurt feelings of a patriarchal establishment that would rather see woman abiding to a prescribed set of gender-based rules instead of making their own choices based on what’s best for them. It stands for the right to choose and the right to have a conversation about our bodies that isn’t vulnerable to guilt and shame.
As Letts believes, it’s important that we “talk, talk, talk; and don’t apologize.”