Ethical Abortion Storysharing
True stories of women who have had abortions are a hot commodity in the dominant discourse on reproductive choice. The stakes feel higher than ever. To combat the so-called “War on Women”, some activists are seeking to shift the tenor of the debate by focusing on personal stories. They are asking women to speak out publicly about their abortions. But, which abortions do they really want to hear about, and what does sharing a personal story in public mean for women’s well being and privacy rights, and for families and communities?
Introducing personal stories into a polarizing and stigmatizing conflict demands that advocates working with storytellers protect the safety and dignity of those who speak out. Advocates have an incredibly important role to play and can help women who have had abortions understand their rights and make thoughtful decisions about when, why, and where to share their stories in a public way. An “ethical storysharing” approach promotes supportive, respectful storysharing , encourages individual and community wellbeing, and facilitates cultural transformation.
In my storytelling work with women who have experienced violence and other human rights violations, I’ve come to understand that ethical practice in facilitating the telling of personal stories is an ever-evolving process.
While certain tenets are applicable across individual situations, a healthy capacity for reflection, self-awareness, flexibility, and adaptability are essential to any attempt to support women through the sharing of a highly sensitive personal story about any highly sensitive social issue. Everyone’s experience is unique, and everyone will have unique reasons for wanting to speak out.
Rather than applying cookie-cutter approaches to encouring personal stories from women, an ethical approach suggests that advocates can provide guidance by exploring a number of key questions with the woman who is thinking about telling a story publicly. These include …
What are the reasons that you want to share your story?
Encourage the woman to ponder her hopes and expectations in relation to story sharing. What motivation is she bringing to the act, and what does she think will happen, as a result of putting a story out into the world? Are there important lessons that those who read, hear, or see it could learn from her story? Talk about the fact that she will not be able to control how listeners / readers / viewers respond to her story, and help her prepare for myriad reactions – from very positive and supportive, to negative and hostile. Make sure she has emotional support, should viewer reaction take a different tone from what she hoped.
When will you be ready to share?
As advocates, we can’t decide for a woman when to share her story, but we can help her assess her own readiness. Ask whether or not she has told the story to anyone, and if she hasn’t, encourage her to test the waters by sharing it with close friends / trusted family members before doing so in a public context. If she has already told the story within her immediate personal circle, ask her to consider the question, “why do I want to share my story now?” so that she has a clear sense of the importance of finding the right time to speak.
Where do you want to share?
Once a woman feels prepared to share her abortion story publicly, advocates have the responsibility to help her determine the best venue for doing so. Does she prefer to remain independent about her position on the issue? In this case, posting the story on a personal blog or web site, or creating a short video narrative for YouTube or other online video delivery sites might be appropriate. On the other hand, if she wishes to support the activities or beliefs of an organization or network, she may decide to contact this group / set of groups and discuss with them her options for sharing the story in concert with their work. If she’s interested in partnering with an organization, make sure that she takes the time to obtain their commitment to helping her go public with her story in a way that feels right for her – you might even offer to help facilitate this conversation. Don’t forget to raise the question of audience; who is likely to read, hear, or see the story? Will viewers be able to comment on it? Will they be asked to take action, after witnessing it? These are all topics to discuss.
How would you like to share?
There are many formats for sharing stories – writing; audio narrative; video interview or monologue; etc. Supporting the woman in identifying the shape her story can take means understanding these various options and what they offer. When it comes to choosing a format, one essential consideration revolves around issues of privacy. Making a personal story public does not necessarily mean revealing one’s identity or the identities of others who are part of the story or sharing every intimate detail of a particular experience. As Sam Gregory with WITNESS points out, there is always a dance between the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression:
… despite the growing online circulation of images of human rights violations, of victims and survivors, there is limited discussion of crucial safety, consent and ethical concerns – particularly for people who are filmed. Issues around consent, representation and re-victimization, and retaliation have emerged even more clearly in an open and networked online environment (Gregory, Cameras Everywhere, 2010).
Writing, whether for print or online media, allows for the greatest degree of privacy, if the woman wishes to remain anonymous. She doesn’t need to include her name or show images of herself, and she doesn’t need to name people who play an important role in the narrative. Audio also allows for a high degree of privacy, since it doesn’t allow for the inclusion of photos – but be sure to remind the woman that people who know her may recognize her voice. Video tends to offer fewer opportunities for privacy, unless the video image is blurred or otherwise obscured, but in this case the audio attached to the video, again, may be recognized.
Format may be dependent upon the “where?” decision, or it may be dependent upon the woman’s own comfort level with / access to various tools. If she enjoys writing and is not comfortable with technology, for example, she may decide to express herself with written words. If she connects with an individual or organization that is skilled in video production, this may be a better option. (Note: if she is interested in working with video, explain to her that she can elect to simply prepare a monologue about her story or that she can request an interview format, with someone on the other end of the camera asking a series of questions to help her give structure to the narrative.) If she wants more control over the visual aspect of a video piece, she could choose to make a digital story. This format would allow her to express herself through voice and image without necessarily showing her face. Thoughtful consideration of how images might enhance the story could also provide her with new insights about her experience.
Informed Consent and its Limitations in the Digital Age
Ensuring that women are well informed about (and understand!) the complexities of copyright, ownership, and release BEFORE agreeing to share their stories is essential. The notion of “informed consent” comes from the health sector, but researchers who work with people, too, are familiar with the need to gain the consent of their so-called “subjects.” In the context of ethical abortion storytelling, the process of obtaining consent may or may not be relevant. If the woman has decided to create her own blog article and will not be published or “produced” by an organization, she doesn’t need to worry about informed consent. If, however, she is relying on an organization or network of groups to help her share her story publicly, she will want to closely examine their consent protocol and make sure that it offers her the protections she feels are important. As advocates, this is another arena in which our input may be helpful. Talking through consent and release forms and offering time to think about the implications can also increase a sense of safety. Basic questions to consider in relation to consent forms include:
- Who “owns” the story, once it has been produced?
- Where can it be published (in print or online media), aired (if an audio piece), or broadcast (if a video piece)?
- What provisions does the consent form include for protecting “derivative works”? (other text, audio, or video pieces that utilize all or part of the story)
- What right to “opt out” does the form provide, if the woman changes her mind about circulating the story in public?
- What timeframe does the consent cover? Does it last for a period of months or years, or forever?
It’s important to remember that in this current era of rampant content development and distribution both online and via mobile devices, organizations are increasingly unable to control the circulation of stories. Whether published as written pieces, audio narratives, or videos, once an abortion story has been made available for public consumption and “gone viral” it’s impossible to guarantee that it can subsequently be removed from the public arena. Although Creative Commons licenses may offer some limited protections of how online articles, audio files, or videos can be distributed or used, all an organization can realistically do in the event that the woman changes her mind is agree to remove the story from their own web site or social media accounts. Advocates may want to suggest that women who feel a strong need to maintain oversight of their material refrain from posting their stories online or distributing them via social media tools, whether on their own or through an organizational or network sponsor.
The article is not intended as a comprehensive guide but rather is meant to serve as a very basic starting point for advocates to use in thinking through their approach to advising women who are exploring the possibility of publicly sharing abortion stories. Cautionary tales exist, about women who have felt exploited and used in the wake of speaking out … as do extremely positive examples of how women have achieved agency through telling their stories to public audiences and have, as a result, been able to take leadership on issues and move forward with their lives in new ways. We hope you will share your own story about what it has meant to support women in talking about abortion: to do so, please share your stories as an ethical advocate in the comment section below.
Amy Hill works at the Center for Digital Storytelling, where she directs the Silence Speaks initiative, which explores the role that personal narrative can play in the promotion of gender equality and human rights.
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