Abortion stigma is so baked into our culture that even some pro-choice politicians won’t say the word. But Renee and Regina will! Abortion! In this episode, they sit down with Dr. Tracy Weitz to understand where the stigma comes from, why even popular slogans like “safe, legal, and rare” perpetuate it, and what a world without stigma would actually look like. (Plus, Renee explains how “everyone loves someone…” ended up on Saturday Night Live.) And in There Are Other Books, it’s all about the novel House of Cotton by Monica Brashears. 

Regina  Mahone: So many politicians, democratic politicians, won’t say the word abortion. They just won’t say it. Listen to this.

President Biden: The second order I’m signing, relates to protecting women’s health at home and abroad.

Karine Jean-Pierre: The right to choose, critical rights, like the right to healthcare, women’s fundamental rights under Roe v Wade.

President Biden: Access to reproductive healthcare.

RM: It is women’s rights, it is reproductive healthcare, but say the word abortion. Why won’t they just say what they mean?

Renee Bracey Sherman: All of that abortion stigma hurts my brain. Day after you’ve had too many martinis, sunglasses, and Advil. Painful in my brain. The word is just not that hard to say. Abortion. Abortion. Just say it. Try it. Abortion.

Hello and welcome to The A Files: a Secret History of Abortion, a podcast from the Meteor. I’m Renee Bracey Sherman.

RM: And I’m Regina Mahone. Renee and I are friends who talk about abortion.

RBS: A lot. And now we have a podcast about it.

RM: We do. Thank you for joining us for another episode of The A Files, where we’re unpacking another layer of the abortion conversation that has been completely overlooked or erased. Today we’re talking about abortion stigma, what it looks like, how it shows up in our language, and who exactly is responsible for it.

RBS: We also had a really great conversation with Dr. Tracy Weitz of American University about abortion stigma, the past, the present, hopefully, it won’t make it to its future. It’s a great combo.

RM: Later we’re talking about the book House of Cotton by Monica Brashears. But before we get to all of that, Renee, last episode, we promised we’d talk about your connection to a Saturday Night Live sketch where Cecily Strong plays a character named Tammy the Trucker. Let’s play the clip.

Cecily Strong on SNL: … And it’s hard to know what to say to make other truckers feel better. There’s one mother trucking thing we can do to fight for mother trucking freedom to make her own healthcare decisions, and that’s vote, and I hope to hell everyone votes, because remember, we all love someone who’s had an abortion. I mean, drives a truck.

RM: Renee, do you remember hearing that? For those who don’t know our very own Renee Bracey Sherman created the phrase, everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion.

RBS: It was such a wild and surreal experience. I had gone to bed early that Saturday night, and I woke up Sunday morning to tons of texts and messages and DMs, and I was really confused as to what was going on and a lot of congratulations. That’s great. Didn’t know you were working with her. That’s amazing. How did you get that done? I was like, what are you talking about? And then someone sent the clip, and it was really wonderful to watch Cecily Strong once again, share her abortion story, which she had done the year before as Goober, the Clown.

Colin Jost: So Goober, you had an abortion when you were twenty-three?

Cecily Strong: Hey whoa, slow down. I’m a clown. Let’s clown around. Hey, smell this flower.

Colin Jost: You’re not going to squirt me, are you?

Cecily Strong: Oh, I would never.

Colin Jost: Okay.

Cecily Strong: Oh, gotcha, gotcha! I had an abortion the day before my twenty-third birthday.

RBS: And to be able to talk about it in such a fun, creative, but also honest way, and to say something, like everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion, to bring that message to the masses through SNL, was huge, particularly as we’ve been pushing that message for a long time because we want to center love and support in abortion stories, but I’ve been told for years that messaging doesn’t test well, we don’t know if people will actually like it. It’s too long. We don’t know if it’s factually accurate. The excuses really are quite extraordinary. And so it was really wonderful to see the message used in such a beautiful way, and since then, to see it on signs at rallies and really just see people loving it. I couldn’t have been more thrilled.

RM: It’s striking to me that Cecily Strong is willing to say this on live television, but so many actual elected officials, especially President Joe Biden, have a million chances to do it but don’t. They won’t even say the word abortion.

Joe Biden: It reinstates the changes that remain Title X and other things, making it harder for women to have access to affordable healthcare as it relates to reproductive rights.

RBS: We didn’t do it, Joe.

RM: This is abortion stigma, plain and simple, right?

RBS: Absolutely. This has been going on for so long. My organization, We Testify, created a campaign because we were so frustrated with seeing the president unable to just say the word abortion. Our campaign was, say Abortion Joe, and it just seemed so simple, but it started to get comical as soon as he was elected and took office that his press secretary would get asked about abortion and then she would do anything to not say the word abortion, started just making up phrases, like a woman’s constitutional right to make decisions about her own body as protected by Roe v Wade. You know what’s shorter than that? Just saying the word abortion.

And at first, we thought it was a bit of a fluke, but then we started to notice that it was actually an ongoing thing, particularly as they would issue statements about the Roe v Wade decision, commemorating it, and not use the word abortion. It was wild. But this didn’t start with Joe Biden. This is something that I think politicians, particularly Democrats, have had a hard time with for a long time, which is so ironic because they’re the party that runs on abortion rights and gets elected by people who support abortion rights.

RM: Exactly. And President Biden, when he does talk about abortion, he’s always hedging. He recently was saying, oh, I’m not that big on abortion because of his religion, because he’s Catholic. But there are so many people who are religious and are big on abortion, and so clearly it’s just an excuse that he’s using to do the absolute bare minimum when it comes to protecting abortion rights.

RBS: I mean, for the record, I’m super big, very, very, very big, bigly, very bigly on abortion. Love it, big on abortion, so big. But I do think that when he leans into his religiosity, it makes it seem like this is a really difficult issue for him, and maybe it is internally, but also like sir, you’re at work. You signed up to show up–

RM: You are at work.

RBS: –for people, are at work for people who have abortions and everyone else. You signed up to be a pro-choice president, so fucking be it. The abortion rights movement is constantly getting beat up on. We have lost access to abortion. Who cares that you’re not big on abortion? Who cares?

RM: Who cares? Ambivalence like that is so unhelpful, especially when we’re fighting an anti-abortion movement that honestly has been super successful in changing laws without even having the White House. And it’s just wild, just wild, to see such hesitant leadership now, especially when in the past abortion activists had really radical goals. How did we go from abortion on demand to the right to choose as defined under Roe v Wade or whatever?

RBS: Actually, let’s talk about how we got to this point where Democrats are so weak on abortion. And yes, dear listeners before you say, but Renee, Republicans are the ones banning abortion. Stop criticizing the people who are trying to help. Yeah, I mean, we’ll get to that, but also, Republicans aren’t the party that promised to protect abortion if elected. Democrats did. Republicans told us exactly what they were going to do, and unfortunately, they’ve done it. I think that we need to talk about and challenge the Democrats who said that they’re here to help us but are actually harming us along the way.

RM: Republicans did tell us exactly what they were going to do, and part of that was with the language they chose. Renee, you probably already know this, but I appreciate you playing along. Did you know that the term pro-life was originally used by progressive folks?

RBS: What? Oh my gosh. Tell me more.

RM: I appreciate you, Renee. So one person in particular, A.S. Neal, a Scottish author who is all about the free school movement, used it in a book in 1960, but the year is important. The free school movement, it’s this idea that was embraced by the counterculture movement of the sixties. They felt there should be alternative schools for kids outside the public school system. A.S. Neal wrote in one of his many books about education, “No pro-life citizen would tolerate our penal code, our hangings, our punishments of homosexuals, our attitudes towards bastardy.” And the Oxford English Dictionary actually cites this as the first modern use of the term, and it was in 1960. Again, I said that year was important. It was in the late 1960s that the phrase was appropriated by the anti-abortion movement to talk about its biased, completely unscientific perspective on abortion rights. The Right to Life League, which if you go to its website, it considers itself to be the first pro-life organization in the country, didn’t actually form until 1967, so seven years after Neal’s book came out.

Fast forward to, of course, Ronald Reagan. He won the presidency in 1980, claiming to be the first pro-life president. And the rest, as we say, is history, except it’s not history at all, because we are living the legacy of pro-life language today. The movement claims to be pro-life, meaning that they support all life, including the lives of embryos and fetuses, which let’s be clear, are potential lives because these new humans haven’t yet been born. But in seeking this claim, the movement could redefine what an abortion meant. Because prior to the modern anti-abortion movement, abortions before quickening, when the pregnant person feels movement in their uterus, abortion wasn’t even controversial. But now we’ve got “life language” abortion becomes a problem on the prenatal health side, not only for folks seeking abortions but for anyone who needs to be able to make decisions about their own body. So this is the sort of pro-life that reproductive justice folks are constantly calling out for being hypocritical.

But of course, the movement also weaponizes language that’s not even based on medicine or science for purely fear-mongering purposes. They’ve created terms like partial-birth abortion, which isn’t a thing, but the term was actually created in 1995 by the National Right to Life Committee, not some doctors, not the medical community, but the National Right to Life. The movement has since moved on to “dismemberment abortion” another really disgusting way to describe a common abortion method. By doing abortions in this way, doctors are trying to prevent unnecessary morbidities that might result if they do an abortion a different way. But because anti-abortion folks have weaponized this language to such a degree, now providers have to use other methods and they may not be the most effective method for having a later abortion.

But the Democrats, as you’ve talked about, have not been doing themselves or pregnant people any favors in their own language choices, right Renee?

RBS: You might hear people say, I’m pro-choice. I’m not pro-abortion. As if to separate the two, making pro-choice seem like a more thoughtful approach that isn’t so abortion-forward. But the truth is that this distinction is swimming in abortion stigma. The pro-choice movement hasn’t always been called this. So basically here’s what happened. According to the book Before Roe v. Wade: Voices that Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court’s Ruling by Linda Greenhouse, there was a huge discussion about what to name the movement after the win for abortion.

And this person named Jimmye Kimmey introduced the framing. Jimmye was the director of the Association for the Study of Abortion, and in 1972 wrote a memo that emphasized the need to find a phrase to counter the Right to Life slogan. So Jimmye Kimmey floated a memo and said, okay, we could call it Right to Choose, Freedom of Conscience, couple of different things. She said she didn’t really like either, but the concept of choice was preferable to that of conscience, and she felt like “A woman’s conscience may well tell her abortion is wrong, but she may choose and must have the right to choose to have one anyway, for compelling, practical reasons.”

Now, I can understand how they came to that language, but part of it was because they were trying to minimize use of the word abortion. Toni Van Pelt, the former president of NOW who resigned in 2020 amid a lot of accusations of racism and being just generally a shitty boss, told Vice News that “We had a big discussion about whether we would say pro-abortion or pro-choice, and we determined that we would go with pro-choice because our goal was women’s self-autonomy. We didn’t want to make it seem like we were pushing abortion on people.” Again, they wanted to take a step back and they wanted to be acceptable to the mainstream.

RM: The concept of pushing abortion on people makes me go bananas. Because the people who created the abortion rights movement in this country were people who had abortions, were people who were focused on repealing abortion laws. People like Pat McGinnis; she’s considered one of the first abortion activists in the country based in California. She, along with two other women, were initially doing abortion referrals in the country after they all had their own abortions. Pat had went to Mexico for hers and said she shouldn’t have to go out of her community for an abortion. And so they started out doing referrals and then really focused the movement on fighting for abortion on demand, repealing abortion laws. The fact that these established, mainstream pro-choice organizations, those radical feminist roots of abortion advocacy and turned it into this, is just hard to wrap your brain around.

We talked in the first episode about reproductive justice and why the framework has been so important. If you haven’t listened to that episode, definitely go back. But it’s worth repeating again how the founders of the movement intentionally centered the experiences of women of color in defining not only what RJ is, but also why it’s crucial for reproductive freedom.

RBS: 100%. I also want to acknowledge the conversations about language that are still happening in the protest movement today. One of the things that’s been a point of contention with transphobes, TERFs, gender essentialists as they’re rebranding themselves or whatever, are insisting on using the word women or some other specific language, this uterus image, just to insist that only cisgender women have abortions and only cisgender women have periods. And of course, they hate the term cisgender, and it’s really frustrating. They’re simply wrong because women, girls, and of course non-binary people and trans men have periods and abortions, and there are girls, women, trans, and non-binary people who also don’t have all of these things. Hello, I have an IUD. I don’t have a period. That’s not what makes us who we are. It’s ridiculous. And I will say I personally don’t enjoy being identified based on my reproductive parts, and I think it’s okay for us to just say that there are people who have abortions and people who haven’t, yet.

But I don’t know. I’ll be honest, this is maybe my hot take, so be ready. I actually don’t like the terms birthing people or people with uteruses because, for me, I am not a birthing person and I am more than my uterus. I don’t like bio-essentialist language or iconography at all. The image is, I don’t know, it’s just really boring to me and for me, and again, I just mean for me, it doesn’t feel representative of my abortion experience. Not to mention it leaves so many groups of people I care about out of the conversation, but we have to be real that inclusion is not solely about language. It’s actually about how you show up. Part of that language matters. Of course, that’s what this entire episode is about, and you can have the best intention for your language, but if your space is not actually inclusive and doesn’t match this language, and doesn’t feel inviting and supportive of trans folks, then what actually is the point?

And I think it’s a deeper issue of patriarchy. Because all trans folks are interested in doing is gatekeeping who gets to identify as a “woman” or a man, and it’s based on white cis-hetero norms. Just because they’re progressive doesn’t mean that they don’t have aggressive ideas of gender. Those ideas are also then put upon black and brown people and how our bodies should look and how we should behave. Of course, language matters, but this language is a signal towards a larger issue of white supremacy and patriarchy and maintaining who gets to exist in the world and who doesn’t.

RM: So that’s an overview of where we’re at with language and abortion stigma. To dig a little deeper, we called up Dr. Tracy Weitz.

RBS: Here’s our conversation with Dr. Weitz.

Hi, Tracy.

Tracy Weitz: Hello, Renee. Hello, Regina.

RM: Hello, thank you for joining us. Can you introduce yourself, Tracy?

Tracy Weitz: Sure. My name is Tracy Weitz. I’m a professor at American University. My friends call me, all abortion all the time. I started volunteering in my first abortion clinic when I was 18 years old, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

RBS: Today we’re talking about the ways that language really reinforces abortion stigma. And of course, you wrote a really hugely influential article about why we should stop using the phrase safe, legal, and rare as a pro-abortion slogan, or really a pro-choice slogan. Can you talk about why it’s so bad? The central thesis of your belief of why that statement is terrible?

Tracy Weitz: The whole idea that it should be safe, legal, and rare suggests that there’s something wrong with abortion. We know there’s nothing wrong with abortion. It’s a normal part of pregnancy outcomes. It’s been here for forever. It’s going to be here for forever, so I’m just opposed to it as a phrase, but then if you take it apart, it’s also problematic. So starting with the last word, which is rare. It’s never going to be rare. I did some statistical calculations in that paper. Even if you look at the contraceptive failure rates for the best contraception, and you imagine that people are fertile from the age of 15 till forty-five, and they use the best contraception methods and they want to be pregnant only two times, you’re still going to have a certain number of abortions, and those are going to happen at such frequency that you’re never going to get to a rare number. So that’s just statistically not possible.

And then the second is, it suggests that we could come to a number and the anti-abortion movement would stop fighting. We would get to a number. They’d be like, “Oh, okay, finally, you got it down low enough that we’re all okay.” So never going to get rare.

Let’s go to the first word, which is safe. And so when one hears a word safe, the first thing that comes to your mind is unsafe. That just suggests that there is unsafe abortion, which unsafe abortion only comes about when it’s illegal. And even when it’s illegal, it’s not necessarily always unsafe. So the whole phrase is wrong and each word is wrong. And I was trying to say that as taking this up as our ideal, just will perpetuate stigma. And it blames people who have abortions for the conflict over abortion. And I don’t really think that we need to blame the people who have abortions for the social conflict over abortion.

RBS: They want rare meaning unthinkable, so we’re just constantly moving the goalpost and catering to people who simply are never going to agree with us.

RM: So good. I don’t know who these people are, but some of our listeners might be skeptical about a focus on language and stigma. How do you think the symbolism of language translates to concrete policy and healthcare? In other words, how these slogans are then going to translate into policy in healthcare?

Tracy Weitz: There’s a whole marketing, billion-dollar industry that figures out how to sell stuff to us. They know that what words they use, what symbols they use, what colors they use, all those things make a huge difference in whether or not you choose product A or product B. And the idea that somehow for issues, like abortion or marriage or religion, we would be neutral in our understanding and not be influenced by language. I think it’s incredibly naive.

Language matters in everything we do. It primes your emotional response and that emotional response primes how you cognitively think about something. Language, I believe, is critically important, and in some ways, people who support abortion haven’t thought enough about language. The anti-abortion movement thinks about it all the time. I don’t know if you read Jessica Valenti’s blog about how the anti-abortion movement has moved from bans to calling these consensus. They get it. We just haven’t. We think that this is an argument over facts. It’s not. It’s an argument over feelings.

RBS: Facts don’t care about your feelings.

RM: So given how ineffective the pro-choice movement’s language has been, how do you think we’ll be able to really shift the dialogue from moderate asks like safe, legal, and rare to something that would actually improve people’s lives?

Tracy Weitz: I think the major challenge happens when the RJ movement presents itself as the counter movement to the pro-choice movement. That’s the first time there’s really a challenge to the idea that legal abortion is not sufficient as an ask. It’s not enough to just keep Roe, which is what the pro-choice movement had become in a sense. And that becomes everything we focus on in the pro-choice movement for the next whatever, 30 years. And so the real challenge comes from the RJ movement who comes forward and says, that focus on legal abortion is not enough. You need both the means to access abortion, but you also need to focus on the right to parent and the right to raise your children. Could go on for a number of reasons about why the reproductive justice movement is never able to disrupt mainstream, the mainstream pro-choice movement. And that much of that has to do with how money is distributed in the United States, both on the philanthropic side, but also on the political side.

As long as politics stays firmly rooted in the Roe, maintenance of Roe is enough, there’s really no dislodging of it. And we see that now. Even with Roe overturned by Dobbs, all we are offering up as an alternative is to codify Roe. We still haven’t disrupted the legal is enough. Even as we are demanding more, and I feel like there’s more momentum and more effort to ask for something bigger.

RBS: I feel like let’s codify Roe is just the policy version of safe, legal and rare. It is nails on a chalkboard to me and drives me nuts. Why do you think that some sections of the pro-choice movement have become more and more moderate and conciliatory? As we’ve been doing the research, there were so many demands, even at the turn of the century with early feminists of free love and ending marriage and all of this stuff as a governmental institution, but also rallying cries of free abortion on demand. What happened to that?

Tracy Weitz: I mean, at every turn, white feminists sell out their sisters and their colleagues of color for access to closeness to white men. I don’t know how else to say it. The power and privilege that white women get from the economic structures that benefit the white male authority, white women, and I would say straight white women in particular, are never willing to trade that security in for any other larger liberatory demand. They want these other things, but not at the expense of the safety and security of, and for the most part, it’s the safety and security of their children whom they have had with these white men. White straight sisters will probably be upset with me, but that’s really fundamentally what stops the revolution from ever happening.

RBS: They’ll get over it. It’s part of the problem. I don’t know. So you and I have known each other a long time and it’s super no secret that you and I do not love a lot of the slogans that are in our movement. We went through safe legal and we’re already, let’s go through a couple others in a lightning round of what sucks about each of them. A decision between a woman and her doctor.

Tracy Weitz: Okay, let’s just say that there are abortions that people need their doctor’s input on. If you have a genetic condition and you don’t know what the probability of that genetic condition in that fetus is, you might ask a doctor to help you decide how to ride that risk. That’s a very small number of times when someone is pregnant. The vast majority of decisions that people are making about abortions have to do with the future of their life, the context of their relationship, whether or not they feel like they’re ready to parent, whether or not they have the economic means to have. None of those things a physician can weigh in on. I have never gone to my physician and said, “Do you think I can pay my electrical bill next month?” The only reason that person is in that phrase is because we think, and in this case, women in that sentence, need a supervisor. This is really about validation from an authority figure that somehow my decision is legitimate.

RBS: I think people in general want to know that someone isn’t alone in making an abortion decision, but the reality is that the reason a lot of people make abortion decision alone is because you stigmatize the shit out of it and they didn’t have anybody to go to, and that person doesn’t need to be a doctor.

Tracy Weitz: Over 90% of people who by the time they arrive at the abortion clinic, are very confident about their decision. That whole idea that somehow they even need that when they get to the abortion clinic is pretty false.

RBS: Throw in Sarah Cowan’s research that people usually tell between one and two people that they’re having an abortion, so it doesn’t have to be a doctor. People are telling someone. So yes, shout out to the research.

RM: But what about our next favorite phrase, the right to choose?

Tracy Weitz: Probably when the phrase was created it was fine, but what people didn’t imagine is that choice as a phrase assumes that people have the means to pick either option. I choose between a red and a blue car. It’s a trivial choice versus the way people think about abortion is it’s actually quite a decision. It’s quite a meaningful thing in people’s lives, and often because of the way we’ve structured the economy in the United States, people don’t actually have all of what they need to be able to choose on both sides. Many people, if they had more economic resources, would actually like to parent the children that they find themselves pregnant with. They don’t regret their decisions. They know this is the decision that they needed to make. But if things could be different in the economy, if people could have more resources, if we actually cared about low-income families, they would like to have made a different decision. And so choice suggests that you have everything you need.

RBS: I think the other thing that just drives me bananas about the phrase is that it gets used instead of the word abortion. It’s the right to choose. To choose what? The right to choose exactly what?

Tracy Weitz: When I hear politicians say, I support the right to choose, what they are saying is I support this conceptual thing, not that I actually support the people who make this decision. That’s the difference is, you support the people, I give you the resources to make that decision, which is a very different thing.

RBS: Yeah, there’s the right, but I’m not actually going to make sure you have the right to do the thing.

RM: Okay, so these next ones are common rallying cries. How about my body, my choice?

Tracy Weitz: As a queer person, as a fatty, these things, the idea of bodily integrity, bodily autonomy, I care a whole bunch about. again, I get the sentiment behind it, but very few people think about their pregnancies as an expression of what I’m doing with my body. It is a piece of the body, but it isn’t what you’re doing. You don’t want the invasion of your body. I don’t want someone to come into my body and take a piece of it. As a country that was built on enslavement, we should care a lot about when we take people’s bodies and we use them against their will.

But my body, my choice makes it again sound flippant. And I think it just truncates away all of what is actually happening in the way in which people care deeply about being able to make these decisions for themselves. And it’s so funny because when it got co-opted by the anti-vaxxers, when they were like, my body, my choice, I just got so angry both by the co-optation, but also you seem ridiculous. And so it was sort of a mirror back to us about, yeah, no, it doesn’t really work as a sentence. Even as it holds some of what we really care about, which is you should not be able to keep me pregnant against my will. That is just fundamentally so wrong, but it’s not, there’s just something that’s quite right about the sentence.

RM: As someone presently pregnant, I think it’s weird to put a focus on your body because people already touch you. I can’t even tell how many people when they see me touch my… And I’m like, I’m sorry. Yes, it’s my body, my choice. But that still doesn’t, people just see you as a body, as a vessel, and they just completely dehumanize you. In a lot of ways that phrase dehumanizes the pregnant person because it just puts the focus on their body again, instead of the actual life and the experience of pregnancy, which no one really chooses the actual symptoms and all of the shit that you go through when you’re pregnant. No one would choose that.

RBS: I think what frustrates me about it is that it’s so individualistic. It’s really important for, yes, of course, bodily autonomy in that, but it doesn’t actually speak to the world that we want to create where it’s, okay, fine, your body, your choice, then you pay for it. You get it yourself. No one in our community needs to help you. We don’t need to make sure that you have the things that you need. At a larger scale, it doesn’t actually talk about what is the reproductive justice world that we are all trying to build. It sticks in the very American individualistic, figure that shit out for yourself type of thinking.

The next one that we’re going to critique is, we won’t go back.

Tracy Weitz: Yeah. It’s just so funny because all of our vision is actually backward-looking. We would like to codify Roe and we would like to overturn Hyde, and it assumes that there is a back to go to. We remember a time, prior to the 1960s, an era in which lots of people died of illegal abortion. And so we are drawing on a trope in which we are saying, if you make it illegal, we’re going to go back to those days when people are going to die. So that’s the trope. And so it’s in the wrong space because we know that today we have means of managing our own abortions when it’s illegal, that can be very safe, and those times just don’t exist. We’ve already gone back on civil rights. We’ve already gone back on voting rights. White women’s dystopia is separate from the rest of all of the horrors that are going on. And so we aren’t going back as if things are great except for this piece, and it’s just humorous because that’s all we’re asking for, currently in the movement, is to go back.

RBS: I think what’s lit for me is challenging about our movement’s phrasing overall, is that it’s not forward thinking. It’s not very visionary. It’s not saying what is the world that we want to build? We often define ourselves by what of our opposition we don’t want instead of actually what is the alternative that we are trying to create. And, as you pointed out, with white supremacy, both political parties do benefit from that, so then we’d have to discuss who actually is our opposition, because I believe anti-abortion Dems are our opposition and others in our movement do not.

RM: Is there anything we didn’t talk about today, around abortion stigma, around language that you can think of that you’d like to talk about?

Tracy Weitz: Well, one that I just want to call out Renee’s work for so many years in centering the people who have had abortions. It still shocks me that this movement is not centered on and led by people who have had abortions. But whenever we ask what’s happening on the ground, how is this impacting people? We never turn to the people who have abortions. I think it still reflects the deepest stigma in our movement, which is we’re still uncomfortable with the fact that people have abortions and we cannot get over that. And until we get over that the whole reason that we are fighting for this is so that people will have abortions, and in fact, maybe more people will have abortions because there’ll be less stigma and people will feel less bad about contemplating the decision or seeking abortion care, so that’s the piece that still really strikes me is that we’re not over that.

RM: Do you have the call to action to listeners? I don’t know if it’s centering people who have abortions or something else, but what do you think?

Tracy Weitz: My call to action is always the same, which is say abortion. If you’re in favor of abortion, say that you’re in favor of abortion. And if you have people in your life who are against abortion, take them on. It is not okay to say, we agree to disagree, because agreeing to disagree has actually led to the election of people who have criminalized abortion and have made abortion illegal and have made it impossible for people to get abortions or have made it impossible for people to pay for abortions or have created the social stigma. So get over the conflict, engage in the conflict, disagree with people about abortion, break through to the other side.

RBS: That was such a great conversation. As Dr. Weitz said, speaking of changing language, this June, Jessica Valenti had a great article on the new changed language from the anti-abortion movement. Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, has switched from pushing abortion bans to no longer using the word ban and instead replacing it with the word standard or consensus, two really boring non-threatening words that clearly don’t mean what they actually mean. They act like ban is inaccurate because technically people could still have abortions if they, I don’t know, traveled across the states or had a ton of money to circumvent all the laws, but it’s actually absolute bullshit.

RM: It is so important that folks in the media pay close attention to shifts like this in the language. It is their way of trying to normalize what is, in fact, as Renee pointed out, an unpopular opinion. Abortion should be legal, but as consumers of media, you can also be active in pushing back against this language too. I also think Dr. Weitz brought up a really great point about how a proximity to whiteness comes up again and again in power dynamics between pro-choice folks and lawmakers and how that blocks actual progress. I honestly haven’t stopped thinking about that point. And even though stigma is obviously reproduced at the media and government levels, there are other things we can do to address it when it comes up in our daily lives and interactions.

RBS: I think it’s so simple. Just say the word abortion. When I write op-eds, sometimes people want to change my language and I work with editors to explain, here’s why I’m very careful about the words that I use to push back. No, I’m saying the word abortion. No, I’m calling it a ban. No, this is how I’m talking about it. And I think that’s the education that we have to constantly do. Talking to our peers, getting them to understand that words mean things. Words really matter, because it’s conveying a feeling. It’s conveying a vision of the world that we want to create, and the people who are most impacted are listening.

RM: Great. Now it’s time for a final segment, There Are Other Books.

This is a time for us to take a moment to acknowledge the many abortion stories and narratives that are not the 1985 novel, the Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

RBS: Everyone loves it, and yet we all know about it. There are tons of other excellent novels that feature people of color and include abortion. It’s just one part of a larger, more complex narrative, and I’m excited about today’s book. Do you want to talk about it, Regina?

RM: Yes, I do. I’ve been waiting all week to talk about it. We are talking about House of Cotton. It’s the debut novel by Monica Brashears who describes herself as an Affrilachian from Tennessee, which I love and couldn’t wait to say out loud. It’s considered a black Southern Gothic fiction book. When Renee told me about it, I immediately ordered a copy of the book. Actually, it was probably the IG Reels, the author playing her main character.

RBS: Yeah, they were a fun little get ready with me style Instagram video where the author Monica Brashears puts on makeup and gets dressed as her character, a young biracial black woman named Magnolia whose grandmother recently died. And she’s starting a new job where she’s working for a funeral home, acting as an impersonator for people whose loved ones went missing, so they never had a chance to say goodbye or have a real funeral. And she has to read a file to learn about the character. And then her boss’s aunt does her makeup and outfits, and the story goes on from there.

RM: Oh my goodness, the plot is so good. But the thing I love most about the book is that while it’s definitely about an abortion, it’s also not the abortion that defines the character or even what drives the narrative. The worst kind of abortion storyline, in my opinion, is one where it’s the only defining thing about the person.

Don’t get me wrong, abortions can absolutely have that kind of impact on a person’s life. At the same time, we all live complicated lives and have relationships and interests that extend beyond any one thing or moment in our lives. So the fact that Magnolia is such a beautifully thought-through and complex person is what really was, I think, the most admirable thing about the book, the writing, the character development. Also, it was a self-managed abortion, which I think I texted you about this, Renee, while I was sitting at the pool. It was my birthday weekend reading the book, and I was just blown away. The fact that I think this has to be really rare in modern literature, at least in the books you and I have read, and you’ve read damn near all of them, at this point.

RBS: Yeah, I somehow have this really weird knack for picking up a random book, and then there’s a surprise abortion in it. This one was actually recommended to me by my friend Dr. Gretchen Sisson, who researches abortion on television, but she also didn’t know there was an abortion in it. Anyway, I really love this one because it’s a bit gothic, a bit mysterious, and the characters are imperfect.

Throughout the book, Magnolia engages in sex work and is making decisions about a pregnancy and decides to self-manage because she wants to save money and doesn’t want to encounter protesters. She’s also deeply grieving the loss of her grandmother, whose spirit she’s talking to and discusses her decisions and options with. I love the complexity and the steadfastness of Magnolia and what she brings to her abortion decision, and really just the story overall. Also, the cover of the book is stunning. It’s gorgeous, and I am truly a sucker for a beautiful book cover. You should read House of Cotton by Monica Brashears.

RM: And do you know why? Because there are other books.

RBS: There are other books.

RM: All right, that’s it for The A Files Today. See you next time.

RBS: Abortion over everything.

The A Files is produced for The Meteor by LWC Studios. Our hosts are me, Renee Bracey Sherman, and Regina Mahone.

RM: Our executive producers at The Meteor are me, Regina Mahone, Renee Bracey Sherman, Cindy Leive, and Tara Abrahams

RBS: At LWC Studios, our executive producer is Juleyka Lantigua. Paulina Velasco is our managing producer, and our producer is Anne Lim. Kojin Tashiro is our sound designer and engineer.

RM: This podcast is produced with support from the Meteor Fund, the Meteor’s nonprofit initiative. Additional thanks to Pop Culture Collaborative for their support. You can support us by subscribing to The A Files wherever you get your podcasts. And please take a second to rate us, five stars please, and leave us a review. It would mean a lot.

RBS: For links to any resources mentioned in this episode or more information, visit our website at themeteor.com/theafiles. You can follow us on social media. I’m @rbraceysherman on Twitter and Renee Bracey Sherman on Instagram, and for Regina @byreginamahone on Twitter and Instagram. You can follow the Meteor @themeteor on all platforms. Thanks for listening. Thanks for saying the word abortion. And remember, everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion.


Bracey Sherman, Renee, and Mahone, Regina, host. “We’re Past “Safe, Legal, and Rare.” The A Files, The Meteor and Lantigua Williams & Co., January 17, 2024. Themeteor.com/theafiles