Interview by Laura Hudson
Renee Bracey Sherman is determined to break down abortion stigma, and she believes storytelling is one of the most important ways to do it. She’s told the story of her own abortion countless times, not just in her own life but in news outlets from the The Atlantic to The Washington Post. An activist, advocate and writer for reproductive rights with a Master’s degree in public administration from Cornell, Bracey Sherman also wrote “Saying Abortion Aloud,” a report for the Sea Change Program on how telling personal narratives can “change hearts and minds about abortion.” She’s worked with organizations including Gay Straight Alliance Network, the Wikimedia Foundation, Forward Together, as well as Feminist Frequency itself, where she coauthored the multilingual “Speak Up and Stay Safe(r)” guide for dealing with online harassment. She spoke with FREQ about the threats to reproductive choice in the aftermath of election, and how abortion rights have been slowly eroded across the country since long before November 8.
FREQ: What first inspired you to get into activism?
Renee Bracey Sherman: Activism was just part of the fabric of my family growing up. My dad was a union nurse, and there was always this family value that when you have a lot of privileges, you help people. That’s what you do. It seemed so basic at the time. My mom was also a nurse, and they both raised me to believe that if people are sick they deserve health care, and they deserve to be treated with respect. And of course, the black side of my family lived through a lot of racism and injustice. My aunt is old enough to remember when she still had to sit to at the back of the bus.
In college, I started out taking classes that were focused on business, but then I realized that’s not actually what I care about. I remember sitting in an economics class arguing with one of the professors about whether or not it’s ok to pay someone five cents an hour because it helps your profits. It seems like such a basic, obvious question to ask but there’s this stigma against bringing up social good and social justice in business spaces. I realized that I wanted to work on social policy, so from there I did Americorps and worked at an LGBT organization and then Wikipedia, and now I’m in the reproductive health rights and justice space.
FREQ: With the election of Trump and a Supreme Court seat currently open, there’s a lot of concern about the potential for abortion rights to be eroded or lost. How scared should we be?
RBS: I understand that people are scared now, but many of us have been scared for a long time. None of this is new. Access to abortion has already been eroded. A lot of the [abortion] restrictions that people are just hearing about now are already place in many states. A lot of people don’t realize how many states only have one abortion clinic. The focus is always on protecting Roe v. Wade, but just because something is legal does not mean that it’s accessible. You have the right to vote, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can do it because of the restrictions placed in the way. And it’s the same thing with abortion.
Everything Trump has said about it, Republicans have already done—he’s just being really open and blatant about it. Some people were surprised when he said there has to be some form of punishment for people seeking abortions, but the reality is that’s already happening in several forms. His Vice President [Mike Pence] has put two women in jail, one who had attempted suicide and her fetus died, and another who was put in jail on both child neglect and feticide charges. She had a miscarriage, which is what she said at the hospital. But the doctor, who self-identified as anti-choice, reported her to the police. She was sentenced to 20 years in jail, though it has since been overturned. When Trump talks about punishing people who have abortions, he’s already picked a Vice President who has been doing it for years.
Even when there were fewer restrictions, abortion has always been inaccessible for many people because of the cost and the Hyde Amendment, which is a ban on federal funds being used for abortions. It means that people who are on Medicaid, in the military, Peace Corps volunteers or federal employees, folks who are on the Indian Health Service or incarcerated people—they can’t use the health insurance they have to cover this really basic and common procedure. And this has [amendment] been around for 40 years. For some communities, Roe v. Wade was never a reality anyway. So it’s a “welcome to the party” sort of thing.
FREQ: In the wake of the election and the Republican party taking over the presidency and both houses of Congress, it’s easy to feel like the country has taken a sharp tilt to the right. What are the actual statistics about public opinion on abortion rights?
RBS: NARAL has data that shows 7 in 10 voters support abortion access. The majority of people do not want to see it go away. One thing that’s really interesting to me as a black woman is that over 80 percent of the black community—even those who attend church weekly and identify as conservative—believe that abortion should be legal and that it should be accessible within their community. Same thing with the Latinx community. This might sound controversial, but anti-abortion policy is a white people problem, because it’s deeply rooted in racism and classism and xenophobia. [Anti-abortion] laws are often targeted at communities of color and based on racist stereotypes… [Politicians] act as if they’re acting doing something for communities of color when they’re not. They are actively harming communities of color.
FREQ: While the overwhelming majority of women of color voted for Hillary, the majority of white women voted for Trump, something that surprised many liberal white women I know but few women of color. What motivates white women to vote in favor of openly misogynist candidates, and how can they address this—and each other—moving forward?
RBS: I think it’s a couple things. All women are steeped in misogyny. We swim in it. We’re so used to it. But white women still uphold white supremacy and benefit from it. White women want to be equal to white men. This is not a new concept; it dates back to Susan B. Anthony and Ida B. Wells. Susan B. Anthony was fighting for the right to vote, but also said there’s no way black men should get the right to vote before her as a white woman. Women of color weren’t just left out, but pushed out. Again, this is not new.
What needs to happen is that white women need to look at how they are complicit in white supremacy. How are you making sure not just that you have gender equality, but that you aren’t getting ahead at the expense of people of color, particularly women of color? There are a lot of times when things gets planned and there are no women of color at the table. [White women] don’t notice that, but they’ll scream if there’s a panel with all men on it. So where is the solidarity? They need to ask, how am I being complacent and only looking out for myself but not women as a whole? Stand up for yourself, of course, but also use your privilege to stand up and say, this isn’t ok—there are only white women in this room, or there are no trans women in this room. Make sure that you’re letting the people who are most marginalized lead.
FREQ: A lot of people are dreading the holidays because it means coming face to face with family members who voted for Trump. Do you think it’s important for people, particularly white people, to talk to their more conservative family members about these issues?
RBS: While it may be uncomfortable and hard to talk to your family, think about how hard it is for a person of color or queer person to encounter your family member on the street as a stranger. We should all figure out what’s best for us, but understand that while you’re worried about a dinner there are people who are dealing with microaggressions and macroaggressions from your family members and being harmed by them every single day. The hard conversations are not something to shy away from. That is how we build understanding. To say, hey, I get that you voted for this guy, but I need you to understand that my friends are terrified of what’s going to happen and here’s why. Also, they’re your family so you have to deal with them. [laughs] You won’t change anyone’s opinion in the first conversation, but you have to keep at it. It has to be an ongoing conversation. Tell them you are having this conversation because you love them and you want them to see how they’re harming other people not just with their vote but every single day.
FREQ: For people who haven’t been directly involved in activism before and want to take action, what can an individual do to help support abortion rights, right now?
RBS: I started by volunteering at my local abortion fund. I gave rides to people who needed rides to and from their appointments. If someone needed their hand held, I would do that. But what really changed me was housing people who were traveling for their abortions. Most people don’t realize that there are parts of California where it’s very conservative and there’s extreme poverty and little access to abortion, so they’d have to travel and need somewhere to stay. I tried to make their abortion experience as compassionate and supportive as possible. It changed my life. I also used to do work as a clinic escort. You have no idea what it means for someone to walk up to a clinic and see all those protesters shouting things you may be feeling deep down inside because of abortion stigma, and then to see someone smiling at you and willing to hold your hand and walk with you into that clinic. It restores your faith in humanity. If you have Saturday a month or however much time you have, you can be that person. It changes lives. I know, because I’ve been on both sides of it.
We also have to double down on grassroots organizing. We have to double down on insuring that abortion funds can support people. And not only funding their abortions, but also things like taking a plane to another state so they can get an abortion because that’s actually extremely common. We have to have a deep conversation that is rooted in compassion and rooted in supporting people who have abortions, no matter what you personally would do. The point of abortion access is not about whether you would have an abortion or not. It is that you believe that someone you love or anyone has the right to be able to access this basic form of health care free of harassment, without having to pay exorbitant costs or deal with all these excessive barriers that make it extremely frustrating and undermine our basic humanity… One in three cisgender women will have an abortion by age 45. Everyone knows someone who has had an abortion, they just might not know it yet. We have to get people to recognize that they know and love someone who has an abortion. And that not only their votes but their rhetoric is impacting someone they love in a deep and harmful way.