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Vital Signs Blog

Blog: 'My abortion' stories meant to sway Supreme Court, change public perceptions

More than 110 prominent members of the legal profession shared stories about their abortions with the U.S. Supreme Court this week to try and persuade it to rule against a Texas law that they say limits access to the procedures.

Their stories are part of a campaign encouraging women to talk openly about their experiences. In addition to the amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court (PDF), women have also been sharing their stories online.

“People are just hungry for breaking the silence that has sadly, unfortunately surrounded abortion for years and years and years by speaking out about their own abortion stories,” said Kelly Baden, director of state advocacy for the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing the abortion clinics challenging the Texas law before the Supreme Court.

Baden said the center felt it was important that women's personal stories be part of the strategy in the Supreme Court case.

The case, Whole Woman's Health v. Cole, centers on whether a Texas law limits access if it requires doctors at abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at local hospitals and providers to comply with the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers. A decision in the case could affect state abortion laws across the country.

The women behind the brief hail from a variety of legal backgrounds, and say they all have had abortions. They include partners at major law firms, attorneys for public organizations and law professors at well-known universities, among others.

“Amici obtained their abortions at different ages and life stages, under a variety of circumstances, and for a range of reasons both medical and personal, but they are united in their strongly held belief that they would not have been able to achieve the personal or professional successes they have achieved were it not for their ability to obtain safe and legal abortions,” according to the brief.

Susan Katz Hoffman, a shareholder at Littler Mendelson, was among those who joined the brief, though she noted that she did so as an individual not as a representative of her law firm.

She said she had not previously shared her story. But she felt it was important to speak out because of the current threat to women's reproductive rights.

The Supreme Court has also agreed to hear a case about whether religious not-for-profits should have a role in helping employees get contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act. And Planned Parenthood has faced backlash from conservatives in recent months after an anti-abortion group released videos showing Planned Parenthood staff talking about providing fetal remains for research. Even Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman has come under attack for saying in recent days that women in their 20s and 30s have become complacent when it comes to abortion rights. Liberal group Credo has called for her resignation.

“There just seems to be more and more attacks on the ability of women to control their own lives,” Katz Hoffman said.

Elizabeth Sepper, an associate professor of law at Washington University, said personal stories from female attorneys might be an effective strategy both from legal and emotional standpoints.

For one, she said, their stories bear witness to the court's opinion in a previous abortion case, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, that women's equal participation in society depends on their access to abortion.


Speaking to Justice Kennedy

Also, she said, the fact that the women are involved in the legal profession might help the justices better relate to them.

“Like all the amici on both sides, these women are speaking to Justice Kennedy, the swing vote,” Sepper said. “These women, for better or worse, are the types of people that Justice Kennedy relates to.”

Not everyone, however, agrees that the women's stories will help the abortion clinics win the case.

Kerri Kupec, legal communications director for the the conservative Christian not-for-profit Alliance Defending Freedom, believes the stories have little to do with the case before the court.

“To me, this is a safety and health standards issue, and while personal stories are very important, that's not really what this case about,” Kupec said.

Those behind the Texas lawsuit say the state law would limit access to abortion by forcing many clinics to close. Kupec, however, said if so many clinics are “subpar in their health and safety protocol,” that should be the larger concern.

Either way, personal stories about abortion are likely to keep coming, especially as arguments in the Whole Woman case near. Oral arguments are scheduled for March 2.

Efforts such as the 1 in 3 Campaign, the Draw The Line campaign, the My Abortion My Life campaign and the recent Twitter hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion have been encouraging women to share their experiences.

Robin Fretwell Wilson, a law professor and director of the family law and policy program at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, said the campaigns are trying to put a human face on the issue.

“This takes a page from the gay rights movement,” Fretwell Wilson said, “which has been wildly successful.”






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