An Analysis of Video Abortion Stories Online,

 

Isa Pulli [1] for Women on Web, Spring 2019

my abortion story

Introduction

The internet has become the ultimate place for people to gather ideas and resources, connect through shared experiences, and broadcast their milestones in life to millions of followers. As people share more and more of their lives on the Web, it is of no surprise that stories of medical journeys have become commonplace online as well. Among these stories are the abortion testimonies made in video, oral, and written forms. There is no singular reason as to what makes the abortion stories stand out from the stream of medical narratives, but the fact that the procedure largely applies only to women[2] is a much-revealing aspect in and of itself. Women’s bodily autonomy and reproductive choices have been met with contestation throughout history, as many scholars have discussed (Heinemann 2018; Outshoorn 2015; Reagan 1997; Zordo et al. 2016), and the abortion testimonies demonstrate an awareness of this legacy in their wording, performance and message. While there are studies looking at the effects of sharing abortion stories (Cockrill and Biggs 2018) and how women’s emotional reactions to their past abortions may change over time (Goodwin and Odgen 2007), there are still themes to be pursued. How does the online platform change the way the stories are told? Do video abortion stories help to normalise the experience: is their affect more effective in destigmatising abortion?

In this analysis, I will discuss the findings of a qualitative online case study I conducted on Youtube. During this study, I observed discursive patterns that were present in the abortion testimonies uploaded in video form. As part of the analysis I will also look at the historicity of publicised abortion testimonies and theorise on the performativity of stigma in the video abortion narratives online. Based on the observations and research presented in this paper, I will argue that video abortion stories, whether positive or negative in their message, are aware of their position in the stigmatised abortion narrative. Thus, because of this awareness and the accessibility of their platform they are particularly effective in creating destigmatising conversations around abortion. Finally, while private and public discourses on abortion are all just as valuable in destigmatising the topic (Kumar et al. 2009), I suggest that the video abortion stories online could be seen as a continuation of a legacy: in a similar manner to the second wave feminists who publicly came out with their abortion stories in order to help decriminalise abortion, the video abortion stories bring the private into the public sphere.

 

Background: On the history of ‘I had an Abortion’ stories

Although abortion and its advances has rarely enjoyed publicity in the same vein as many other medical procedures, there is evidence to suggest that abortion has been practiced, to varying degrees and success rates, since ancient times (Campbell and Potts 2002; Riddle 1992). However, it seems that it has only been in the last 50 years or so that women have been able to – or rather, have felt compelled to – publicly share their individual experiences of abortion. The main catalyst for the publication of personal, unmediated abortion stories can be located in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when the women’s rights movements were gaining momentum across the globe after decades of work. As it is, up until then the women’s rights activists had hardly had interest in fighting for the decriminalisation of abortion. For example in the US, while the restrictions on abortion became more and more widespread in the 19th century (Beisel and Kay 2004; Reagan 1997), North American women’s movements ‘never defended abortion’ (Reagan 1997, 9). In Europe, ideas about the ‘body’, bodily integrity and autonomy did not start developing until the second wave of feminism hit Western Europe in the late 1960’s (Outshoorn et al. 2015, 1).

Once the second wave arrived, however, the women’s social activist groups began challenging set ideas about women’s reproductive rights, and in particular, abortion: and as a result of these debates one European country after another legalised abortion (Heinemann 2018, 233). Women in countries such as Germany and France saw that in order to reduce the stigma surrounding abortion and legalise it, the only way to do so was to speak on it publicly. In France, celebrities such as Simone de Beauvoir and Catherine Deneuve, along with 341 other French women who had had abortions, chose to publicly attach their names, faces and stories in a petition titled ‘Manifeste des 343’ (‘The Manifesto of the 343’) in 1971 in order to change the laws on reproductive rights (McHugh 2018; Des Deserts 2014). Later that same year, 374 women in Germany appeared in Stern magazine’s ‘Wir haben abgetrieben!’ (‘We had abortions!’) spread where they publicly ‘confessed’ to having broken the law by having an abortion (GHDI). It was campaigns and initiatives like these that helped to decriminalise abortion and change the course of the narrative in which abortion was kept: it was no longer an issue restricted to the private sphere, but a key talking point in a public debate about women’s bodily autonomy and personhood.

Nowadays, the internet is filled with countless resources to find information on abortion, to share one’s abortion story, and to seek a community of others who have had abortions. Websites such as Women on web, the 1 in 3 campaign and its offshoot Youth testify, the Stigma toolkit, and Shout your abortion, to name only a few, try to combat abortion stigma by collecting abortion stories from around the world. These websites continue the tradition of using women’s personal stories as tools of advocacy in the same vein as the feminists of the past: creating an ever-growing collection of voices to add to the historic continuum, seeking to normalise abortion.

 

Methodology

At the start of my research I conducted a simple search for case studies, i.e. abortion videos, on Youtube. Out of the 707 hits that the search term ‘I had an abortion’ produced, only 48 hits were actual abortion stories told by individual women. The overwhelming majority of the hits were either videos that were not remotely related to the subject matter, or they were various kinds of panel discussions on abortion, media news stories or other, miscellaneous informational videos on abortion. All of these were disregarded. After considering the time frame of the study, I chose to focus on the 48 unmediated stories in which the independent Youtube-creators – not media houses – only speak for themselves and on their experience alone on camera. The research then became framed around narrators who curate their stories independently, without questions or prompts. If the videos chosen for the study were edited, the editing did not majorly distract from the narrative or it was not visible to the viewer.

The analysis was written from a socio-anthropological perspective, basing the findings on the in-depth observations made on the videos. This research is predominately a qualitative discourse analysis on a small sample of videos, though certain quantitative methods were applied when gathering data in order to detect narrative patterns more effectively. The videos were categorised with the help of the NVivo programme, using several codes and subcategories. The main codes included the following: religious, nonreligious, or unspecified spiritual background; European or non-European narrator; pro-choice or prolife; positive or negative experience; and lastly, medical (with pills) abortion or a surgical abortion. The coding of the stories helped in finding links within the narratives and seeing where the attributes overlap. However, as the videos did not always explicitly state the age, religious background, or the nationality of the narrator, these categories were mainly used to organise the stories and not to provide statistical information. Furthermore, I chose to exclude any classifications related to the narrators’ socio-economic status, educational background, and race and/or ethnicity, as it would have been ethically dubious to discuss these qualities, particularly without the consent of the video narrators. On a more self-reflexive note, this analysis was conducted as part of an internship. I am a European postgraduate student, and I have not had an abortion. During the process of writing notes on the video stories I found my lack of personal experience in the subject matter quite helpful, as having the experience could have potentially influenced my interpretation of the data. Also, due to my linguistic limitations only English-speaking videos were included in this project. In the transcription of the videos I chose to stick as close as possible to the narrator’s wording and vernacular in order to not misrepresent them and also to show the diversity of voices within abortion narratives.

It must be disclosed that this research project first started as an analysis of both video and written abortion stories online. However, after the initial scouring through both the Women on web -website and Youtube, the decision was made to exclude the written stories from the discursive analysis and keep them only as point of reference, rather than as a focus. The reason for this is that while the 25 written stories that were looked at followed similar patterns in storytelling as the video stories, the written ones did not offer as much unmediated narrative to analyse. Their structure was heavily reliant on the question prompts on the website, thereby offering a ‘ready-made’ structure for the story rather than genuine one. Therefore, the focus was shifted on the video abortion stories on Youtube, as they offered an ‘uncharted territory’ to analyse.

When watching and reading these stories, the research questions that were kept in mind were to do with language, performativity and the effectiveness of the story: What kind of terminology is being used when referring to pregnancy, fetus, and abortion? Does the use of those words depend on whether the person talking is prolife or pro-choice? Is the person telling the story affected by retelling their story, and if so, how is it shown? How is the narrative framed? And finally, what is the message that the narrator wants to leave with the listener?

 

Observations on the abortion narratives

Before discussing the characteristics of abortion narratives, it must be first defined what is meant by a ‘narrative’. In this paper I rely on Steph Lawler’s (2008) description of the term. She defines narrative as a story that ‘must contain action or transformation and characters, which must be brought together within an overall plot’ (2008, 14). Drawing heavily from Paul Ricoeur, Lawler explains that ‘in narrating a story, social actors organize events into ‘episodes’, which make up the plot. In doing so, […], they draw on memories. But, not only do they interpret those memories, the memories are themselves interpretations’ (Ibid, 17). That is, a narrative includes reconstructions and interpretations of events that are tainted by one’s cultural framework and previous experiences, thus being representational of the events, first and foremost, rather than striving for accuracy. The process of choosing which events, actors, and other details to include in the story defines the narrative: every detail serves a purpose. Consequently, the storyteller may leave out or incorporate specific events in the story in order for the plot to have a specific point (Ibid, 16-18).

The narrative of a typical abortion story on Youtube consists of the following four episodes: ‘life stage’, the ‘procedure’, the ‘recovery’ and the ‘message to the viewer’. These are general patterns I made noted on when watching the videos: they are not distinct categories, as they overlap quite a bit. While there were a few outlier stories in which one or more of these episodes are not discussed, in the majority of stories all these four stages are present.

Life stage is the part in the abortion story where the narrator explains the stage in life that she was in at the time of the conception/beginning of the pregnancy: almost as if to set the ‘scene’ to the story. This episode most often takes place right after the introduction to the video. At this point in the story, the narrator typically also discusses how she initially reacted to the positive pregnancy test. Depending on whether the abortion was a positive, negative or neutral experience for the storyteller, it may only be a short summary or a long, detailed account of her relationship status, age, financial position, mental state, and cultural/religious background at the time of the abortion. Below is an excerpt from one of the video stories: here, the narrator (coded pro-choice, non-European, surgical abortion, positive experience) reflects on her thoughts and stage in life at the time of taking the pregnancy test:

I was in a relationship for a while […], we weren’t using protection, and I was not on birth control. So I know people out there are gonna be like, that’s so stupid like, you – you don’t care about killing babies, like ‘you did this, you planned this’ or whatever. […] I was twenty-one, so this was four years ago. The way I found out that I was pregnant… my period did not come. […] I don’t wanna call myself stupid, but I was just so, like, naïve to like grown shit. Like, you know like, ‘oh I’m here trying to have sex, oh I’m doing this’. But I was just like always naïve to stuff. (Alondra Land 2019, 2.36-4.07)

The narrator in the example indicates that there has been a transformation or an evolution of character – herself – between having the abortion and where she is now in life.

And that’s why I’m doing videos like this because, y’all, my mom didn’t talk to me about a lot when it came to sex, so it’s just like, the least I could do is talk to somebody else about it, because literally, like people like parents do not be talking about this shit […]. And I just feel like, I don’t know, me being twenty-five I’m just way more open and comfortable with talking about stuff like this. (Alondra Land 2019, 4.08-4.40)

The narrator in these excerpts exemplifies how the abortion narratives typically start their story. The narrator defines the motivations of the main character – her ‘past self’ at the time of the abortion – and provides a specific reason for why the character’s experiences are told, tying into the message of the story. For the narrator in the example, she wants to promote open discussions about sex, sexuality and abortion, because she feels her past self could have benefitted from such conversations. This ‘transformation’ from a character with little to no support and/or knowledge to one who has both is a recurring theme in the stories. However, if the narrator has been pro-choice from the beginning (before the abortion), and they do not see the abortion as a remarkable event in their life, it is more likely that the transformative aspect is not emphasised or not present in the video at all. On the other hand, if the narrator explicitly states their religious background in the video and is prolife in their message, their story is more likely to have a transformation narrative. In these stories, however, the motivation framed for the transformation is regret over the abortion; I will go into more detail about this theme later.

The transformative storyline exhibits the process of recreating a self or a character through the reproduction of memories (Hacking 1995; Lawler 2008). As Ian Hacking argues,

The tales we tell of ourselves and to ourselves are not a matter of recording what we have done and how we have felt. They must mesh with the rest of the world and with other people’s stories, at least in externals, but their real role is in the creation of life, a character, a self. (Hacking 1995, 251: Emphasis added)

This ‘meshing’ can be seen in the video abortion stories. The narrators in the videos tell their stories in an easily accessible language, and the stories follow a relatively chronological and coherent structure. They situate their story in the larger abortion narrative by acknowledging their stance on abortion rights in general. By making these choices, the narrators construct their representational past and current selves through storytelling. In other words, they tell the ‘tale’ of their abortion journey not only for the benefit of others, but to themselves in order to reaffirm their identity and beliefs. This is not to argue that the abortion experience defines a person’s identity: rather, that the abortion story can be used to reproduce a representation of one’s self and identity.

The description of the Abortion procedure, regardless of whether the abortion was done surgically or with pills, is discussed in most of the videos. When describing the procedure, the narrator may recount their physical and emotional state at the time of the procedure but also the other people’s actions, the setting and the ambiance during the process. In this next excerpt, one of the narrators (coded pro-choice, positive experience, non-European) gives an account of having a surgical abortion:

Once those two IV-drugs are in, they give you a cocktail of them both, within five seconds, umm… your world is [laughter] pretty… I don’t know. I remember looking up at the ceiling and they had tiles kinda like what my room has here [shows the ceiling of her room to the camera]. […] And I was looking at those, and everything was just swirling, you know. And um, all I could feel was maybe a little bit of pressure, the whole procedure lasted for about five or ten minutes. (ALEXUSandERIN 2015, 13.58-14.42)

The fact that the familiar-looking tiles are worth a mention in this story is a curious detail, but not an uncommon occurrence in the video stories. In other videos, for example, the narrators make notes on the women they encounter in the waiting room, on the effects of the drugs they were given before and after the procedure, and the doctor’s tone of voice. With medical abortions – using abortion pills – there are vivid accounts on the places where the narrators have felt pain, how they spent their time between taking their pills, what food they ate after the procedure, and so on. Akane Kanai notes how in the context of bloggers, status updates and relatability, ‘[…] it is not so much the literal applicability of blog posts or social media updates themselves that are key to social connection in digital space, but the way that these moments convey a particular affective position that summon pleasurable feelings of commonality’ (2019, 19: Emphasis added). In a similar manner, the abortions stories on Youtube, particularly the positive and pro-choice ones, can help in normalising debates surrounding abortions by conveying a sense of relatability through making casual observations. That is, the narrator and the viewer may not connect over shared experience, but the narrators’ general lack of ‘curated-ness’ in the video may translate to their character being relatable for the viewer.

Description of the recovery – the period after the abortion – and the message of the story are usually presented as separate episodes in stories where the narrator is pro-choice: in abortion stories with a prolife message the two seem to coincide more. To start, there are the stories with an overall ‘positive’ abortion experience, and by that I am referring to two things at once: that the woman had a relatively easy time choosing to terminate the pregnancy, and that the abortion procedure and recovery were uneventful. Stories that detail a positive recovery process and have a pro-choice message usually spend a relatively short amount of time detailing whether or how the narrator’s physical, social and mental state was affected by the abortion. In essence, abortion is not framed as a life-altering, transformative event for the narrators in these narratives. Below is an excerpt from one narrator’s (coded pro-choice, positive experience, non-European) contemplation on the recovery after a surgical abortion:

It was over before I knew what was going on really. […] And they sent me on my way right after that. Umm my boyfriend drove, I was still a little bit medicated, so he drove me home. I remember we tried to get something to eat but I was feeling sick still, so I wasn’t really able to eat anything. And I just kinda laid down the rest of that night. Umm as soon as the medication wore off I was fine, I went to work the next day, I actually worked a twelve-hour shift and I felt okay. I had some cramping, some tenderness but it wasn’t terrible, definitely bearable. (MyAbortionExperience 2012, 3.47-4.29)

From this and other similar stories, we could perhaps see a slight correlation between prochoice/positive abortion experiences and the detail to which those narrators describe the procedure. The easier it was for the narrator to make the choice to have an abortion, the less they feel the need to go into detail about the recovery process when telling the story.

And as far as my feelings about it now, it’s been about… actually it’s been a year as of this month that I had the procedure done. And I have no regrets. Not a single one. And it may sound heartless, I’m just awaiting all the ‘awesome’ comments I’m gonna get, but I know for a fact that I’m not a responsible enough person to bring a child into the world. I wouldn’t have the time to care for it or I wouldn’t have the resources to care for it and it wouldn’t be fair. […] So, frankly I’m happy with the decision I made. (MyAbortionExperience 2012, 4.32-5.15)

Furthermore, in stories where the abortion was a painful experience, but the narrator is strongly pro-choice and does not feel regret over their decision, the same pattern can still be seen: the message and reflection on the recovery are treated as separate episodes in the narrative. Regardless of whether the abortion was a positive experience or not, it does not compromise the message of those who were pro-choice before and after the operation. This was the case with the following narrator (coded non-European, surgical abortion, pro-choice): in their story, the narrator makes it clear that while her personal abortion experience was painful and unpleasant, she is glad to have had one.

I’m so down to talk about [abortion], because I think it’s super important. Bottom line is, I sleep great at night, I don’t regret it, and umm it was a pivotal moment in my life, but it doesn’t define me. And I don’t feel like a monster, really I don’t have much guilt. Umm […] sometimes yes. Sometimes I feel like I’m dragging. But 90 percent [of the time] I’m totally fine. (Cat Thomas 2011, 7.03-7.29)

At the other end of the spectrum are the stories where the narrator expresses that they have later come to think of their abortion differently, often with seemingly great regret. Reflecting on the post-abortion period in these stories takes longer than average and is entrenched with the message of the video, most often a prolife one. Also, they typically dedicate most amount of their time on reflecting on their emotional and spiritual recovery. Most notably this can be seen in stories where the views of the narrator have changed from pro-choice towards prolife in the time between the abortion and the release of the video. In the next example, the narrator (surgical abortion, non-European, prolife, religious) not told anyone about her abortion(s) for many years. She tells in her story how she felt massive guilt and shame accumulating inside of her, but over the years she became a more devout Christian, and eventually joined a prolife advocacy group.

And that’s when I decided to get involved. I got involved, I found organisations that were prolife. I [didn’t] even know what prolife meant! But I made it my business to find out what it meant to be prolife. […] What it meant to have choices that are other than violent. And from that moment, oh my goodness how God just […] there was nothing He that didn’t lay out before me to receive healing, to really receive healing… So, God is freaking amazing! (GeneciaUnveiled 2018, 8.41-9.54)

This story of having a ‘change of heart’, a turnaround in one’s convictions after the abortion, is another form of the transformation narrative. I have taken the liberty here to name the two most common and easily recognisable – but not necessarily mutually exclusive – prolife narratives in these stories as ‘the redemption arc’ and ‘the cautionary tale’. The story from the example above would belong in the redemption narrative. In redemption narratives the narrator focuses on the themes of ‘self-forgiveness’ and ‘healing’. Furthermore, the stories seem to lean more towards self-acceptance rather than self-condemnation. This message is particularly pronounced later in GeneciaUnveiled’s video:

My heart is to encourage, is not to bash you, I’m not here to judge, I cannot judge. Listen. I can’t judge, at all. And that’s not my goal. My goal is to share, my goal is to support. My goal is to be an inspiration, to create leaders in the prolife community. (GeneciaUnveiled 2018, 13.38-13.55)

The ‘cautionary story’ narrative, on the other hand, can also include themes of encouragement and healing: but its message mostly tends to focus more on taking a political stance against abortion in general. The cautionary stories are first and foremost framed to convince the viewer of the prolife stance. The message is particularly evident in this next excerpt taken from a prolife story (coded prolife, religious, negative experience, non-European):

There was a time in my life that I was pro-choice but I’m not anymore. And these young girls right now they [laughter] think it’s okay to have one [abortion], two, three. There’s gonna be a day one day, it may not be until you’re older like me, when you wish for that baby back… and there’s nothing you can do. Nothing. Obviously, if you’re raped or it’s incest, that’s a different story. But if you’re just young and dumb, like I was, you need to man up and keep your baby. (Atomic News 2019, 5.50-6.57. Emphasis added)

In stories like this one, the narrator frames their experience as a cautionary tale, to warn the viewer from making the same decision as the narrator did. The message then becomes quite deterministic, one that frames abortion as an inherently transformative, an almost destructive experience that is guaranteed to lead to regret.

            The language use in the abortion stories also exhibits certain patterns. In the prolife narratives the narrators are more likely to use humanising language when referring to the fetus, calling it a ‘baby’, ‘child’ or a ‘life’. This is even more apparent in the case of those prolife narrators who express extreme regret, i.e. negative appraisal, over their abortion. The pro-choice narrators with positive abortion experiences, on the other hand, usually stick to using the terms ‘it’, a ‘clump of cells’, ‘embryo’ or ‘fetus’, though there are some exceptions as well. Similar observations on the language use have been made by Phillippa Goodwin and Jane Ogden (2007) in their study looking at women’s reflections on their past abortions. Goodwin and Ogden observed that women who expressed ‘persistent negative appraisal’ over their abortions were more likely to view the fetus as ‘more human’ than those who did not show upset (2007, 241-42). While the sample of abortion stories taken from Youtube is too small to make any conclusive arguments, the observations made on the narratives support Goodwin and Ogden’s findings: the video abortion stories that centre around a positive abortion experience, most often being the pro-choice stories, are more likely to use medical language when referring to the fetus and the abortion procedure.

The abortion stories exhibit a habit of acknowledging the viewer and the viewer’s presumed reaction to their story. That is, the narrator may ask for ‘no judgement’ from the viewer, give direct words of advice to them (‘Don’t blame yourself for the abuse others do to you!’, ‘Don’t think you need to have a dramatic reason to have an abortion’), and/or they might construct the message of the story to be political (‘Anti-choicers do not take into account the concept of bodily autonomy!’ ‘My needs and wishes and wants and personhood comes before whatever the fuck the dividing-cell-collection is inside of me’). In addition, the narrators in the videos make impromptu comments, pause for effect, laugh, cry, make facial expressions to convey an emotion when they cannot find the right words, add music to play at the back whilst they tell their story – soft piano being the most popular choice, with slow guitar a close second – and may even repeat a specific phrase throughout their video to make their point come across. In essence, the narrator’s voice, their personality, comes strongly and spontaneously through the narratives.

On a surface level, there are not too many common characteristics between the narrators, with one exception: their age range. The vast majority of the narrators included in this analysis are North American women who, based on what they tell in the videos, are under the age of 35 and who have had their abortion before the age of 25. Statistically speaking these representations correspond with age-specific abortion rates as in the US abortion rates peak for women aged 20-24 (Singh et al. 2018, 12-13). As speculating on other common attributes would be dubious, I will conclude this section by arguing that the video abortion stories are a great display of the diversity in abortion experience. While there are structural patters that reoccur in the narratives, they cannot be placed in strict categories due to the several variables and the limited sample. Consequently, more in-depth studies into the video abortion stories online is would be beneficial: the unmediated, noncurated stories supply us with insight on how individual women situate themselves and their abortion experiences in the greater abortion narrative.

 

On abortion stigma

In this section of the analysis, I will be discussing abortion stigma from a theoretical standpoint. Here, I will be using Link and Phelan’s (2001) and Kumar et al.’s (2009) conceptualisations of stigma as the baseline for understanding how stigma works particularly in relation to abortion.

Stigma, as Kumar et. al note, ‘can only be created by over-simplifying complex situations’ (2009, 629). Ironically, while this interpretation cuts to the core of the idea, it would be an over-simplification of a complex concept itself to leave it at that. As it is, stigma has several definitions: Link and Phelan note that while stigma consists of several components, the question of how these components are defined depends almost entirely on the disciplinary approach, leading to different conceptualisations (2001, 365). Nonetheless, in their conceptualisation stigma exists in and is reproduced through an intertwined web of relationships between different components that converge at an opportune time and place (Ibid, 367). These components, according to Link and Phelan, consist of the following:

In the first component, people distinguish and label human differences. In the second, dominant cultural beliefs link labeled persons to undesirable characteristics—to negative stereotypes. In the third, labeled persons are placed in distinct categories so as to accomplish some degree of separation of “us” from “them.” In the fourth, labeled persons experience status loss and discrimination that lead to unequal outcomes. (Ibid)

In other words, stigma is created through the process of labelling, ‘othering’ and categorising human groups with negative attributes: stigma thrives within an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dynamic. However, as Link and Phelan further argue, the stigmatising effect is only as impactful as the systems of power allow it to be (Ibid). Stigma without power does not exist; without relations of power, these processes of othering are simply creating stereotypes, rather than have ‘serious discriminatory consequences’ (Ibid, 376). This mean that, as an example, politicians as a group could be ridiculed by the public without ever becoming a stigmatised group in the making. Stigma comes into existence only when the group that is othered lacks in both power and status in comparison to those who attach them with negative attributes.

Despite the fact that abortion is ‘one of the most common gynaecological experiences’ (Kumar et al. 2009, 625), internalised abortion stigma and the silence surrounding it lingers on; all the while reproductive rights advocates continue trying to raise awareness on the issue (Shellenberg and Tsui 2012, S155). However, this is not to say that the stigma towards abortion exists universally in the same volume. As Kumar et al. note, ‘abortion stigma – rather than a universal truth – is a social phenomenon that is constructed and reproduced locally through various pathways’ (2009, 628). The intensity of the stigma then varies depending on the time, structures of power, culture and place. Yet, Kumar et al. also argue that abortion stigma is intrinsically related to how ideas of archetypal womanhood are conceptualised; that there are certain elements that are integral to the reproduction of abortion stigma that ‘transgress’ cultural context. They explain that

[…] there are at least three archetypal constructs of the ‘feminine’ that can be transgressed through an abortion experience: female sexuality solely for procreation, the inevitability of motherhood and instinctual nurturance of the vulnerable. To choose to avert a specific birth, counters prevailing views of women as perpetual life givers and asserts women’s moral autonomy in a way that can be deeply threatening. (Ibid)

Therefore, as abortion shatters the illusion of archetypal femininity and motherhood – the illusion of women as ‘perpetual life givers’ – its deviance from the norm becomes ‘marked’, i.e. stigmatised (Ibid, 629). Moreover, when the reasons for having an abortion are over-simplified in public discourse, the idea of ‘women who abort’ becomes an ‘exceptional’ sub-group, a concept laden with negative generalisations and labels (Ibid). As some scholars have noted (Kumar et al. 2009; Shellenberg and Tsui 2012), what makes this notion of exceptionality both perplexing and unfounded is how little it corresponds to the actual frequency with which women have abortions. For example, between years 2010 and 2014 there were 29 induced abortions per 1000 European women aged 15-44; on a global scale, 25 percent of all pregnancies ended in abortion during the same timeframe (Singh et al. 2018, 9). What these numbers tell us is that abortion is far from exceptional, that the ‘women who abort’ are not a distinct group: especially given that abortion is a procedure that nearly one in three women goes through in their lifetime.

 

On stories: Their role and effect in destigmatising abortion

The silence over abortion in both the private and public discourses increases its perceived exceptionality, and in turn discourages women from discussing their experiences candidly and publicly (Cockrill and Biggs 2018, 336). Yet, in their study on how abortion stories reduce stigma, Cockrill and Biggs note that ‘the paradox of stigma is that while silence can offer individual protection, contact is possibly the most effective tool for reducing social stigma’ (Ibid, 337). In other words, in order to combat the stigma on an individual level the solution is to have more ‘face-to-face’ conversations between people who have had abortions and those who have not (Ibid). Consequently, this is where the abortion stories on Youtube come in to the picture: the lines between public and private become blurred when the narrator puts themselves in a vulnerable position by publicly speaking up on a stigmatised experience.

Starting with the way the abortion story videos are shot, it seems almost as if the viewer is having a casual, face-to-face moment with the narrator. As it is, in a typical abortion story on Youtube the narrator will sit in the middle of the frame, facing the camera and looking straight ahead when speaking. In all but one story, the narrator shows their full face to the camera; in the one exception, the narrator is visible to the camera but has framed the camera shot so that their eyes are obscured from view. Most of the narrators sit in bedrooms or living rooms, though there are also a few who sit outdoors or are sitting inside a car. In essence, the women in the videos seem to strive to speak from a physically comfortable position and place. The narrators talk freely and do not seem too rehearsed or edited; a few narrators use speech bubbles, background music, and make a cut or two in the video, but usually the whole story, including interruptions and quiet moments, is kept in. The platform provides a way to easily approach the narrator; the comment sections are filled with messages of both praise and disapproval, which possibly explains why a few of the videos have disabled comments. Through the use of these framings and methods, the abortion stories achieve a level of casualness in the same vein as other vlogs (=video blogs) on Youtube. Therefore, it seems valid to ask whether the video form would be particularly suitable for the abortion stories as they come close to providing the essential ‘contact’ that Cockrill and Biggs (Ibid) talk about: creating conversations between individuals who have had abortions and ones who have not. Based on the observations made in this study, the video abortion stories arguably blur the lines between private and public and could potentially help bridge the gap between the people with experience on abortion and those who seek to understand it.

In the ever-evolving world of social media, sharing personal stories can help one feel a sense of belonging to a certain community. Drawing from the concept of ‘intimate public’ (Berlant 2008, viii), Berryman and Kavka (2018) argue that ‘negative affect’ vlogs – that is, videos where the narrator shows anxiety, distress, anger or sadness – can be extremely productive in several ways (2018, 87). By showing negative emotions, the rawness of their emotional state, on camera the youtubers ‘cement authenticity, offer (self-)therapy and strengthen ties of intimacy between [themselves] and their followers’ (Ibid). In other words, affective labour – the ‘currency of tears’ (Ibid, 92) – produces strong connections between the narrator and the viewer(s) because it gives them both a sense of intimacy and support: in exchange for ‘the production of mediated tears, sobs and struggles’ the narrator receives ‘the attentive and sympathetic ears of the digital intimate public’ (Ibid, 93). Similarly, some of the abortion stories display negative affect such as crying and anxiety. However, the volume with which the narrators show affect depends on how negative the abortion experience was for them. The more physical pain and/or emotional/spiritual struggle the narrator experienced during the abortion and recovery, the more visibly and vocally emotional they are in the video. Nonetheless, the abortion stories on Youtube cannot be described as emotional or affective per se, as the pro-choice and/or positive abortion stories, for example, are generally restrained in their emotional ‘performance’.

The question then becomes, do the abortion stories that explicitly show negative affect connect more with the audience, in comparison to the stories that discuss abortion in a less affective manner? Moreover, can the abortion stories that detail a negative experience have a greater impact in the audience; and ergo, the larger abortion discourse? Possibly, the answer to both questions is yes. Based on Berryman and Kavka’s model, vlogs that show negative emotions ‘maximise’ the connectedness (Berryman and Kavka 2018, 93) with the viewer because negative affect brings a level of authenticity. However, as Berryman and Kavka point out, the negative affect in and of itself does not necessarily create the authenticity. Rather, the real effect in negative affect vlogs comes from the fact that they ‘attest not only to the presence of negative affect in the force field of YouTube positivity but also to its value within the alternative economies of the digital intimate public’ (2018, 96). That is, their effect is stronger only because they deviate from the platform’s positive norm. Consequently, the abortion stories with negative experience and affect are not more ‘powerful’ and far-reaching by default, but they can be so considering the general positivity of Youtube as a platform.

As established earlier, intent plays a huge part in the video abortion stories: and the viewer is likely to realise this. If the narrator had a negative abortion experience, expresses negative affect and is vocally prolife in the video, the viewer may be able to see the links between these facets and see how affect can be used as a method to ‘win over’ the viewer. As many women avoid talking about their abortions due to the stigma (Cockrill and Biggs 2018, 335), the conscious choice to share one’s abortion story is never not subversive. The stories with negative affect seem to be aware of this position and use it to the advantage of their intent: relying on affective labour in order to make the message in their story more effective. Furthermore, some of the narrators’ negative affect may be due to internalised abortion stigma (Kumar et. al 2009; Cockrill and Biggs 2018). Yet, it must be noted that while the stories with negative abortion experiences and/or a prolife message may compromise the idea of using abortion stories as tools of advocacy in the fight against abortion stigma the situation is, again, not necessarily so. Circling back to Kumar et al.’s conceptualisation, abortion stigma is a ‘compound stigma’, building on various sources of structural injustices (2009, 634). Therefore, it will take a comprehensive change to the systems of power and culture for abortion stigma to be properly addressed. Publicly displaying how women across racial, social, religious and class boundaries have abortions helps in destroying the illusion of archetypal womanhood, as conceptualised by Kumar et al. Regardless of whether the narrator’s abortion experience was positive, negative or anything in between, the act of sharing stories helps in reducing the stigma simply from the point of view of representation. The more women publicly share their abortion stories, the easier it is for other to come forward and show that there is no distinct category of ‘women who abort’.

 

Conclusion

This paper presents an analysis of abortion stories on Youtube: it is first and foremost concerned with advocating for more studies on abortion narratives. In particular, for more in-depth study on abortion stories online. The abortion stories showcase the diversity of abortion experiences, and thus can be used to destroy the notion of ‘women who abort’. While this study was limited in its sample and methods, the discursive patterns present in the stories were pronounced enough to be observable and trackable. Furthermore, the observations could be linked to existing theories surrounding the concepts of abortion stigma, emotional change, language use in the context of abortion, and affect in online video stories. Based on my research, I argue that the abortion stories, whether positive or negative in their message, are aware of their position in the abortion narrative and can use this knowledge to reaffirm their stance in the abortion debate. That is, the narrators are able to use the silence surrounding abortion to their advantage in making their message be heard. In this paper I also suggest that the lack of ‘curated-ness’ and affect in the abortion stories may translate to maximised authenticity and connectedness between the narrator and the viewer. Finally, this analysis was an attempt to draw a link between the activist declarations of the past and the online abortion stories of the present. By using a public platform, the narrators of the abortion stories on Youtube add themselves to a historic tradition: to a long list of women who refuse to give into the silence of abortion stigma.

 

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[1] MA student in Gender Studies at Utrecht University. This study was conducted for Women on Web as part of an internship programme.

[2] In this paper, I am using the term ‘women’ when referring to people who have had abortions. Using binary language in this instance was chosen in order to historically contextualise the abortion stigma as an issue that is rooted in ideas of ideal womanhood. However, it needs to be acknowledged that abortion is a procedure that is not exclusive to cisgender women, and that abortion stigma can be experienced regardless of gender or sex.

 

 

Women's testimonies on Youtube:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fO3dAYvZmdg
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ns1OAJ2E9wM
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dHV2-vQxQz4
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWc8eEJUu2Y
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtLSn2PqX6k
https://youtu.be/MM3RGzYWJf8
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0uxCzlwKm40
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dE-kKiFnVOo
https://youtu.be/r6zUyNn6EH0
https://youtu.be/goJXiTwtc_4
https://youtu.be/-Jz52m1sjqU
https://youtu.be/jewduXaRHHs
https://youtu.be/IOfYUisMzi4
https://youtu.be/So54j0cR9v8
https://youtu.be/uRuqqhfJxpE
https://youtu.be/KQmfhzUU39g
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56OpaBWqc1s
https://youtu.be/Fowl1361B0c
https://youtu.be/0LPBpPkN9JI
https://youtu.be/SrzyIX9AZsI
https://youtu.be/l6bCIIVH8hw
https://youtu.be/HfxRSSBW95o
https://youtu.be/aklBFklc3Ts
https://youtu.be/qZCBwGlwbK4
https://youtu.be/3Y_iEa6Y3TU
https://youtu.be/i63U81BB7tA
https://youtu.be/Fx8-2R5U-xY
https://youtu.be/xgFM226JC4c
https://youtu.be/6TQXRty02UA
https://youtu.be/RqLF3O4Yk98
https://youtu.be/sXf7sA7aG0k
https://youtu.be/YqeZrhiypB4
https://youtu.be/V9kiFZhuQWc
https://youtu.be/BYOXL7t0Xq8
https://youtu.be/o8Xb_W6Npi4
https://youtu.be/QGw4uuMc7c4
https://youtu.be/nDcUab6Jkvk
https://youtu.be/mM5swlkr1p4s