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What Chelsea Handler's abortion story says about the pro-choice movement

Television Academy's 70th Anniversary Gala - Arrivals Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images

In an essay published in Playboy on Friday, as the nation waited for the Supreme Court to issue its historic ruling on abortion rights, comedian and television host Chelsea Handler went public about having had two abortions as a teenager, and about her gratitude for having the choice available to her.

Handler said she was in a “very bad stage” of her life when she first got pregnant at 16, by a boyfriend “who was not someone I should’ve been having sex with in the first place, never mind unprotected sex.” Handler said she thought about keeping the baby at first, but after her parents took her to Planned Parenthood she felt “relieved in every possible way.”

She got pregnant by the same guy later that year, and had another abortion. While she said that getting pregnant again was “irresponsible,” that doesn’t mean she didn’t still need the ability to have a safe abortion. “We all make mistakes all the time,” she said. “I happened to fuck up twice at the age of 16. I’m grateful that I came to my senses and was able to get an abortion legally without risking my health or bankrupting myself or my family. I’m 41 now. I don’t ever look back and think, God, I wish I’d had that baby.”

Handler has spoken out in the past against shaming women like herself who decide to remain single. Similarly, here she argues against the social tendency to shame and stigmatize people who have had abortions.

Personal storytelling has become a key tactic in the abortion rights movement

Handler isn’t alone in speaking out about her personal abortion story.

Some reproductive rights advocates say the movement has been too complacent as abortion restrictions have proliferated. They say the moral and legal justifications for new anti-abortion laws are based in a fundamental ignorance of women's lives and medical needs, of how common abortion really is, and of the reasons women need abortion access to participate equally in social life. One of the best ways to combat this ignorance, they say, is personal storytelling.

Numerous women lawmakers like Wendy Davis have spoken about their experiences in recent years, often as an argument against their colleagues who are trying to pass anti-abortion legislation. Davis recently joined three other such women, Ohio Rep. Teresa Fedor, former Nevada State Assembly member Lucy Flores, and former Seattle City Council member Judy Nicastro, in an amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court on the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt abortion case.

The 1 in 3 Campaign, run by Advocates for Youth, also submitted a brief based on hundreds of stories it has collected from women who have had abortions. The campaign has even turned some of those stories into a play that is touring college campuses — sort of a Vagina Monologues for abortion. The campaign aims to fight the stigma surrounding abortion, and to get society to come to terms with the fact that about one in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime.

This isn't a new idea. "Abortion speakouts" date back to the 1969 Redstockings Abortion Speakout, which sparked a wave of similar events in which women spoke out about their then-illegal abortions to show the harms of abortion bans to real women.

After Roe legalized abortion, this kind of activism faded away. But abortion storytelling has once again become a major pro-choice activism tactic in just the past few years, from the "1 in 3" campaign to viral hashtags like #ShoutYourAbortion. Women are talking about how abortion has benefited their lives and goals, including the goal of starting a family once they're ready to. They're saying that they don't regret the decision, and that they're tired of being silenced and shamed for it.

Handler’s essay also showed why it’s so hard to advocate for abortion rights

Handler isn’t always known for her enlightened social views; she’s made widely criticized remarks about fat people and dwarves, for instance.

And as her Playboy piece goes on, she makes some eyebrow-raising comments about racism and sexism (“People will be racist if they’re innately built that way, but whether they can act on their racism or not is a separate issue”) — and about how social movements work. She rails against state abortion restrictions, only to go on and say, “I don’t buy that Roe v. Wade is in danger. We’re too far ahead of the game. Once you go forward in history, you don’t go backward.”

Activists are often frustrated by the narrative that as time goes on, society inevitably makes social progress. That doesn’t happen by magic; it’s always the result of decades of organizing and struggle, and there are always reactionary forces eager to demolish any progress that gets made.

But Handler’s remarks, as contradictory and problematic as they are, perfectly embody one of the biggest problems facing the pro-choice movement.

Some commentators have noticed that as LGBTQ rights have progressed in America, abortion rights have regressed as states have passed a massive wave of legislation to restrict it. There are many reasons for this difference, Katha Pollitt argued in the Nation, including sexism (abortion is a “women’s issue”), anti-sex attitudes (marriage is about “love”; abortion is about sex), and class disparities (LGBTQ people can be found in every strata of society, whereas abortion access is the biggest problem for low-income women).

There’s another factor that probably contributes, though. Any attacks on the rights of LGBTQ people are attacks on an entire community, and on the identity of individuals. But while many women will need an abortion in their lifetime, many women won’t. Not all women see attacks on abortion rights as attacks on them as women. Many of the ones who do see it that way assume the battle was already won ages ago with Roe v. Wade. And curiously, many women who end up getting abortions are not supportive of abortion rights in general.

That’s another reason reproductive rights supporters say that storytelling is so important. It reminds people of how universal the experience of abortion is for many women (including women who are already mothers or who later go on to become mothers), and that you’re probably wrong if you think you don’t know a woman who has had an abortion — or if you think that abortion rights are secure in 21st-century America.