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In Political Fight Over Abortion, Individual Stories Can Be Lost

Photo posters line a wall in an ultrasound exam room at a Planned Parenthood location in Boston in 2013.
Steven Senne
Photo posters line a wall in an ultrasound exam room at a Planned Parenthood location in Boston in 2013.

Ideological battles over abortion rights have taken on a new importance as the Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week over what could be the biggest decision on the topic in decades.

And last year secretly recorded videos of Planned Parenthood executives discussing fetal tissue brought new scrutiny to the biggest single provider of abortion services in the country.

But often missing from these broad debates over abortion rights are the stories of individual women who have undergone the procedure, and how the decision has affected their lives.

Abortion is something that is rarely discussed in public, even though millions of women have had one. Lots of women experience shame and have a fear of being judged.

Melissa Madera has been on a quest to break the silence. Since 2013 she has traveled the country collecting people's stories on this normally taboo subject. She has recorded more than 150 stories as part of The Abortion Diary podcast. Dr. Madera spoke with NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro about how talking with strangers about abortion has helped her deal with her own.

Interview Highlights

On why she started gathering these stories

It was a personal project for me. I had an abortion when I was 17. I actually didn't talk about my abortion experience until I was 30. And at some point about two and a half years ago, I really wanted to share my story, but I wanted to share it with other people who have had this experience. And I wanted to also listen to other people's stories — I really felt the need to know other women who had had this experience.

On her own experience with abortion

Dr. Melissa Madera is the founder and director of The Abortion Diary, which collects women's stories of abortions.
Alex Patriquin / Courtesy of Melissa Madera
Courtesy of Melissa Madera
Dr. Melissa Madera is the founder and director of The Abortion Diary, which collects women's stories of abortions.

My story's a bit complicated because I didn't have really a chance to think about whether I wanted an abortion or not — it was a choice that other people made for me in my life, my parents and my aunt. And then we never talked about it afterward.

And so partially the reason for this project was also to create a space for stories that are a little bit more complicated. Because all our stories are complex and different and diverse, and we have varying experiences. But we don't necessarily hear that out in the world.

On the different perspectives on abortion of people she records

There are certain people and certain stories that do stick with me. One of them was very early on, of a person who shared her story and felt a lot of grief around that experience. No regret, but a lot of grief and loss around not having the space to honor that experience.

The Abortion Diary Entry 43 features Amanda E., who spoke about her 2005 abortion.

And then there are people who I've met who have felt complete — and relief. And especially women who during a time when abortion was illegal, they were able to find a place of someone to offer them the abortion that they needed.

In Entry 19, Jean R. speaks about having an abortion in the 1960s.

And I think what's really important about the project, at least for me, and one of the reasons why I started is to show that it's not one kind of person who has an abortion. Or there's not one kind of abortion story. We're all very different people and we all have different experiences and different emotions. And all of those experiences should be honored and heard and listened to and shared.

On her family's reaction to the project

My family is very supportive of my project and it's really interesting because we didn't ever talk about this experience. And I will say that I was very ashamed around my family. It's something that was not talked about. It was really hard for me to bring it up with my family. Even harder than to bring it up with complete strangers, you know? Because they were part of that experience. And what's really become amazing is that once I did start talking about it, I realized that my family did not feel the way that I thought they felt about me. They really supported me and loved me and they were part of that experience with me. Because they wanted me to go on with my life and they thought it was the best thing. And I appreciate that they were there for me.

The difficult part of my experience was the silence around it. It wasn't that I felt that people outside in the world would judge me as much as I felt that I couldn't talk about it with the people who were closest to me in the world.

On the place of the podcast in the political fight over abortion

It's actually a very difficult place to be — sort of in the middle, and not on one side or the other. And I tell people that my responsibility is to the people out there who are sharing their stories and who are listening. And so that's where my responsibility lies with this project.

And that's how we make change. It's not always the political [process] that makes change, as much as the people who are out there who are really sharing and talking with each other in their communities. Because that's really the place where we're going to make change — in our communities. So we feel safer to tell our stories.

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