CULTURE

Elizabeth Banks and Busy Philipps Join Rally in DC to Defend Abortion Rights

The My Right My Decision rally in DC on Wednesday focused on the positives and success stories of abortion

Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

The world is full of different kinds of suffering.

There are base physical pains—abdominal cramps, aching joints, tearing flesh. And then there are deeper, more crushing forms of spiritual and psychological anguish—the feeling of being inadequate to provide for a loved one, or that your mere existence has ruined another person's life. No one should have to live with that kind of pain. That's the idea behind a rally on Wednesday in Washington DC and an accompanying hashtag on Twitter, which both seek to celebrate and defend a powerful tool for the prevention of suffering: abortion.

Of course, some suffering is unavoidable. For those cases we have spiritual and philosophical guidance that can help us come to terms with daily struggles. The rest of the time, we turn to science to create solutions that can save us from pain. Science can give us new limbs, restore our vision, replace our organs. Any and all of these methods for reducing suffering deserve to be celebrated, and they often are. But abortions—one of the oldest medical miracles—have recently become so taboo that our culture would sooner demonize them than say anything positive about them. This is despite the fact that a safe, minimally invasive procedure—or even just a swallowed pill—can often save two lives from tremendous suffering and despite the fact that nearly a quarter of American women will have had an abortion by the age of 45.

The groups responsible for maintaining that taboo—groups that promote shame around abortion—are vocal enough that most of us are familiar with their arguments. They have decided without evidence that a human embryo or fetus—at any stage of development—is a child with a soul and rights and feelings. They believe that the mere existence of a fertilized egg inside a uterus necessarily obliges the human attached to that uterus to be a nurturing host to the life inside them. They equate abortion with murder, and they want to force the rest of us to conform to that standard of morality. They bolster their claims with graphic images and false claims that people who receive abortions usually regret the choice. Then they push for irrelevant laws that hide the motive of restricting abortion access.

The My Right My Decision rally in DC formed in response to the Supreme Court case of June Medical Services, LLC v. Russo, which revolves around a Louisiana law requiring clinics that provide abortion services to staff a doctor with admitting privileges at a local hospital. While the purported motive is to improve safety measures, critics point to a similar law in Texas that was struck down in 2016 after the court found no compelling safety benefits. Instead, it seems to be part of a surge in legislation designed to restrict abortion access and take advantage of the shift in the balance that took place when conservative justice Brett Kavanaugh replaced moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy on the bench.

With celebrities like Busy Philipps and Elizabeth Banks in attendance, along with politicians including Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib, the rally that took place Wednesday morning was attempting to counter stigma with success stories and a defense of freedom. As Banks put it in her address to the crowd, "Today we are taking the opportunity to present reproductive freedom, including abortion, for exactly what it is: no less than liberty itself." As for Busy Philipps, she had an abortion at the age of 15, and has been open about how important that was for her life: "I'm genuinely really scared for women and girls all over this country."

While opponents will point to instances of regret, the reality is that 99% of abortions are not a source of regret but of relief, even five years after the fact. By and large, people are not making the decision lightly, and they really do know whether or not they're ready for the trauma of pregnancy and labor and the responsibility of parenthood.

In an imaginary world where population was dwindling, where the medical costs associated with pregnancy and delivery were covered by the state, where there were no negative social or professional repercussions for anyone who might become pregnant, and where an infant given up for adoption could be guaranteed a humane childhood, it might be understandable to see pushback against abortion rights. Unfortunately, that is not the world we live in. In our world, the planet is being ravaged by overpopulation and overconsumption, medical debts are a driving force behind American bankruptcies, and hundreds of thousands of children without parents are subjected to cruelty and neglect within our foster care system or at the hands of ill-equipped parents.

Easy access to a procedure that can prevent those horrors—and the horrors of inevitable "back-alley" abortions—is something worth celebrating, not stigmatizing. Which is why the hashtag #MyRightMyDecision was trending on Twitter Wednesday morning, with images from the rally that featured women holding signs that proclaim "I Had An Abortion," "Abortion is Healthcare," and "Thank God For Abortion."

The idea that creating more and more people is fundamentally a good thing—regardless of their quality of life—is a deeply flawed assumption, and it's foundational to the so-called "pro-life" movement. While a baby, in the right circumstances, is undoubtedly a miracle—they can bring so much joy and meaning to life—an abortion is just as miraculous when circumstances are simply wrong. When the process of having or raising a child is made untenable by health concerns, economic realities, youth, trauma, or a basic lack of desire to be a parent, it is not only cruel to the parent to restrict abortion access, it's cruel to the child who—through no fault of their own—will already be a source of problems and a focus of resentment before it's born

A child born in that situation has little chance to thrive. While other forms of birth control are preferable, abortion is a hugely important last resort, and it's refreshing to see culture beginning to embrace the positive side of abortion, and defending it against shame and stigma.

While rally-goers and Twitter users are making their voices heard, a decision on the law will likely not be passed down until June.

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Busy Philipps and 9 Other Celebrities Who Are Open About Their Abortions

Nicki Minaj and Chelsea Handler are just a few of the others who have spoken out.

Last year, actress Busy Phillipps revealed that she had an abortion at the age of 15.

"The statistic is one in four women will have an abortion before the age of 45," she said on her E! late night talk show. "That statistic sometimes surprises people, and maybe you're sitting there thinking, 'I don't know a woman who would have an abortion.' Well, you know me."

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TV

TV and Film's Most Accurate Depictions of Abortions

Accurate media representation of abortions is a direct protest of the recent restrictive abortion bans that shame women for exercising the right to choose.

The Mary Sue

Twitter has been alive with reactions to states' recent efforts to challenge Roe v. Wade in the Supreme Court.

The 1973 case protecting a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy within the first trimester if she chooses to has been challenged by seven states so far this year. Some bills have passed that narrow the window of time the procedure is lawful while others criminalize abortion altogether, even in cases of rape or incest. The public response online, from celebrities sharing their own abortion stories to trending hashtags that #AbortionIsAWomansRight, show that media is still riding the wave of “woke culture" that first entered the mainstream in 2016.

But how impactful on popular opinion can media be? Dr. Anamik Saha at the University of London says, “There are millennials now who are really invested in popular culture, who understand how issues of representation in the media are a matter of social justice." This week's abortion bans in Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri have spotlighted a woman's right to choose on social media. But in mainstream film and TV, the issue has been portrayed with slants both for better and for worse, depending on public sentiment throughout the years. For instance, in 2014, researchers Katrina Kimport and Gretchen Sisson analyzed 385 plotlines that dealt with abortions in film and TV, concluding that dramatized portrayals depict the procedure as more lethal than actual statistics suggest. Additionally, they found that most TV characters who had abortions were white and middle-class, which belied the reality that women of color are inordinately affected by abortions.

From a woman feeling empowered by her abortion in Hulu's Shrill to strong female characters projecting casual, unashamed attitudes about the procedure, films and TV shows help to destigmatize one of America's most taboo topics by depicting it on screen.

Shonda Rhimes' Scandal

In 2005, ABC network pressured Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes to change a storyline depicting Cristina Yang having an abortion in season 1. Rhimes, who was just beginning her illustrious career as a TV mogul, obliged. She later reflected, "They were just explaining to me how rarely it had been done, how controversial it was going to be, how many warnings they would have to put on the episode."

But Rhimes hasn't shied away from the topic since. Grey's Cristina Yang did choose to terminate a pregnancy in season seven, and on the legal drama Scandal, Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington) was one of TV's strongest female leads when she opted to have an abortion. The silent, one-minute scene reflected the episode's emphasis on healthcare and the necessity of protecting reproductive rights. Rhimes told TIME, "It's a polarizing issue obviously… Because it is such a hot button issue, because people are debating it, it should be discussed. And I'm not sure why it's not being discussed."

popdust scandal abortion ABC


Obvious Child

“I'm having your abortion. Do you wanna share a dessert?" Jenny Slate stars as Donna, a young comic who discovers she's pregnant after a drunken one-night stand. She's plagued by ironies, from Planned Parenthood only having available appointments on her mother's birthday and Valentine's Day to repeatedly crossing paths with Max, her one-night stand. Even worse is the fact that she actually likes him. Gillian Robespierre directed and wrote the indie comedy with frank honesty and unsentimental realism.

Rather than centering the abortion as the focus of the film, it's one realistic experience that speaks to Donna's primary conflict as an immature young adult struggling with life's major transitions. The acclaimed film stands out for its casual yet genuine depiction of abortion, contrasting with media's traditional treatment of the topic. For instance, this year's faith-based, anti-abortion film Unplanned follows the pattern of defining the female character's identity by her abortion experience, focusing her entire character arc on her emotional turmoil before and after the procedure. Instead, Obvious Child features Donna approaching the topic with frank humor that disarms critics by acknowledging the full realities of unplanned pregnancies with earnest. Also, it's funny as hell. Donna's friend Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann) acknowledges Donna's morning sickness by baldly saying, “You're dizzy because you played Russian Roulette with your vagina."

Obvious Child | Official Trailer HD | A24 youtu.be

Shrill

Based on writer Lindy West's 2016 book of the same name, Hulu's series depicts its main character, Annie (played by Saturday Night Live's Aidy Bryant), having an abortion in its pilot episode. The show, co-created and written by West, spends about two-minutes depicting the procedure. It's a frank, no-frills portrayal that's meant to reflect West's sentiment in her book that women should be able to openly share their abortion experiences without shame. In 2015, West even co-founded the #ShoutYourAbortion campaign designed to de-stigmatize the topic.

West said that the writers took care that the scene was “not sensationalized at all." She added, “This is a pivotal moment for [Annie] in her life but not in the way that abortion is usually treated as a pivotal moment. This isn't an agonizing decision for her. It's a complicated decision because her life is complicated and her relationship was complicated." In fact, the character draws a sense of empowerment and self-affirmation from the experience, since “it's maybe the first time that Annie sets a boundary for herself and thinks about what she wants and makes a choice," according to West.

Shrill: Trailer (Official) • A Hulu Original youtu.be

Such casual depictions of women terminating pregnancies are progressive steps towards destigmatizing the issue. Sociologist Gretchen Sisson told Washington Post that traditional plot lines featuring abortions focus on a woman agonizing over the decision and sometimes changing her mind at the last minute, suggesting a moral transformation that shamed real-life women who choose to go through with the procedure. These days, “We don't really see that as much anymore," said Sisson. “A lot of times when a character gets an abortion, the story is not as much about the decision-making process—it's either the process of obtaining the abortion or what it means for their relationships and their career goals." With celebrities like Milla Jovovich, Busy Philipps, and Jameela Jamil, opening up about having abortions when they were younger, opening a public discussion about abortions through media representation is a direct protest of the restrictive abortion bans that shame women for exercising the right to choose.


Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher, and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.


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CULTURE

Why Alyssa Milano's "Sex Strike" Won't Work to Fight Abortion Bans

Historically, a sex strike is an effective form of activism—but not in the U.S.

Twitter

Activists all over the world have historically used sex as a weapon to further their agendas.

In 1600, Iroquois women gained the power to veto their tribe's decision to go to war by withholding sex. In 2009, women's movements in Kenya and the Philippines banned sex to stop political violence and in-fighting; in both instances, violence reduced and the local governments stabilized within weeks. In 2017, singer Janelle Monae told Marie Claire there should be a sex strike to support the women's rights movement, saying, "People have to start respecting the vagina. Until every man is fighting for our rights, we should consider stopping having sex." A sex boycott didn't follow the celebrated 2017 Women's March. But recently, in the wake of Georgia's radical new law banning abortion, actress Alyssa Milano took to Twitter calling for a sex strike to protest restrictions on a women's right to choose.

Last week, Georgia's governor, Brian Kemp, signed into law the most radical abortion ban in the country. Dubbed the "heartbeat bill," HB 481 criminalizes abortion after about six weeks, the point at which a fetus has a "detectable human heartbeat." The state's law is an alarming step to restrict women's access to abortion, and it's sparked widespread confusion as to whether or not a woman could be prosecuted for murder for "self-terminating" her pregnancy or even for having a miscarriage. Luckily, there are existing laws that protect women from being prosecuted for losing their unborn children; however, until the law goes into effect on January 1, 2020, it remains to be seen if prosecutors will use elastic interpretations of HB 481 to penalize women for aborted pregnancies (which happened in a 2015 case).

In response, Milano tweeted on Friday: "Until women have legal control over our own bodies we just cannot risk pregnancy. JOIN ME by not having sex until we get bodily autonomy back." The 46-year-old actress followed up with a post about the history of effective sex strikes, such as those in Kenya and the Philippines. "History shows that a #sexstrike is surprisingly effective," she wrote.

However, she also linked to a 2017 Quartz article about sex strikes being a "surprisingly effective strategy for political change"—and the entire argument of that piece is why a sex strike could never work in the States. Historically, successful sex strikes have taken place in relatively small and very homogeneous communities, where women were united by very specific and focused demands. Critics have long argued that the demographics of American women are too diverse and U.S. politics are too divisive for a sex strike to unite people in a similar way.

But fundamentally, how does a sex strike work? Isn't a call for women to treat their bodies as commodities they can withhold just as objectifying as laws telling women what to do with their bodies? Wait, what even technically counts as "sex?" If you're boycotting sex to protest an abortion ban, then doesn't that imply that all sex involves a woman's vagina? Aside from the dubiousness of condoning women using sex as a weapon, recognition of queer identities complicates that logic. After all, how do gay men and women participate in a sex strike to effect change? If we treat sex as political, then sexual orientations become politically charged as well; that's risky because doing so suggests that orientations are held in some hierarchy of power. Does straight sex hold more political power than queer sex? The rabbit hole doesn't seem to end, and it doesn't result in political change.

Accordingly, critical responses on Twitter ranged from condemning sex strikes as treating women like bargaining chips to pointing out that striking for "reproductive rights" misses the underlying issue of Georgia's abortion ban. Writer Kristi Coulter responded, "Living under patriarchy has already robbed me of safety, autonomy, opportunities, and trust in our institutions. Now I'm supposed to give up sex, too, and play into the fiction that it's just a bargaining chip/transaction for women? Love you, but nope."


Oddly, some supporters of Georgia's law agreed with Milano's suggestion, but they pointed out that it lacks a clear target. Lila Rose, president of an anti-abortion organization called Live Action, responded, "I'm totally with you, @Alyssa_Milano, on not having sex. But the issue isn't 'reproductive rights.' The issue is reproductive responsibilities & fidelity. No one should have sex until they're ready to embrace the privilege & responsibility of lifelong commitment & raising a child."

On Saturday, Milano defended her strike to the Associated Press, saying, "We need to understand how dire the situation is across the country. It's reminding people that we have control over our own bodies and how we use them." Despite her good intentions, the best way to protest people telling women what to do with their own bodies probably isn't to tell women what they should do with their own bodies.


Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher, and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.


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