The Woman Behind #ShoutYourAbortion

It’s a Tuesday evening in Seattle and, in true Seattle fashion, it's raining heavily when I walk into a dimly lit pub in Capitol Hill and see Amelia Bonow, co-founder of #ShoutYourAbortion. #ShoutYourAbortion, which Bonow co-founded with writer Lindy West this past September, is a viral social media campaign and subsequent reproductive rights movement that encouraged women to discuss their experiences of abortion online — without the shame or guilt that women are often expected to express when discussing the procedure. It takes no time at all for us to get into a deep, passionate conversation about reproductive rights, SYA’s mission to de-stigmatize abortion, an upcoming collaboration with Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands (PPGNHI), and the recent, tragic attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. I quickly realize that her passion for this ground-breaking movement, as well as women and their continued right to affordable reproductive healthcare, goes far beyond herself and her story.

#ShoutYourAbortion began when Bonow shared a status on Facebook, announcing that she’d had an abortion the year before, declaring that the experience was incredibly positive and that she wasn’t ashamed whatsoever. Soon after, her best friend, Seattle writer Lindy West, tweeted out Bonow’s post to her more than 62,000 Twitter followers, and a viral revolution swept social media, as women used the hashtag to share their own abortion stories (the hashtag was used over 100,000 in just 24 hours).

“I’m not necessarily an activist or a writer, I’m just a woman who used social media to talk about my abortion. That kind of self-disclosure is pretty normal for me, it’s conducive with my personality, but that initial status was perceived by culture at large as a revolutionary way for someone to talk,” Bonow told Bustle. “I think that the fact that my abortion was ‘no big deal’ — both in terms of the circumstances surrounding it and my emotional reaction to it — is what made it seem revolutionary. I wasn’t raped. I didn't have a medically necessary abortion. I wasn’t fifteen. I didn’t have an abortion because of incest. I didn’t want to be a mother and that was the only justification I felt I needed.”

This no-shame approach to abortion has inspired other women to talk about their abortions in a new and liberating way. Bonow feels that the pro-choice movement has often been stymied by our cultural reluctance to talk about abortion, in spite of the fact that it is a common and totally legal medical procedure. “We’ve all been trained to talk about abortion in the abstract. Pro-choice women can all be indignant about the ‘attacks on women’s health care’ without ever actually talking about our own experiences, let alone invoking positive abortion experiences as a part of our pro-choice identities, because women who have abortions have been so demonized for so long. The right has made it seem completely inappropriate to even talk about abortion. And it’s already hard enough to be a woman walking around in this world, without inviting more judgment and hatred, and giving your family a potential reason to cut ties with you, and your coworkers a reason to hate you.”

Bonow continued, saying, “It’s always felt like even within pro-choice circles, someone can have an abortion as long as she doesn’t talk about it, or if she does talk about it, she offers a bunch of justifications and regret and express that it was a really really tough decision. Even if it wasn’t.”

As I’m nodding my head and typing my notes, I find myself impressed with the calm and articulate way in which Bonow speaks about this palpable, cultural shift. Since #ShoutYourAbortion went viral, Bonow has been attacked in tweets, messages, emails, and has received constant threatening harassment. The name and location of her apartment building was posted online, and she tells me that especially in the early days of #ShoutYourAbortion's viral success, she was deeply spooked; looking over her shoulder, afraid to answer knocks at her door, unable to sleep because of nightmares. Still, she is cool and collected.

Bonow says that feeling scared eventually faded into feeling angry, because she felt the intent of the people harassing her was to terrify her into silence. “I’m not going to live my life afraid,” she told me, and although she admitted that she has had some break downs, she refuses to live in a constant state of fear.

“I’m an outspoken women. I do not pull punches when I talk about issues that make people uncomfortable, like race or social injustice. Why would I not tell people that I’ve had a positive experience with abortion? The pro-choice movement needs vocal support from women who have had abortions and want to speak to these experiences as a part of their pro-choice conviction, even if the experience itself was not 100 percent positive.”

I ask Bonow how it feels to have inadvertently become a sort of “poster child” for abortion. “That must be a lot of pressure,” I add, wondering how she is balancing the hatred, the admiration and the responsibility of using her voice to aid continued reproductive rights. She smiles and looks down at the table before she responds. I can tell this question makes Bonow, who oozes sincere humility, somewhat uncomfortable.

“Every single day it feels like less and less pressure, because what’s happening is not about me. I’m happy to have been at the forefront but every single day, women are finding their voices through exposure to or involvement in what SYA has become, which is just sort of a new way of talking about abortion. You can see and you can feel that we are in a moment right now, as a culture, where the tide is turning and being a pro-choice woman means being able to be unapologetic.”

Having been personally and positively effected by Bonow and the #ShoutYourAbortion movement, I felt an urge to tell her that what she has done, and is continuing to do, is of vital importance to women around the world. Instead, I ask her what it feels like to know that she has changed the lives of hundreds if not thousands of women, myself included. Her response is, perhaps, the true magic of the #ShoutYourAbortion campaign, and sums up the power of women using their collective voices.

“For women to come into my apartment [to shoot videos for the #ShoutYourAbortion YouTube channel], and for them to share their stories and cry, and I cry, and we hug and then they leave and I am just beside myself. I have never met them before and they look at me and say, 'Thank you,' and I’m like, 'No, thank you.' And they’re like, 'No, you don’t understand. Everything is different for me now and I feel like I’m able to own my life in a way that I never was able to before'. Then we stand there and they speak into the camera and we cry together.”

Bonow pauses slightly, then continues, saying, “I’m not going to do the thing that women are trained to do, where we are not supposed to allow ourselves to fully accept a compliment. But this is so much bigger than me”.

And that realization is why Bonow has put grad school on hold and quit her bartending job to devote all of her time, energy, and resources to developing #ShoutYourAbortion into a full-fledged movement, “dedicated to de-stigmatizing abortion through dialogue and storytelling.” SYA now has a website, which hosts videos of women telling their abortion stories, allows visitors to submit their own #ShoutYourAbortion stories, and has free graphics for t-shirts, buttons, and posters, as well as guides to making your own shirts and buttons, that users can download for free.

Bonow says the videos are very important to the movement – not only are they incredibly cathartic for women to make and view, but they are “a growing archival representation of the shift that SYA is trying to create in culture at large, and they illustrate both the commonalities and the complexities of abortion experiences.” SYA plans to continue creating opportunities for women to record their stories, both privately and at public events. Last month, Bonow set up an IndieGogo campaign, which is raising funds to execute various national projects and events related to SYA.

It’s clear that Bonow isn’t completely certain where her life or career is headed, although she says she’s looking to develop her voice as an activist through writing, speaking, and engaging in the national conversation about abortion in any way she can.

And soon, SYA will be reaching out to women to get them to tell their abortion stories in a whole new way. On January 22, 2016 — which marks the 43rd anniversary of Roe v Wade — #ShoutYourAbortion and Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands are teaming up to orchestrate a major national event, called "It’s Our Right: Roe v. Wade at 43." The event will gather women from around the country, in all fifty states, to talk about abortion. Some events will be public, like the one at Town Hall in Seattle, which will serve as the center of the smaller national events; and some might be as intimate as a small group getting together to talk about abortion in the safety and privacy of someone’s home.

The details are still being solidified, but Bonow is obviously ecstatic about the potential scale and effect of dozens — maybe hundreds — of different groups of women coming together on the same day to talk about abortion, all over the country. “It’s crazy how often people tell me that the conversations they’ve had about abortion as a result of SYA are the first real conversations about abortion that they have ever had. The pro-choice movement will never make real progress if nobody actually talks about abortion.”

Bonow is proud with the work done so far and is hopeful that the momentum will only continue to grow. When I ask her if there is anything else she would like to say before we wrapped up, she looked past me, out the door of the dimly lit pub and onto the rainy Seattle sidewalk.

“I have learned so much from every woman that has come forward,” she said, before gathering her things and saying goodbye so she can meet her boyfriend and a group of friends for dinner.

Thanks to #ShoutYourAbortion, so many women have been given the opportunity to learn from her, too.

Images: Kelly O; Brady Hall, Amelia Bonow (2)