Using video to de-stigmatize abortion:
An interview with Katie Gillum
Katie Gillum is an advocacy filmmaker and abortion rights advocate based in Ireland and the Bay Area. Her latest video, Women Have Abortions Every Day, profiles four Irish women who’ve had abortions. Instead of focusing on the details of their abortion experiences, the video creates a timeline of each woman’s life, placing the abortion in context. Katie talked to us about what it was like to make a video in a country where abortion is illegal, and how she sees the video as a tool to de-stigmatize abortion.
How did you come to make this video?
I was researching sexual behavior decision making in Dublin a decade ago when I met with the Irish Family Planning Association. We stayed in regular contact, and I worked on a project on gender and media with young people. I also made a film with the Safe and Legal Abortion in Ireland Campaign called “Stop the Silence, End the Stigma” in 2008. I was back in Ireland in 2013 to work on film and art projects and the Abortion Rights Campaign, and the IFPA approached me to make a film for the IPPF MYX campaign.
Tell us a little bit about the context in which this video was made.
In Ireland, abortion has been illegal since the 1800s and in 1983 a constitutional amendment made it a capital offense. There have been a number of referenda, lots of protests, and a number of cases that have challenged it. After years of work by activists, public momentum has been building around pro-choice advocacy recently. It’s been almost a year since Savita Halappanavar died after being denied an abortion in Ireland. While there’s been a lot of debate and some mostly regressive legislation that has been passed, there were very few conversations about women’s experiences with abortion.
One thing I like about this video is that you’re introducing a new way of talking about abortion. “Abortion is just one personal decision women make. It’s time to see the whole picture.” How did you come to that message?
In Ireland there’s been little space for women to talk about their abortions in an open and safe forum. When people are having a debate about abortion, the onus gets put on individual women to counter all of this political back and forth. One of the things I heard is that women are tired of having to defend or explain their abortions. I wanted this piece to take the pressure off.
Who do you want to reach with this video?
There’s a huge number of people in Ireland who don’t see the word abortion without it being in the context of political debate. Hundreds of thousands of women have traveled over the last 20 years to get abortions and have never seen themselves reflected accurately in the media. Our two main audiences are women and families that have chosen abortion, and unconverted sympathetic people.
What message do you want people to take away from the video?
Our goal was giving people new language for an issue that they’re constantly being told is black and white. Our film gives a clear model that you can come out as having an abortion without having to explain yourself. What I wanted this to do is to say—yes it’s unjust that people have to travel, but mostly, these women had abortions and here they are, happy and normal. We don’t have to make people bare the extremes of their emotions for abortion to be normalized. Instead of playing on people’s heart strings, I wanted to play on people’s normal strings.
Since the video launched, what kind of feedback have you gotten?
I’ve been blown away by how quickly positive it’s been. For one thing—we’ve gotten nothing negative despite our concern about the safety of the women involved. The activist and pro-choice community feedback has been very supportive and, most excitingly for us, they have been actively sharing the film.
What advice would you give to activists and organizations who want to start an abortion stigma reduction campaign?
- Pick your audience and firmly hold on to what they need to hear about abortion. You need to check your narrative against the direct needs of your audience.
- Do not try to do too much in one project. It’s easy to get sidetracked by trying to answer all problems all the time.
- Resist the urge to explain abortion. Pro-choice activists can own the positive, simple story, that abortion is part of women’s lives.
Steph Herold is a consultant to ANSIRH researching promising practices for reducing abortion stigma. In January 2014, she and ANSIRH researcher Kate Cockrill are starting the Sea Change Program, a nonprofit project at the Tides Center aimed at transforming the culture of stigma around abortion. For more information about Sea Change contact Steph Herold at steph [at] seachangeprogram [dot] org.