Sharing women’s experiences with abortion:
An interview with Meaghan Winter

Steph Herold, writing for ANSIRH, interviews Meaghan Winter about her November 2013 New York Magazine highlighting the range of experiences and reasons that lead women to seek abortion in the United States.New York Magazine’s cover story featuring 26 women telling their abortion stories is getting a lot of attention. This isn’t the first time a magazine has spotlighted women’s experiences with abortion (Ms. Magazine has done it twice), but it is one of the larger mainstream media publications to feature women talking about their own abortions.

What is it like to curate these stories for a mainstream audience? Meaghan Winter, the journalist behind the piece, talked to us about how the article came together.

What was the inspiration for your New York Magazine piece?

About six months ago, I did another story for New York Magazine where I interviewed women about their abortions. It was in the third person, there were no pictures, and most women were anonymous. After that first story, an editor asked me to do a similar, more in-depth story. Over the last year, I’ve now interviewed about 60 women about their abortions.

What was your hope for this particular article?

I teach writing and I always ask the students—who’s your audience? Mine was women who’ve had abortions. So many women have had abortions and they’ve all had different experiences. The political conversation about abortion has silenced a lot of the shades of grey, the ambiguity in abortion. People are hungry for the emotional complexity in their lives to be validated. I don’t think I’m going to change anyone’s mind with this piece, but I hope I can help women who’ve had abortions feel less alone.

How did you get in touch with the women who participated in the story?

I emailed friends, asked them to email their friends, and asked people on listservs and in women’s groups. So many people helped me. I found so many white women in their 20s and 30s from urban areas who wanted to talk to me. It was much harder to find people in red states, rural areas, and women of color. I’m in my 30s, white, and live in an urban area, so that probably makes a difference. People have different levels of trust. One woman told me a story about how she was interviewed by a white woman reporter and the reporter really dramatized the story in a way that made her a caricature of a poor black woman. She suggested that some women of color might be wary of the white gaze, which makes a lot of sense.

How were the stories put together?

I interviewed everyone over the phone for one or two hours and took notes. I wrote up the stories and sent them to the editor, who would cut them and rearrange parts to make them clearer. There were some women who I interviewed who weren’t in the final story; I don’t know how those editorial decisions were made. A fact-checker called all the women to check their stories with each of them. There’s no way for each story to be perfect—that’s the compromise of working in a mainstream media situation. The process can be frustrating because it requires so much letting go. I think it’s worth it, though, to reach a lot of people with these stories.

What surprised you about the process?

I’ve always been pro-choice, but passively. I would read about the waiting periods and sort of think it was symbolic; I didn’t understand how it really impacts people and makes their lives so much more difficult. It costs them more money, they have to miss work or school, find childcare for several days, especially if they’re in a rural area. I thought it was legislators wasting time, shaming women. Now I see that restrictions have actual consequences and I hear what they are from women, in a real way.

What advice would you give to advocates who want to share women’s experiences with abortion?

There has to be a lot of support before, during and after for women who share their stories. Women need to know that they are not alone. Women told me they want to be able to describe a whole range of feelings that they’ve had about their abortions without worrying that their stories need to fit some political box. Support networks can help people be resilient when inevitably political interests co-opt their story. We need to support women who share their abortion stories so they can say, “This is my experience and it doesn’t belong to anyone else.”

  • Olive Mercies:

    Ms. Winter, you said you hope you can help women feel less alone. Please know that you have helped tremendously. When people like you choose to reveal these realities about women’s lives, you shine a brilliant ray of kindness into the cruel shadows created by those who will never understand. You said you don’t think you will change anyone’s mind. But you will. You will change how women think and feel about themselves, especially women who have lived for long years hearing little else but harsh shaming voices streaming from churches, televisions, billboards, bumper stickers, headlines and countless other venues. You will change the reflections of passive supporters, who in turn will be spurred to action. You will change the hateful public climate to a more compassionate atmosphere where honest sharing can thrive. Most of all, you will change fear into strength so that more women will be able to do what they once believed impossible: step out of the cruel shadows and be real, with dignity, in the light of day.

  • Dear Ms. Winter, You have offered several moving articles on women’s abortion stories. Some include cases where there is fetal failure, some where contraception failed – both are tragic. But over 90% of abortions relate back to non-use of contraception. Half the women having abortions today have been there before, at least once, yet they already had a clinic experience where know-how and tools for the future were surely available.
    Abortions rates could be nearly halved if there were no repeat patients. Can you explain why contraception cannot seem to make meaningful inroads into at least this population? Did this subject come up in your interviews?
    The folks we speak with say birth control going forward was not an issue during their procedures. If this were truly a widespread occurrence, it would be shocking.

    re waiting periods: In some countries, a forced waiting period (not for rape or fetal deformities) is used to reinforce contraception training and choice going forward, i.e. counseling twice should more effective. Perhaps this is a different approach and would help? (if such counseling were a focussed goal…)

    re advice for advocates sharing experiences: As nearly all post-abortion interviews demonstrate, an abortion stays with you for life – women recall the experience in detail even if it were many years ago. Could we not also use these experiences to more proactively impact abortion incidence? Wouldn’t it be great to emphasize to young women/ all women that taking the time to accurately plan effective contraception is the better way to go? That, for example, it is indeed very lady-like for a sexually active woman to carry condoms around just as every man should? and everyone should really know how to dress a cuke?
    In addition, about 64% of children stemming from unintended pregnancies are born into the social welfare system. This is where so many of the 16 million children living today in poverty come from. Would it not be positive to strongly promote that women be ready for their families? have some kind of professional training for their own livelihood and be prepared to welcome a lifetime of motherhood first? ie contraception empowers women?
    Lastly, there are some 20 million new cases of STDs still in America every year. The only ones who should have no interest in screaming condoms loudly in our society today are perhaps the pharma companies and medics who then step in to treat these diseases – and earn richly from it. Would you not agree?
    Thank you in advance for your kind feedback.
    We have a long way to go with awareness, education, and emphasis on contraception – and eliminating all the taboos.
    Safe sex: It’s okay to talk about it!

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