is the most commonly performed surgery in the United States—43
percent of women will terminate an unwanted pregnancy before age
45—yet how often do you discuss what it is actually like to
have one with a friend or family member? While most of us will detail
a recent dental visit or trip to the chiropractor, the 1.3 million
U.S. women who have abortions each year are largely silent about
the procedure. In fact, abortion is so stigmatized that many people
treat it as unmentionable, a secret so vile that it can never be
Gillian Aldrich and producer Jennifer Baumgardner— creators
Speak Out: I Had An Abortion
, a 60-minute documentary
in which ten women talk about their abortions—hope to change
intention was to make a film that would be an antidote to the warring
factions, pro-choice and anti-choice,” Aldrich told a New York
City audience in mid-May. “Our hope is to break through with
personal stories because the real stories of women are rarely heard
in the political firestorm. Stories don’t have sides, they
are just there.”
diverse women who share their experiences in
a wide gamut, from octogenarian Florence Rice, who had an illegal
abortion in 1938, to A’Yen Tran, who had a medical (aka chemical)
one in 2003. Some speak of rape, others of contraceptive failure,
but all share a fervent belief that abortion is life affirming.
homing in on the nuances of pre-and-post
Roe v. Wade
the film takes pains to avoid rhetoric or heavy-handed narration.
Instead, each woman presents a heartfelt rendering of her situation.
Rice, for one, had a baby at 16. When she became pregnant again
at 20, she knew that she did not want another child. “I didn’t
even know that abortion was illegal,” she says. Rice went to
see a woman she’d heard about through friends and recalls paying
a fee, having the surgery, and leaving the premises. “I felt
lucky to be able to get the money and have the abortion,” she
says. “I have no regrets.”
Steinem, the most well- known participant in the film, also speaks
about illegal abortion. “It was 1957 and I was living in London,
working as a waitress. I had no money and no friends and was trying
to figure out what to do,” she recalls. “There was no
way I could give birth to someone and also give birth to myself.
At the time, to get an abortion in England you needed two doctors
to write a letter stating that it was necessary. I could not make
myself feel guilty for a moment. It was the first time I took responsibility
for my life. You know, when you are desperate, it’s easy to
make the decision to abort. Ambivalence seems to be a function of
Ringleka-Kottke is a case in point. A devoutly Catholic teenager,
she picketed abortion clinics in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Then, shortly after finishing high school, she became pregnant.
“I let my boyfriend know that I would not consider having an
abortion and called a program for women who were going to put children
up for adoption,” she says. Initially the program welcomed
her with open arms. That changed when the agency heard that the
baby’s father was black. “They said they could not help
me since there was no demand for biracial babies. It was a huge
this point, Ringleka-Kottke was frantic and spoke to her mother
about her situation. Reluctantly, she decided that abortion was
the best alternative and made an appointment at a local clinic.
“We got there and crazy protesting was going on. There was
this man—he looked like a lunatic—yelling and raving.
We had to enter the clinic through a back door.” After the
surgery, Ringleka-Kottke remembers feeling immensely relieved. Nonetheless,
the anti-abortion messages she’d been bombarded with in school
began to haunt her. “I did not talk about the abortion for
five or six years,” she admits. During this time she worried
that others would judge her harshly were they to discover what she
had done. Finally, she broke her silence. “It let the shame
out,” she says.
Ringleka-Kottke, Jenny Egan was raised to believe that abortion
was murder. “I am the daughter of a teenaged mother who is
the daughter of a teenaged mother,” Egan says. A Mormon, two
weeks after ending her pregnancy she came home to find her mom sitting
at the kitchen table with a letter, signed, The Brotherhood, in
her hands: “Your daughter had an abortion. Please let God guide
your actions from this day forward.” After reading the missive,
her parents sent their then 16-year-old daughter from their home;
a suicide attempt followed. Although Egan later pulled her life
together and got enough financial aid to attend college, she laments
the fact that for years she had no one with whom to discuss either
the abortion or its aftermath.
film participants include Loretta Ross, who at 14 bore a child after
being raped by a 27-year-old cousin; Annie Finch, a 44-year-old
mother of two who says she felt “pangs of regret and sadness”
over her abortion despite knowing that it was the right thing to
do; and Sally Aldrich, filmmaker Gillian Aldrich’s mother.
Aldrich tells of being subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury
following an illegal abortion in 1964. “The jury members tried
to intimidate me. I felt like I had a scarlet ‘A’ on my
chest,” she says. “But I said that this man, this doctor,
was a great hero to me and many others. I left feeling indignant
at the lack of justice for women.”
Aldrich and Jennifer Baumgardner are themselves indignant and hope
Speak Out: I Had An Abortion
will prompt viewers to express
their opinions to those who are chipping away at abortion access
and working to reverse Roe v. Wade. The film has already had an
impact. According to Baumgardner, clinics are incorporating the
film into pre-and-post abortion counseling, something she and Aldrich
did not anticipate. Family members and partners are also being encouraged
to watch it while waiting for their loved ones to leave the operating
intense, and refreshingly honest, the film is a terrific educational
tool. Still, changing abortion from something many are unable to
talk about into something that can be addressed by anyone, anywhere,
will take a lot more than a documentary film, no matter how powerful.
Speak Out: I Had An Abortion
is a potent step
in the right direction.
is a freelance writer and co-author of
Targets of Hatred.