When Debra Hauser was 35 and a new mom to a 6-month-old boy, her husband went to work one day and did not come come home. She did not know where he was, or where her marriage was headed. Six weeks later, she found out she was pregnant again.
"I knew I could not bring another child into the world into that chaos. My priority had to be my son," said Hauser, whose husband was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder. (The couple eventually divorced.) Hauser found a clinic near her and had an abortion, a decision she has never once questioned. She also never talked about her choice with anyone in her life.
"I felt embarrassed," she said. "'How did I get myself into this situation? How did I, a competent, intelligent human being with a full-time job, end up here?' ... I didn't tell anyone for quite a long time."
It wasn't until four years ago, in fact, that Hauser -- who is now in her 50s and the executive director and president of the sexual health advocacy group Advocates For Youth -- shared her story. In a meeting, a young staff member described her own abortion experience, moving Hauser to reciprocate.
"I didn't feel, in retrospect, like I was carrying a big burden," she said. "But when I did tell my story, it made this woman feel better and that made me feel better."
Since 2012, Hauser's group has been part of a wave of projects focused on shedding the stigma that often accompanies abortion by encouraging women to share their personal experiences. Its 1 in 3 campaign -- a reference to estimates that 30 percent of women in the United States will have an abortion by age 45 -- allows women to tell their abortion stories online, as well as at events hosted across the country. The website has 551 written and video submissions to date, according to internal figures.
"I was 21 when I became pregnant with my third child, fathered by my alcoholic, physically, mentally, and emotionally abusive husband," states one anonymous submission. "After he was arrested for hitting me, I finally found the strength and courage to leave him ... at that point, I became a single, pregnant mother of two, with no job. I knew that bringing another child into the world would be detrimental to that child’s life."
"I’m Catholic and I’ve had an abortion. I was 15 when I had to make the choice ... I could not afford to take care of myself, how could I care for a child?" writes another. "Now at 30 I’m a mother of a daughter and I want to protect her right to choose."
Storytelling projects are banking on the idea that the sharing of individual women's experiences will help lessen the stigma around abortion, if not foster outright support for legal abortion rights in the United States. Research suggests they might be right.
Who Hears "Secrets" (And Who Doesn't)
A study published in the journal Sociological Science in November that relied on a survey of more than 1,600 men and women found that potentially stigmatizing secrets, like having an abortion, are shared with fewer people and tend to be channeled away from friends, family and acquaintances with preexisting negative attitudes. In other words, Americans who are against abortion are less likely to hear about abortions among women they know than Americans who are in favor of the practice. The discrepancy may partially explain why the country's views on abortion have not swayed much in the past few decades.
"People influence others with regard to all manner of things. In this situation, people who are supportive [of legal abortion] are hearing one thing, and people who are opposed to abortion are less likely to hear those stories," Sarah Cowan, an assistant professor in NYU’s Department of Sociology and the study’s author, told The Huffington Post. "Public opinion on abortion has remained remarkably stable, and I'm proposing that one possible explanation for that stability is the way in which individuals talk about it."
According to Cowan, however, it is not clear that if anti-abortion individuals begin to hear more personal stories from women around them, they will necessarily become more supportive of abortion rights. In fact, at least one woman in the survey said she had become increasingly anti-abortion in recent years, after hearing too many personal stories in which abortion was used as contraception.
"The jury's still out about what would happen if there was a massive coming out campaign -- if the veil was lifted and all of these secrets were revealed ... but I anticipate that it would change," Cowan said. "If someone really wanted to push me to say which direction I thought it would go in, I anticipate that it would swing more positive [toward abortion rights]. But that's with a thousand grains of salt."
Moving the needle?
Organizations like Advocates For Youth, however, believe more fervently in the power of the personal story to "shift and strengthen attitudes about abortion," according to a research memo from 2012 that the group shared with HuffPost. That year, the campaign ran a focus group with more than 420 millennials who viewed the website, read several stories and watched two videos of abortion stories. Sixty percent of respondents who strongly believed abortion should be legal in nearly all instances said the campaign strengthened their view, while 53 percent of so-called "soft supporters" -- those who believed abortion should be legal in most cases, but did not feel strongly about it -- said it strengthened their conviction that abortion should be available to women. (The focus group excluded young men and women who were strongly opposed to abortion.)
"The goal is to give people the ability to talk about abortion without engaging in the black-and-white political and moral debates," said Heather Buchheim, senior manager of national engagement with the nonprofit Exhale, which was founded in 2000 to provide a talk line women could call after an abortion to share their stories. According to internal figures, the line has now received more than 12,000 calls.
The group's "pro-voice" movement promotes the sharing of abortion stories through events at churches, community centers and college campuses across the United States and online. (Web stories are first vetted by community moderators.) At this point, quantitative measurements of whether such efforts are effective in reducing abortion stigma are still in their infancy, Buchheim said, but she argued that certain "bellwethers" -- increased media coverage of personal abortion stories, as well as films like Obvious Child -- suggest things are changing.
"I saw a headline that 2014 is the year that abortion came out of the dark -- [there was] Wendy Davis, Emily Letts ... all stories that show that even if you are a political or public figure, abortion is a very common part of the lived experience," she said.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of calls Exhale's talk line has received.