The subject was reproductive rights, the audience was fervently pro-choice and the panelists were activists from Planned Parenthood, the National Organization for Women and the ACLU.
But although the players may have been typical, the game plan was anything but.
A mother of three announced from the stage that she'd had three abortions. A college student told the crowd that her mother had had one.
It was unnerving, and empowering. And I surprised myself by chiming in, sharing a decades-old memory of a relative whose back-alley abortion as a young woman left her unable to bear children.
These were the sort of declarations I thought only suited for private chats: tearful phone calls, death-bed confessions, late-night dorm room confabs.
But proponents of abortion rights have learned from abortion foes that personal stories help shape public opinion.
Tim Tebow, riding on his football fame, became a powerful voice against abortion by sharing the story of how doctors advised his mother to terminate a difficult pregnancy, but she refused and gave birth to him. Rick Santorum is considered a "pro-life" hero not just because of his politics but for his devotion to his disabled daughter.
Now women who have benefited from legal abortion — and those who have suffered from lack of access — are being encouraged to help bolster efforts to keep abortion legal by coming out of the closet.
That's hard, but necessary, said Maggie Crosby, an ACLU lawyer. "Abortion has been so stigmatized that women don't feel comfortable sharing their experiences even with close friends and family members.
"The fact that people don't share makes it more stigmatized. We have got to break the grip that keeps us locked in that cycle."
Studies suggest that by age 45, one in three women in America has terminated a pregnancy.
It's an experience that's private, personal and often painful. Many women feel guilty or conflicted. Some worry that others will judge and shame them.
Crosby remembers a Bay Area dinner with a crew of liberal cohorts. "One of the men said, perfectly sincerely, 'I don't know any women who've had abortions.' And all of the men are nodding. And all of the women are rolling their eyes."
Secrecy allows us to hold on to stereotypes; to presume that abortion is the province of the ignorant, the wanton, the cavalier.
"It's important," Crosby said, "for people to understand that these are their mothers, their sisters, their wives, their friends.... Women making serious decisions in difficult circumstances. Women who can be trusted with that."
Still, almost 40 years after abortion was legalized, the subject is so fraught that the leader of a national abortion rights group thanked celebrities at a fundraiser last week "for having the courage to show up."
Abortion rights advocates let their voices be heard
Women attending a political strategy session take a page from anti-abortion forces and use personal stories to dispel shame and bolster support.
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