Amelia Bonow is in hiding.
She left her apartment here after her address was published online and the death threats began. Her crime? She had an abortion. And after the U.S. House of Representatives voted on Sept. 18 to defund Planned Parenthood, she updated her Facebook status with a proud declaration.
“Hi guys!” it began. “Like a year ago I had an abortion at the Planned Parenthood on Madison Ave., and I remember this experience with a nearly inexpressible level of gratitude.”
She wrote about how “the narrative of those working to defund Planned Parenthood relies on the assumption that abortion is still something to be whispered about.” And how many people still believe that — “if you are a good woman” — you should feel awful if you have one.
But you shouldn’t, the 30-year-old wrote. And she doesn’t.
She signed off, “#ShoutYourAbortion.” And a movement was born.
Breast cancer had Betty Ford. So did rehab, and suddenly it was socially acceptable to get treatment for alcoholism.
Katie Couric had a colonoscopy on national television 15 years ago, and screenings for colon cancer jumped 20%.
But since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973 with the Roe vs. Wade decision, the controversial medical procedure largely has been without a recognizable champion, a nationally known figure willing to publicly defend and explain an otherwise private issue.
These days, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America finds itself in need of such a defender. A video campaign surfaced this summer accusing the healthcare provider of profiting from aborted fetal tissue for research, which the organization roundly denies. Since then, conservative lawmakers have launched investigations, threatened to defund Planned Parenthood and, on Tuesday, grilled its president during a testy five-hour hearing on Capitol Hill.
The stigma surrounding abortion has kept most women quiet about their need for and use of the procedure. Over the years, a few celebrities have jumped into the fray to publicly advocate for abortion rights by telling their own stories. They include feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem, tennis great Billie Jean King and, more recently, comedian Margaret Cho.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) is the rare politician who has told the world that she once had the procedure; she did so in 2011, during an earlier fight to cut funding to Planned Parenthood.
Republican Rep. Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey had just detailed on the floor of Congress how a second-trimester abortion looks on an ultrasound. Speier got up and declared that “the gentleman from New Jersey has just put my stomach in knots.”
“I’m one of ‘those women’ he spoke about just now,” she said. “I had a procedure at 17 weeks. Pregnant with a child that had moved from the vagina into the cervix. And that procedure you just talk about was a procedure that I endured. I lost a baby. But for you to stand on this floor and suggest, as you have, that somehow this is a procedure that is either welcomed or done cavalierly without any thought is preposterous.”
Speier became a brief political sensation, largely because her remarks were so rare. That 2011 battle gave birth to a Planned Parenthood campaign with the hashtag #StandWithPP, which has been resurrected this year as the healthcare provider remains under attack. The group launched another effort this week — #PinkOut — which coincided with Cecile Richards, the group’s president, going before Congress. In addition to efforts on Facebook and Twitter, the organization held rallies in 285 cities.
But none of these efforts have garnered the attention — both good and bad — that followed Bonow’s Facebook revelations, an ensuing Salon article and the #ShoutYourAbortion campaign she created with another Seattle resident, columnist Lindy West, whose upcoming memoir has the working title “Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman.”
Bonow calls herself a “liberal, pro-choice, loud, political woman” who is surrounded by a community of like-minded people, West among them. As the assaults on Planned Parenthood continued this year, she said, she and her friends realized that the abortion provider was still being threatened with losing its funding four years after the original campaign, and many women who’d had abortions hadn’t even talked about it to one another.
“We’re all women who think that stigmatizing abortion is wrong,” she said in a telephone interview from the city to which she decamped from Seattle after the threats began last week. (She requested it not be named.) “We don’t ascribe to it, and yet, in some way we have colluded with our silence.”
On the day the House voted, Bonow went to bed in tears. The next morning she woke up, called up her Facebook page and began to write the post to her 1,500 friends. West, who has more than 60,000 Twitter followers, tweeted the link to Bonow’s declaration.
Responses began to flood in, and Bonow followed her initial post with another:
“In the last 24 hours, more women have shared their stories in comment threads, on the #ShoutYourAbortion page, or on their own statuses than I have the ability to count,” she wrote. “This is what it looks like when people decide to challenge an oppressive narrative by raising their own voices and choosing to accept a new level of personal vulnerability as a sacrifice.”
And Bonow knows whereof she speaks when it comes to sacrifice. Not long after #ShoutYourAbortion began, the threats started flowing.
One reader retweeted her post from her Salon article that said, “My abortion made me happy: @ameliabonow shares the story that started the #ShoutYourAbortion movement.” He added: “If happiness is the standard, then it might make many people happy if @ameliabonow had her head crushed, too.”
There were others also in a hostile vein.
Bonow and her boyfriend spent several nights in a Seattle hotel. They headed out of town, returned and left again because she felt so unsafe.
On Tuesday, she got a call from David Hale, vice president of development at Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands, expressing concern for her safety.
He put her in touch with Planned Parenthood’s security guru, who connected her with the Seattle Police Department and the FBI. The hope is that they can help her assess the level of threat and that she can soon come home.
“It does take people who are bold enough and brave enough to stand up and say they won’t be intimidated,” Hale said. “The least we can do is arm her with what we’ve learned about how we have kept our patients and staff safe over the years.”
Bonow doesn’t think it’s every woman’s responsibility to raise her hand and tell her story if she has had an abortion. Some women are in abusive relationships or fear being shunned by family or church. She isn’t. She can speak up. And she plans to continue.
“We’re not going to be drowned out by the people who make me not want to be at my apartment now,” she said Wednesday afternoon. “Many women want to live in a world where you can say, ‘I’ve had an abortion, and I’m perfectly fine with that,’ and not have people saying they want to kill you.”