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By Erin Ferrentino

April 15, 2013

It happens every year. A key-lime-green van parks itself in the front bus circle. Black curtains partition off the gymnasium, providing complete privacy. Bob Garmirian allows paper announcements to be taped to the front doors of the Robert Crown Center for the next three days only. Hoards of people with rolling suitcases in hand pour out of Peter Pan buses, and onto the asphalt-paved paths of campus.  These are the telltale signs that it is time once again for the annual Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program (CLPP) conference.

This weekend, Hampshire College was bustling with reproductive justice activists and organizers for the 27th annual CLPP conference titled, “From Abortion Rights to Social Justice: Building the Movement for Reproductive Freedom.” Among its highlights were interactive workshops such as The Papaya Workshop: An Introduction to Early Abortion, where participants perform manual vacuum aspiration (MVA) on papaya fruits, and Responding to Sexual Assault on Campus, a panel of local Five-College campus leaders discussing how to respond to and prevent sexual violence.

For many, the most profound aspect of the conference is the Abortion Speak-Out. Each year, hundreds of conference-goers and community members gather in the gymnasium to listen to people share their abortion stories. There are no planned speakers, and the forum relies on participants to volunteer their experiences.  Beyond that, it gives action and energy to the movement, creating a context for the workshops and panels to come.

The first ever abortion speak-out took place in New York City on March 21st of 1969. The landmark Roe v. Wade case had yet to commence, and abortion was still illegal in the United States. In hopes to reform this prohibition, the New York Joint Legislature Committee on the Problems of Public Health launched a hearing. Fifteen abortion “experts” met to negotiate the exceptions of outlawed abortion. The speakers included a dozen men and one Catholic nun. Several members of the radical feminist group, the Redstockings, interrupted the meeting and insisted that women’s voices be included in the discussion. The meeting was eventually moved behind closed doors, and the Redstockings staged a meeting of their own - the first ever Abortion Speak-Out. Several hundred attended the event, which was held in the West Village. Women shared their personal experiences with abortion and testified about the inaccessibility of the procedure. 

Today, abortion Speak-Outs occur nationwide, many imitating the structure of the original Speak-Out that took place in 1969. Contemporary activists have also utilized an array of new media to give voice to their abortion experiences. In 2003, on the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Patricia Beninato created as a response to seeing pro-life advertisements on television. The purpose of this website is to create a space for people to share positive abortion stories and celebrate the right to choice. A 2004 documentary titled The Abortion Diaries featured twelve women speaking candidly about their experiences with abortion. That same year, the “I Had An Abortion” campaign was launched. Hundreds of tee shirts sporting the declaration “I had an abortion” sold overnight on, gaining coverage by Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge, Fox, and CNN. In 2010, 23-year-old Florida resident Angie Jackson live-tweeted her abortion, hoping to “demystify abortions for other women.” While taking RU-486, an abortive pill, Jackson filmed herself in a YouTube video and live-tweeted (#livetweetingabortion) her experience. The result was a media frenzy on behalf of critics and supporters alike.

These strategies have proven effective in providing a space for dialogue. Still, the structure of CLPP’s Abortion Speak-Out hearkens back to the work of the Redstockings. Meeting face to face in an energized environment provides people with an unparalleled opportunity to communalize their experiences, and move towards real world results. It allows all to be a part of a community, if only for a few hours. Despite its relative brevity, attending a Speak-Out connects those present indefinitely. It is one of the first events of the weekend, and grounds the theoretical frameworks discussed throughout the conference in lived experience. The structure of the CLPP Abortion Speak-Out is one that resonates with feminist movements of the past. It's an effective way to engage with issues of abortion in the United States today and should be valued.