On June 1, the country was reminded of the power of unfettered, unfiltered, passionate storytelling. During what should have been a run-of-the-mill graduation ceremony for the seniors of Lake Highlands High School in Dallas, valedictorian Paxton Smith made a last-minute change to her commencement speech, pivoting to address the continued attacks on abortion access. Her speech came in the wake of Texas Governor Greg Abbott signing an anti-abortion law that would ban the procedure at six weeks gestation, before most people even know they’re pregnant. (The law has not gone into effect and is likely to be struck down in court—abortion is still legal in all 50 states.)
“I have dreams and hopes and ambitions. Every girl graduating today does,” Smith said to a stadium filled with classmates, faculty, staff, family, and friends. “And we have spent our entire lives working toward our future. And without our input and without our consent, our control over that future has been stripped away from us.”
The valedictorian’s speech quickly went viral, to much applause (and, of course, some hate from those who advocate for government-mandated forced birth). But the power of Smith’s plea is something those working within the reproductive justice and abortion rights space have long known: While fact-based advocacy works, personal abortion stories from real people have much greater impact.
As states continue to introduce, and in many instances pass, anti-abortion laws that would further deny pregnant people from exercising their constitutional right, abortion storytellers are leading the fight to protect and expand access to care. And it comes as no surprise that these storytellers are often young, Black, brown, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ people and are continuing the work of the Black and brown advocates who came before them.
With the help of We Testify, an organization dedicated to the leadership and representation of people who’ve had abortions, Cosmo spoke to four people who had abortions when they were in their teens and early 20s to learn about their experiences, the barriers they faced while seeking a common medical procedure, and how abortion storytelling has not only changed their lives but the lives and viewpoints of those around them.
“Both storytelling and my abortion experience changed my life. It saved my life.”
CoWanda was 17 when she had her abortion at 8 weeks and 4 days gestation in Dallas.
“I got my abortion maybe three weeks before my high school graduation, so on top of preparing for graduation, trying to navigate the end of school, and getting ready for college, I was forced to go before a judge in my county and talk about my goals for life and why I wasn’t able to continue a pregnancy. I also had to wait 24 hours after already knowing I needed an abortion before I could actually get an abortion.
“I also really needed help paying for my abortion. All the money that I had saved from working had gone to my senior fees and I had no relationship with my parents. In fact, I was scared to go to my parents about my pregnancy because my mom told me that if I had sex and ever got pregnant, she would force me to carry the pregnancy to term because she didn’t think I shouldn’t be having sex at all—that was my sex education at 16 years old.
“The meaning of abortion storytelling, for me, has transitioned over time. But at one point, it was literally why I woke up in the morning. It was part of my existence. Like, this is what I have to do for my community, this is my step toward claiming my power, claiming my truth, and my access to the liberation that I envision for myself. Storytelling has allowed me to speak up in a lot of different ways—I’m able to have trauma talks with my families and friends. I’m able to call out behaviors we’re normally told to be ‘hush-hush’ about.
“It also holds space for people to learn and grow. Sometimes you really don’t know until you hear someone else’s story. A lot of my friends and family have literally told me, ‘I have changed my view because you had an abortion. In hearing your story and you telling me what you went through, there was just no way I could be pro-life and consciously not consider people like you.’ As a faith person, that is what I live for! To let people know that you are above shame and you are above the fear that our world tries to put on you.
“I know that both storytelling and my abortion experience changed my life. It saved my life.” —CoWanda, 22, Texas
“The way people feel about abortion is literally up to the person who is getting the abortion. There is no monolith to abortion.”
Larada had her abortion when she was 6 weeks pregnant and 19 years old.
“My abortion definitely helped me see the barriers that exist when people are trying to get abortions. I had to go to three appointments—what would I do if I didn’t have people who were able to bring me to these appointments? What would I do if I had to work? What would I do if I didn’t know who to reach out to? If I had to pay for this abortion and be short on rent? What would I do if I had to carry this pregnancy to term because I couldn’t afford an abortion because I didn’t know certain people?
“There were protestors outside the clinic—this was during a time when there was mass civil unrest in response to the murders and executions happening in broad daylight at the hands of law enforcement and would-be vigilantes that lit a spark in the Black Lives Matters movement. Even sitting in the abortion clinic and seeing the protesters and people talking about police brutality on the news after walking past protesters who harassed me and tried to make me feel bad about the decision that I was making and using my race and the current times as a means to intimidate me….
“Storytelling has helped affirm me in so many ways. In the process of my abortion, my main concern was just getting the abortion. I didn’t have any feelings about carrying my pregnancy to term or the possibilities of what ‘could be’ if I chose to become a mother. That wasn’t my MO. I was 19, not too far fresh out of foster care, on my own, in school, and didn’t feel bad about the decision I was making. But people wanted me to feel bad. With how stigmatized abortion is and how the narrative of abortion is so controlled by one group of people, you would think it was a distraught, very, very tough decision. But the way people feel about abortion is literally up to the person who is getting the abortion. There is no monolith to abortion.” —Larada, 20, California
“I feel very proud of myself, and I have come to terms with my abortion because it’s health care.”
Anna was 17 when she had her abortion at 6 weeks gestation in Dallas County. Prior to her abortion, she was denied access to birth control and, after a case of a ripped condom, Plan B due to her age.
“I had that feeling that it was going to happen but I didn’t want to believe it. I was in Texas, I was a minor, so how was I going to get anything done? I just got into an engineering program at UTB [University of Texas at Brownsville] too, and I was so excited—but then I was thinking, What if this ruins my life? because this would ruin my life.
“I was also an uneducated teen who was desperate to try to get anything done so I was googling all types of stuff. There were unauthorized websites offering abortion pills shipped overseas. I was looking up how many vitamin C pills to take, drinking parsley tea and mugwort tea. Then a friend showed me Jane’s Due Process, and they set up everything to help me get my abortion. They also paid for my sonogram, they helped pay for my abortion, they helped me with transportation, and they helped me get a lawyer so I could get an abortion without parental consent (this is called a judicial bypass).
“I went to the courthouse prepared with my résumé because it was literally an interview of my maturity and how will I do as a person—all my grades, all the stuff that I’m involved with, and why I needed this abortion. I was basically interviewed really intensely by a judge. And at the end of the day, she was like, ‘I signed the paper, but why did you even have sex? What do you get out of it? You have such a great future in front of you, I don’t know why you made this choice.’ It just feels so dehumanizing.
“Every single part of my journey, every single obstacle—not being able to take hormonal birth control, not being able to get emergency contraception, not being able to even make my own choice to have sex, having to explain that I had to have an abortion because I was denied my two previous choices—it was such a terrible time.
“For me, being able to say my story and having other people learn from all the painful obstacles I had to overcome myself makes me feel proud. I feel very proud of myself and I have come to terms with my abortion because it’s health care.” —Anna, 20, Texas
“Storytelling helped me undo a lot of the internalized stigma because I would never think any of that about anyone else.”
Lexi had a medication abortion when she was 20 years old—right before her 21st birthday—while attending college in Massachusetts.
“I actually took a pregnancy test as a joke—my best friend had bought a pack of 100 off Amazon and she was finally down to her last one and I was like, ‘You know, I’m just going to take it.’ It was the absolute last thought in my mind that I was pregnant. I went in the bathroom, I took it, that test turned positive in, like, five seconds, and I immediately disassociated. I walked out and said, ‘Yeah, it’s negative,’ and left my friend’s house and got in my car and was like, I don’t even know who to call. I just got out of foster care before college, I was living with my grandparents who are very old-school and from the South, and I was scared to even go home. I also went to a private Catholic school from kindergarten to 12th grade, so I had absolutely no sexual health education—no health education at all, actually—and I had no idea what was happening with my body. All I knew was that I was going to be this awful person and I would be horrible if I have an abortion.
“For me, everyone makes this big deal about abortion…but it’s normal. And after meeting all these people [who’ve had abortions] and sharing my story, I’m like, Wait, all of these people are absolutely amazing. I don’t think they’re horrible at all. I think they’re amazing for having their abortions, so why do I think I’m horrible? Storytelling absolutely helped me undo a lot of that internalized stigma because I would never think any of that about anyone else. When it was me, I was like, Oh, I’m just bad, but I couldn’t actually pinpoint the Why I am bad? So it literally made me reverse it and I was like, Actually, I’m great. Actually, I am the best because I had an abortion.” —Lexi, 23, Ohio