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Abortion is not a dirty word


Abortion is NOT a dirty word. It was not in 1973 when Roe v. Wade legalized the procedure after countless women had died in back alleys from self-inflicted wounds. It is not in many other countries – such as Canada, England, South Africa, and China – where abortion is legal, accepted, and relatively commonplace. It is not to the one in three American women who will have an abortion in their lifetime. And it is not to the compassionate medical professionals who perform the procedure in countless community clinics and doctor's offices throughout the United States.

But in the last few decades, abortion has become increasingly stigmatized. Abortion is incredibly safe – much safer than childbirth and a host of other outpatient medical procedures, such as colonoscopies. Yet, most women fear they cannot tell their friends or family when they need to have one or process the experience afterwards. Instead, we suffer in silence. We make the decision alone, maybe with our partner or provider. We move on. And our silence comes at a cost. It damages our self-esteem. It prevents us from connecting with others who have made a similar decision. It reinforces the notion that abortion is somehow bad or immoral.

Abortion stigma impacts not just each of us who has had or needs an abortion, but all of us collectively. It has enormous implications for how abortion is perceived. It affects how we talk about the procedure as a society, how media addresses it, and how politicians legislate it. If, instead, we were able to freely share our experiences, we could help reverse this dynamic.

Look at the impact that speaking up about gay relationships had on the acceptance of gay marriage. When I began practicing law in the 1980s, no one who identified as gay discussed their sexual identity, much less brought their partners to work-related social events. When Gavin Newson legalized gay marriage in San Francisco, many in the gay community thought it was way too soon. But the images of gay weddings at City Hall, with couples professing their love and commitment, made all the difference in the world. It caused a cultural and, ultimately, a legal revolution.

It took tremendous courage for those early couples to stand up. Which brings me to the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles (WLALA) Courage Award – an award rarely bestowed. Since 1999, it has only been awarded 7 other times. The award honors those who have shown exceptional dedication and commitment to the fight to protect women's reproductive freedom. Those who have been courageous.

Janice MacAvoy and Janie Schulman fit that profile. They were truly courageous. They were the lead names in an amicus brief filed in the U.S. Supreme Court this year in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt. That case challenged two abortion restrictions in Texas that overnight closed 23 of Texas's 41 abortion clinics and, but for a stay, would have closed 10 more. Closures meant fewer doctors, longer wait times, increased crowding, and very long distances for women to travel to access care. The remaining 7 facilities, clustered in the eastern urban centers of Texas, would have had to perform 5 times as many abortions. The case was the most significant abortion case in decades. Its result would potentially affect not just the 5.4 million women of reproductive age in Texas but millions in 26 other states that had near identical restrictions.

The amicus brief was signed by 113 prominent women attorneys from all walks of the profession who told the Court that they had had an abortion. The brief began: “To the world, I am an attorney who had an abortion, and, to myself, I am an attorney because I had an abortion.” Without safe and unrestricted access to abortion, the signers said they would not have escaped abuse, gone to college, excelled at law school, entered the legal profession, or ascended to prominence in their chosen field. The brief provided gripping narratives of the real-world impact the issues in Whole Woman's Health had on real people. Its power was exemplified by the immediate and extensive press coverage it garnered.

But it took courage for these women – our colleagues in the law – to come forward and publicly say: they had had an abortion.

Janice is the head of the Real Estate Litigation Practice at Fried Frank in New York. Janie is a partner with Morrison Foerster in Los Angeles, specializing in employment, whistleblower retaliation and trade secret litigation, and counseling. Signing the brief conferred no personal, professional benefit. Quite the contrary. Their lead names meant their clients, partners, staff, and families would know they had had an abortion. That takes true courage. By giving voice to a secret that so many of us have kept silent, Janice and Janie have helped to bring abortion out of the shadows and reverse its stigma. That, in turn, like the early couples who married at San Francisco's City Hall, contributed to a legal revolution.

We won Whole Woman's Health.

Thank you, Janice and Janie, for all the work that you do.

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