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How social media proved that for many abortion is still a dirty word

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At the beginning of May, a YouTube video went viral.

Considering that video sharing is something of a social media epidemic – who hasn’t seen at least 23 videos of disgruntled cats by now? – that might not seem like such a big deal. But Emily Letts’ video content was far from fluffy – she had chosen to film her first-trimester abortion and upload it to YouTube in the hope ‘that someone somewhere will see this and it will provide some guidance, strength, support, or whatever else they need in that moment.’

As a consequence, Letts has now found herself the target of an astonishing number of vicious, vitriolic comments across social media, attacking her both for her decision to video the procedure, and her decision to have the procedure at all.

Speaking to American Cosmopolitan in May, Letts explained why she wanted to share her experience: ‘Once I caught my breath, I knew immediately I was going to have an abortion. I knew I wasn’t ready to take care of a child…We talk about abortion so much and yet no one really knows what it actually looks like… Women come into the clinic all the time terrified that they are going to be cut open, convinced that they won’t be able to have kids after the abortion. The misinformation is amazing, but think about it: they are still willing to sacrifice these things because they know that they can’t carry the child at this moment.’

With this in mind, it is interesting to consider the unjust notoriety of Letts’ video against the popularity of shows such as One Born Every Minute. While Letts' video does not contain any graphic content, OBEM frequently shows footage of the birthing process in all its gory glory; it seems that we are happy enough to see the warm, fuzzy side of this story, but less so to be exposed to the idea that pregnancy can be anything other than welcome news for women.

According to official statistics, the total number of abortions carried out across England and Wales in 2012 was 185,122. Despite the fact that there is a good deal of pro-choice support in Britain, the sheer scale of horrendous comments that have been thrown at Letts in the aftermath of her video becoming an internet sensation demonstrates a worrying global attitude towards women who choose abortion. Letts is herself an abortion counsellor and, in numerous interviews since her video became an internet sensation, she explains that she was perfectly aware of the criticism that she would face, but that she does not let it affect her because she knows that she made the right decision for herself.

One can only hope that Letts is as strong as she says. There are far too many to compile, but even a handful of Facebook comments written in the days since the video went viral show the kind of abuse directed at Emily, and at the thousands of other women targeted by some pro-life campaigners who gather outside abortion clinics. Some call her a ‘whore’ or ‘murdering white trash’, accuse her of ‘glamourizing’ abortion or make claims such as ‘Since Roe v Wade, over 50 million abortions have been performed. That is genocide.’ One Facebook user writes, ‘I hope you're left sterile. You've now increased your risk for ectopic pregnancy, placenta previa and breast cancer’, while another proclaims ‘If you weren’t ready to have children you shouldn’t have had sex’.

Setting aside the idea that any woman that engages in sexual intercourse must be 100% prepared for the consequence of having children (let’s be honest, reproduction might be the primary biological function of intercourse, but love and physical attraction certainly play their own healthy part! In a modern, sexually accepting society such as the one we live in – and in centuries past – the truth is that people have sex for the fun and the joy of it, not solely in order to procreate), the first of these comments reflects the dangerous myths peddled by some pro-life campaigners.  Women are told that they increase their risks of certain cancers or infertility, that they are selfish, evil, even murderers – every single one of which is entirely untrue.

According to prochoice.org, there is no evidence to support such claims by these activists aiming to stop all types of legal abortion, ‘a situation which would put the lives and health of women in danger. When abortion was illegal in the United States…more pregnant women died from complications from self-induced abortions or abortions performed by untrained practitioners than from any other cause. Today, abortion is one of the most common and safest medical procedures.’

The reality is that, if these activists were to achieve their goal and see abortion made illegal, the incidence of unsafe, illegal abortion would likely rise and results in a higher number of complications and deaths caused by the procedure.

So why are we, in a progressive society of medical breakthroughs and gender equality, so ready to attack women that choose abortion – an age-old procedure, and a personal choice, undertaken for any number of psychological and physical reasons?  I, like many other supporters of women’s rights and gender equality who feel strongly on the matter, am not pro- or anti- abortion, but am pro-choice.

Like Letts, many women will be confident that they made the right choice in having an abortion but, at the same time, not every woman will consider the experience to be a positive one, and may have regrets. The key point, however, is that they have the choice.How would women feel if, faced with an unplanned pregnancy, they had no right to decide whether or not they were ready to have a child?

In China, the one-child policy designed to control the country’s population prohibits families from having more than one child. While this policy has been relaxed a little in recent years, in 2013 China’s Health Ministry revealed that at least 336 million abortions have been performed in the name of the policy, more than 13 million per year. This, a society where women are sometimes forced to abort their children, is the other side to the coin that some pro-life activists propose – a society that forces women to keep an unwanted or unadvised pregnancy.  Do we really want to live in a dictatorial society that denies women the freedom to decide what is best for their own body?

We should be campaigning together for better global education on safe sex, women’s rights, promoting positive messages about women’s bodies, not debating whether or not to rob women of their right to decide if they are ready and able able to bring up a child. Women facing this choice should receive the support, guidance and impartial advice needed to help them decide, rather than be told by someone else, what is right for them. As women, we already fight against so many damaging patriarchal ideals of what we should be, should do and should want – it doesn’t seem right for us to attack each other over rights which, ultimately, are in place to protect us and ensure that we are able to make the right decisions for ourselves; in the end, isn’t that what feminism is all about? 

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