Renee Bracey Sherman wants you to know that someone you love has had an abortion

·10 min read
A woman holding a round sign stands with her back to traffic.
Renee Bracey Sherman, "the Beyonce of abortion storytelling," is the founder of We Testify.Cheriss May for Insider
  • Renee Bracey Sherman, 'the Beyonce of abortion storytelling,' says sharing positive abortion stories is more important than ever.

  • Her group, We Testify, has been showcasing personal stories about abortion since 2016.

  • The group was behind a Supreme Court submission in which 6,641 people spoke out about their abortions.

When does a personal story become a confession?

That's one of the questions Renee Bracey Sherman was mulling a few days after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, paving the way for abortion bans to take effect in nearly half the country.

Bracey Sherman is the founder and executive director of We Testify, an outlet for people who want to share their abortion stories, and a resource for journalists to put a human face on coverage. Her mission is summed up in her email sign-off: "Everyone loves someone who had an abortion."

But in the wake of the court's decision, so much is still unknown, including how aggressive states might be in coming after and prosecuting people involved in abortions after the fact. Almost immediately, women were urged to remove period-tracking apps off their phones, for fear the data could be used against them. On social media, doctors were ringing alarm bells that split-second decisions to save a pregnant patient could now carry serious legal consequences.

"Could stories be used as confessions? That has been keeping me up at night," Bracey Sherman said.

But these feelings are also a reminder to her that the work of normalizing abortion is more important now than ever. "We just have to get creative," she said. "It's pushing We Testify to get better."

Bracey Sherman, who is 36, created We Testify in 2016.

Last year, when the US Supreme Court announced that they would consider Mississippi's restrictive abortion law, the group joined forces with Advocates for Youth and filed an amicus brief to the court that included the names of 6,641 people who have had abortions. Among them were people from all 50 states, D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands — all of whom had agreed to speak openly about their experience.

A woman is seen reclining on a green couch.
We Testify launched in 2016 as an outlet for people to share their personal stories about abortion.Cheriss May for Insider

The brief also included some of their stories. A third-year law student explained that her oral contraception had failed when she started taking antibiotics and wasn't informed how the two would interact. Another woman said she discovered she was pregnant after being abandoned by her husband and left to care for her six-month-old son on her own. An expectant second-time mom told the court about learning at 22 weeks of pregnancy that the child she was carrying had health complications that were "incompatible with life."

"Our goal was 376 signatures," Bracey Sherman said. Another amicus brief filed by the other side included the names of 375 people who said they had been injured by late-term abortions.

"We wanted one more than the antis," Bracey Sherman said.

Bracey Sherman's name was there. Also on the list was Bracey Sherman's mother. When she thinks about the 6,641 signatures, Bracey Sherman said, "I like to think that my mom was that one."

'What if we start sharing our stories?'

For both Bracey Sherman and her mom, telling the other about her abortion didn't come easy — in fact, it took years.

Bracey Sherman grew up outside Chicago in what she has called a progressive biracial family — her mother is Black and her father is white. Both her parents worked as nurses, and her father was a union organizer who years ago protested the draft. Abortion wasn't a taboo subject growing up. She learned only later that family members, including her mother, had had abortions in the past, but hadn't thought to ever share that with her.

These days, Bracey Sherman talks all the time about getting an abortion at age 19. But it took six years before she started speaking about it openly. Had she known then that her own mother had been through something similar, "I would have known to go to her," Bracey Sherman said.

"This is why I do what I do," she said.

When she applied for a master's of public administration from Cornell, she said writing about her abortion help secure her a generous scholarship. But as she began a career in public health, it struck her that, even among those working to protect abortion rights, almost no one wanted to discuss their own experiences with abortion.

"I was the only person who was open about my abortion in the room. That was really fascinating to me," she said. So, she had an idea: "What if we start sharing our stories?"

The deliberate act of people speaking openly and en masse about their abortions began about a decade ago, with social media propelling the effort.

For so long, abortion had been framed as an abstract fight of Choice v. Life. But once people started speaking out, advocates saw the value of centering the actual experiences of real people who have had abortions. If people were willing to share their personal stories, bluntly and without any shame, the hope was that they could normalize abortion and refute misinformation.

In 2015, for example, Amelia Bonow used the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion — where shout is intended as a counterpoint to silence — and the story of her abortion went viral on Facebook, creating an opening for others to share their stories.

Mary Ziegler, a professor at the University of California Davis and the author of several books about abortion, points to Ireland, which in 2018 voted overwhelmingly to overturn the country's abortion ban. After the vote, many cited the conversations they'd had with family, friends, and colleagues as pivotal in shaping their views.

"Stories matter when you're at a personal level with voters,"  Ziegler said.

A woman sits behind a desk, wears a shirt that says "I had an abortion."
Renee Bracey Sherman sits behind a desk at the ìpàdé coworking space, which she helped found.Cheriss May for Insider

'The Beyoncé of abortion storytelling'

On the day I met her, Bracey Sherman greeted me wearing a Jurassic Park T-shirt.

"When I'm really stressed I watch Jurassic Park," she explained. The movie comforts her, reminding her that things "could be worse. Dinosaurs could be eating people."

On the inside of her right wrist, a tattoo reflects what has become her life's work. The words "share your story" are tucked into the outline of a swallow. The art was created by an artist with the Repeal Hyde Art Project, which is dedicated to raising awareness about the Hyde Amendment, the federal prohibition on using Medicaid dollars for abortion services that has been in place since 1976.

We Testify is a remote operation, and Bracey Sherman often works out of the ìpàdé coworking space just off Dupont Circle, in Washington DC. It has deep purple walls and leafy views of Connecticut Avenue and R Street, and it's a space that Bracey Sherman helped bring into being — installing the bathroom shelves herself, she told me on a recent visit.

After the stress of the last few days, this is a place where Bracey Sherman feels at ease, working quietly among friends and fellow activists and entrepreneurs. Curled up onto a crescent-shaped dark green sofa, her phone buzzed and lit up with a stream of incoming messages. She looked tired and her voice was raspy from hours spent outside the court.

A few years back, someone bestowed on Bracey Sherman the title "the Beyoncé of abortion storytelling." She includes it in her Twitter bio. The story goes that after the Homecoming documentary debuted in 2019, it struck people that it was widely popular with white audiences, even though, as Bracey Sherman put it, "it was Black as fuck."

A supporter of hers later said that, whatever you do, "become the Beyoncé of what you do." It became a joke because abortion storytelling, it was very white," Bracey Sherman said, and her focus was on minority stories. "It kind of snowballed after that," with news outlets adopting the title for her, too.

Elizabeth Dawes Gay, founder and CEO of the coworking space where Bracey Sherman spends many of her work days, points to an old meme of Beyoncé as further evidence the nickname fits. "Renee is always on message like Beyoncé is always on beat," she said.

"That's true because ask me anything and I have my abortion messaging down," Bracey Sherman replied.

The fight over the right to abortion has intensified even as the number of people exercising that right has fallen overall since Roe v. Wade in 1973.

We Testify's network of storytellers are empowered to share their abortion experiences on their own terms — revealing what they choose to, and in a way that feels safe. Last week, for instance, Teen Vogue published a piece featuring a We Testify storyteller who retraced the steps of her abortion.

Before the pandemic, We Testify organized long-weekend retreats where people telling their abortion stories could meet, and talk about how to deal with the press. Bracey Sherman said the goal is never to tell people what to say, but to empower them to say no if they don't want to answer a particular question or share certain details of their experience.

"No is a complete sentence," she likes to tell participants.

That goes for herself too: She declined to say whether she wants to be a mother someday.

Bracey Sherman said her group is intentional in elevating the voices of storytellers who are Black and brown as well as those from the LGBTQ community, because she said straight, white voices are overrepresented in the abortion storytelling space.

It's not yet clear if outrage over the court's decision will inspire more people to go public with their abortion stories or, fearing the reach of state prosecutors in states that are now instituting abortion bans, have a chilling effect on people's openness.

Renee Bracey Sherman said it struck her early in her career that, even among those working to protect abortion rights, almost no one wanted discussed their own experiences with abortion.Cheriss May for Insider

One of Bracey Sherman's storytellers, Cazembe Murphy Jackson, believes more people will want to come forward. "That's what I'm seeing," Jackson said.

A Black trans man who now lives in Atlanta, Jackson had an abortion after being raped during his college years in Texas. "I share my story because Black trans people have abortions too and our voices should also be heard," he says on his We Testify page.

Bonow, who started a a nonprofit advocacy group after her viral "shout your abortion" Facebook post, said that normalizing abortion is still important. Now her group's aim is to normalize participation in the abortion process, including getting people to say they will aid and abet abortion."

"It was clear that we wanted to do more than the liberation of people sharing their stories," she said in an interview. "How do we actually make our friends and neighbors and family even get what they need?"

In the near term, Bracey Sherman said her priority will be checking in on her storytellers. We Testify, she noted, has "had a lawyer on retainer since Day One."

She also has a book on the history of abortion in the works.

The long term is another story.

The work of magnifying personal abortion stories continues. There's also a demand for consultants on TV and film productions, where there's a growing push to depict abortions in a realistic and responsible way.

"Even if you have the policy wins or losses, you still have to do the culture work," she said. "That way people who are having abortions are seeing themselves."

And as the reality of the Supreme Court's decision sinks in, there's no shortage of people who want to get involved. We Testify recently posted an opening for operations manager and, for that single opening, Bracey Sherman said that more than 600 people have applied.

"We knew it was coming," she said of the court's ruling. "It's back to work."

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