Twitter Gets Way Personal

It’s good that we are no longer talking about women’s experiences in the abstract. But tweeting an abortion may backfire.

The fact that someone could live-tweet an abortion blows my mind. Or at least it did during my first glances this week at the blog, YouTube videos, and Twitter feed of the feisty Florida mother of one, Angie Jackson. I was peering between my fingers at the intimate details about cramps, bleeding, and dissolving pills, as well as the careless comments (“I said mommy was very sick with something called a fetus”), to the predictable hostility engendered by her raw language, her openness, and her defiant, bird-flipping response.

On one level, it shouldn’t be that surprising that stories like this emerge. Women have been trying to control their fertility for thousands of years. For centuries, women drank herbal teas made from ginger, lavender, rosemary, and parsley, and swallowed pastes composed of mashed ants, foam from camel’s mouths, and even bear-fat potions in an attempt to prevent pregnancies taking hold. As outlined by historian Linda Gordon in her book The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America, ancient-Greek women were told to sneeze, Egyptians tried to block the cervix with crocodile dung (the Japanese did the same with bamboo; African women with chopped grass), and Indians used rock salt dipped in olive oil as a spermicide. Some women were advised to ride horses, climb trees, soak in hot baths—or, in the early 20th century in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, to sit on pots of stewed onions.

In the 19th century, abortions were common, particularly among the middle class. If performed prior to quickening, abortions were legal for most of the century, and while dangerous, largely free of stigma. Birthrates fell dramatically. As my colleague Sarah Kliff has pointed out, American women have been telling their stories about abortion for years. It’s just that Twitter takes it further. Women like Angie—and Penelope Trunk, who tweeted a miscarriage in a board meeting—are not scripted, or rehearsed; they are not propped up as poster children by either pro-life or pro-choice advocates. They are untamed, unfiltered, and unabashed. Their remarks veer from thoughtful and honest to confronting, rude, and stomach-churning.

This is what their stories tell us:
1. Few agree on what is an “acceptable” abortion. Jackson offered both excuses for her pregnancy (she says she was using three forms of contraception, which failed) and reasons to abort (her health was at risk in her last pregnancy, and she has a special-needs child), as well as other defenses (her boyfriend paid for the operation). The debate has surrounded these reasons: Was she really using contraception? Was her health really at risk? A few days after Jackson’s posts, another woman—a mother of three who goes under the name of “Next Thurs”—started live-tweeting her abortion. She wrote on her blog that a lot of commenters believe that Jackson “has the perfect reason to abort. And, yeah, she does. But does that mean I don’t? I’m not sick. Well, sick and tired of being pregnant since my youngest is still under a year. No health concerns, no pressing issues. I just don’t want to be pregnant. And I think that’s a good enough reason.”

2. The abortion debate is not about popularity. At its heart, this debate is about who has the right to make decisions about women’s bodies. It does not matter whether we like someone, approve of her sexual history and her reasoning, or think she has the capacity to be glib. Nor is it whether Twitter is the most appropriate forum to kick-start debates with intimate revelations. Personal stories can both evoke sympathy—or demystify, as Jackson wants to do—and confuse matters.

3. Women are different. Some are simply relieved after abortions, some are traumatized—and there is a large gray space in between where most women fall. After Trunk live-tweeted her experience, she said she had done so because having a miscarriage at work was “no big shakes”: “It’s no different to me saying what I had for lunch.” But it is a bit different, isn’t it? Can we really compare a sandwich to a miscarriage? Again, one of Jackson’s supporters suggested abortion was just like removing a toenail. But it’s not; I can’t remember the last time someone called a woman a whore for removing a toenail, and for most women a miscarriage is not something that can be treated carelessly. What is striking about these recent debates, springing in real time from the real experiences of real women, is that they cut through stereotypes and present the messiness of life, the complicated motivations, behaviors, and reactions of different women. Women who seek terminations are not villains or heroines: they are not all careless, promiscuous teenagers, nor are they all victims of rape, or impoverished mothers of 10 children. Some will attract sympathy; others will not.

But if Jackson hopes to win supporters by tweeting about abortion, her strategy may backfire. Those who are confident enough to go public are less likely to have struggled most with their decisions, and more likely to have their own vendettas. Jackson’s beef is with God; she says she was brought up in a religious cult, and sexually abused as a child. She cheerily tells people to “have a Godless day” on her videos. She struggles with depression. It’s clearly messy. At times she seemed scared, lonely, and gutsy, and I felt for her. At other times she was snarky and cavalier, joking about getting her boyfriend to vacuum the fetus out and crying with frustration: “I want to KILL THIS THING.” Explaining how the pills work, she tweets that the first ones kill “it,” and the second “will flush its carcass,” deliberately trying to horrify pro-lifers. The only problem is she might horrify other people too—and play into the hands of her opponents.

Life is messy and complicated, and it’s good that we are no longer talking about women’s experiences in the abstract. But if people are still disputing the legitimacy of women as moral decision makers, these live tweets will polarize more easily than they will persuade.