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This blog post is part of a series here at Scarleteen profiling young people worldwide who are activists in some way in the fields of sexuality, sex education and sexual health.
Steph Herold might be best known for starting the website IAmDrTiller.com, but since getting that project up and running in 2009, she's also started the blog AbortionGang.org, written for RH Reality Check, and put together the Safe Abortion Project and the tumblr I Had An Abortion. She currently sits on the board of the New York Abortion Access Fund, and just finished a master's degree in public health. You can find her on twitter @StephHerold and read more about her work at stephherold.com.
When you started the I Am Dr Tiller Project as a response to the murder of Dr George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas, you were working at an abortion clinic. What got you interested in the issue of abortion and abortion care in the first place?
I grew up in a progressive home in the liberal suburbs of Washington, DC. Abortion was a political issue for me, not a personal one.
A close friend of mine became pregnant in high school, and decided to have an abortion. It wasn't a traumatic or overly emotional event. She couldn't tell her parents, but had the support of her then-boyfriend. After the abortion, she went on with her life.
That event sparked something in me, the desire to explore the personal in addition to the political aspects of abortion.
When I went to college, I needed a work study job, and one option was working on the hotline of the local abortion fund, the Women's Medical Fund. I decided that it would be a great opportunity to put my pro-choice beliefs into practice. I worked at the WMF all through college and that experience profoundly changed my life.
Every day I heard from people for whom abortion access was only hypothetical--they were poor enough to qualify for state medicaid, but Medicaid wouldn't cover the cost of their abortion (because of the Hyde amendment).
I felt really privileged to be able to provide funds so people could access the abortion care they need, but also furious that the state didn't step in to provide this obviously essential coverage. No one should have to forgo rent in order to pay for an abortion.
As a Canadian citizen living in Australia, I must admit I'm a bit baffled by the intensity of the political debate around abortion in the United States. There are opposing viewpoints on the issue everywhere, but why do you think the discussion is particularly heated in the US?
Such a good question! The history of abortion in the United States is complicated--it was legal until "quickening" (or when a pregnant person felt fetal movement) until the mid-1800s, when medical associations campaigned to make abortion completely illegal. Scholars speculate that they did this because midwives were the primary abortion providers, and physicians did not like the competition.
As we know now, the criminalization of abortion until 1973 didn't reduce abortion. It made safe abortion accessible to people with money (who could travel overseas or pay for a good provider) and left poor people at the mercy of sub-par providers or potentially dangerous self-induced abortion methods.
To my knowledge, it wasn't until around the Roe decision that the anti-abortion movement tied in a religious/moral majority analysis that was also part of the conservative backlash to the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. This backlash, coupled with the undeniable fact that abortion access is dismal in most of the United states (87% of US counties lack an abortion provider)--definitely creates a polarized culture on abortion despite the fact that about 1.2 million abortions are performed per year. I didn't even mention how America's Puritan background makes it near-impossible to have sane national conversations about anything relating to sex. There are a zillion contributing factors, really, including institutionalized and systemic racism, sexism, and classism.
You've made great use of social media over the last few years to talk about reproductive rights and abortion stigma. What do you think is the biggest benefit of the internet in terms of reproductive justice activism?
There are so many benefits to engaging in online activism. One of my favorite parts of it are the connections you make.
At the risk of sounding cheesy, I met some of my best feminist friends via twitter and despite being in different states (and countries!), I can't imagine my feminist community organizing without them.
Online organizing allows you to build coalitions and support campaigns that you otherwise wouldn't even know about. Online organizing enables you to find out what's happening immediately in another place and send love, solidarity, and even pizza!
Over the last few days, for example, hundreds of activists took over the Texas Legislature in a citizen's filibuster of an omnibus anti-abortion bill (and then supported Sen. Wendy Davis's 12-hour filibuster) of an omnibus anti-abortion bill. They tweeted their protest using the hashtags #txlege #hb60 #SB5 and others. They shared with the world exactly what was happening in the legislative chambers as they stayed there throughout the night, and folks from around the country sent them food, coffee, and, of course, moral support. AND THEY WON.
That kind of rapid-fire publicity and national response just wouldn't be possible without the internet.
Doing any sort of work in reproductive and sexual health can be frustrating at times, especially when it seems like no progress is being made. What keeps you motivated?
Every activist deals with feeling burned out, frustrated, and hopeless.
In those moments, I try to put my work in context. The reproductive health, rights, and justice movement is part of a broader social justice community that is making important gains every day.
The day after we had a stunning loss for voting rights out of the Supreme Court, we had an incredible victory for marriage equality.
Tireless advocates worked day and night for years to make that happen. The Affordable Care Act is going to provide millions of Americans with much-needed health insurance (although the ACA did a lot of damage to abortion access).
There are thousands of activists working to make abortion safe, accessible, and de-stigmatized whether it's through volunteering with an abortion fund, blogging, escorting at their local abortion clinic, or lobbying with their local NARAL or Planned Parenthood. DREAMers are literally risking their lives to tell their stories and campaign for immigration reform.
Sometimes it may not feel like it, but we really are in an era of explosive and inspiring progressive activism, even if we have to step back to see it.
Lastly, any advice for other young people who may want to get into working or volunteering in the field of sexuality and sexual and reproductive health?
If you're trying to figure out how to make a difference directly, get involved with your local abortion fund.
Abortion funds are organizations that help people pay for abortions they otherwise couldn't afford. They help directly with the cost of the abortion, and sometimes also help with travel, child care, lodging, et cetera. Many abortion funds also engage in advocacy work and community education.
If you don't have one in your state, start one!
Know an awesome young activist you think should be profiled at Scarleteen (or if you are one yourself and want to share your story!)? You can let me know by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org