The Second People's Hearing of the Abortion Rights Freedom Ride

Courage and Strength Shatter the Silence—We Must Act On What We Know

by Sunsara Taylor | August 8, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


She was a young, poor, and very innocent student growing up in Mexico when a friend invited her over to study. She arrived with books in hand, but he told her, “We are not here to study.” He closed the door and a group of his friends proceeded to join him in raping her.

She was ashamed. She felt stupid. She felt she was to blame for putting herself in that situation. She had no one to turn to.

But this was only the beginning of her pain. Soon, she discovered something was growing inside her body. Without her permission, against her will, a pregnancy was developing and she could not control it. Abortion was not legal.

She gave birth to an unwanted son whose very existence haunted her with the memory of her gang-rape. She carried the shame of being a single mother. Soon, she was forced to prostitute herself just to “drag herself and her son through life.” For thirty-five years, she could not look her son in the face when he asked, over and over again, “Mom, who is my dad?”

This is a story told at the Austin People's Hearing of the Abortion Rights Freedom Ride last night. Tears streamed down her face and her body shook, but her voice never broke. With tremendous strength and courage she brought to life decades of compounded pain and oppression. Her entire life has been shaped by the violence men perpetuate against women, by the blame and shame heaped on women for how they have been made to suffer, and by the denial of the most fundamental right of women to decide for themselves when and whether to bear children.

Take a minute and think of the beauty and joy that can come from having a baby when you want one. The lifelong journey of bonding and learning, of caring for and helping guide a new life on an incredible journey. Think of the scary parts and the exhilarating parts, the exhausting parts and the painful parts. Think of the responsibility and sacrifice, the mundane routines as well as the never-ending surprises.

Now, think of all that once again, only this time through the kaleidoscope of pain and torment of bearing and rearing a child that began with the shattering of a young woman through gang-rape, proceeded through the enslavement of forced motherhood, and continued through a lifetime of desperation, humiliation, social judgement and shame so great she couldn't even look her own child in the eye.

This is what it means to be born female on this planet.

Then there was the white woman who was a foreign exchange student in Hamburg. She began her testimony by emphasizing not just the physical pain, but also the shame. She too had been young and filled with excitement when she accepted an invitation by a male student to dinner. He knocked her down and held her head as he raped her.

She had been raised Catholic and told all her life that it was wrong to “be near the occasion of sin.” Having no one to turn to, she went to mass. The priest agreed that she had been wrong. Wrong to go to his room, wrong to agree to have dinner, wrong to let herself be near the “occasion of sin.” He assigned her penance and sent her away without a single word of comfort.

When she found out that she was pregnant, she was only more ashamed. She watched traffic contemplating the moment at which she could jump out in front of a bus and end her misery. Thoughts of suicide accompanied her everywhere. She wasn't even able to identify the rape as wrong, so consumed was she by the shame and terror of having a child out of wedlock.

She even began dating the man who raped her. He laid claim to her body and her life and she didn't have any framework to respond other than going along. She considered going to some medical students for an illegal abortion but the shame of having more men see her naked kept her from even considering it.

She was “lucky” in that eventually she found an abortion and was not forced to carry the pregnancy to term. But it took decades before she was able to tell the story and look at what had been done to her for what it actually was.

This is what it means to be born female in this world.

Then there was the older Black woman who already had a three year old and was forced to travel alone to Mexico. When the procedure was over, all the other young women bounced back quickly and left the office, but she couldn't come to. The doctor fed her soup and fruit, slapped her face and tried to revive her. Eventually, she woke and was able to walk out.

And there are more stories. Others that were told at the first People's Hearing down here in Texas—of holding a friend as she bled to death on the street after an illegal abortion, of trying to help a 14-year old who had been raped by her father get to a clinic hundreds of miles away, of being raped just months ago and how abortion gave this teenager her life back, and more—and on the street as we reach out every day to bring people into this fight against the war on women.

All this is just a small part of what it means to be born female in this world of male-domination.

As I listened to these stories last night in the Austin Centre, joined by forty or so people in the room and hundreds more tuned in around the country, I was reminded of a pivotal moment in the Abolitionist movement against slavery in this country. In their early days, the Abolitionists were a small group of Christian northerners motivated by their moral opposition to slavery. They were right and they were righteous, but most did not yet understand the full barbarity of chattel slavery and certainly people throughout the north had no idea.

That changed when Frederick Douglass spoke for the first time. People in the North had never heard slavery described by someone who himself had been born into bondage, who as a child had hidden in terror as he watched a slave woman whipped until her flesh hung from her body, who had been whipped himself daily and starved by one of the most notorious slave-breakers in all of the South. They'd never heard such clarity and wisdom, such strength and righteous anger, from someone society legally viewed only as a “piece of property.” Hearing Douglass's voice changed the people who heard him and it changed the movement as a whole. They acted with greater certitude and as his voice and the truth he had brought alive spread, many more were brought into the fight.

Obviously, history never repeats itself exactly, and the conditions described by Douglass are different than the conditions described by the women last night, but there is a parallel and a lesson to draw. Almost no one today understands the full horror of what forced motherhood—the denial of abortion and birth control—meant to millions of women. Even those who lived through it have mainly carried their stories in secret and shameful isolation.

No one with a heart and a head could sit through the testimony of the courageous women Wednesday night and not be changed by it. What is coming alive in these People's Hearings goes beyond what almost anyone fully comprehends. This has the power to change people and to change the level of certitude and clarity of our movement as a whole.

After the program, I got a chance to speak with the woman from Mexico who had shared her story. She thanked me for bringing the volunteers down from around the country and was impressed in particular by the young women who spoke with such certitude and determination not to let women be forced back. When I asked how she felt after sharing such a painful story that had been kept secret for so long, she said, “Lighter. Like something has been lifted off me, like I gave it to you all and it's no longer mine.”

She is right. Her story and her pain are not hers alone any more. She had the courage and fortitude to give them to all of us. But this knowledge and understanding must not stay bottled up with just the few hundred who saw it last night. If you are reading this and you haven't watched this testimony yet, watch it today. Share it with friends, family, and your community. Send a link out in your church bulletin or community newsletter. Spread it through social media or in a live social gathering. Show it in classrooms or conferences. Write about it or broadcast it.

You will not only hear the truth of what forced motherhood really means in a world of male-domination, you will hear the voices of people of all ages who have stepped to the front lines to take on this fight. You will hear one of the Abortion Rights Freedom Riders walk through what it is like going out very broadly into different communities talking about abortion rights; what arguments come up over and over again and how to take them on. Not just how to answer each question, but how to reset the terms back to what this fight is really over: the lives and role of women in society. You will find the ways to take concrete steps together with hundreds and soon thousands across the country to turn this fight around. You will hear the strength and depth of experience and clarity of Carol Downer, one of the Advisory Board members of the Abortion Rights Freedom Ride who has been providing abortions since 1971, even after one of her clinics was burned to the ground, as she acknowledges the scariness and sacrifice involved in looking soberly at the dangerous reality that confronts us, but then declares with joy that there is nothing more enlivening and meaningful than dealing with the real world and changing it. You will hear from me about how I see taking up this fight as part of contributing to a revolution to put an end to all forms of oppression and exploitation and bring into a whole liberated world.

All of this and more will come alive to you and to others and this has tremendous potential to contribute to a major turning point at a critical time for the future of women. And once we have heard these truths, each of us has a solemn responsibility to not only remember what we heard, but to act on the implications of these stories—of what they have meant to untold millions of women for centuries—as we fight to ensure this never happens again.

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