Jemima Kirke’s Abortion: Can Celebrities’ Stories Make a Difference?

Jemima Kirke, who plays the troubled Jessa on Girls, had an abortion when she was younger. Because she felt she couldn’t tell her mother about her pregnancy, she struggled to pay for the procedure, foregoing anesthesia to lighten the bill. She tells the story in a new video for the Center for Reproductive Rights. Her quiet and powerful testimony has kicked off an interesting debate about the power of storytelling, and celebrity story-sharing, in changing the currently dismal climate for reproductive rights.

It’s understandable to be dubious that Kirke, whose show plays to a demographic which tends to be pro-choice anyway, will alter that climate. Since 2011’s Tea Party takeover on the state level, quite a few women have shared their incredibly moving abortion stories in front of legislative bodies, only to see their rights immediately voted down. The most famous example of this is Wendy Davis’ Texas filibuster and subsequent grassroots protests, in opposition to an anti-choice bill that ultimately passed. Today in Indiana, women are being imprisoned for miscarriages, and elsewhere new laws requiring doctors to lie to abortion-seeking women are in vogue.

It would be hard to say that storytelling efforts have created a discernible improvement in the voting records of anti-abortion politicians.

But that doesn’t mean those efforts have made no difference. To cavalierly dismiss recent effort like Kirke’s, films like Obvious Child, speakouts, and Internet videos like Renee Bracy Sherman‘s and Emily Letts‘, is to misunderstand the way social movements effect change. Think of it as an ecosystem: major and minor organizations fight laws, smaller groups exist to fund abortions for women in dire need, and other nonprofits and initiatives are now trying to erase stigma. While the abortion funds provide immediate relief, the latter is “a long-term strategy, a 20 or 30 year game” says Steph Herold of Sea Change, a new organization devoted explicitly to combatting abortion stigma.

To use the obvious comparison, the decades-long wave of LGBT people “coming out” and encouraging others to do so didn’t instantly ensure gay marriage in Arkansas. But it laid the groundwork for policy change in many more friendly, and then less friendly, places. The Contact Theory posits that when people know someone with a stigma, be it HIV, an LGBT identity, or a past abortion, that personal contact can change their minds on the issue. So Kirke’s video may not directly spawn new pro-choice advocates, but she might inspire one of her fans to tell her own abortion story, thereby touching that fan’s circle of friends. Similarly, while a politician speaking about her abortion in the context of a debate over a bill might not shift her colleague’s vote that very day, her courage might inspire that politician’s constituent, daughter, or friend to get up the nerve to tell him, “Hey, this happened to me, too.”

Herold thinks that edgier celebrities like Kirke, Obvious Child‘s Jenny Slate, and Chelsea Handler speaking candidly about abortions may pave the way for more mainstream celebrities to do so too, creating what she calls “a community of support for celebrities to come out into.” Imagine Carrie Underwood or Selena Gomez making such an announcement. Maybe someday. My additional hope is that millennials, who have been quicker to move on gay rights, will respond more directly to celebrities and friends sharing abortion stories online. For younger people, who connect so intensely and personally in a variety of virtual spaces, a blog post or a YouTube video may make more of a “contact” connection than it does for older viewers. A recent study by the 1 in 3 Campaign, another storytelling initiative, showed that abortion storytelling didn’t switch millennials’ views entirely, but did move “soft” and “situational” abortion supporters — what Katha Pollitt calls the “muddled middle” — towards a stronger stance and deeper understanding of the issue.

Activists are excited about Kirke’s particular story because it addresses other facets of stigma beyond laws and restrictions, aspects which the actress calls “little hoops” women must jump through. “Because of stigma, people may be uncomfortable talking to friends, family, and colleagues about abortion care,” reproductive health advocate Alison Turkos explains. “Maybe they don’t want to use health insurance because they’re worried a partner or someone else will find out. But without stigma, abortion care is simply part of healthcare.”

Additional layers of opprobrium face women of color who are targeted by anti-choice PR campaigns, trans people seeking abortions, and women who, unlike Kirke, choose not to have families or have had multiple abortions.

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Yet clearly, something is changing. In the anthology Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed, several essayists who ended up being unmarried and child-free wrote about having multiple abortions in their 20s. I have seen very little, if any, outcry or discussion of their stories. Even the press response to Kirke has been somewhat measured. Yet a few years ago, when a few Tumblrs sprung up to document abortions, the media cycle around them roared on for weeks.

“We’re seeing many more people tell their abortion stories in a public way in different venues,” says Herold. “It’s not siloed to the feminist areas of the Internet.” Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but it’s hard not to think that perhaps young Girls fans clicking on Kirke’s YouTube video today will be drafting laws for their city councils someday.