by Shantae Johnson
This post is a part of the Strong Families Mamas Day 2014 blog series and was originally posted on the Western States Center blog. Shantae is a doula, breastfeeding advocate, mother to six, and a board member of Backline.
“Freedom is not given; it is won.” -A. Phillip Randolph on October 15, 1957
‘Mothers don’t have abortions.’ This is the message society tells women. Well, this mama did, and I’m not alone.
I have chosen to bare this part of myself so that others might find the strength to do the same, because my story is that of countless women from all walks of life, nationalities, and economic backgrounds, and because I believe that through dialogue and action, we can achieve growth and healing.
I have limitless love and passion and find this truth very hard to share. It was 10 years ago, when I was already a mother of two children. I’ve come to honor and name that I let my love for them guide me to make one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make.
Birth is both life and death. When I realized how central that knowledge was to my life, I became a doula who supported other women along their journeys to motherhood and an advocate (and then later a board member) of Backline. I believe that everyone in their reproductive lifespan needs to be supported in all their needs. My way to heal was through helping others and providing peer-to-peer, unbiased support.
Sharing our truths when it comes to abortion in communities of color doesn’t win any popularity contest, that’s for sure. The shame around abortion is so deep it is simply understood that you don’t talk about abortion. Nor have women of color historically been fully centered in feminist movements. Because of this, I have been struggling for a decade to reclaim my story.
Most recently, I’ve found more women just like me walking in the same direction – women of color and allies that I’ve met through the project We Are BRAVE (Building Reproductive Autonomy and Voices for Equity). I met Western States Center almost year ago when, as part of a community survey, they asked me, as a public health advocate and community health worker, if I supported abortion rights. Was I interested in convening with other people of color who are similarly tired of being invisible and working to claim their full selves in the world? I had no idea what the leadership cohort would be like; but that first night we came together, I felt like I was meeting sisters I could laugh and cry with, and finding a part of my reproductive justice warrior. I learned that I could be a leader in this movement and help to share my story, that healing in our communities could start with me.
The All Above All Campaign helps women of color to mobilize and organize around shared experiences and to begin by breaking the chains of stigma, silence and shame. Our stories in our own voices highlight what happens when we honor and carry our mothers’, aunties’ and sistahs’ stories and take them to the streets to advocate for all women to lift the veils of injustice.
In November, I sat on a flight en route to Washington DC to meet members of Congress and discuss lifting the federal ban on abortion coverage for low-income women, feeling a range of emotions from empowerment to fear. “Her eyes are the color of huckleberries.” This is how the indigenous woman in her 60s with the jet-black hair hanging down her back and the skin the color of a sandy beach described my four-month-old daughter Mone Auset as we sat together on the plane. Her strength caught me off guard, as she looked so regal and carrying so much ancestral wisdom, and I stared out my window, feeling my past and present intermingle. She took me right back to the days of picking huckleberries to make pancakes and s’mores over a fire with my cousins during our family camping trips to Washington DC: days of innocence and naïve ideals around womanhood, and right and wrong.
My oldest daughter was four months old when I decided to have the abortion. She has those same huckleberry eyes, deep and dark and wise beyond her years, and light, coffee-stained skin with chocolate hair and red-brown highlights.
I had packed up my strong-willed baby girl and 3 ½-year-old son in Oregon to seek out a new life in Houston, Texas. I was staying with family and was lucky to find a job within two weeks as a medical records clerk. I struggled to find affordable childcare on $10 an hour and eventually found a place that required a $300 deposit and $300 every two weeks. By working overtime one weekend, I was able to come up with a deposit for a brand new, two-bedroom apartment with one couch and exactly one set of dishes.
I quickly became pregnant but my partner at the time wasn’t working, so I was the sole provider. I knew as soon as the test came back positive that I could not go through another pregnancy. I could not support three children and myself. I was not emotionally available to parent any more children at that time. I was all tapped out, and postpartum depression had its ugly claws in me. My children needed me more than ever, and I had to be realistic. All I had was my job and a small safety net of $450, which was what was left of my tax refund.
So I decided to seek out additional resources. I made an appointment to see if I could qualify for food stamps and Medicaid but missed them because I could not get time off. Then, I scheduled an appointment with Planned Parenthood in Texas. I knew there might be protesters outside judging me. Sure enough, when I arrived, they greeted me with pictures of aborted fetuses. The anti-abortion activists tried to make it a walk of shame, but I entered Planned Parenthood with my head up and a queasy stomach. More than anything, I feared the unknown. I asked about resources to help pay for my abortion and was told there were none. That was when I learned that thanks to the Hyde Amendment, unlike Oregon and 14 other states, Texas does not allow state Medicaid dollars to be used for abortions so even though I qualified for Medicaid I had to use up the last of my tax refund to pay for the abortion. Many states and insurance companies around the country still don’t cover abortion services for women.
I walked back alone leaving pieces of myself that I never got to hold.
The cost of childcare, rent, loss of pay and removal of my safety net ultimately forced me to move home to Oregon and depend upon family support. I cannot imagine what life for me would have been like if I had not had the money at that time to have an abortion. Eventually, I went back to college and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree. I developed leadership skills by volunteering with many non-profits and got a better, higher paying job so I could better provide more for my two children.
Everyone holds the wisdom they need to decide what to do with their lives.
I reject the culture of stigma and shame around my decision to terminate my pregnancy. I will stand up for women — and my daughters — who deserve to choose what to do with their own bodies without government, religion or anyone standing in the way of what is right for them and their families.
As I returned from my DC trip, I went to pick up my luggage with my current partner. I looked up and saw the same indigenous grandmother waving at us. I felt my journey come full circle. I knew everything would be all right, just like she said it would.