Steph Herold is just one voice out of many. As the creator and founder of The Safe Abortion Project, as well as the now well-known site I Am Dr. Tiller, Herold provides a space that allows people to speak on their experiences working in abortion clinics by taking on the moniker of the late Dr.Tiller, who was murdered by an anti-abortion activist while attending church in 2009.
These stories, though sometimes overlooked in the larger movement, come from nurses, counselors, escorts and doctors, all of whom are the last line of defense in providing safe spaces for safe abortions. “We have to give women healthy and safe spaces to talk about their abortion experiences,” says Herold. “We have to listen to them instead of shout at them with rhetoric and catch phrases. We have to honor their experiences and be as non-judgmental as we can. Some women regret their abortions, some women feel relieved after they have abortions, and some feel a mix or something totally different. We have to create a culture where all of these experiences are acceptable.” Persephone Magazine, please welcome Steph Herold.
Persephone Magazine: Why did you create I am Dr Tiller? What were your intentions for the site, as well as your hopes and fears?
Steph Herold: I was working at an abortion clinic when Dr. George Tiller was murdered. I had worked with him before, not closely, but sent patients to his clinic knowing they would receive compassionate and respectful care. The news of his assassination was devastating to me, as it was to the whole abortion provider community. We had a staff meeting at the clinic to discuss how we were feeling about his death and of course, our safety going forward. What came out of that meeting was the feeling that while we do everything we can to make sure our patients feel safe telling their abortion stories, abortion providers don’t have a place to share their experiences. I decided to take on this project and immediately bought the domain and set up the site within 24 hours.
PM: What have been some of the greatest challenges of running I am Dr. Tiller?
SH: At first, the biggest challenge was dealing with all the hate mail. While I was used to seeing anti-choice protesters outside my clinic, I wasn’t accustomed to them sending me threatening e-mails that contained personal information about me and my family. This happened especially after Bill O’Reilly discussed the site briefly on his show. What also happened after that is that we received really powerful provider story submissions. The biggest challenge today is getting providers to write-up and submit their stories. I’d love to have as many stories up there as possible. That is the beginning of humanizing abortion providers – getting their stories out there.
PM: You have talked about your own experiences of working in a clinic and the day-to-day life that can range from moving to difficult, positive and negative. Why did you choose this path?
SH: Working at an abortion clinic was a way for me to put my feminist beliefs into action. Part of what I studied in college was gender and sexuality studies, but I struggled with the practical, real-world implications of all the theory I was reading. Working at an abortion clinic allowed me to put those theories into practice. I no longer work in a clinic (I’m currently in graduate school pursuing a degree in public health, focusing in reproductive health), but my experience working at an abortion clinic opened my eyes to the realities of abortion beyond the dichotomy of pro-choice and pro-life. The reality is that one in three U.S. women will have an abortion by age 45. They are your mother, daughter, friend, teacher, neighbor and sister. They come from all imaginable walks of life.
PM: In the wake of many of these new restrictions, are there ways that those seeking care or even justice can take care of themselves, when legally they are so limited? What ways do you know of that exist to support those who do not have access to safe healthcare?
SH: Specifically focusing on abortion, there are often grassroots organizations called abortion funds that may be able to help a woman pay for her procedure, find a place to stay, and/or help with travel costs. You can find your local abortion fund here: Fund Abortion Now, as well as resources on how to start an abortion fund. It’s so important that folks with financial means support abortion funds, since they are the organizations that do the direct service work of making sure women have access to safe abortion care. It’s also important to support doulas, organizations that support young mothers, pro-choice adoption agencies, and your local abortion clinics and family planning clinics.
PM: One of the dangers of using social media to talk about abortion, or other forms of reproductive justice is that there exists often violent and frightening fallout from opponents. How would you recommend those who do want to talk about abortion in a way that lets them tell their story do so in a safe manner?
SH: You don’t have to be a hero. Do what is safe and comfortable for you. There are several places to share abortion stories both anonymously and with identifying information (I’m Not Sorry, 45 Million Voices, Project Voice, Women On Web, My Abortion My Life, etc). If you choose to share your story with your name and/or identifying information, I would make sure to be conscious of the fact that anything on the Internet is permanent and often public. How will you react if someone else judges you based on your experience? How will you practice self-care in the face of potential disrespect? How will sharing your abortion experience impact your current and future work life? Family dynamics? How would you feel if a friend came up to you to discuss your abortion? Some people are absolutely fine with this, and others are not. That doesn’t make you a bad person or bad activist. You can read more on abortion story sharing from Exhale and ANSIRH.
PM: What are your hopes for the future? Do you see abortion as something that will always be politicized, or do you think we will ever reach a point where we are beyond that line of thinking? In what ways do you think the discussion can be furthered?
SH: I firmly believe that an effective way to de-stigmatize abortion is to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which bans Medicaid coverage of abortion (learn more about Hyde here). Byllye Avery, founder of Black Women’s Health Imperative, once said, “When Medicaid was paying for abortion, that mere fact stated to women that it is all right to have an abortion if you want to. Taking away Medicaid funding says to poor women, “˜you can’t have this–you don’t deserve to have this.’” I want to work towards a society that values the reproductive health of all people regardless of their socioeconomic status.
We have to let people who have abortions and people who provide them lead the reproductive justice movement. They are on the front lines dealing with the daily reality of abortion, birth, adoption, the full spectrum of reproductive health care. If we are committed to speaking truth to power and to de-stigmatizing abortion, we have to give voice to the people who have first hand knowledge of these experiences.