Melissa Madera was 17 years old when she found out she was pregnant. It was the summer of 1997, right before she was about to go off to college. She decided to have an abortion.
The process was lonely, she tells the Daily Dot, because she didn’t think she knew anyone else who had been through the procedure. Unfortunately, many who decide to terminate a pregnancy report isolation, in part because of the stigmas associated with abortion—women are supposed to be ashamed to have sex and not want to raise a child—that keep them silent.
However, the procedure is not only legal, it’s common. Nearly one in four U.S. women will have an abortion by age 45, according to a study by the Guttmacher Institute. And yet because abortion is so highly politicized—conservative states consistently introduce bills to restrict access to the procedure—there is a lack of accessible resources for people going through the process.
Seeking to fill that void while also finding a way to heal herself, Madera started the Abortion Diary podcast in 2013. Madera hoped that the podcast, in which people share their personal abortion stories, could help her meet others who had been through the same and create a vault of empathy and understanding.
“We don’t get a lot of support in the process or after,” Madera tells the Daily Dot, “so listening to other people who have gone through this experience has been helpful for people to find support and community through the internet.”
Since starting her podcast four years ago, Madera has listened to and recorded 289 abortion stories. Madera’s work has taken her to 20 U.S. states, 10 European cities, Canada, the Dominican Republic, and Thailand—yes, she travels to all of these places to talk to the storytellers in person. She has spoken with people ages 18 to 85, offering a glimpse into the political and cultural climate at the time as well as the subject’s personal turmoil. “Each story has provided me with a different understanding and processing of my own experience,” she says.
For some, speaking to Madera was the first time they ever shared their story. Madera recounts to me when she met Amanda, a woman who contacted Madera 10 years after her abortion. “Out of nowhere, she starts crying, and there’s a pause, and she asks if everyone cries.” This reaction was striking, she says, because, “you don’t need to question your feelings. People need to have the space to process their feelings and know it’s OK to have them.”
“Everything was happening so fast around me that to this day. I’m still so confused,” Emma A., 25, shared with Madera in 2015, a year after her abortion. “I remember waking up [after the procedure] and being like, ‘Where am I?’ but having this resounding sense of relief.”
But even for Emma, the experience was incredibly difficult to process. “I think that there’s ways—there’s tools that women can be given to process experiences like that if we weren’t told to be quiet about them. And after that experience, I just kept moving forward, like I went right back into everything. I didn’t realize how numb I was on the inside.”
“It’s like a strange PTSD,” Emma said. “I need to find some peace around it and I don’t know how.”
Not every person who has an abortion will feel the same, and no one feeling or emotion can sum up having gone through the procedure and its aftermath. “We just need to be able to understand that there’s a lot of nuance and complexity and contradiction in our experiences,” Madera says.
Madera’s podcast is groundbreaking in that even though it’s about the highly divisive topic of abortion, she isn’t trying to push a political agenda. She says there are two prominent narratives around abortion that are weaponized on both sides of the political spectrum, and she hopes to break them down through storytelling.
The conservative narrative broadly associates trauma and regret with the procedure, as well as medical fallacies. In fact, there are more than 4,000 fake abortion clinics across the country that provide false information about the procedure and further stigmatize women for unplanned pregnancies. They’re called crisis pregnancy centers, and there are nearly five times more of them than there are abortion clinics.
Hunt, who was 30 years old when she had her abortion in Louisiana, shared her story on the podcast about seeking care at a crisis pregnancy center, without initially realizing where she was. Because of her financial situation, she explained that the clinic was recommended to her by a friend for its free resources for women without healthcare. After meeting with a counselor who shared pamphlets with false information, including that abortion can increase the threat of breast cancer, Hunt recalls, “I really felt like this woman was insulting me.”
“She even told me there was no doctor in the state of Louisiana who would give me the pill because it was too dangerous,” Hunt continued. After going down a list of abortion clinics listed in the Yellow Pages, Hunt finally found one in Bossier City, but would have to drive several hours for the procedure. People shouldn’t have to “jump through all these hurdles to get it done,” she said.
For Hunt, the process of finding out she was pregnant, and the procedure itself, were far from the most painful part of her experience. It was the after care, where she had to find an affordable clinic close to home for a checkup—and the only one nearby was the crisis pregnancy center. “The only resource that I have, because it’s free, is against abortion and is treating me differently because of religious beliefs,” she shared with Madera, in tears.
As of April 2017, there are only three remaining clinics in Louisiana—in Shreveport, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. The clinic in Bossier City was shut down earlier this year.
Madera tells me that part of her reason for creating the podcast was to ensure that people deciding to have an abortion could have a clearer idea about what to expect and learn more about the different available options to terminate a pregnancy. “You don’t know what resources to trust. And you can’t just crowdsource this, like on Facebook,” she says, laughing. “I hear from people all the time who are really thankful that they found the podcast and feel like during and after, they’re listening to these people and their stories and no longer feel alone.”
Despite the pro-choice left fighting for a person’s right to access the service, Madera says the narrative is often too narrow. The rhetoric employed is often overly simplistic and suggests that the process is one of relief, without enough conversation about regret. She adds also that there is “so much taboo in talking about it as a baby or a life because of the political landscape. But talking about it as a life doesn’t have to keep you from thinking people should have a choice whether to bring it into the world or not.”
Madera’s podcast is ultimately about showing that the experience of abortion is diverse and complex. “I’m not advocating for abortion or providing it. I’m just offering a space for us to be able to talk about our experiences,” Madera explains. “It’s the past; it already happened. But there are very few places where we can be in a personal space around our abortion experiences.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Emma A’s age. She is 25.