Transcript of Renee Bracey Sherman’s keynote address for UnRestrict Minnesota’s 2021 Reproductive Freedom Lobby Day, March 12, 2021
Hello everyone! Thank you so much for having me here with you today on your advocacy day to UnRestrict Minnesota! My name is Renee Bracey Sherman, I use she/her pronouns, and I’m joining you from upstate New York where I am with my cousin Nora—who is originally from St. Paul! It’s truly an honor to be here because Minnesota is like a second home to me. My father is from St. Paul so I grew up spending many summers roaming the state fairgrounds, picking raspberries in my grandmother’s garden, swimming and ice skating on Como Lake, and camping up at the Boundary Waters. The Midwest is home, so it feels really great to be supporting all of you as you get ready to advocate for abortion access for all of us in the Midwest! Midwest is best!
So, I’m sure you’re wondering, why am I here? Who am I? Well, I’m an abortion storyteller and I founded an organization called We Testify, which means I spend my days organizing and supporting the leadership of all of you who’ve had abortions and want to change the conversation to center our real experiences and ensure that everyone is able to get the loving, supportive, and funded—and one day free!—abortion care you deserve.
I am truly honored to be here before all of you because a decade ago, I couldn’t have imagined it. This year makes 10 years that I’ve been sharing my abortion story publicly. I can’t believe I’ve made a career out of talking about one of the most private and best decisions I ever made. My parents still don’t totally understand how or why.
Like many of you, I had an abortion. I was 19 years old. I grew up in the great state of Illinois, in a pro-choice family. I was raised to know that abortion should always be a real option when faced with a pregnancy and that my closest cousin, Nora, who I’m with, had an abortion. Yet, when I became pregnant, I was scared to tell my parents. I was afraid they would judge me for dating the guy they told me was bad for me—he was; he was abusive—and I was afraid of the disappointed “I told you so” looks they would give me. The internalized stigma took over and kept me from telling my loved ones about my pregnancy and that I needed help getting an abortion. Thankfully, though, I knew how to find a clinic and had a credit card with a $500 limit which I maxxed out to pay for it. I still remember doing the mental math thinking about how many hours I’d have to work at my minimum wage mall job at Victoria’s Secret to even afford the extra $100 for sedation. Obviously, I was lucky in that I had access to income and I didn’t have to keep that money to feed anyone else and my clinic was driving distance from my home, but it was definitely a scary and panicky moment that I don’t want anyone else to have to experience. Abortion access is an economic justice issue. The procedure was simple and the provider was caring. It sucked to have to be there without anyone to love and support me, and I got through it.
I am thankful for my abortion. I always will be.
But I kept the experience a secret for several years. Six, to be exact. When I finally decided to share my story, several women in my family opened up about their own abortions. I went from thinking my cousin and I were the only ones, to nearly every woman in my families having them.
Once storytelling freed me, I craved making abortion access and reproductive justice a reality. I found my home in reproductive justice through abortion funds doing practical support work. Like many of you, I opened my home to complete strangers traveling from all over California to my then-home in San Francisco, and now in Washington, D.C., for later abortions in particular. I meet up with abortion patients to give them gas money, welcome them in my home, take them out to dinner, and drive them to their appointments. Of course it’s really important to help people get to and from their abortions, but what is really life-changing is the bond and connection between us as we swapped abortion stories, hopes, and dreams. That connection was the power of abortion storytelling. That simple sentence, “I had an abortion,” changes both of our lives and make us fast friends for the 15 minutes or 72 hours I am with the patient.
Sometimes people ask me why I do this work. And I’m sure my answer is like many of yours—because someone has to. Because it’s just what you do. To me it feels like the midwestern way. When someone shows up on your doorstep in need of a hug, hot meal, and somewhere to lay their head, you heat up the leftovers, pull out the couch and make up the bed, and offer them a blanket. That’s just what you do. It’s our midwestern values. It’s the Minnesota nice thing to do. Offer them something to eat over and over and over again until they finally accept!
It’s us, creating the world we want to live in. It’s us, showing up with our values first. No matter what. I think what’s hard about this work is how stigmatized and misunderstood it is. We all come to this work because we want to ensure everyone is able to have their best, most fulfilling life possible. We don’t want them to struggle as they try to navigate bullshit abortion barriers. We don’t want them to have to scrimp by to figure out if they can pay for diapers. They shouldn’t have to delay their rent to be able to afford their abortions. It should all just be there. And while we’re continuing to lobby and petition and beg legislators to do the right thing, the bare minimum, we know the thing that’s in our power is to make the experience as supportive and loving as possible for the people who we’re lucky enough to cross paths with. Our fellow Midwesterners. It’s just the neighborly thing to do.
We have to take it upon ourselves to change this world, and that starts with our communities, standing up for what’s right, and working to UnRestrict Minnesota. Our world is socialized to hate people who have abortions. And we have to teach the world how to love us and show that love in public unapologetically. Everyday, people who want and have abortions hear messages that we are unworthy. Everyone is taught that we should be shunned and disrespected. We have to teach people how to love us. We have to teach them how to respect us. We have to demand it. We have to remind them that everyone loves someone who had an abortion. And we do that through our stories, through community building, and through powerful civic engagement actions like today’s advocacy day.
This vision we’re fighting for of course is reproductive justice and the fight to ensure everyone is able to make the decision of if, when, and how to grow their family and do it free from violence and coercion, but also truly to set a new standard of how we should be treated and what an abortion—and all healthcare—experiences should be. Full of unconditional love and support. That is our calling. That is our work.
This is anti-racist work. This is indigenous liberation work. This is Black liberation work. This is freedom work. This is hard work. But I know you all have the right people in place, the heart and the grit to get it done, and the passion and dedication to make change. But you have to be willing to put your whole self into it.
I say this work is anti-racism work because it is. The majority of people who have abortions across the nation are people of color. The burdensome restrictions are enacted to contain and criminalize us hardest. That’s by design. Obviously, we all know the anti-abortion movement calls themselves “pro-life” as a misnomer, but it’s actually deeper than that. It’s to hide their white supremacist roots and maintain control over what all of us do to create our families—queer, trans, BIPOC, poor, rural, disabled, immigrant, divorced, you name it—and promote one way of thinking; a way that supports white supremacy.
Do you all know this story? After Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, white Christian fundamentalists who were organizing around school segregation needed a new issue, while maintaining the same racist political divides and Jim Crow-era racial segregation. And of course they didn’t want to seem super racist. So they chose abortion because it had just been legalized and because misogyny and white supremacy are besties. It’s obvious, of course, because people who are anti-abortion are anti literally everything that allows us to live freely and create our own families, but they wanted to pick something that would deeply harm women of color and people living on low-incomes in particular. They knew that we wouldn’t be able to have the resources or the skin color to circumvent the criminalization and barriers they enacted. The very idea of telling someone — truly, anyone, but particularly people of color — how, when and why they can create a family is white supremacist. There is no way we can have true bodily autonomy and reproductive justice without ending white supremacy.
But that’s going to take real work. That’s the deep interpersonal work that we all have to do to recognize how our place and station in life is upholding this system, encouraging us to believe racist and classist stereotypes, and really push us out of our comfort zones to create a truly visionary world—not just of equality, where everyone gets the same slice of pie, but equity and justice, where people who were never told that dessert was even being served are able to have some pie and as much as they need to feel whole again. Reparations pie! That means that we need to look outside of ourselves and even our movement, to build together to look at how we’re meeting people where they’re at, ensuring they have the resources they need to not only have the abortion they want, but have the children they want, get the educations they want, have ongoing access to the healthcare they need, have healthy food in their communities, and be able to live lives without worrying about harassment from white supremacists, police, or other state-sanctioned harm. It’s about the right to an abortion, of course, but it’s also about the right to live freely as we want with our loved ones, without fear of becoming the next viral video, harassed by our neighbors because they’re too afraid to open their door to us, or worse.
The work of the reproductive justice movement demands that we fundamentally shift how we exist in this world. It’s an ongoing practice—something I am striving to be better at every single day. You all are doing that by being here today, choosing to change Minnesota for the better for all. And I am so excited because you have the most amazing leadership of folks of color through UnRestrict Minnesota. And, we’re on the right side of history.
We just have to reframe the abortion debate. We know abortion is healthcare. We know the vast majority of people support abortion access and sure as hell don’t want the government restricting access. We know the overwhelming majority of Minnesotans want their loved ones to have an abortion experience that’s supportive and free of stigma, available locally, and affordable. Right now, the ridiculous restrictions and hoops that are in the way make this vision not possible. So ask yourself, how can you be part of the solution? How can you stretch yourself, have a few more conversations with your legislators and neighbors, and create change and the loving visionary communities we know our neighbors want. If all of us who are sharing our abortion stories are taking the risk to speak out, ask yourself what you can do to meet us in that challenge.
You don’t have to be scared of this issue; embrace it. Share your values and talk about the vision of the world you want to create and how abortion access for all is part of that liberated Minnesota. There’s never going to be one perfect phrase that convinces people to show up for abortion access—if there were, I promise you we would have message-tested on it and stuck it on a billboard. Challenge yourself to have deep conversations with your loved ones around your values, over and over and over again. Remind them that you love someoene who had an abortion and that’s why you are doing this work.
Take the radical leap and support abortion access, out loud, in public. I promise you, it’s not as scary as it seems. And when it does seem scary, just think about what trust someone seeking an abortion has to put into complete strangers in order to ask for help in one of the most vulnerable moments in their lives. That’s huge. The least we can do is show up, have some conversations, and try to make the journey a little bit easier for the next person. I would be a complete liar if I told you I wasn’t scared. But also, I believe in the power of us. I believe that the power and love and ingenuity we embody will carry us over the finish line. We have already changed the world for generations to come as our ancestors did for us. We will do it again. And again. And again. And as many times as we need to. We all we got! And that’s enough to make a difference in the life of someone who needs an abortion today, tomorrow, and 15 years from now.
My wish is that you all dream big, love hard, and make abortion accessible for all of Minnesota. I think that’s the only way we’ll thrive in this revolution. Truly it’s the Minnesota nice thing to do.