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This Powerful Photo Series Asks Women To Talk About Their Abortions

"I think once you see yourself in someone else’s shoes, that’s when things start to change."

Posted on May 21, 2019, at 5:52 p.m. ET

Tara Todras-Whitehill / Vignette

As a photojournalist and cofounder of Vignette, Tara Todras-Whitehill's passion as an advocate for women's rights has informed her career documenting the struggles and triumphs of women across the globe.

In 2005, she began a series of portraits that confronts head on the taboo surrounding one of the most important and hotly debated women's issues in the United States today — abortion. Her "I Had An Abortion" project asks women who have had abortions to share their stories in hopes that their openness can start a dialogue to help bridge the divide between opposing views.

"I think a lot of the debate is so contentious," Todras-Whitehill told BuzzFeed News. "When you talk about abortion, there’s always very extreme sides and people don’t ever meet in the middle and they don’t talk about it. As a result, people just kind of scream at each other and they never really hear what the other side is saying."

To help break this taboo, each woman was photographed wearing a shirt with plainly written text that reads "I Had An Abortion."

"The T-shirt is powerful and the women’s stories are powerful, but there's not an in-your-face aggressiveness to the project, rather a straight forward statement that these are women and these are their actual lives," Todras-Whitehill said. "This is what helps people to really understand and empathize. I think once you see yourself in someone else’s shoes, that’s when things start to change."

Here, Tara Todras-Whitehill shares with BuzzFeed News a collection of portraits and stories from her powerful series "I Had An Abortion."

Tara Todras-Whitehill / Vignette

A'yen Tran, 25, was raised by a single mother in a progressive NYC household. During her teenage years she had a "radical" boyfriend who was emotionally and sexually abusive, and isolated A'yen from her community. She got pregnant, and began waking up to how bad her relationship was. She had a methotrexate abortion and a few days later spoke publicly about it at a Judson Church event emulating the 1969 speakouts. Even though she is a self-identified abortion activist, she was surprised by how hard it was to talk in personal terms about abortion.

Tara Todras-Whitehill / Vignette

Barbara Ehrenreich, 64, has had two abortions and two children. She is a grandmother, best selling author and columnist. Her column, "Owning Up to Abortion," published in the New York Times op-ed section, was part of the idea that sparked my project. In the article, she writes: "Honesty begins at home, so I should acknowledge that I had two abortions during my all-too-fertile years. ... Choice can be easy, as it was in my case, or truly agonizing. But assuming the fetal position is not an appropriate response. Sartre called this 'bad faith,' meaning something worse than duplicity: a fundamental denial of freedom and the responsibility that it entails. Time to take your thumbs out of your mouths, ladies, and speak up for your rights. The freedoms that we exercise, but do not acknowledge are easily taken away."

Tara Todras-Whitehill / Vignette

Florence Rice, 86, was raised in the foster care system in NYC. She saw her mother only a handful of times throughout her childhood. When she got pregnant as a young single woman in the 1930s she decided to have the baby. A few years later as a working single mother, she found herself pregnant again and knew that she didn't want to be like her mother, unable to take care of the child, so she had an abortion. She got a serious infection afterward from her illegal, unclean abortion. In 1969 when feminists began speaking out about their abortions, Florence was one of the first to do so. Her story underscored a class divide: Richer women got safer abortions; poorer women were more likely to end up at a butcher.

Tara Todras-Whitehill / Vignette

Gloria Steinem, 71, entered the feminist movement the day she covered the Redstockings abortion speakout for New York magazine, and finally owned the abortion she had had several years earlier. She describes her abortion as the first time she acted in her own life, rather than let things happen to her. She had her abortion when she was 22. Gloria went on to found several pro–abortion rights organizations, including Voters for Choice and Ms. Magazine and considers reproductive freedom to be the most significant contribution of second-wave feminism.

Tara Todras-Whitehill / Vignette

Holly Fritz, 35, got pregnant living at home as a high school student in Buffalo, New York. She just assumed that she should get married to her boyfriend and embark on a life not unlike that of her mother, who also had gotten pregnant by her high school sweetheart, got married, and had Holly. When Holly turned to her mother for advice, she was surprised that her mother urged her to have an abortion, rather than a shotgun wedding. Holly is now a high school teacher in NYC, married, and is the mother of a toddler, Zoe, pictured with her.

Tara Todras-Whitehill / Vignette

Jennifer, 35, (left) is a journalist and activist writing about abortion for more than a decade. She was frustrated that all the reporting on the issue, including her own, devolved into a "debate" between anti-abortion and pro–abortion rights forces. She felt that what was being lost were the voices and faces of people that had abortions. In 2003, she started making T-shirts, resource cards, and working on a film that put the spotlight back on the women. Gillian, 36, (right) had an abortion in 2000 with the man who was to later become her husband and with whom she now has a daughter. She is also a filmmaker, and Jennifer asked her to direct a film on women's abortions stories.

Tara Todras-Whitehill / Vignette

Jenny Egan, 25, was raised in a rural Oregan town in a Mormon family. When she was 16, she got pregnant by her boyfriend from sex that was not consensual. After the abortion, which she had without telling her family, her parents received a letter from a group called the Brotherhood informing them of her procedure. Her mother was horrified and ordered her to leave the house.

Tara Todras-Whitehill / Vignette

Loretta Ross, 51, is a major figure in the reproductive justice movement. She is the coauthor of Undivided Rights and organized women of color for the 2004 March for Women's Lives in Washington, DC, an event that brought unprecedented support from communities of color. She got pregnant in high school and had a son, losing a scholarship to Radcliffe College in the process. At a student at Howard University in 1970, she found herself pregnant again. In DC, abortion was legal, but Loretta needed her mother's signature in order to have the procedure. Her mother refused and Loretta ended up forging her signature and having a very late-term abortion.

Tara Todras-Whitehill / Vignette

Rosalyn Baxandall, 65, had an abortion in the 1960s and then again when she thought she was in menopause. She was the first speaker at the famed Redstockings abortion speakout in 1969.

Tara Todras-Whitehill / Vignette

Sebastiana Correa, 28, got pregnant as a foreign exchange grad student in Connecticut. Sebasitana's mother is an ardent pro-life activist who runs an orphanage for the children of unwed mothers in Brazil. As scared as Sebastiana was, her first thought when she found out she was pregnant was, Thank god I'm in America where I can have a legal abortion.

Tara Todras-Whitehill / Vignette

Liberty Aldrich and Joe Saunders with their sons. Liberty and Joe had an abortion together early in their relationship, stayed together, and eventually had two sons when their lives were better equipped to have children.

To see more of Tara Todras-Whitehill's work, visit her website at taratw.com.

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