A Conversation with Amber Sollenberger, author of
“Abortion is Reproductive Justice”
As someone whose face is too often pointed at a meme or a YouTube video, I can safely say that I have a healthy appreciation for the internet and the many modern miracles it brings. What’s been most interesting to watch, though, is how so many people have leveraged it for resistance. Creations like hashtags have been used to start resistance movements and bring obscured stories to light, while online forums and groups have allowed for communities to form and organize in ways that for so long were impossible. But as anyone marginalized in any way already knows, online spaces are flawed. And even though they have given us ways to unite, revolutionary movements cannot be carried out in digital spaces alone. Real world gatherings and connections can never be replaced when it comes to making change in the world. And IRL happenings can seem more precious (and for many intimidating), because of that. But when a group of people comes together in a spirit of empowerment through learning, it can be powerful. Or at least that’s what Chicago-based writer, zine artist and scholar, and Planned Parenthood medical assistant Amber Sollenberger found when she released her latest zine Abortion is Reproductive Justice in association with the Reproductive Justice Teach-in she planned as part of Shout Your Abortion’s #TogetherforAbortion weekend. The event brought people together at Build Coffee in the city’s Woodlawn neighborhood for a frank discussion about what abortion and reproductive justice are as well as ways to take action.
Edited by Bea Malsky and available for free online courtesy of Sollenberger and Shout Your Abortion, Abortion Is Reproductive Justice provides readers with a framework for intersectional reproductive justice activism and advocacy, presented with a priority on accessibility and shareability, two qualities internet spaces have both facilitated and held back. And besides her in-depth research and her experience in the medical world, Sollenberger brings a thoughtfulness to her zine and organizing that paves the way for people to not only learn about abortion, but speak out about it. As she writes in her introduction, “It’s about damn time people who can’t get pregnant stop shouting about abortion, and those who have had abortions start shouting back. We’ve been talking for too long. It’s time to start listening.” Abortion is Reproductive Justice is the latest of Sollenberger’s series of excellent zines that also includes titles about housing discrimination, sex and health, and racism.
Still, though, I have a bit of bias in the matter. Sollenberger (or as I like to call her, Amber) is someone I look up to as a writer, artist, and activist. And though she’s one of my heroes, she is also someone I call a friend. We met through a mutual friend in 2009, and since then Amber has shared her incredible work with me over the years via USPS no matter how many times our respective addresses have changed. Her work combines her love for printed work as object with something all true book lovers have: a deep curiosity about the world combined with the belief that it can be better. We got together for a Skype date to chat about zines, the teach-in and resistance. (This conversation has been edited for length, clarity, and to remove all the times I interrupted to speak to Amber’s cat, Precious.)
Sollenberger brings a thoughtfulness to her zine and organizing that paves the way for people to not only learn about abortion, but speak out about it.
AG: I know you’ve been making zines for a long time. Did making zines lead to learning more about race and abortion and feminism or was it that [zines are] just the medium that you put that knowledge into?
AS: Probably the second one. When I went to college I took a class called Problems in the Study of Sexuality and we had to make a final project and the professor was like, Just show me what you’ve learned. So I made a zine, because we read some stuff about zine scholarship and I was like, yeah this seems like something I could be into. It gave me an opportunity to say all the shit that I was learning. I just wanted to be like, How do you not know about this other people in the world?! Because that’s the thing. None of this is my own idea or thought. I’m just reading what other people have said and putting it together. So if you’re not going to read this really long book, that’s fine. I did and now I’ll just summarize it for you and you can read this shorter zine. And then at least you will have learned this thing that I also learned and thought was super important.
AG: What keeps you coming back to zines, making them and distributing them as opposed to having a website or something?
AS: One thing that I appreciate about it is that it’s analog and physical and that just makes the most sense to me. Not in a logistical sense, but just that it’s the easiest way for me to make anything, to read anything, to distribute anything. And as someone who’s really invested in the distribution of words on paper, appreciating that there is an avenue for creating that that doesn’t require a publicist or an agent or sort of engaging with an institution. Also, I just don’t feel at home on the internet. I just like to write things down and feel things and have things on paper. That’s why I wanted to host the teach-in, too. It’s just, that makes the most sense to me.
AG: Can you give readers a brief overview of the process of creating and distributing a zine?
AS: My zines usually start as fragments written, drawn, and collaged throughout several of the notebooks I’m using at whatever given time. As I spew out my thoughts and ideas, I get a better sense of the themes I’m interested in and questions I’m asking myself, which guides the curation of all those fragmented words and images. I do things a little differently every time, but often I’ll use a combination of scanning, digital editing, and literal cutting and pasting to arrange (and rearrange) things until they feel close to complete and cohesive. With everything I make, I could continue to add and revise and tweak ad infinitum, so I have to choose a point where things are imperfect but feel sufficient to introduce to the world. Once I’ve reach that point, I do the tedious/frustrating/expensive process of photocopying/printing the thing and then giving it out to friends and interested folks who hear about my zines from the internet, and occasionally tabling at zine fests.
Whether you know it or not, you probably know someone who’s had an abortion, so this is closer to home than you think.
AG: In the introduction of Abortion is Reproductive Justice you talk about wanting to make information about abortion accessible for people that aren’t experts about it or reproductive justice. How did you make sure that it was accessible in the zine and at the teach-in?
AS: I think part of it is just talking about it at all. And letting people know that, whether you know it or not, you probably know someone who’s had an abortion, so this is closer to home than you think. At one point in the teach-in, we just talked explicitly about what the procedures are, coming from that perspective and trying to demystify it. I feel like medicine in general, especially for women, but for laypeople, has been wrenched away from us and we all just sort of assume that doctors know exactly what they’re talking about and we couldn’t possibly know better than a doctor and we just have to rely on all of their information. And I feel like for people who reasonably avoid the doctor’s office and feel intimidated by it, where they have had personal or generational experiences where they’ve been totally abused and exploited, it’s so scary and confusing. So just trying to talk to people about now number one it’s OK to feel intimidated by the medical institution, but, two, you don’t have to. Let’s talk about it.
AG: One thing that I love about the zine is that even though you cite sources that use gender essentialist language and talk only about women, you note that the zine does not promote biological essentialism and “note[s] the limitations of using ‘women’ as a placeholder for ‘post-pubescent person with a uterus and ovaries in a heterosexual relationship.’” How can people explain why it’s so important to use language that isn’t gendered and essentialist when talking about abortion?
AS: [As far as at work] because of statistically who gets abortions and who is cisgender vs. trans, for the most part it’s fine. But it is, I think, a huge problem when it’s not fine. It’s so important because even if it’s only one person once a month, that person has probably had that experience or worse at every doctor’s office they’ve ever been to. The language of pathologizing people with non-normative gender identities or things like that make doctor’s offices and medicine in general super unwelcoming and really difficult to navigate. So providing the most welcoming and affirming environment that you can I think is super important, especially with something that is already so stigmatized. Understanding the motivation behind creating women’s health spaces is important, but what is more important, I think as someone who is interested in “women’s health” is creating spaces for all people and people who are marginalized.
AG: In part of the zine you talk about misconceptions, and you include the belief that abortion is a modern medical development. I’m pretty pro learning about reproductive justice, but that’s still a misconception that I held and didn’t even realize until I read that.
AS: [My friend] Jean and I talk about this a lot, about how the anti-choice movement is so politically successful in that they’ve sort of been able to convince people that the anti-abortion movement has been around forever and it’s really just these modern feminazis who are killing babies everywhere. In general, opposition to abortion didn’t exist really until Roe v. Wade. It’s the same sort of thing where like heterosexuality didn’t exist until we named homosexuality. But abortion’s been here as long as pregnancy has. Everyone who was born after 1973, we’ve all lived in a time where abortion has only been legal but also the least accessible it’s ever been and the most taboo. It’s really easy to forget or not know in the first place that it’s actually something that’s been around forever. And it’s very, very recently that it’s been something that we consider to be morally reprehensible.
AG: How did you come up with these misconceptions? Some of them are so ingrained, like the one we just talked about.
AS: Most of the interactions I have [at work] are with people who on a varying scale would consider themselves pro-choice/pro-abortion. But even talking to patients, so many people have told me, “I know this is selfish of me, but…” I just want to be like, No! So just listening to what people say even who are there for abortions who have these misconceptions. I feel like a big part of my job is just telling people, number one, I totally understand why you think that. Number two, that’s totally wrong and here’s why. Which is probably the part of my job that I like the most, whether or not people maybe find it obnoxious that I’m like, “Well, did you know…”!
AG: I love how you center the history of U.S. reproductive justice on the experiences of people of color, especially black and brown women. And I was thinking about how you are one of the few white people that I feel really comfortable talking about race with. I know a lot of white people and so I also know a lot of white people who are getting an awakening of their activism right now. They want to be more intersectional in their activism and they want to learn more about race and white privilege, but just the spaces that they’re in they don’t know where to start or something? So I’m going to make you speak to the white people. What would you say to white people who want to learn more about their white privilege and how that is affecting the activism that they’re establishing right now?
AS: This is such a nerdy and typical me answer but… Read some fucking books. You just have to start learning somewhere. I think history is super important, but not the history that you’ve been taught. You have to seek the history out for yourself. It sounds dumb, but just fucking listen to people. Put yourself in spaces where maybe you are the racial minority and listen to what other people are saying. But even if you feel like you can’t do that read Michelle Alexander, read Audre Lorde, read Dorothy Roberts. Stop thinking the things that you’ve been told and actually just try to learn something about the way it is. That’s the guide that I’m really invested in, learning what actually happens instead of what racist people tell you happens. It all seems really reasonable and then you learn.
AG: What was the structure of the teach-in?
AS: Twenty or so people came and we passed out the zine to everyone and put out a bunch of other zines that I had collected about health and sexuality and gender and stuff. And it was just kind of going over a lot of the stuff that was in the zine and people would have questions. And what I was impressed by and what made it so awesome was being in a room with a ton of people who asked a lot of great questions and really had interesting things to say. And it could have been terrible, but it was a sustained conversation between two dozen people just on a Saturday about abortion and reproductive rights. Three people from my clinic came, two clinicians and one of my other medical assistant coworkers, so people were asking them questions, which was really cool, for them to provide a clinical perspective. It was nice, I think, for people to feel that there was someone who they could trust, who had professional experience as an advanced practitioner. but who wasn’t wearing a white coat or in a doctor’s office. The relationship wasn’t patient-doctor, it was just someone who happened to have a lot of knowledge so they could ask questions that maybe they wouldn’t feel comfortable asking if they were not wearing their pants in the doctor’s office. Everyone came wanting to just learn something. And I feel like I learned so hopefully I think everybody else learned something too. It was really cool.
You just have to start learning somewhere. I think history is super important, but not the history that you’ve been taught. You have to seek the history out for yourself.
The event itself was more predominantly about reproductive justice and just trying to explain what that is and why thinking about abortion by itself doesn’t really make a lot of sense and neglects a lot of the different ways that different people have different access. Like if you just think about this as choice and abortions restrictions, wealthy white women will always be able to access abortion, even if it’s illegal. But we need to fight for reproductive justice for everybody else. And it’s not enough to have access to abortion if you want to have a kid but you don’t have enough money, or you live in a neighborhood where your kid’s getting shot by the cops when they’re 10 or your water is poisoned with lead. All these different things. We just wanted to show people that it’s not just about abortion, it’s about so much more. And so if you’re interested, there’s a billion different avenues for you getting interested and activated. We all feel frustrated and we’re really scared because of the inauguration of a terrifying leader and administration in general. So these are some things you can do. Here are some books you can read. It was just a few hours of everyone just being like, let’s just talk about shit that can happen basically.
AG: Shout Your Abortion has done such great work raising conversation about abortion online, but it seemed like this teach-in was just a really concrete way to bring it into real life.
AS: One thing that I really appreciate about Shout Your Abortion is just how they’ve allowed people who have had abortions to talk about it. It’s really good for people to have access to the online space. It’s really important. But people being able to talk about it IRL is also. One of the things I wanted to make clear to people at the teach-in was it’s super important for you to be vocal about your support for abortion because, you don’t know it, but there’s going to be people who you already know who are then going to come up to you and be like, I’ve had an abortion [or] I’ve had two. Now that they recognize that you are OK with it, they will start talking to you. That’s what happened to me. The more you can have people just talking about like, Yeah, I’ve done this, that’s what I think is the best. Every so often a patient will come in and we’ll ask, Who knows about your decision today? Who’s supporting you? And every so often one of them will be like, “Oh I have a friend or I have a few friends who have done the same thing and I talked to them about it.” And that is the ideal, because then you know it’s not crazy terrible horrible people, it’s normal people who get this and it’s not some horrifying traumatic experience. Whenever patients tell me that I’m like, that’s really good. I’m really glad that you have someone that you can talk to about it who’s been through it. I wish more people had that, and maybe they do but don’t know it.
Ann-Derrick Gaillot is a freelance writer based somewhere in North America. Her stories about race, pop culture, activism, and sports can be found in Street Roots, Bitch, The FADER, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. Read more of her work at annderrickgaillot.contently.com.