The Woman Behind Subway Abortion Ads

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the "abortion changes you" campaign, running since early march, has added a little controversy to straphangers' commutes, with new york times columnist susan dominus calling the effort "propaganda masquerading as therapy."

the ads, which feature a serious young woman and direct viewers to a website (, are the work of michaelene fredenburg, a wisconsin-born mother of two who now lives in san diego. fredenburg became immersed in the issue as a guest lecturer in college sexuality classes, where she's spoken about getting an abortion at 18. she says her goal is to shift the discussion from "should you or shouldn't you" to examining the range of emotions that follow an abortion. the website posts visitors' thoughts on their own experiences with abortion, and offers local resources.

we spoke with fredenburg over the phone to ask about reactions to her ads, and whether the campaign intends to dissuade women from considering abortion.

q: are you surprised at the response your ads have gotten?

a: it was unexpected. because we've run ads before, in late 2008, on subways, and there certainly was an ample response, but it was primarily individuals who were visiting the website. but being surprised that people would misunderstand them? no i'm not surprised. abortion is a very polarizing and politicized issue and for decades now, when we see the word "abortion" we immediately want to put a label on it. like where are you coming from on this? trying to communicate with those after abortion, that's something really different and i think that people right now aren't quite sure what to do with that.

q: why did you guys target new york city?

a: there are similar ads that are running in the saint louis area and then in the fall they'll be running in san diego. and in time we want to take the outreach into other areas across the united states. new york seemed like an ideal place to start because of the subway system. it's a way that you can communicate with just about everybody. you have time when you are on the subway. even when you are with a lot of people, it can sometimes be a little private in your interaction with something, and we thought that setting would be more of an invitation and that's how we would really like the ads to be understood.

q: the website purports to be neutral, but it has a lot of focus on the negative parts of abortion. how do you respond to that?

a: the website is open to everyone to come as they are, but it certainly is attracting individuals who are having difficulty with their abortion. and i think that's understandable. if i've gone through a significant life experience but i feel healthy and whole about it, you continue to move on with your life. if i go through a significant life experience and i feel sad or confused or broken over it, i may be seeking support. we wanted to create a place that was safe and focused fully on after the decision. there isn't anything on the website that talks about pregnancy or beforehand or any sort of political views.

q: i think it would be fair to think that a person considering abortion would look at the website as well.

a: i acknowledge that possibility. quite frankly, that's not the target audience that we are trying to reach.

q: the times pointed out that resources slant toward religious organizations. for example, when i put in my zip code i noticed that planned parenthood didn't come up. how were the resources on the website selected?

a: if you noticed when you went to the "find help" page, it does acknowledge that different resources work for different people, and we also have suggestions on there about seeking out a therapist or a bereavement support group in your area. and this is for someone who actually feels like they need additional help.

but your observation that there certainly [are] many more religious-oriented after-abortion services is reflective of, that there isn't, in our opinion, enough of a variety of specific after-abortion services that are available. if someone actually has a service, meaning that there's an actual program and not a referral service, where you can speak with someone, then they can apply to be listed on the website.

q: you speak openly about your abortion. is it a decision you regret?

a: i am public about my experience because i have found that it can be helpful for someone else to relate. but in saying that, i had a much more extreme reaction to my abortion than i typically run across. sometimes i think when i see stories told, they tend to be one extreme or the other-meaning, "it was really great and empowering," or in my instance, i fell apart-and i think there can be a danger in that because yes, people fall into both of those areas, but most people fall into some area in between that.

i probably, more than anything, wish that i had not gotten pregnant because i realize that if i had chosen to parent-and it certainly would have been single parenting, my partner was not someone, we were not going to get married-or if i had chosen to relinquish for adoption, those would have had their own difficulties and would have changed my life as well. so i don't really reside in the "what ifs" anymore because there's nothing that i can do about it.

q: is there anything you will do differently in future campaigns?

a: i would imagine that we will do some things differently, but we're not sure what it will be yet. once the ads go down, that volume of communication from new york will also start to dwindle, which will give us time to go back and look over everything and to consider really carefully the criticisms that were raised. is there something that we can do preemptively to better define the outreach so that it's not understood as an argumentative phrase, or trying to agendize or make someone feel bad? we're not sure yet.

transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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