Digital Project Draft: Mapping Access to Abortion in D.C.

As of now, my website is up and running! It includes the map (made through Google Maps) that plots access to abortion in D.C. from the 1960s to 2020, and pages for community members to contribute their own points to the map, share their stories, and read and interact with others’ stories.

I haven’t veered too much from my original proposal; that text actually forms the majority of my website’s introduction. I did, however, choose to only map places within the District of Columbia for practical reasons. While I’m sure individuals living in D.C. have historically obtained abortions outside of the city’s boundaries, I didn’t have the bandwidth to map those locations for the time being.

For the map, I was able to get a good start on obtaining the locations where people have historically received abortions in D.C. from articles in The Washington Post. However, I’ve had some issues with this methodology. Before abortion was legal, access to abortion was often only reported in the newspaper if an illegal provider (usually an individual) was arrested. In later years, especially as the 1990s approached, it then became much harder to find addresses to places or people that provided abortions. I’m worried that these issues might create a bit of a false narrative when people look at my map — who were the people in the 1960s who provided abortions and didn’t get caught? How many of them were there? How many places in general are missing from the map if they were not reported in the newspaper and/or easily findable via Google? Did individuals still operate in certain locations once abortion was legalized that weren’t reported in the news/online? This is where I think having community input will be really important.

There are additional issues, too, that are hard to present on a map alone. When toggling back and forth between the 1960s and 1970s, it looks like access to abortion drops even though it became legal in 1973. This is because there were (presumably) less individuals providing illegal abortions as clinics and hospitals began providing the service. I tried to mark this difference by assigning different colors to the types of providers, but it’s difficult to simply express how experience and access changed after legalization. In some ways, access did decrease as these providers began to open only in certain neighborhoods. Yet it’s possible that people who used these services felt much more secure (and safe?) in having their abortions performed there. In a lot of ways, this project has taught me that access to abortion is maybe not about location alone, although it is certainly a crucial factor.

I’d love to hear y’all’s thoughts on how to express some of these complicated issues on my map/website. I’d also love any feedback on the user experience/design! I also tried to be really conscious of ethics in asking people to share their stories, and would appreciate any insight on the language used.

My next steps are probably trying to fill out the map a bit more from the 1990s on, thinking about how to express some of the issues I’ve faced to the public, reworking the language and any user experience flaws, and perhaps publicizing the project a bit to get some community input!

2 Replies to “Digital Project Draft: Mapping Access to Abortion in D.C.”

  1. Hi Jenna, Great to see how your project is coming along! I found the site you’ve developed to be easy to navigate and interpret and it’s clear that you’ve put in a lot of work into the map. It’s really powerful to be able to read the news clippings related to individual stories about abortion providers over time there.

    The problems you are identifying about how to read the map based on the difficulties associated with identifying locations from reporting on arrests are important to be thinking through. The most straightforward thing to do there is likely to include more language about the limitations on how to interpret the map on the map page. Similarly, you likely want to offer some more context on the shift in numbers of providers over time in the text too.

    Overall, it might be good to build out some context material on the map page where you explain that the map is useful as a tool for exploring relationships between some very different kinds of source data but that, given the limitations on the source data, its important to not try to extrapolate patterns from the data out of context from understanding the sources.

    That is to say, it might work well to explicitly draw out what the misconceptions would be from interpreting the map (as you have done in this post) and then offer explanations for why those would be misconceptions. That would functionally help scaffold your users into better understanding the sources.

    The community contribution parts to the site seem really promising. As you’ve discussed before there are challenges around the sensitivity of this information but at the same time there are also major opportunities around how an online platform can help support de-stigmatizing and normalizing abortion. That is all to say that if you were to really build out that part of your site I think there would end up being a lot of work to do around community development and outreach strategy around this. Given the scope of work for a semester project, it’s fine for all of that to be out of scope for the project at this point but it’s good to be thinking about what you might do if you were to take this work forward in that direction.

    Overall, great work!

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