It’s a song about a deeply personal and sensitive issue that has become very public because of the reactionary shift of American politics: abortion.
This look-away intimate, yet compassionate song took American singer Amanda Palmer 23 years to write. “I have been trying to write this song since I was 17,” said the 43-year-old Palmer, which was when she had the first of three abortions.
The song, Voicemail For Jill, was released in February this year and tells the story of a woman who made the decision to get an abortion. It comes from her crowd-funded album There Will Be No Intermission, which came out a month later. Palmer addresses miscarriage, cancer, grief, parenthood and abortion on this third solo album.
She recommends listening to Voicemail For Jill on headphones because “this song is quiet. It’s not a good one to listen to on your phone speaker on a train.”
“Abortion is a really, really hard thing to write about,” writes Palmer on her website. “The hardest. Impossible. How do you get it right? How do you write about something as complex and complicated and touchy as abortion without bring too … sentimental? Too preachy? Too heavy-handed, too political? And my most difficult question: Who speaks? Who’s the voice? Who sings?”
The moment it ‘clicked’
Last year, Palmer’s tour took her to Dublin in the wake of Ireland’s referendum to legalise abortion. Nearly 70% of Irish citizens voted for the repeal of an amendment to the Constitution that made abortion illegal.
“I found myself in the company of [campaigner and journalist] Roisin Ingle and the other Irish women who had fought with blood, sweat and tears for their human rights … that is when it all clicked.”
Palmer is known for her unflinchingly close and personal ties with fans across the globe. For the uninitiated, she is almost unsettlingly honest, stripped bare for all to see.
To her many fans, she is more than an elevated performer. Palmer is a friend, provides a shoulder. She is a masseur, a healer of bruises, a therapist, their sister.
She wrote a post on fundraising platform Patreon asking her fans to help her write the song: “If you have ever had an abortion, or have ever had a loved one, a friend or a girlfriend, or an ex-girlfriend, or a sister, or a cousin, or a daughter, or wife who had an abortion or you could ever imagine such a thing … If you could arm that loved one with one short message (let’s say under about 12 words) to take into the experience, what would those words be?”
Her passionate fans replied. Palmer described the 543 responses she got as “a tsunami of compassion”. She put it all into the song and said to her fans, “You are all in there. This song, like so many other songs on this record … isn’t just me. It’s us. It’s now. It’s this.”
Conversation in empathy
She told Paste magazine, “I wrote this song as a gift, a handbook for any woman on her way to have an abortion, and as a reminder that this is not an experience you have to face alone.”
The song is a conversation in empathy, understanding and kindness:
You don’t need to offer the right explanation
You don’t need to beg for redemption or ask for forgiveness
And you don’t need a courtroom inside of your head
Where you’re acting as judge and accused and defendant and witness
It’s a strange grief but it’s grief.
What makes this song political is the zeitgeist in the United States. While inspired by the pro-choice activists in Dublin, Palmer could not ignore America as she was writing the song. “Oh my god, we are in serious fucking trouble. Because we’re backsliding,” she told Refinery29 magazine.
The 1973 US Supreme Court Roe vs Wade decision legalised abortion nationwide, making it a constitutional right. But a recent spate of court rulings in conservative southern states has set alarm bells ringing that it could be overturned.
As NBC News reported: “Abortion opponents are pushing new restrictions on the procedure in hopes that a case will make its way to the high court and two new conservative justices appointed by President Donald Trump could help overturn Roe.”
While the US is indicative of an increasing regression, there has been an overwhelming global trend toward the liberalisation of abortion laws, according to global campaigners the Center for Reproductive Rights.
That safe and legal abortions are a fundamental human right protected under numerous international and regional treaties and national-level constitutions around the world has contributed to nearly 50 countries liberalising their laws and 16 removing total bans in the past 25 years. According to the centre’s latest abortion laws map, “more than 970 million women of reproductive age live in countries that broadly allow abortion”. This is 59% of women of reproductive age.
But the inverse still paints a grim picture. More than 700 million or 41% of women continue to live under restrictive laws. According to the World Health Organisation, 23 000 women die every year as a result of unsafe abortions, and tens of thousands more experience significant health complications.