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Abortion is not a Four-Letter Word
I am not a Nazi.
That is not a statement I ever thought I’d have to make, particularly as a Jewish woman. But if there is one thing that anti-choice activists love more than ultrasound images of fully-formed and healthy fetuses, it is equating pro-choice beliefs with Nazism. The person who called me a Nazi in a particularly nasty email has no idea where I spend my days or what I look like. Others who work to protect abortion rights cannot enjoy the safety of anonymity. Luckily for me, his hatred can take no expression greater than a viral insult—one that I never want to read again, yet one that I save because it means something: It means that I can’t give up.
Each pro-choice activist and abortion provider has his or her own reasons for pursuing this stigmatized work, which carries a very real threat of harassment and violence. My own reasons stem from a deep-seated desire to safeguard women’s rights. I’m unwilling to stand by as a passive witness as women’s rights are chipped away to the point where abortion becomes, effectively, illegal. I’m reminded of why this is important every time I meet a woman whose life was directly impacted by this larger struggle, such as when Renee Chelian, the founder and director of several abortion clinics in the Detroit area, tells me about the abortion she had as a fifteen-year-old in 1966.
“My mom was six months pregnant with my younger sister, so it was my dad that took me,” she recalls about the procedure, which cost $2,000—a substantial sum today, never mind over forty years ago. “We went to a parking lot near a building; we were put in the back of a car and I remember I couldn’t see where we were going because we were blindfolded, so I couldn’t look out the windows. We were driven into a warehouse; it was probably a garage. There was oil spilled on the cement floor and a card table, and there were a lot of women. I was afraid if I looked up and I said anything they wouldn’t give me my abortion. They gave me something, thankfully, and when I woke up my dad took me home. After my abortion my dad told me we’ll never ever talk about this again, no one [will] ever marry you if they know, and we can’t risk anybody going to jail. And we didn’t talk about it, really, for I can’t even think how many years. When I opened the clinic,” she adds, “my parents were very, very proud of me, very, very supportive.”
As harrowing as that experience must have been, Renee was fortunate not only to have her parents’ support but also not to have suffered any adverse effects following an illegal procedure. June Ayers, the director of Reproductive Health Services in Montgomery, Alabama, recalls a much more dangerous environment in her hometown. “Before there was Roe v. Wade, [women] knew what abortion was like when you had to stand on a street corner with your money in hand and be willing to be blindfolded, then taken to God-knows-where to have it completed on someone’s kitchen table or wherever,” she tells me as we sit in a small office in her clinic, our conversation punctuated by the heavy clang of the front doors as patients are buzzed into the building. “My father, who was a state trooper, remembered that in Opelika [Alabama] there was a house that they just didn’t pay attention to. He knew that they did abortions there; he knew that the abortions actually were done with broom straws. Imagine a broom straw, what a risk for infection. But until someone died, nobody paid attention; I mean it would take a death for them to go in and say, ‘Hey, you can’t do this anymore.’
And women did die from illegal abortion in the years before Roe: In 1930, it was the cause of death for almost 2,700 women, or 18 percent of maternal deaths recorded that year. By 1965, the number had declined to just under 200, but that still accounted for 17 percent of all childbirth- and pregnancy-related deaths that year.
Like June, Emily Lyons, a nurse who was seriously injured when Birmingham’s New Woman, All Women Healthcare Clinic was bombed in 1998, grew up in a small Southern town. “[I] came from a very strict Baptist house, didn’t watch TV, didn’t listen to music, didn’t read a newspaper,” she recalls as we sit at her dining room table. “Civil rights and all that, it happened when I was growing up, but not in my house. We didn’t talk about anything. How I turned out like this is beyond me.” While she doesn’t mention any experience with illegal abortion, Emily does bring up a particular case she worked on early in her nursing career.
“When I was in school, my last semester was in labor and delivery. One of my patients was a saline abortion. They really just set her off, she did her thing, I didn’t have to monitor too much of anything except for her, and once she delivered in the bed, then you cleaned up, weighed it, and et cetera. When I look back now I think man, she must have felt so alone. I think that kind of got things started. That was ’77, so abortion had been legal for four years. Obviously, her doctor decided this was what she needed to do; this was what she wanted to do. Whether it’s at four weeks or however many weeks on up, it’s still your decision to make; it’s a choice just like everything else in the world. Everything is a choice. You know people say it’s not a choice, it’s a child. No, it is a choice; it is a decision that you have to make.
“I’m reading a book now,” Emily continues, “The Girls Who Went Away.5 Talk about being ostracized. It’s all the girls’ fault, of course, whisked off in the middle of the night to these homes [for unwed mothers]. Golly, when did society get so judgmental?”
Hundreds of miles away, Robert Blake, a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri’s School of Medicine, emails me about his involvement in the pre-Roe pro-choice movement when he was a medical student in St. Louis.
“A group of folks, including physicians, medical students, other health professionals and health professional students, and clergy was formed in the late 1960s in St. Louis to assist women in obtaining safe abortions at a time when abortion in Missouri was only legally available to save a woman’s life. Several OB/GYN physicians were willing to perform the procedure for women referred through this group. I don’t know who they were, and I don’t know how women found out about the group—probably through clergy, counselors, etc. The role of the students was to meet with women one-on-one and ‘counsel’ them. This involved informing them of the nature of the procedure and medical risks but also involved assessing their social and psychological conditions. In one case that I know about, the woman actually stayed at a student’s home while the process of abortion was completed.
“I counseled a few women. One I particularly remember was a married graduate student who could not afford a child. She was well educated and emotionally well adjusted with a supportive husband. In fact she and her husband seemed to be very similar to my wife and me, except she was pregnant and did not want to be. I think this experience dispelled some misconceptions I had about women who sought abortion. My stereotype was that they often had significant psychological problems and were immature. I discovered that this was not valid.”
The world that Robert, June, Emily, and Renee grew up in is very different from the one that young activists and providers work in today. Not only did everyone born in or after 1973 grow up with legal abortion, but today’s medical students, law students, and activists just entering the reproductive rights field came of age during the heyday of abstinence-only education, and in a time that has seen impressive gains by the anti-choice movement to restrict abortion access. They are in an interesting position, then: While they only know a world with legal abortion, they also only know a world where abortion is heavily politicized and controversial, and where it is all too easy to overlook the very individual and meaningful reasons that women choose abortion.
Women Who Have Abortions
When people know that you work in the pro-choice movement, the stories come out. All of the sudden, you’re a safe person; you can be trusted to hear very personal stories about terminating a pregnancy, because you won’t judge or criticize. And when you go through life hearing such stories, one thing becomes quite clear to you: All kinds of women have abortions. According to the nonpartisan Guttmacher Institute, three in ten American women will have an abortion before the age of forty-five.
Rachel is one of my mother’s oldest friends; I have known her and her husband practically all of my life. But it isn’t until I tell them I’m writing a book about reproductive rights that Rachel’s own experience with abortion comes up.
Several years into her marriage, in the mid-’70s, Rachel became pregnant. She had already had two healthy pregnancies, but this pregnancy did not progress normally. Rachel was vague on the details when she recounted her story to me, but she made it clear that the abortion was medically necessary. “Had I not been offered that option,” she tells me, “I very well could have lost my life, so I will always be thankful for the physician I used. I was able to make a decision that was right for me and for my body and for my family.”
Rachel’s voice is firm as she says, “I don’t fault anyone that does not make a choice to have an abortion. I think abortion is probably one of the hardest decisions a family can make. There’ll always be doubts if I did right or I did wrong, but the right thing is that people have those choices that they can make. I was fortunate enough that I had what I consider good medical care; I was fortunate that I was able to understand my options, but not everyone has that liberty. To deny a person the same rights that I had as a somewhat educated individual, I think is a terrible travesty. I think it’s a terrible situation where one group can and one group can’t.
“I’m not the least bit ashamed of what I did,” Rachel continues. “In fact, I feel somewhat empowered by the choice I had to make because that was my right.” Yet, Rachel only agreed to be interviewed if her real name was not used.
The day after I see Rachel, I spend some time with Vicki, a longtime friend of my father’s family. Towards the end of our visit, she mentions that she had had an abortion many years earlier. Months later, Vicki tells me the whole story.
“My ex-husband is the only one who knows,” Vicki says. “I wanted to tell my mother, but it happened before I moved back here, and that wasn’t something I wanted to break the news about in a long-distance telephone call. That was back when long distance calls meant something, you know, not like today.” Her husband threatened to leave unless she had an abortion; they were living in a city that was hundreds of miles from her parents, siblings, and closest friends, although it was also in one of the few states that had liberalized their abortion laws in the early 1970s. “It was [the state’s] law to first see a psychiatrist,” Vicki explained, adding that the entire procedure was covered by insurance. “I remember that I told the psychiatrist that if my husband wasn’t in the picture I would not consider abortion, but I guess approval was routine. I later told the doctor before the surgery that I want[ed] to change my mind, but he said he had the time scheduled—be there.” After she had the abortion, Vicki’s husband—who had, she says, “badgered” Vicki to get the abortion—called her a murderer.
“If I had known myself as well as I know myself now . . . I have more confidence to trust my feelings and realized that I was capable of supporting and raising a child on my own—then I would not have had an abortion,” Vicki muses. “But,” she adds sternly, “the decision should be the woman’s. Even before abortions were legal, women still had them generally in seedy, unsanitary places. The United States should not go back to those days.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about Vicki’s story in the following days, about the profound ambivalence that she expressed. When I worked for the National Abortion Federation (NAF), I heard many women express gratitude that they could have an abortion, even as they regretted the particular circumstances—an unstable relationship, economic hardship, age, or a lack of education—that made abortion their best choice.
To appreciate a decision even as you regret the reasons for that decision is a complicated set of emotions, and one that established pro-choice organizations have not always successfully addressed. Groups like Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and NAF generally stick to messages about how common and safe abortion is, but they don’t offer a great deal of in-depth discussion about the range of emotions women may experience. Instead, they offer first-person stories, which overwhelmingly talk about abortion in positive terms. While studies have shown that this is how most women do indeed feel after their abortions, those women that have more ambivalent feelings following their abortions may not find much comfort or support in these messages.
These are important distinctions. The anti-choice movement has been incredibly persuasive in its insistence that if a woman has mixed feelings following an abortion, then abortion itself must be unethical. Pro-life advocate and therapist Vincent Rue is credited with coining the term “post-abortion syndrome” in testimony before Congress in 1981, to refer to an adverse physical and emotional response to abortion. While neither the American Psychological Association nor the American Psychiatric Association recognize this as an official syndrome or diagnosis, the term quickly gained traction in the anti-choice community, and in 1987 Ronald Reagan asked then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to write a report about the effect of abortion on women. The avowedly anti-choice Koop had believed, prior to taking office as surgeon general, that abortion traumatized women; he even coauthored a book, Whatever Happened to the Human Race, which discussed post-abortion trauma.
Even so, he was reluctant to do as Reagan asked, suspecting that the request was motivated more by politics—anti-choice advocates and the religious right were significant sources of support for the president—than public health concerns. After conducting his own research and reviewing that of his staff, Koop concluded that there were no rigorous, unbiased scientific studies on the effects of abortion on women’s health that could support either a pro- or anti-choice position. As a result, Koop explained in a January 1989 letter to the then-outgoing president, he could not conclude one way or another that abortion was harmful to women.
This conclusion shocked and incensed conservatives and anti-choice advocates, who had assumed that Koop would take an anti-choice position. Yet Koop was careful to draw a strong distinction between his personal beliefs and scientific evidence, and he refused to let ideology pressure him into a stance he was not comfortable with. While many in the pro-choice movement applauded his ability to place public health above personal opinion, Koop did suffer for his decision. After President George H.W. Bush declined to appoint Koop as the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Koop left office one month before the end of his second term as surgeon general.
In 1988, the American Psychological Association commissioned a study to review the then-current research around post-abortion psychological effects. After a survey of over 200 studies, the panel of six experts found that only a handful—nineteen or twenty—met what they considered reliable scientific standards. From those studies, researchers were able to draw a clear conclusion that most women do not experience lasting distress as a result of having an abortion: “The weight of the evidence from scientific studies indicates that legal abortion of an unwanted pregnancy in the first trimester does not pose a psychological hazard for most women.” While some women did experience more serious distress, they were definitely in the minority; one study found that for women that had first-trimester abortions, “76 percent of women reported feeling relief two weeks after an abortion, and only 17 percent reported feeling guilt.”
It is important to note that women seeking later abortions did report more distress around their abortion, as did women that had difficulty making their decisions. But it would be intellectually lazy to assume that it was the abortion itself that caused this distress, as opposed to the events that led to the necessity of having the abortion.
According to a survey of over 1,200 women that obtained abortions, nearly three-quarters cited the concern that having a child would interfere with the woman’s education, work, or ability to care for dependents as the reason that they had an abortion. Economic concerns came in a close second, followed by the woman’s desire not to be a single mother or concern over relationship problems.
These are not only compelling reasons to seek abortions, they are valid reasons that a woman might regret that abortion is her best choice. Few women would choose to experience economic hardship or to have a job that could be so disrupted by pregnancy and motherhood; likewise, few women would choose to be in a relationship that could be negatively impacted by a pregnancy. Any of these reasons alone could cause a great deal of emotional distress to a woman that has less to do with the abortion itself and everything to do with the rest of her life. The abortion is not the cause of her problems—it is a symptom of much larger and unwieldy concerns that affect every aspect of her life, including when to have a child.
There are other, albeit less common, concerns that must also be considered. While 88 percent of abortions are performed within the first twelve weeks of pregnancy, women who have abortions later in their pregnancies overwhelmingly cite a delay in making the necessary arrangements, including raising money and getting an appointment, as the reasons for having second- or third-trimester procedures. For later-term abortions, the issue of fetal abnormality must also be considered; many birth defects that are incompatible with life are not discovered until the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy, or even later.
It is not surprising that the anti-choice movement would rather blame the abortion for how a woman feels than look at the other facets of her life. The social conservatives that dominate the anti-choice movement are generally not supporters of the kinds of social programs that would actually increase services to low-income women, make workplaces more family-friendly, and expand access to reliable contraceptive methods in underserved communities. If Rue and his cohort really wanted to help women emotionally, they would address the reasons that women choose abortion in the first place. But since that would mean examining the often-complicated reality of women’s lives and taking meaningful steps to improve those lives, anti-choice activists have instead chosen to cast abortion as the beginning and end of a woman’s problems, and they point to any evidence of mixed feelings or regret as a reason to ban abortion for all women.
Naturally, the anti-choice movement also refuses to recognize its own role in causing stress for women who choose abortion. Yet that is undeniable. From the picketers who stand outside abortion clinics and call women “murderers” to the overall cultural atmosphere of secrecy and stigma that surrounds abortion, women are bombarded with the idea that abortion is not a valid choice. These messages are powerful enough that even women who are fully comfortable with their choices have confessed feeling guilty that they weren’t conflicted; imagine how much worse those feelings could be for someone who had more difficulty making her decision, or is unable to share her choice with friends and family for fear of negative reactions. That the anti-choice movement can demonize women for choosing abortion, and at the same time portray women as innocent victims of the evil abortion cartel, points to the power and success that the movement enjoys in this country.
The Complexities of Choice
“It’s difficult for the pro-choice movement to talk about abortion with nuance,” Steph Herold, a reproductive justice activist, says. “I wish we could talk about it with nuance more, but it’s hard when abortion is so constantly under attack. It’s hard to say, from a messaging point of view, there should be no waiting periods, there should be no obstacles whatsoever, even though some women may regret their abortions. It’s difficult to balance that reality with the fact that although most women feel relieved, some women may feel sad, overjoyed, or a mix of those after an abortion. And so the anti-abortion folks have opened their arms up to conflicted women and diagnos[ed] them with this supposed post-abortion syndrome without any evidence that this disease exists, just because women don’t feel 100 percent empowered and relieved after their abortions. I think the anti-choice folks have been successful in coopting a scientific-sounding syndrome for something that’s really much more complex.”
Steph also brings up the concern that the pro-choice movement may be inadvertently alienating women who have mixed feelings about their own choices. “If we don’t offer any kind of support or messaging, or even if we don’t even acknowledge that for some people abortion can be a tragedy or something they need to process emotionally, then we lose them. Especially if we keep calling for people to speak out about their abortions, to contact their legislators about abortion, about reproductive health issues in general, we may have to talk with a little more nuance and more personal experience instead of just war-on-women language. While a war on women may indeed be happening, I don’t think it’s an effective framing that reaches people who don’t have as strong opinions on reproductive rights as we do.”
“If I felt ambivalent, and I didn’t see anything out there that acknowledged my feelings of ambivalence, if I was looking to normalize my own experience, and the only things I could find that were validating my feelings were anti stuff ?" Bess, another activist, muses. “I can see that it could push me in a direction that I wasn’t initially going to go in. I think that the establishment narrative is, women are all sad that they have to have abortions. These are difficult decisions, and every woman struggles with and thinks seriously through her decision. Then she has her abortion, and although she’s sad that she had to make the decision, she is entirely relieved and her life goes on without a hitch. And they try to acknowledge that it’s a lot more complicated than that, but it’s a really hard balance to walk between I am woman, hear me roar, and these are normal sad feelings.”
“The emotionally honest approach is to acknowledge the ambivalence, to acknowledge all of the complex bouquet of feelings and emotions that comes out of this decision,” Norman, a clinic escort and activist, offers. “That’s the emotionally honest approach. But I completely understand the flipside, which is the knee-jerk reaction, where we’re under attack by all these antichoicers, we have to present the cheeriest side, just for PR sake, we have to present women who are relieved. They’ve made a tough decision, they made the best of a bad situation, but now they’re relieved and everything is fine and happy and roses and sunshine and unicorns because that’s how to present it public relations-wise.
“It’s a tough choice,” Norman admits. “Do you be emotionally honest to try and make it easier for the women who are making these choices? Or do you go with the rosy PR image because you want to minimize the chance of attack and you want to maximize the availability overall of abortion care?”
The approach of some high-profile pro-choice politicians and mainstream organizations has been to focus more on the abortions themselves and less on why women have them. In a speech in 2005, then-Senator Hillary Clinton said, “[A]bortion in many ways represents a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women”; Senator John Kerry has opined, “[a]bortion should be the rarest thing in the world.” Barack Obama made it clear from the outset of the health care reform debates that he would not seek changes to the ban on Medicaid-funded abortions; that pro-choice leaders in Congress and elsewhere publicly agreed with the administration’s approach, even if it conflicted with their own stated beliefs, is cited by many in the pro-choice movement as a missed opportunity to take decisive steps towards safeguarding every aspect of women’s health care.
The donation sections of both Planned Parenthood and NARAL’s websites talk about protecting health care and fighting anti-choice legislation; the National Abortion Federation’s brief request is focused on protecting the right to choose. These are important goals, to be sure, but they don’t exactly give the impression that these are three of the leading representatives of pro-choice activism in the country.
Broadening this message to include women’s experiences would not be impossible, but as it stands now, the most thoughtful and highly-praised work is coming from independent groups like Exhale and Backline. Both organizations work in the field of post-abortion support and counseling, offering women a non-judgmental place to explore their positive and negative feelings following abortion. A loose collective of clinic directors and counselors, dubbed “the November Gang,” have also been vocal advocates for a more nuanced discussion of abortion, one that accepts that there is space for a whole range of abortion experiences, and that just because abortion is hard for some women doesn’t mean that it’s wrong for all women. And websites and organizations like the 1 in 3 Campaign and I’m Not Sorry have demonstrated a much greater ability and willingness to share stories that challenge all sorts of cultural assumptions around abortion, as this sample from I’m Not Sorry’s website shows:
“I have never regretted the abortions, although I certainly regretted the circumstances under which they came about. I am forever grateful that I had the choice of abortion available to me, or else there would be three more damaged human beings in the world.”
“I do not mourn for an unborn child. I do feel sorrow for having so little self-esteem that I wasted my precious time and energy on an emotionally abusive relationship. I did not want to have a child from that relationship (and he certainly was not interested in being a father). I did not then, nor do I now, feel it was my responsibility to carry that pregnancy to term.”
“Even though I have not admitted it to myself (or my boyfriend) until just now writing these words before me, I would not have gone ahead with the pregnancy even if there were no adverse medical side effects to use as an excuse. I am starting a new job at a large company later this month. I have no savings. My boyfriend is several years younger than me and does not have a regular source of income. We are not married, and while I don’t feel the need to be married prior to having children, our families may very well feel differently. Furthermore, I am just not mentally prepared.”
These stories—or, more accurately, these excerpts of stories— only hint at the very wide range of reasons that women seek abortions. But they are all united in their recognition of abortion as a good and right choice and nothing that women need to justify or feel ashamed about.
The pro-choice movement cannot expect to survive if it does not allow every kind of story to be told, even the ones that cause others to examine their own values and biases. Simply framing abortion as a sad or otherwise regrettable choice is capitulating to the anti-choice messaging, which holds that every abortion is a mistake and every women suffers. Without a counter-voice, it’s easy for the general public to believe this narrative, despite how common abortion really is.
And while it would be great for that counter-voice to be just as loud and obnoxious as the anti-choice movement’s narrative, it can be just as beneficial to talk about these issues in more private settings, among friends or romantic partners. My college years were shaped to a certain degree by the experiences of several close friends who chose abortion following unplanned pregnancies. Their situations did more than make me very aware that you could get pregnant even using birth control; they also showed me that no matter how deeply pro-choice someone might be, it was still normal to have mixed feelings about having an abortion.
Shannon Connolly, a medical student at the University of Southern California, touches on the value that conversation can have: “Until abortion is normalized, until people are able to say it’s just another part of health care, it’s just another tremendously difficult but common decision that women make, we won’t be able to talk about it in a meaningful way. I certainly would never in a million years fault a woman who had an abortion for not wanting to share that with other people because it’s too difficult, but if it were possible for an individual person, I would hope that they would be able to. And I would hope that if you’re pro-choice, you’re able to say that to people who are close to you, so maybe if they’ve had an abortion, they’d be able to talk to you about it.”