Last week’s issue of New York magazine ran, as the cover story, a collection of personal abortion stories from twenty-six women. The testimonies in “My Abortion” are framed as a response to the increasingly restrictive abortion laws that have passed in twenty-six different states over the past two years. The supposition behind the article is that everyone in America is talking about abortion except the women who’ve actually experienced it. The article should be a must-read for anyone in America who purports to have an opinion on abortion—because it gives voice to a vital silent minority, and because these voices can help us find the blind spots of our own opinions.
The day I fished the issue from my mailbox, I flopped down on the couch and read the article straight through, rapt. I actually murmured aloud in horror and pity. I shook my head repeatedly, thinking the whole time: How could anyone read stories like these, and come away pro-life? When I finished, I felt the urge to post a link to the article on my Facebook wall—with some accompanying jabby political caption such as “For anyone who’s ever wondered why I’m pro-choice, read this”—but resisted, knowing that impulsive displays of partisanship on the internet are pretty much always a bad idea.
Still, I wondered. How would my pro-life friends react to this article? Would they feel the same way I did, “feel” in the sense that we would suddenly share the same opinions? Or would they feel the same way I did in the sense that they, too, would be even more firmly convicted in their own opinions, so opposite from my own?
The temptation of a Facebook litmus test discarded, I decided to try a little thought experiment. I flipped back to the beginning of the article and began re-reading it, pretending as I did so to be a pro-lifer. “I am positively anti-abortion,” I said to myself.
To get myself in a pro-life mood, I repeated mantras seen on stickers and billboards throughout the South: “A child’s life begins at conception. Abortion stops a beating heart. Everyone deserves a birthday!”
To my amazement, as I read (as an anti-abortionist) I found myself feeling flashes of understanding, even sympathy, with the pro-life movement. Anecdotes that had just a moment ago offered up the juiciest of pro-choice testimonies now seemed to be evidence for the terrible wastefulness of abortion, not only in terms of human life, but in terms of the unnecessary emotional suffering, physical pain, and even financial loss of these erstwhile mothers. Their loneliness, hopelessness, and regret; their cramps, bleeding and vomit: take abortion wholly off the table as an option, and so goeth these crucibles. In other words, abort the experience of abortion.
In the article, Heather in Tennessee recalls that, “The doctor was grotesque. He whistled show tunes. I could hear the vacuum sucking out the fetus alongside his whistling. When I hear show tunes now, I shudder.” Nicole in Kentucky states, “When I cry about it, I cry alone… I’ve never heard of anyone else having an abortion here.” Clio in California says, “[My boyfriend] wanted me to have an abortion. I felt like if I did that, I’d be killing somebody. He wasn’t really involved in anything except video games… I was puking and pooping, everything at the same time, delirious, unable to stand up.”
Pro-life me suddenly found it obvious that none of this suffering was necessary. Pro-life me could see that the power of the miracle of conception far outweighed the mitigating circumstances—the date-rape, the lack of sexual education, the parental judgment, the financial difficulties, the deadbeat boyfriends, the homelessness—which these women gave as the reasons they opted for abortion. I wanted to take each of them in my arms and explain that life was growing inside them, life for God’s sake, and wasn’t that a kind of trump card? Even if you, Possible Mother, don’t believe in Joel Osteen’s God, He of the cross-stitched maxims, Who worketh in mysterious ways, Who never gives you more than you can handle—aren’t you willing to sacrifice whatever short-term fears you may have about being pregnant or being a parent for the sake—for the life—of your child?
Maybe this baby is the catalyst you need to start over, face your fears, change your life, make things better. No? Okay, then: Why not adoption? Just think of how many women out there are simply desperate to have a baby—can’t you at least help them? Surely you can suffer a little short-term embarrassment or physical discomfort, carry your baby to term—a quick nine-months!—become full, not empty!—bestow life’s greatest gift on a perfect stranger, and gain a lifetime of gratitude. After all, as Lauren in Colorado wondered, “When you don’t want the gift you’re given, will the universe offer up that gift again?”
Pro-choice me, however, found that these stories obviously underscored the necessity of abortion’s continued legality. All of the stories expressed either the difficulty of access to abortion services (an evidently wealthy married woman says, “I had this naïve notion that access to abortion was easy for people like us”), or feelings of shame both before and after the procedure, even in the absence of real regret (“I wanted to impress the nurses. I think I even mentioned that I was in the honor society!”), or both. Pro-choice me saw such ubiquities not as reasons for an individual to have an abortion, but reasons an individual must always be legally allowed to have an abortion. Illegalizing abortion would further alienate an already extremely alienating experience, remove its already-too-minimal existing support systems, and increase its attendant health risks by driving its practitioners into dark and unregulated corners.
The article allows you to comprehend the depth of the polarization that exists within the abortion debate: Its heat and scope begin to bend the meaning of language. So divided are the viewpoints that identical sentences on the topic will hold vastly different significances depending upon the perspective with which you approach them. Identical testimonies can be taken as rock-solid evidence for either side of the case. Which means that maybe the abortion issue isn’t so much a polarization—like a see-saw or the two sides of a coin—as it is something more endlessly repeating: an infinity loop or an M.C. Escher drawing in which it is impossible to find an end, a beginning, sure footing.
So how did we find ourselves on this spectrum in the first place? I suspect, as with another great divisive force in American society, the sports rivalry, that how we feel about abortion has much to do with where we were born and how we were raised. And if this is true, I also suspect that at the very center of the issue, at that little point at which the two halves of infinity intersect, you won’t find any of the big talking points: when life begins, or the definition of murder, or one’s views on religion or women’s rights. No, where you fall on the abortion spectrum has to do with the degree to which you fetishize pregnancy.
Because if you do think that pregnancy is truly life’s greatest gift—which, maybe, probably, it is—if you think that being a mother is the most important thing that a woman can do, then the idea that anyone could reject this role, this gift, for any reason, is inconceivable. Whereas if you do not think that pregnancy is life’s greatest gift—or even if you think it is, but that other parts of your life as a woman, or yourself as a woman, are equally important—than the idea of becoming unexpectedly pregnant is anathema.
I believe potential pain involved in giving a child up for adoption is under-estimated by pro-lifers; is it possible that for many unexpectedly expectant mothers, the idea of giving away their child to someone else is more painful than the idea of the child not existing at all?
Fetishization of pregnancy is only on the rise in America—thanks to the growing media and consumer obsession with celebrity baby bumps and the ease with we can now share the earliest of ultrasound pictures with everyone we know on social media—and as such, even a verbal admission of one’s disinterest begins to feel like a shameful act. Many of the women in the article express a consciousness of how they “should” have felt about motherhood:
“Society is so focused on women being mothers. I felt selfish for not wanting to be a mom.”
“They tell you that you love the baby automatically, but it’s not true… People think I should’ve kept it, but I couldn’t.”
“I know being a parent isn’t all stars and sprinkles.”
“There’s no room to talk about being unsure.”
Only one story in the article recounted a pre-Roe v. Wade abortion. Michelle in New York had an abortion in 1968 and recalls:
I’d just graduated high school and… I didn’t believe I could tell my mother without her killing me… I had to go late at night and pay $800, a fortune at that time… I was four months pregnant… I was to return the next night, with clear instructions not to call the office. On the subway ride home I could feel the blood seeping through my jeans… I couldn’t let the sheets get bloody, so I wrapped towels around me and stayed in bed, with incredibly painful cramping. I realize now that I was in labor. I thought I might die… In retrospect, I should have gone to the hospital, but I thought I would be arrested. It’s such a horrific thought that anyone should feel that alone again.
And yet pro-life me was also convicted in my beliefs by this story! The pain of telling her mother she was pregnant would have probably been nothing compared to the pain of the actual abortion, right? Surely her mother wouldn’t have actually killed her? And then maybe this girl could have had the baby and given it up for adoption and allowed some other woman the chance to have children? If only abortion hadn’t been an option!, I thought.
The problem is, is that in 1968, it wasn’t, technically, an option. The problem with abortion rights, much as with gun rights, is that if we remove our rights to either entirely, someone will always find a way to illegally offer these goods and services to those who are convinced they need them. There will always be someone for whom being pregnant (or not owning a gun) is simply not an option. And there will always be someone for whom such a stance is inconceivable.
Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.