A key ingredient of the contemporary first-person abortion narrative is the author’s declaration that she was not “allowed” by pro-abortion-rights people to feel ambivalent about her abortion.
“A story about abortion is not allowed to be a tale of nuance,” declared Monica Heisey in a Gawker essay published on Jan. 22. “For the right, recovery means repentance. For the left, you weren’t supposed to have to recover at all,” wrote Molly Crabapple in a 2013 Vice essay. “Emotions, I learned, could be regarded as a chink in the pro-choice armor,” wrote Kassi Underwood in a 2011 New York Daily News piece. “I shut up about my feelings because I valued my community, but my community was unsupportive — suspicious, even — of my gloom.”
In recent years, we have seen growing discontent from women who have had abortions about the terms of the abortion debate. The central criticism, as Heisey wrote, is that a purported focus on ideology “forces women’s lived experiences into opposing camps.”
These women have a right to their feelings, even if those feelings are contradictory. But feelings are not in danger of being outlawed. Abortion is. That’s why politics and ideology still matter. Claiming that both sides in the abortion debate are equally guilty of silencing women is like saying Vietnam War protesters spat on returning soldiers: There’s simply no evidence to support it.
In my days as a clinic volunteer, I was called a whore, a slut and a murderer by clinic protesters — and treated with nothing but respect by clinic employees. Some anti-abortion activists care about women’s emotional and physical well-being. But they are not the ones standing in front of clinics shrieking at teenage “whores.” Outside the clinic door, only one side spews misogynistic invective, exponentially compounding the pain of a potentially wrenching choice.
As Peg Johnston, the executive director of an upstate New York clinic and chairwoman of the Abortion Conversation Project once put it, “We know that finding a middle ground for women to tell their stories without political overtones is helpful to their emotional health.” According to Planned Parenthood’s website, “Only you can decide what is best for you. But we are here to help.” NARAL Pro-Choice America recently posted a link to a 2015 Guardian piece that includes stories from women who were anguished by their abortions as well as from those who identify as anti-abortion. The National Abortion Federation’s website counsels women to talk to clinic staff about their concerns if they are feeling pressured by parents, partners or friends to have an abortion.
The Guttmacher Institute, which Underwood describes as promising women post-abortion relief, devotes a section of its website to “helping women cope after having an abortion,” explaining that “it is not unusual for a woman to experience a range of often contradictory emotions after having an abortion.”
SisterSong, a reproductive justice collective for women of color, operates on the principle that “every woman has the human right to have a child, not have a child and parent the children she has” and devotes a page of its website to Trust Black Women, a partnership of women who “are both pro-choice and pro-life and are not divided over the misleading debate on abortion.”
I believe that women who complain of low cultural tolerance for nuanced abortion narratives really do feel stigmatized. There is a stigma surrounding abortion — but it’s one that abortion-rights advocates have spent decades dismantling.
Abortion-rights groups are simply not in the business of blaming, shaming or denying a voice to women. Do individual women regret getting abortions? Yes, some do. Just as some women regret having children or getting a divorce. But the government and private organizations are not obligated to protect adult women from making sexual or reproductive choices they might one day regret.
Pro-abortion-rights organizations and people should be and are honest about the potential downsides of abortion. As their websites reveal, they are open to hearing painful and conflicted stories from women who have had them. But it is the duty of pro-abortion-rights groups to uphold a woman’s right to make choices, not to provide her with therapy if she’s uncomfortable with the choices she makes.
In her Gawker essay, Heisey wrote, “There are as many reasons to have an abortion as there are women who have had them.” I couldn’t agree more with her point that women’s choices are varied and complex. But it is naive and damaging to conclude that respect for these choices requires a shift away from ideology and politics.
It’s not pro-abortion-rights people who made abortion a political issue. Women’s choices have been politicized by those who, unable to convince a majority of people that abortion is categorically wrong, are instead focusing on making it illegal.
This has nothing to do with nuanced think pieces and everything to do with the daily lives of women. Freedom to air your feelings is great, but the freedom under threat is the right to decide whether or not to bear a child.