In the past six months, I’ve learned about scores of abortions. I’ve learned about legal abortions and illegal abortions. I’ve learned about abortions that were performed with respect and support, and others that were humiliating or even excruciating. I’ve learned about women who bought lottery tickets on their way to the abortion clinic in hopes that a winning number would allow them to cancel their procedures, and I’ve heard about women who went dancing the evening after their abortions. I have heard about women who felt empowered by the sense of control that being able to choose an abortion gave them, and I have heard about women whose relief at being able to stop a pregnancy they felt unable to support was tempered by a deep sense of loss or even grief.
These are all true stories, told to me by the women themselves, women ranging in age from teenagers to grandmothers, some of whom I’d met only minutes earlier and others who are dear friends I’ve known for decades. I’ve been entrusted with all these stories because six months ago I published a novel in which one of the characters has an abortion.
Because her abortion plays a significant part in my character’s experience as a young woman, I deemed it a necessary scene to include in my book. When I made the decision to write about that fictitional abortion and its aftermath, I had expected that it might disturb—or even offend—a few of those readers whose vision of abortion differed significantly from my own, either because they considered abortion to be a sin or because they feared that my character’s feelings of regret could be used as ammunition by those who wish to curtail our reproductive rights. What I had not expected was that my scene would move so many women to relate their own experiences to me, sharing with me the circumstances of their own untenable pregnancies, their own experiences of the procedure, and their subsequent thoughts and feelings about what they had done.
On the surface it might seem a little odd that I had not anticipated such an outpouring of stories; after all, over a third of all American women currently of reproductive age will have had an abortion before their fertile years are over, and a great many women tend to find satisfaction and sustenance in talking about their experiences with each other. Many women use conversation as a way of bonding, as well as a way of sorting out our feelings and making decisions and coming to deeper understandings about our lives. When women are together, our conversations can range over an vast landscape of topics, morphing easily from the mundane to the profound, and covering such potentially intimate and revealing ground as our families, our loves and our sorrows. As we tell our stories to each other, we confess our failures, disappointments, and embarrassments. We describe our ambitions and insights, and we try to sort out our personal responses to any number of perplexing problems, from how to toilet train our toddlers to what should be done about the war in Iraq.
Although in the right situation most of us are not very reticent about discussing almost every other aspect of our reproductive lives, from sex and birth control to childbirth and menopause, it would appear that most of us are very reluctant discuss abortion; although 1.3 million American women underwent abortions last year, I was not told about a single abortion last year until after Windfalls came out.
I don’t believe that’s because those abortions are not meaningful to the women who underwent them. Often an abortion can serve as a touchstone, defining or catalyzing other decisions or insights that either reinforce a woman’s commitment to the life path she is on or cause her to change what she is doing. And it’s not that we forget about our abortions, either. Just as an abortion is something no woman wants to be in the position of having to have, I don’t believe that any woman ever loses track of the fact that she has had one. I have yet to hear from a single woman who said, “An abortion? Let’s see…I guess I just can’t remember whether I’ve ever had one or not….”
I don’t believe we are generally so quiet about our abortions because we consider them to be trivial, but I do think there are other reasons for our reticence. First of all, despite the many healing properties of conversation, occasionally there are experiences that are best honored by silence. Certain thoughts and memories are so intimate and private, so powerful and central to who we are that they run the risk of being distorted by all but the most sensitive of dialogues. An experience as personally charged as an abortion can be is an experience that many women may feel reluctant to share in any but the most secure and intimate of settings.
But there’s a difference between privacy and secrecy, a difference between honoring and respecting an experience and pretending it never happened, and perhaps the main reason that women are not talking about their abortions is that the whole subject has become so polarized by the most zealous supporters on both sides of the on-going legal debate. As a consequence, many of us may have felt that if we were to tell our stories, we would not be entering into a conversation but would instead find ourselves thrust naked into an battle. Rather than expose what may feel painful or even sacred to the blame and ridicule we fear we might receive if we were to discuss our experiences and our feelings candidly, we have attempted to protect ourselves with silence, feeling that since we cannot trust our stories’ receptions, they are safer left untold.
Many of us are also aware that whatever we reveal about our own experience may not only be used to castigate us personally, but also to condemn abortion in general. To express sorrow and regret about the decision we felt we had to make can be seen as a proof not only that what we did was wrong, but also that abortion in general is bad; on the other hand, to express gratitude and relief at having managed to escape the life-long repercussions of a child we did not feel equipped to care for can appear equally recriminating. From the outside, our very satisfaction with our decision could be perceived as proof that we behaved callously, and we may fear that even our relief might be used to reinforce the position that it is wrong for any woman to have access to abortion.
It’s a cruel double-bind, and what is lost in the struggle is what I think that many women long for—any chance of a candid, honest, and far-reaching examination of a complex, profound experience. There are as many reasons for choosing to have an abortion as there are for choosing to have a baby, as many reasons for choosing to surrender a baby for adoption as for choosing to raise it. From the outside, some of those reasons may appear as loving and wise, while others may seem short-sighted or self-indulgent. Because abortion—like motherhood—is such a personally meaningful and culturally fraught subject, it’s no wonder we may be reluctant to have our motives analyzed and judged by outsiders.
It’s a shame we feel the need to defend—or even explain—our decisions for having abortions any more than we need to defend our reasons for having a child. It’s a shame that saying, Because I wanted to is not as adequate a public expression of our motives for having an abortion as it is for having a child. But it’s an even greater shame that we don’t feel free to examine our motivations more deeply and more openly.
Conscious decisions are much more apt to happen if we feel free to discuss and examine our own thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and if we have easy access to a wide variety of other people’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences. And those things are more likely to occur if we do not fear recrimination and condemnation on a subject that—for many of us—will already be sensitive enough.
Just as it helps our decisions about so many other aspects of child-bearing and child-rearing to hear from the “experts” who’ve gone before us, so it would help us all a great deal if abortion weren’t a taboo subject. I believe there are many women who would like to share their stories, and I’m sure that all of us would benefit from hearing them. We need to be able to hear about other women’s situations, other women’s decisions, and the consequences that followed from their choices, and the tellers of those stories need to feel free to express their regrets and their relief and their questions and their convictions without fear of condemnation or retribution.
Perhaps one way to encourage that to happen is for us to work to recontextualize our personal and cultural understandings of abortion. At best, abortion in our society has been seen as a necessary evil, and we have usually thought of our own abortions as representing personal failures and shame. But in The Sacrament of Abortion, Ginette Paris reminds us that “abortion is…an expression of maternal responsibility, not a failure of maternal love.”
Despite the sense of loss that most abortions cause many of us to feel, we need to keep in mind that abortion is actually an expression of a woman’s unique hopes for both her own life and for the lives of the children she may already have, as well as those she may wish for in the future. Among other things, abortion is a deep acknowledgement of the importance of child-rearing, an understanding that a child requires a life-long commitment and that a commitment to a child must not be made casually or taken lightly.
A decade ago I wrote a book called The Life Within: Celebration of a Pregnancy. In it, I examine pregnancy from both scientific and anthropological perspectives, as well through the lens of my own experience. Writing that book only reinforced my conviction that pregnancy and birth are the ultimate miracles—gifts that can only come from some kind of Grace. Under the right conditions (and under a good many conditions that might be considered wrong), a pregnancy is an affirmation of all that matters most. As Carl Sandburg wrote, “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”
But an embryo is not a baby. An embryo cannot be rocked to sleep in its mother’s arms. An embryo does not have its grandmother’s chin and its father’s eyes. An embryo does not cry when it is hungry, or develop a rash when its diapers aren’t changed. An embryo is a potential baby, and because it is one of our fundamental responsibilities as human beings to choose which potentials we are able to nurture and which we must forego, our opinions on the subject of babies count, too. For those of us who wish it, God should certainly be invited into the discussion. But I am convinced that our thoughts on the subject would be much clearer and firmer, our actions would be much more carefully considered, we would be more respectful and supportive of each other’s experiences and points of view, and many of us would also feel a great sense of relief and connection if we weren’t all so timid about sharing our stories.