Jennifer Baumgardner writes a fabulous piece in the Fairfield Weekly about a seldom-discussed topic in pro-choice circles: the emotional aftermath of abortion. While I’m frequently disgusted at the right’s attempts to paint abortion as a choice that inevitably involves emotional scarring, depression, and so-called “post-abortive syndrome” (which isn’t recognized by any reputable psychological association), I do believe that it’s important to allow women a wide range of reactions to their own life experiences. The vast majority of women who have abortions report feeling primarily relieved afterwards; the I’m Not Sorry project documents the narratives of women who chose abortion and don’t regret their decision. But life is never as simple as “I’m not sorry” or “I am sorry” and that’s the whole story. Even women who don’t regret their decision can have complex emotions when dealing with their own abortion. And so far, the pro-choice side has been reluctant to take on these complexities.
There are definitely good reasons why many pro-choice groups focus less of the emotional outcomes of abortion: resources are scarce and must be used where they are most needed; legislative and judicial attacks have taken center stage in the abortion issue for the past 30 years; and once the pro-choice side recognizes that abortion is morally and emotionally complex, the anti-choice side throws it back in our faces. The religious right has succeeded in turning the abortion issue into a black-and-white battle over fetal “life” instead of what it really is: a complicated, personal issue that directly affects women’s lives — and our very right to life.
So in the midst of this political back and forth, women’s voices are too often lost. The right attacks through legislation, and we go on the defensive. But too often we’re playing by their rules, on their turf, and letting them dictate the conversation. Now, having volunteered with Planned Parenthood, the Haven Coalition, and a bunch of other pro-choice groups, I’ve seen first-hand that the women and men involved with those organizations do care first and foremost about the women we serve. So I’m not trying to suggest that the pro-choice side is all about politics; it is most certainly not. But there are services that women need that aren’t yet being provided in substantial numbers.
And one of those services is post-abortion something. Counseling, discussion, whatever — just a non-judgmental space to share what can be a defining life experience. Google “post-abortion counseling” and you’ll find a whole lot of anti-choice groups whose purpose is to guilt women who have had abortions into “repenting.” But that message doesn’t fit the beliefs of many women who have had abortions, believe they made the right decision, but still need to talk about it. Clinic worker Charlotte Taft puts it pretty concisely:
“No. 1, it was supposed to be a secret,” said Taft. “So these women had no idea who else in their lives had gone through this experience. No. 2, we don’t have good language even today for making a good but complex decision. No. 3, some women felt that if they said anything, it was ammunition to remove the right to choose. You either said you were fine or admitted you were a murderer.”
Baumgardner also quotes activist Loretta Ross in trying to examine a few of the issues that middle-class white feminism sometimes misses:
“Every woman who is pregnant wonders if she has a bedroom for that child; can she afford to take off the time to raise that child? Why flatten the decisions around abortion to just abortion? When women don’t have jobs or health care, where is the choice? There is nothing worse than a woman aborting a baby she wanted because she couldn’t support it.”
Ross notes that black women were the first to resist the pro-choice/anti-choice dichotomy. “A very large percentage of [black] women are personally opposed to abortion but are pro-choice,” said Ross. “Women of color agree with not giving unborn children more rights than grown women, but even when they’re terminating a pregnancy, they call it a baby. This has been going on as long as we have had the debate. What women of color mostly say is that we have the right to do decide what children are born or not–that is part of women’s power.”
Addressing things like poverty, pregnancy prevention and access to healthcare is nothing new in the pro-choice movement. But Ross is right: we have to be louder about these issues, and we have to frame them in terms of giving women the widest range of choices possible. Baumgardner suggests following the rape crisis model, which uses women’s personal experiences as its primary strength. While this clearly has some flaws — like the suggestion that abortion and rape are equivalent traumas (or that abortion even is a trauma for all/most women) — the underlying ideas of story-telling and sharing in a non-judgmental space have been at the root of feminist movements for decades. And they work.
Luckily, there are more and more outlets for women to share their abortion experiences. The blog Abortion Clinic Days is a space where providers share anecdotes about the women who come through their doors. The I’m Not Sorry project mentioned above chronicles real women’s reactions to their choice. The Abortion Conversation Project has a pretty self-explanatory title. The Feminist Women’s Health Center has collected a wide range of personal stories. Behind Every Choice has more. The Hearts Site allows women to write a message on a heart, for themselves or someone else, about abortion — and it really shows how complicated choice can be. And on the first Tuesday of every month, the Hope Clinic opens up a chat room from 7-8pm Central Time, where women can share their experiences.
While, as Ross says, the pro-choice movement has certainly earned its defensiveness (“We’ve been shot at, picketed, fought every step”), we must continue to serve women fully and honestly. And we have to recognize that for many people abortion is complicated or morally questionable. We also have to recognize that for many people, it’s not — and not feeling guilty or needing counseling doesn’t make them immoral or insensitive or psychologically damaged, either. Pregnancy, no matter what the outcome, brings with it a whole slew of emotions and reactions, for women who give birth, for women who miscarry, for women who can’t get pregnant, for women who give a child up for adoption and for women who have abortions. Assigning a single, politicized “right” reaction to each scenario is at best dishonest and at worst widely harmful. Anyway, I’ve gone on too long, but read the whole Baumgardner piece. And if you get the chance, see her documentary “Speak Out: I Had An Abortion.” I’ve seen it twice and even had the honor of meeting her and Gillian Aldrich — they are unbelievably amazing women, and the documentary will blow you away.
I’ll end with what I think is the best, most succinct quote from Baumgardner herself:
Talking honestly about abortion is a sign of the movement’s strength.
And it’s a feminist act.
via Black Feminism
More from the executive director of Seattle’s Aradia Women’s Health Center
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