Listening to women about abortion

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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19 comments for “Listening to women about abortion

  1. Marissa
    May 26, 2005 at 12:47 pm

    Where can you see the documentary?

    I’d love to see it, but haven’t found a theater showing it.

    I’m in Chicago, btw.

  2. May 26, 2005 at 2:42 pm

    My problem with the right’s view of abortion is that they don’t see how Orwellian it is. I’m a staunch liberal with one or two things to say about the topic. I’m also a male who realizes it’s not my place, really, to even have an opinion on the subject.

    Personally, I think abortion is a pretty nasty thing. Especially partial-birth abortion. How gross and disgusting it is. And, no matter what any of my fellow liberal friends tell me, abortion does stop a beating heart. Sure, it’s played out right-wing rhetoric, but it’s true.

    However, my own philosophies on abortion are quickly overshadowed by the fact that what is inside that woman belongs to that woman. When anyone begins to legislate or take action against that woman’s body is when we’ve entered Room 101. So, in the end, I don’t care what the hell I feel personally about abortion. It’s not my body and it never will be.

    So, I find it totally acceptable to be wholly against abortion and then at the same time be so staunchly pro-choice. Of course the wingnuts would disagree with me.

  3. janet
    May 26, 2005 at 2:52 pm

    This is an topic close to my heart because of my own experience, which I will get to in a minute. I just have a few random thoughts, first.

    In the movement to find some “middle ground” on abortion, some politicians have gotten to talking about abortion’s ambiguities. The best example I’ve seen is Francis Kissling’s article “Is there life after Roe?” ( But a lot of the recent attempts to be “moderate” have been pretty stupid and content-free. One phrase that gets repeated a lot is “no woman wants to have an abortion.” This is kind of like saying “nobody wants to have a toe amputated.” It’s true — until the alternative is something worse. If the choice is between amputating the toe and losing the foot, then for damn sure you want the toe amputated!

    Similarly, there is no way to talk meaningfully about abortion and the decision to abort without context.

    Which brings me to my experience: wanted, planned pregnancy; devastating discovery of a fetal abnormality; painful but firm and never regretted decision to abort; subsequent infertility; eventual decision to adopt.

    What all of this means is that there’s only a very small circle of people that I can tell my whole story to. Abortion can be a very touchy topic for people who have had pregnancy losses and/or infertility problems, and it’s an even touchier topic among adoptive parents and kids, so I don’t feel comfortable talking about my loss with my friends in the infertility or adoption communities. After the procedure I was referred to a pregnancy loss support group, but even though emotionally my experience was a lot like that of women who miscarry, I was too afraid to go — the last thing I needed was a woman who had miscarried or had a stillbirth attack me for “killing my baby.” On top of that, I have friends who are active in the disability rights movement, and of course aborting because of an abnormality is a touchy subject for them, too.

    On the other hand, my particular situation is hard to talk about in the context of abortion rights because many women who have recently aborted aren’t terribly sympathetic about infertility and feel attacked by the very mention of adoption. Also, stories like mine are often trotted out as potential exceptions to a strict anti-abortion policy, and I don’t want to add to that repugnant trend, or imply that my reasons for aborting were any more valid or acceptable than anyone else’s.

    Yet to me, all of these elements — pregnancy, abortion, infertility, adoption — are part of the same experience, and I can’t really talk about one without talking about the others. This is a problem, given that it’s been the major thread in my life for nearly three years. I don’t like to lie, even by omission, and unfortunately I’ve been doing a lot of that. If I were less emotionally vulnerable I might be braver, but given the situation I am leary of opening myself to attack.

  4. janet
    May 26, 2005 at 2:55 pm

    Mike, depends on what you mean by a beating heart. What is often called “the heartbeat” is really the electrical action of the cells that will eventually control the the heartbeat. The heart itself doesn’t develop until sometime after a “heartbeat” can be detected.

    Also, lots of medical procedures are pretty yucky.

  5. Quisp
    May 26, 2005 at 3:14 pm


    Especially partial-birth abortion. How gross and disgusting it is.

    When I was 9, the nuns in my Sunday school class handed out a little pro-life pamphlet full of gross, disgusting pictures of aborted fetuses. I remember the ring-leader nun saying something to the effect of “shocking, isn’t it?” I meekly asked the ring-leader if that was why it was a sin. Because it was hard to look at? I mean, so is heart surgery, that doesn’t make everything that’s gross a sin, does it? Some people faint at the sight of childbirth, too. There’s blood involved.

    Also, I’m petty sure there’s no such thing as a partial birth abortion. That’s a made-up term of propaganda.

  6. May 26, 2005 at 3:33 pm

    Great post, Jill. I’d also recommend the old (1995) Naomi Wolf essay found here:

    I was pretty young when I read it but it really made me think differently about the language we use to approach abortion and related issues.

  7. May 26, 2005 at 3:42 pm


    Propaganda it may be, but I have a friend going for his doctorate who explained in excruciating detail how the procedure goes. Even the staunchest pro-choice person like me thought it was horrifying.

  8. Quisp
    May 26, 2005 at 3:54 pm

    Graphic depictions of surgery usually are. Abortions in the third trimester are exceedingly rare and are life-saving procedures.

  9. May 26, 2005 at 4:04 pm

    I think it’s important to quickly clarify that there really isn’t such a thing as “partial-birth abortion.” There is no medical procedure by that name; it’s a complete misnomer made up by the right. The common understanding of “partial-birth abortion” is that it is a third-trimester procedure; that isn’t entirely true. The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act is a loosely-worded document that has been interpreted to outlaw a procedure called Dilation and Intact Extraction — but this procedure isn’t solely a third-trimester one, so the PBABA outlaws some second-trimester procedures as well, without giving an out to preserve the pregnant woman’s health. It should also be noted that these kinds of abortions account for less than 1 percent of all abortion procedures — the vast majority of abortions occur in the first trimester. The ones that don’t are riskier, and often involve a threat to the pregnant woman’s health or life, or a severe fetal abnormality (or, in the cases of many women I’ve met, an inability to save up enough money to pay for the procedure in time). So although descriptions of “partial-birth abortion” can be gruesome, D&X procedures are (a) extremely uncommon and (b) only performed in necessary circumstances, when the pregnant woman and her doctor decide together that it’s the safest, best procedure for her particular situation. What’s most offensive about the PBABA is the fact that legislators, very few of whom are medical doctors, feel that it is their place to step into the doctor’s office and legislate which procedures that doctor can use for her patients. I’d rather decide with my physician what medical procedures are best than have Tom DeLay telling me. And finally, with this ban, the right showed it’s true colors: that it really doesn’t care about women at all. Having no out for a woman’s health means that if a pregnant woman is going to be physically injured by carrying a pregnancy to term, or if she’ll have to have a hysterectomy, or if pregnancy leave her with organ damage, she still can’t have this procedure done. That is unacceptable.

    I know Mike M wasn’t arguing in favor of the partial-birth abortion ban, but since it was brought up, just thought I’d clarify that.

  10. May 26, 2005 at 4:13 pm

    Sometimes I’m actually pro-abortion (instead of just pro-choice). I feel abortion would have been quite helpful in the cases of Britney Spears, the entire Ozzy Osbourne family, the Olsen Twins, Jerry Falwell and Mariah Carey. I’m sure there are more, but the list is rather self-serving.

  11. jam
    May 26, 2005 at 4:46 pm

    Mike, i trust you’re exempting the Oz himself from such abortionary yearnings… ? i mean, it’s true that he sold his soul (we’ve all seen where that ended him – let that be a lesson to watch out for making deals with Satan, kids!) but you wouldn’t truly want to have deprived the world of the brilliance of Crazy Train, right? right????

  12. May 26, 2005 at 5:22 pm

    When I had an abortion at 19 (and was told that I was carrying two fetuses) I thought of what was inside me as babies, and it was extremely painful to abort them. But I also felt, for various reasons to complex to get into, that I absolutely could not carry the pregnancy to term.

    I mourned. I cried my eyes out. I still sometimes do, many, many years later. But I never, not for one millisecond, regretted it.

    I absolutely agree that we need to speak openly about the realities of abortion, that it’s not simple,that every single woman who makes the decision has a set of reasons too complex to get into on a blog post comment thread, that for many of it is incredibly painful and sad, and yet absolutely the best decision we could have made at the time. We need to stress the morality of our decisions while addressing the complexities.

  13. Quisp
    May 26, 2005 at 5:46 pm

    What Jill said is what I meant to say.

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  15. May 26, 2005 at 5:54 pm

    But life is never as simple as “I’m not sorry” or “I am sorry” and that’s the whole story.

    Surely sometimes a woman’s response to having an abortion is as simple as “I’m not sorry”, surely?

    I mean, to the extent that feelings can be expressed in words at all.

    I guess what I’m saying is: isn’t it possible that a woman’s reaction could be simply the feeling of relief and nothing more? If not, why not?

  16. janet
    May 26, 2005 at 6:19 pm

    Dadahead — Sometimes it is that. I think it depends a lot on how you felt about the pregnancy in the first place. The point is, there’ s a range of reactions, and trying to deny any of them doesn’t serve the cause of preserving abortion rights.

  17. janet
    May 26, 2005 at 6:33 pm

    Actually, just to add to that: I belong to an online support group for women and couples who have terminated pregnancies because of a poor prenatal diagnosis. When I joined the group I got an email welcoming me and making reference to my “angel.” I found this very alienating, because I don’t believe in angels or an afterlife, and I resented this image being thrust on me. I almost didn’t post on the group, but I went ahead, and I’m glad I did — it’s been a source of great comfort, and I’ve met some really wonderful people. However, after I joined I wrote to the group moderator and told her about my reaction to the message, and as a result she changed the standard greeting that goes out when a new person joins. So I hope that by doing that I’ve helped make the group more congenial to women who don’t feel comfortable with the idea of angels.

    The point is, the ideas and symbols that some people find comforting and natural, others can find off-putting; so we need to be careful about the assumptions we make about others feelings.

  18. May 26, 2005 at 7:06 pm

    Surely sometimes a woman’s response to having an abortion is as simple as “I’m not sorry”, surely?

    Yes, definitely. I was too sweeping in that statement… there absolutely are women whose reactions are simply “I’m sorry” or “I’m not sorry.” And those are valid. I was just trying to point out that it’s the reactions which fall somewhere in the middle — or which are “I’m not sorry, but…” — that tend to get lost.

  19. judgemc
    May 26, 2005 at 8:04 pm

    To Janet: I understand how you feel. My life took a similar path.

    As a teenager I had an abortion, in my early twenties I had two miscarriages, in my mid-twenties a still birth, then two years ago a preemie birth and she will be my only child because I cannot have any more. I never felt like their was anyone that I could talk to.

    And that is part of the problem. I went to greif counsilor last year and just poured out everything. I found out then that my situation was not a unique one. Many women who have suffered losses are afraid to say that they have had an abortion because of the fear of others reaction. I later learned that my mother-in-law had the same experience as I. An abortion, a miscarriage, then a preemie birth. She still grieves for the losses, but does not regret her decisions.

    I wouldn’t go around announcing your medical history, but if you join another support group try talking to one of the organizers first; they might be able to steer you to others whose situation is like yours.

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