A pregnant woman I didn't know struck up a conversation with me at a party recently. We chatted amicably about the weather (bad), the Golden Globes (fine) and the food at the party (great) before the conversation turned—inevitably, it felt—towards birth (hers). She told me she was nervous but excited, that she could not stop Googling, and how glad she was to be out of the infamously uncomfortable first trimester. "I know what you mean," I said. "When I was pregnant I was so tired I could barely move." Her eyes brightened. "You've got kids?" "No."
It went about as badly as I thought it would. The woman made a sort of what-now-how-do-I-get-out-of-this-god-oh-god-why face before subtly scanning the room for her husband and eventually making some kind of bladder excuse, hurrying away with an awkward "Well, good luck!" Good luck for what, I don't know. It was a stupid experiment, something I've tried a few times now to similar results.
Admitting the fact of my abortion to others is typically met with a lowering of voices, a tone somewhere between sympathy and pity, and something I can only describe as "soft eyes." While this approach is better than, say, being called a murderer or disowned by your loved ones, it does not leave much room for elaboration. No need to continue, they know this one. They've already got their soft eyes on, and are readying themselves for the left-leaning woman's abortion story mad lib: "I wasn't ready to have a child because [reason], so it was a relatively [adjective indicating ease] choice. It was a [adjective indicating difficulty] time, but I've never regretted it."
I have often felt constrained by this narrative. The "It was a hard choice but a good one I've never regretted" story feels like a reaction to the extremism of the pro-life movement's attitude towards abortion, just as extreme in its resolve towards positivity as the pro-life narrative resolves to be negative. But there are as many reasons to have an abortion as there are women who have had them. Focusing on the ideological debate instead of the reality of the procedure forces women's lived experiences into opposing camps: either it was a great choice you feel wonderful about, or you've always regretted it, and are sorry. Real life is not this tidy.
A story about abortion is not allowed to be a tale of nuance. My experience was difficult, in some ways, certainly. But most of my discomfort came from the feeling that I should feel discomfort. Wasn't this supposed to be the most difficult decisions of a woman's life? Wasn't it supposed to be, even if I was vehemently pro-choice, the kind of thing you always feel a little bit bad about? If that was the case, why did I have an appointment within five minutes of finding out I was pregnant? If it wasn't a travesty, did I still have the right to feel sad? During the week I had to wait for my procedure, I found myself worrying I wasn't doing abortion right.
Because there really are only the two options. Abortion is not, for instance, allowed to be a time you felt excited to be a mother, though my partner and I talked excitedly during this time about having children together, one day when we were ready. It is not allowed to be a tale of nationalism, although I have never felt more supported by the Canadian government than when I was pregnant and broke and scared, able in one phone call to secure an appointment at a clinic that would help me for free. It is not allowed to be a time my partner and I grew closer in love, or a time my friends and I ate and drank too much and for the most part carried on as normal.
It is not allowed to be a choice like any other choice, the kind of thing you think about sometimes and don't think about at others, the kind of thing you wonder about but are not worried over, because you made a choice and it's done. It is certainly not allowed to be funny, even if the easy-listening radio station quietly seeping into the clinic played "Papa Don't Preach" during your procedure, as happened to a friend of mine. In processing my own procedure I felt denied these options, though they were more accurately what I felt. With only regret or triumph as things I could normatively feel, I joked with friends that I would write the breakaway indie novel of the summer: How Should An Abortion Be?
In May of last year, a 25-year-old abortion counsellor from New Jersey named Emily Letts posted a video of her own termination online. She says she filmed the procedure because "[w]e talk about abortion so much and yet no one really knows what it actually looks like." It's tricky to know what talking about abortion means in this context. Arguably, contemporary society is more comfortable discussing abortion than ever. Conversations about reproductive rights have moved from a smattering of feminist publications to the mainstream media. In the realm of fiction, the procedure is no longer relegated to Very Special Episodes, but given plot space on primetime shows like Grey's Anatomy and Friday Night Lights. Looking at a movie like last year's "don't call it an abortion comedy" Obvious Child, it's easy to get swept up in the idea that the taboo surrounding abortion is lifting.
But Obvious Child was a filmic rarity—more often than not, contemporary characters who wind up pregnant (in movies like Juno, Knocked Up, or Blue Valentine) contemplate abortion and decide to carry the pregnancy to term, usually finding themselves, and love, along the way. We most frequently discuss abortion in a broad, news-y sense: the media covers the "debate" "around" abortion, the latest skirmishes between pro-choice and pro-life activists, whether or not CoolPope™ will weigh in on the "issue."
We talk about the controversy caused by Emily Letts and women like her, the controversy being that this woman shared her story, and the story was about abortion. As Molly Crabapple noted in an essay about her own abortion for VICE, the Manifesto of the 343—a 1971 document in which 343 women, including Simone de Beauvoir and Catherine Deneuve, admitted to having had abortions in France while they were still illegal—would not find many celebrity signatures today. While one in three women in America will have an abortion in their lifetimes, from a practical standpoint, we're more comfortable thinking the women we know are the other two.
At least this is how it has felt to me in the four years since my abortion. In the months and years since my termination I found that revealing this particular bit of personal history is somewhat of a devastating blow to an otherwise engaged conversation.
Crabapple, in her VICE essay, discusses feeling these constraints as well, responding by seeking out other women who had terminated pregnancies: "Compulsively, I searched out abortion stories online. Women for whom it had meant nothing. Women for whom it had meant everything. Most of all, women who were not sorry. I found no information on patching myself up again. For the right, recovery means repentance. For the left, you weren't supposed to have to recover at all."
I too found the understanding I'd sought by speaking to other women who'd had abortions. Disclosure of my own abortion to another of the one in three meant long, winding conversations with friends and family members and sometimes strangers who'd been processing quietly too. I found I could talk for hours about it, that I'd been silencing myself in polite company and hadn't realized. It felt like, outside this circle of women who had been there, the ability to speak freely about abortion applied only to disclosure. I felt free to tell anyone that I'd had a termination—"after all, it's your body so it's your choice, totally"—but the implicit request after the initial lowered tones was no more info please, you're bumming people out.
A few weeks before my abortion, I had had a wisdom tooth removed. When I tell people about my dental surgery, they share their own tales of laughing gas embarrassments, a kindly dental hygienist, or a gory brush with dry sockets. I feel free to tell mine too: how I was scared to be put under, how I came to and my mom was there, how the dentist over-prescribed oxycontin. I took the rest of the oxycontin while I was recovering from the abortion—I had not been prescribed any painkillers for afterwards, and had immediately gone back to work, keen to start the process of unobtrusively moving on.
Stories of abortions aren't going anywhere, despite efforts to the contrary. Today is the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and the 41st anniversary of the March for Life, an anti-choice rally that draws thousands to Washington as "a witness to the truth concerning the greatest human rights violation of our time, abortion." The GOP's Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a bill which sought to ban access to abortions for women after 20 weeks, was expected to be signed into law but was dropped by House Republicans at the last minute.
To avoid conversations about abortion with the people in your life is to avoid thinking about abortion as a complex human experience, as nuanced as any other. Denying the range of women's experiences of abortion keeps the topic a taboo in reality and a vibrant topic of debate in the abstract. It is easier to give away the reproductive rights of an abstract idea. Abortion is not just something that happens to one in three women. It happens to one in three women you know.
[Image by Tara Jacoby]