As someone who works at a reproductive rights organization—in communications no less—I talk about abortion a lot. I talk about abortion as a “fundamental right of all women.” I talk about abortion as a “safe and legal medical procedure.” I talk about abortion as “a personal decision made by a woman and her doctor.”
So when I found out I was pregnant recently, I assumed I had not only the knowledge and resources to do what I needed to do with confidence and relative ease, but also the language to speak about it. But as I began to tell the relevant people in my life—my friends, my boyfriend, my family—I felt myself falling back on euphemisms. I was avoiding a word I say every day, and I didn’t like it. So I stopped. I made a conscious decision to talk frankly and directly about my abortion.
Call me naïve, but I wasn’t prepared for how hard that would be. I live in a liberal city, come from a progressive family, surround myself with feminist friends, and work at a pro-choice organization. Yet even in this world, talking about abortion as a personal experience is a far cry from discussing it as a political issue. Here judgment is replaced by fear of the unknown and stigma gives way to a silence.
It’s not that anyone I told was unsupportive. In fact, many even exceeded my expectations. When I called my Dad, I didn’t beat around the bush: “I have some health insurance questions because I need to get an abortion.” To his immense credit, he responded with the same matter-of-factness, answering my questions and asking none of his own. My boyfriend, after asking about the procedure, what was done, how I would feel, articulated what I considered a great stance to take: “I’m going to be as stressed out about this as you are.”
But I was thrown by so many hushed voices, the consistent tone of oh-my-god-this-must-be-the-end-of-the-world, the many utterances of “I don’t know what to say.”
I was amazed to read a supportive email from my Mom, who told me (for the first time) that she herself had had two abortions when she was younger, and realize that throughout the entire email she never once used the word “abortion.”
I was bemused as a close male friend, with sincere kindness and concern, seemed to grasp for some cultural script to help him navigate a conversation he’d never had to have before. “Did you consider other options?” The question was strange and out-of-place coming from someone who has no qualms about abortion himself and, knowing me as well as he does, must surely have realized that it was no hard decision for me.
Far from the trite expression it usually is, “I don’t know what to say” actually seemed to be an honest and surprisingly accurate description of the problem. When women who have abortions are more closeted than gay people and the absence of abortion leaves a gaping hole in most T.V. and movie narratives, it’s no wonder even solidly pro-choice people are left floundering for a way to talk about it—free of euphemisms—as a real and unique experience instead of a flattened and shameful cliché.
As I had these conversations, I was reminded of this nugget of insight from a recent article on RH Reality Check by Sarah Seltzer:
“In America, abortion is always a choice that "someone else" makes—except in this case someone else is a huge percentage of the population…No wonder Americans are so confused about where they stand. The acceptable position is to frown on the practice but begrudgingly insist on its legality in case "someone else" desperately needs it.”
This sentiment is so pervasive it affects, to varying degrees, those on either side of the debate. Even among those who adamantly insist on abortion’s legality, those who spend their lives fighting to protect this right, there is the temptation to see it as choice made by someone else—someone who doesn’t know better or someone who is poor or someone who couldn’t protect themselves or someone who is a teenager or someone who was raped. In a self-filling circle, this belief that abortion is always someone else’s choice is both cause and consequence of the shroud of secrecy and silence around it.
A colleague asked me if having an abortion myself changed the way I think about the work we do. I’d say it has. My commitment to reproductive rights is not deeper. Certainly, it’s crazy to know some people would condemn me for a choice I believe to be solely mine and entirely legitimate. But the absurdity of that is what’s obvious—what can always be counted on to fuel the fire of any passionate advocate for reproductive rights.
What I didn’t truly appreciate before experiencing it myself was the depth and the breadth of this silence—and just how damaging it really is. One-third of American women have an abortion in their lifetimes. For some it is a terribly difficult decision. For others it is the only choice they can imagine. Yet this silence allows anti-choice extremists to paint all these women as heartless monsters and baby-killers, instead of as their mothers and sisters and neighbors.
The late Florynce Kennedy said, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament." I’d say we can get at least partway there if we expose the illusion that abortion is someone else’s choice. I really believe that no matter how many legal battles are won, until we can talk about our experiences with abortion, it will remain stigmatized, inaccessible to many women, and constantly under threat.