While spouting a series of lies, Bill O’Reilly whined recently on Fox News that women in Texas are providing what he considers insufficient reasons for getting an abortion. The exchange between him and Fox’s official fake feminist Kirsten Powers went like this:
Powers shot back: “The current status quo in Texas that these people are fighting for, who are fighting the bill, is to be able to abort your baby up until the third trimester.”
“Yeah!” O’Reilly jabbed. “For any reason! Women’s health! ‘Hey! Look I sprained my hand!’”
“Yeah,” Powers said. “For any reason. For any reason. Yeah.”
To hear O’Reilly and Powers talk, one would think that in order to get a safe, legal abortion under the standards set out by Roe v Wade, one has to go in and provide a “reason” that you “deserve” this abortion, and some kind of authority figure determines if it’s good enough before you get an abortion—their only concern is that women are supposedly not giving good enough reasons. Obviously, these two pundits know better and are just being dishonest with the viewers, but that they are engaging in this rhetoric in the first place speaks to a serious problem in how abortion is discussed in this country.
Abortion is often framed as a mercy bestowed upon a woman who has committed the “crime” of having had sex. Mercy is something that someone else grants you, however, and not something you can simply decide for yourself that you deserve. That’s what people are stabbing at when they say they don’t want women to use abortion “as birth control.” The fear is that a woman might get an abortion without feeling remorseful or may, gasp, even feel like she’s entitled to it without having to apologize or grovel. Basically, people are uneasy with leaving the decision of whether or not an abortion is deserved to the woman seeking it herself. What a lot of people in the gray area between pro- and anti-choice want is for women to have to justify themselves in order to get abortions, even if it’s something as simple as making women feel ashamed of themselves for what they supposedly did wrong.
The problem with that, beyond the inherent sexism of it, is that there’s no real legal way to make women justify themselves, besides maybe making them sign a piece of paper that says, “I’m sorry I was a naughty girl who had sex. Can I please have my abortion now?” Roe v Wade sets things like time limits and Planned Parenthood v Casey says that there can be no “undue burden” to access, but the court decisions that shape abortion law don’t speak to “good” vs. “bad” reasons to have abortions, and for good reason. Abortion is medical treatment. It goes against basic medical ethics to require a patient to argue their moral worth before they are permitted access to health care they require.
The confusion between how ordinary people talk about abortion in terms of deserving-ness and how the law handles abortion, as a matter of rights, is why so much polling data on abortion is bunk. Gallup is notoriously bad on this front, showing that somehow half of Americans call themselves “pro-life” but a majority still want abortion to be legal. In other words, a lot of Americans call themselves “pro-life” but disagree with the “pro-life,” i.e. anti-choice movement about abortion access. I believe that speaks to a longing a lot of people have for women to be able to access abortion, but only if they provide a good reason for it. Of course, there’s no legal way to determine the difference between a good and a bad reason, to separate the “good girls” who just “made a mistake” from those deemed unrepentant sluts.
That is the legal reality, but the anti-choice movement knows that they gain ground when they can appeal to the mushy middle’s desire to make abortion available, but only if you somehow have proved yourself worthy of mercy for your supposed sins. Restrictions like waiting periods and mandatory ultrasound shaming rituals are sold to the public as ways to make the woman seeking abortion “earn” it by inducing shame—forcing her to feel bad about what she supposedly did, basically a time out in the corner for the naughty girls. In reality, they instead attack access, adding time and expense to the abortion. Instead of separating the good girls from the sluts, they are more likely to separate those who are privileged enough to be able to afford both the expense and the time off and those who can’t.
This is also why anti-choicers like to talk about women “regretting” abortion. The underlying narrative, aimed at the mushy middle: Abortion is clearly too easy to get. Women are impetuously rushing into it, only to realize later that they were bad girls who didn’t pay enough for their sins. We need to make it harder to get, so that only the truly deserving, those who feel remorse, can get it. The idea is to shift focus to reasons and to get people thinking about those who have “good” ones vs. those who supposedly do not.
Unfortunately, I fear that pro-choicers may be making this problem worse by our rhetoric. Every time anti-choicers try to restrict abortion, we trot out women who’ve had abortions to put a face on the situation. It’s a good idea, but as Jessica Grose of XX Factor writes, the women in these stories almost always feel the need to justify their abortions, to explain that they are deserving—which in turn implies that others are not.
First-person abortion stories in major publications are almost always about “appropriate” abortions. Shrouded in mournful tones, regretting the baby that couldn’t be, reflecting on that upsetting choice. But this is such a narrow way of looking at an experience that a third of women in America have. Most people who get abortions aren’t teenagers or terminating unviable babies. Six in 10 women who get abortions are already mothers, and 3 in 10 women have two or more children. The abortion rate is highest among women in their 20s. And there is a range of emotions that women feel when they’re getting what is essentially a medical procedure. Some feel relief, some feel nothing, others even feel joy.
Pro-choicers definitely don’t mean it this way! Most of us believe that women are entitled to abortions if they want them, and you don’t need to have to provide your reasons for the rest of us to judge. But it’s inescapable: If you trot out your sob story to convince people you deserved your abortion, you end up implying, even if accidentally, that some women don’t deserve theirs. When both pro- and anti-choice people are forever debating what is and isn’t an acceptable reason to have an abortion, it shouldn’t be surprising that the people in the middle think that’s what this debate is about.
Because of this, I have to sign off on Grose’s suggestion: Tell your abortion stories, but don’t try to justify yourself! We need to get the message out that, as with every other medical intervention out there, pre-viability abortions don’t need to be earned. You don’t need to be a “good girl” who is full of remorse. The woman who slept with 30 guys and accidentally got pregnant because she foolishly took her chances without a condom deserves her abortion just as much as the loving mother of two who has discovered a fetal defect incompatible with life. We believe this to be true, and we can only start convincing the public that it’s true if we start talking about this belief more straightforwardly.