An Abortion Story Both Radical and Ordinary

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Strong Families project.

For more than 20 years, the New York Times’ Vows column has shared newly hitched couples’ idiosyncratic paths to marriage. Vows has followed Wall Street wunderkinds down the aisle as well as a flame-throwing bride, a couple who admitted they fell in love while meeting at their children’s pre-K class (and while married to other people), and countless stories about partners whose first meetings did not foreshadow connubial bliss.

In a September 1 Vows column titled “Taking Their Very Sweet Time,” the paper profiled a couple who talked openly about their shared abortion experience. It’s an atypical abortion mention for the Times, where coverage is more likely to focus on state-level efforts to restrict the procedure. And, indeed, it would be rare in most newspapers, where formulaic wedding announcements often contain little more than references to wedding fashion and family trees.

At first glance, the wedding announcement of 32-year-old stay-at-home mom Faith Rein and 33-year-old Miami Heat basketball player Udonis Haslem fits the mold of many Vows columns: a meeting in college, stumbling blocks, and an extended courtship. Athletics helped them bond despite the differences in her suburban upbringing and Haslem’s hardscrabble Miami childhood; she ran track at the University of Florida, while Haslem was a Gators basketball standout.

But in the column written by Linda Marx, Rein and Haslem described the unplanned pregnancy that threatened to derail her junior year, his NBA draft plans, and their educations. Haslem was already a father and said that while “I am not a huge fan of abortion,” they had sports careers to think about and very little money to start a family together. Haslem’s support of Rein solidified their bond. Rein said, “I saw another side of him during that difficult time and fell deeply in love. He had a big heart and was the whole package.”

The announcement’s matter-of-fact tone and the couple’s understanding of their abortion as just one important event in their relationship makes the article remarkable, says Tracy Weitz, a public health professor and director of the University of California, San Francisco’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) research group and think tank.

“From my perspective, what is amazing about this story is that the abortion is not the beginning or end of the story—the way we usually tell abortion stories,” she said.

The usual abortion story often unfolds in this way, according to Weitz: “Here’s a woman in crisis. She doesn’t get the abortion or she does. Either way, her whole life trajectory is determined by this one event. Maybe she’s 21 weeks’ [pregnant] and there’s a fetal anomaly, and it’s a terrible situation. The story isn’t actually about the woman, it’s about the abortion.” The Vows article, by contrast “was really about the couple. Part of their story was about the abortion, part was about professional athletics, and part of it was about their class differences.” It reflected the totality of their lives and not just a single moment.

As extraordinary as the inclusion of abortion in a wedding announcement is, the Times article is just one of many abortion stories to be publicized. For example, the Oakland, California-based group Exhale addresses the emotional well-being of men and women after abortion and sponsors abortion “storyteller” tours. Films like I Had an Abortion to initiatives such as the Abortion Conversation Project have all tried to open a broader, more constructive conversation about abortion in small, intimate groups or larger public venues.

The New York Times itself has weighed in on the public sharing abortion of stories. In June, its Room for Debate series offered different perspectives—from, among others, an artist who integrates her abortion experience into her performances and an Anglicans for Life representative—about whether or how women should share their abortion stories.

In a society where abortion is deeply stigmatized, sharing an abortion story is often a political act aimed to a specific objective, such as supporting insurance coverage for the procedure or advocating for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment. Advocates for sharing abortion stories suggest these conversations can debunk abortion myths, shift rancorous and impersonal debates that vilify abortion seekers, and ease abortion decision-making for women and men who may know little about the procedure and fear the responses of disapproving loved ones.

With most abortion polling asking whether abortion should remain legal and in what circumstances, there’s little research whether media stories about abortion or personal stories sway U.S. attitudes about abortion.

Yet the Vows announcement is a potent reminder of how common an experience abortion is for U.S. women. According to the Guttmacher Institute, one in three U.S. women will end a pregnancy in her lifetime.

It’s also a counterpoint to conventional wisdom that Black Americans (Haslem is Black and Rein biracial) are more likely to object to abortions than counterparts in other racial and ethnic groups. While anti-choice groups have stepped up efforts to position abortion as “Black genocide,” a 2012 Public Religion Research Institute poll found that some 67 percent of African Americans polled wanted abortion to be legal in all or most cases.

Anu Kumar, executive vice president at the global women’s health nonprofit Ipas and an abortion stigma researcher, said that the wedding announcement documents “the relationship of two highly accomplished and loving people,” but also reflects the experience of women facing an unintended pregnancy.

“Like many women, Faith got pregnant. She was fortunate enough to have the resources and to live in a place where she could have safe abortion care. He helped her through it, and they moved on. She wanted to have a career, and she went on to have a sports reporting career,” she said.

“Abortion is part of the reproductive life course, and it should be treated as something that happens. People make the best decisions they can at the time. She went on to have children and a marriage. He already had a child, he knew what it meant to be a parent, and he wanted to be a good parent. And so did she,” said Kumar. “People forget this about abortion, that many women who have abortions already have children and will have them in the future.”

But Weitz acknowledges that one wedding announcement does not signal the end of anti-choice sentiment or the beginning of more productive dialogue about one of the nation’s most contested legal, political, and social issues. Their honesty about their abortion may attract criticism and has already been covered by an anti-choice news outlet.

“This kind of inclusion helps to put abortion into the context of people’s lives, which is a vital first step to the United States finally starting a rational conversation about abortion,” said Weitz. “However, I don’t think we can say what effect it has on abortion stigma. Part of that will be determined by the response to this disclosure. If they receive a great deal of negative feedback, it may teach others not to take the risk. Only time can tell.”

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  • Dez

    Great article. Thank you. Shared.

  • goatini

    I saw this announcement on Sunday, and was SO pleased that we are making progress towards destigmatization of a minor, outpatient, overwhelmingly safe, low-risk, and LEGAL medical procedure.

    • HeilMary1

      Probably RH has already covered the particularly calamitous c-section case of nurse Sandy Wilson, whose resulting flesh-eating bacteria infection cost $5,000,000 and drove away her husband, but whiny cheapskate anti-contraception and -abortion trolls need to have such cautionary cases shoved in their selfish smirky faces. Although Wilson had a planned pregnancy, what if she had been a rape victim denied Plan B or a timely abortion? What a terrible toll on her body, marriage and tax payers who got stuck with a major portion of her bills after her insurance and husband ran out! Penny-wise fetal idolaters are mega millions foolish when demanding we indulge their hypocritical contempt for our lady parts. I came across Ms. Wilson last night while troubleshooting for 3 hours on the phone with my distraught Fox-fan neighbor whose thirty-something diabetic son may be dying of similar abdominal flesh-eating bacteria at the same University of Maryland Hospital in Baltimore. I’ve told her he’s lucky to have Medicaid in a Democratic blue state. GOP red states like Virginia probably wouldn’t give him any Medicaid at all. He did some consulting work for Michelle Bachmann and has had a terrible struggle in finding affordable medical care. Fox-fed retirees and disabled un- and under-insured conservatives have trouble seeing the glaring connections between their personal predicaments and the greedy anti-AHA GOP.

      • dcordell

        Did the fact that the government saved her child’s life have any impact on your neighbor?

        • HeilMary1

          Are you referring to the nurse’s young son or my neighbor’s adult son? My neighbor’s adult son bragged about being a Teapartier which is why he supported Bachmann. His dad died from malpractice at a California hospital and he and his sickly mom (breast cancer and pace-maker issues) then lost their home to foreclosure. They moved to rentals here in Maryland so he could get involved in Teaparty politics and I kidded them about moving next to liberal nut me. They used to be Catholic but lost their faith when malpractice killed the dad. They only watch Fox News and don’t understand that Democrats are fighting for expanded affordable health care. I don’t want to bully them with political talking points while they are fighting for basic survival. They do expect government help, but don’t understand that the GOP and Teapartiers oppose government help for the retired and young disabled like themselves. All they hear from Orwellian Fox News is that Obama is “ruining affordable health care”. How do you un-double speak sense into double speak-confused Fox fans?

          • joni50

            So bizarre. I know a few people who identify with the Tea Party, die hard conservatives, yet they’re elderly and/or disabled and depend on the social safety net for basic survival. Not sure how they reconcile the contradiction in their minds, but they do. Any thoughts on this?

          • HeilMary1

            I try to point out glaring discrepancies. My neighbor, the Tea Party mother, called herself a constitutionalist and claimed that Obama was violating the Constitution with his executive orders, so I looked up the tally of executive orders for each president and pointed out that George W. Bush issued nearly 300, while Obama has issued only half that number. She then insisted Obama had 3 more years to catch up. Then I noticed FDR issued over 3,000 orders and she indicated approval of FDR. She better approve of FDR, because he made the Social Security she and her son receive possible. She and her son have been really gobsmacked with bad luck, so I am trying to be a good sympathetic neighbor and prod them to think outside of their Fox box.

          • bj_survivor

            Have you tried getting them to watch Rachel Maddow or Colbert or the Daily Show? I have known more than 1 teabagger who has seen the light after broadening their worldview to at least consider what the opposition has to say about the nuttiness of teabaggers and republicans.

          • HeilMary1

            Don’t get cable, but I do pick up over the air MHZ global stations transmitted from Virginia. MHZ includes the wonderful Thom Hartmann’s Big Picture show carried by RT (Russia Today) and Thom loves focusing on health care access issues. Moreover, he has a local studio. My neighbors would be perfect guests because Thom loves to persuade conservatives to leave the dark side. I emailed links Friday evening and will also suggest the more neutral C-Span’s Washington Journal show. Also, Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now airs on a local Pacifica radio station and is re-broadcast on Howard University’s public TV station at 6 PM. I was an avid fan of Air America when its shows (Rachel Maddow, Randy Rhodes, Mike Malloy, Thom Hartmann, Al Franken, etc.) were aired locally along with liberal independents like Stephanie Miller, Bill Press and Ed Schultz.

          • dcordell

            Reminds me of a family saying: “Two more brains and he’d be a half-wit.”

            Good God.

  • dcordell

    Read “Perilous Time” by Fran Johns about what it was like for women before abortion was legal. Not stats and charts, but the stories of real women and the horrors they faced.

  • Joe.02

    I agree — 1 in 3 and it is rarely discussed. This furthers the idea it is shameful. I welcome more discussion of something that is more common than lots of things that are heard about regularly. This includes in all contexts, including popular fiction.