One in three women will terminate a pregnancy before she turns 40, but without real women sharing their stories, abortion will stay a political issue rather than a personal one.
Senior year of high school, between French and Stats, in a fluorescently lit, poorly tiled bathroom, my friend huddled our small group around her and announced that she was pregnant and that she planned to get an abortion. There were five of us there, squeezed into the handicapped stall, and at first we responded with wide eyes and silence. We were treading in new and unfamiliar waters and no one knew the protocol. Someone broke the silence and we launched into sniffling tears that mirrored hers, hair-petting, and a chorus of, “Oh honey, it’s going to be OK.”
For a while, it wasn’t OK at all. She was sad and scared and anxious about her future. But after some time—weeks or months or years, you’d have to ask her—it was. She broke up with that boyfriend. She went to college. She studied and traveled and worked. She met someone else and they’re still together. They’ll probably get married. We lost touch.
I don’t know what she thinks about her abortion now, looking back, and I wouldn’t presume to speak for her. But lately, I think about her all the time. She was my first, but far from last, contact with one of the millions of American women who have had an abortion. At current rates, one in three women will terminate a pregnancy before she turns 40. Imagine what it would be like if at some coordinated moment all of them stood at once, raised a hand, and said, “Hey! You’re talking about me.” What would happen if all those women made it known that these abortion-seekers are not, in fact, other women, but women we know and love?
This week’s New York Times’s Room for Debate asks that very question. How would our perceptions of abortion or of terms like “pro-life” and “pro-choice” change if we had visibility into the who and why? Sonya Renee, an artist and poet, writes in her contribution, “The lives of actual women are so often invisible in this debate as to make one wonder who is actually having abortions. We are reduced to statistics, politicizing a profoundly personal issue.”
Does the who matter? Does the why? Do you think it matters to Representative Jodie Laubenberg, who advocated for Texas’ restrictive abortion bill SB5 (now reintroduced as HB2) and referred to hospital rape kits as “cleaning out” rape victims? Her comments thus far suggest that her exposure to actual rape victims or the medical professionals that assist them is non-existent. Her proximity to women who have had abortions is likely similarly limited, though this week’s legislative testimony may change that.
It should matter, the who and the why. We need public policy that is grounded in the real experiences of actual Americans, not the religious agenda of some. This is why raising your hand can be important, otherwise they can fool themselves into thinking that only promiscuous women have abortions, only irresponsible, Godless heathens would ever go to a Planned Parenthood. As Renee wrote in her Times editorial, “When women speak out about our experiences, as I finally chose to do, we erase the political narrative. We remind people of the truth.”
The political narrative as it exists today is fantasy. It lays a fairytale veil over reality, spinning a tale in which every sexual encounter should lead to a child, in which there is enough money and time and energy to care for these children, in which contraception is infallible. These delusions crumble at the slightest inspection. The majority of women who have abortions are already mothers. They are not anti-child or anti-parenthood or anti-life. In fact, they are doing everything in their power to provide the best life they can for the children they already have, and sometimes that includes not adding to the family.
If a pragmatic approach to the reduction of abortions were truly the conservative goal, there would be common ground to be found. Half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended. Commit to helping reduce that number, not with abstinence education, which is ineffectual with teens and downright preposterous to suggest to adult women, but with comprehensive sex education and affordable healthcare and contraception. Sex comes naturally, but safe sex does not. It has to be taught and underscored and reiterated over and over again.
Next up, let’s work on inequality together and raise more families above the poverty line; 40% of women who have abortions live below it. The inability to care for the children you already have doesn’t leave many women feeling capable of raising more. Seventy-five percent of women who get abortions cite their responsibilities to other individuals as the reason they can’t have a baby.
Our labor laws do not support parenthood, either, and are some of the least generous in the world. Forty percent of workers do not have even the guarantee of unpaid parental leave. What if you can’t afford to take weeks of unpaid time off to have a baby? What if you were going to lose your job for missing work? For many, choosing an abortion is a calculation for survival.
But a pragmatic approach is not what the Texas Republicans are after right now as they push to pass HB2. The restrictions they have imposed are aimed to close clinics, not make them safer. There is no push for comprehensive legislation that might address the causes of unintended pregnancy and abortion, only a moralizing majority trying to make choices for others that they themselves will never have to make.
While we debate the various provisions of HB2, which just moved out of committee and will be voted on in full any day now, or Ohio’s new state budget, which defunds Planned Parenthood, funds crisis pregnancy centers, and adds medically unnecessary and restrictive regulations to the procedure, I think of my high school classmate and I wonder what she thinks as she watches this clutch of dusty old men and ancient wealthy women discuss her choices.
Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.