Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My dear friend has been with her boyfriend for a couple years now. They’re in their early 30s, live together, have stable jobs, and seem really happy together. Which is why I’m completely shocked that she had an abortion a few weeks ago. She said they do want kids some day, but not yet, so they agreed it was the best thing to do.
I’m staunchly pro-choice, and believe the government should stay out of a woman’s body, so I’m surprised by my disappointment in her decision. I just know they’d be great parents. They’re perfectly set up to care for a child. Also, what if she can’t get pregnant again? I feel like they made the wrong choice.
I’m sure it wasn’t an easy decision for them, though, so how can I get over my disapproval and support my friend?
Questioning My Friend
Dear Questioning My Friend,
In America, we believe strongly in bodily autonomy. There are people on organ donor waitlists who are dying, but we don’t conscript individuals with healthy kidneys and require them to donate. There are people in desperate need of blood transfusions, but we don’t force all universal donors to go to the Red Cross once every six weeks. Even when making a small blood donation would help others live, we believe that each person’s body is theirs, and theirs alone.
However, this firm idea of bodily autonomy becomes hazy once a woman becomes pregnant. A pregnant woman is a potent symbol, and we start to focus on what the pregnancy symbolizes instead of the person who is pregnant. A pregnant woman is a sign of transformation, of hope, a living promise that we, as a species, have a future.
There’s a reason that women who are largely pregnant have the issue of strangers touching their bellies all of the time—these people are reacting to the primal excitement they feel when they see evidence that a baby is on its way, that the future will exist, that we may all, through the next generation, live forever.
When I was hugely pregnant I was living in Chicago and taking the train to and from work every day, and I found that as my pregnancy became more and more apparent I was granted a certain degree of deference. Which is to say, people got out of my way. If you haven’t lived in Chicago you may not understand how radical that is, but people in that city do not, as a rule, move. And they weren’t moving for me, they were moving for the pregnancy, the symbol. Once I had a child and was trying to get onto a train with myself and a small baby and his stroller, Chicagoans went right back to shoving me aside.
A pregnant woman is a potent symbol, but she is still a person, and still maintains bodily autonomy. In America we weren’t clear on this point for a while, so we went ahead and codified it into law—a pregnant woman is still wholly in charge of her body and what happens to it, including the pregnancy itself.
When it comes to abortion a lot of opinions and feelings and unexamined assumptions get mixed up with basic facts. So let’s parse this out by doing a call-and-response for some frequently used anti-abortion sentiments.
Argument: Abortion is murder.
Unpacked: Two months ago, I had a miscarriage. I had been nine weeks pregnant, with a baby I very much wanted. It was devastating. So, was that manslaughter? Or should we classify it more as a suicide? Those are stupid questions because no one would classify a miscarriage as either because a fetus doesn’t have the agency that the law requires in order to ascribe motive. A fetus has potential, but not actuality. Murder is murder, and abortion is abortion. If you call abortion murder then you logically must call miscarriages their same equivalent, but most people don’t do that because it stretches our definitions of personhood to a point that is, clearly, preposterous.
Argument: Life begins at conception.
Unpacked: If life begins at conception then there are so many dead people you guys. Fifty percent of fertilized eggs never implant in the uterus, meaning that, using the logic above, half of all children that ever could have been should be considered to be legally dead. But we know that a fertilized egg isn’t a child, isn’t a life. It might be a life, one day, but there’s a 50% chance that, without any intervention from anyone, it will not make it even to implantation. The process of creating human life requires a series of thousands of events that must occur in precise order before a life can be classified as even having started to begin. Conception is not black and white—it is gray AF.
Argument: If you didn’t want to have a baby, you should have been more careful.
Unpacked: You should have kept your legs closed, you should have said no, you should have asked your rapist to wear a condom, you should have tried harder, you should have been more. We all know that children are the result of sex and that the act of being pregnant and giving birth is, at the bare minimum, profoundly uncomfortable and, more usually, an excruciating experience. So deep in our Puritan hearts we believe that it’s the proper punishment a woman should face for having sex, or for Eve having eaten the apple. But sex isn’t inherently evil and children aren’t punishment and the Garden of Eden was a motherfucking metaphor so: No.
Argument: You can just give birth and then put the baby up for adoption.
Unpacked: Have you ever “just” been pregnant? I have, three times, only once to term, and there’s no fucking “just” about it. You “just” have your entire body stop doing everything you’re used to it doing and instead start dedicating all available resources to the possible new life inside of you. You throw up all day, every day, for weeks. You wake up each morning knowing that you have a 12-hour day in front of you but only five hours’ worth of energy. You have your hands go numb and your whole body swell and your nipples expand to ridiculous proportions. Your blood volume increases by half and your blood pressure rises and your cholesterol rises and you literally risk your life for nine months. No one should be forced to be pregnant if they don’t want to be.
When I gave birth, I realized I had never been closer to dying in my life. I was in a hospital and, overall, things went well, but also: My body was being torn apart, I was gushing blood, my child’s heartbeat was dropping with every contraction, and, statistically speaking, both of our lives were at risk. Life and death aren’t opposites—they’re the same. The same forces that make life also end it. The line between living and dying isn’t sharp and black, it’s hazy and gray and full of millions of tiny holes.
You assume that having an abortion was a difficult decision for your friend and her husband. What if it wasn’t difficult? What if the decision was as easy as breathing—breathe in, I’m pregnant, breathe out, I want an abortion. Does that make the abortion worse? Can abortions be “good” or “bad”? For you, a “good” abortion would be one that is agonized over for weeks. One where the woman having it suffers, I mean really emotionally suffers, for weeks afterward. And then, in this suffering, in your eyes, she atones for what she has done. A “bad” abortion is one that is decided upon easily, quickly, and is done without any emotional agony—maybe there aren’t even any protestors at the clinic to yell at her that day. She had an abortion, which is her legal right, and maybe it wasn’t a big deal for her at all. What then? Can you forgive her then?
You shouldn’t forgive her, but not because what she did was unforgivable. You shouldn’t forgive her because what she did wasn’t wrong.
The truth is, it’s fine if you have a problem with abortion. It’s fine if you think it should only be used in certain, rare instances, and those who find themselves pregnant and able to take care of a child shouldn’t use abortion. Because that’s your opinion and it has fuck all to do with your friend and her choices. If you think abortion shouldn’t be used in a certain way, then don’t use abortion in that way. Don’t like this type of abortion? Don’t have that type of abortion. Don’t like that someone else had that type of abortion? Well, that’s where the law and bodily autonomy and keeping your mouth shut come into play.
You get over your disapproval by realizing that you and your approval have nothing to do with your friend’s decision, nor should they. You get over your disapproval by realizing that you are projecting your personal morality onto your friend’s situation, which you are in no way a part of. You get over your disapproval by deciding to trust your friend that she made the best decision for herself, and her situation, and her body. Trust women. Trust your friend.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.