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October 13, 2012 9:14 AM Must-watch video of the day: “I had an abortion … or maybe I didn’t”

By Kathleen Geier

The anti-abortion movement has had many triumphs; one of the most unfortunate ones is that they have driven the millions of women who have had abortions back into the closet. Women who have had abortions have not always been so silent; during the second wave of the women’s movement, many women spoke out, for the first time, about their abortions. For example, when Ms. magazine made its debut in 1972, one of its most talked about features was a statement entitled “We Have Had Abortions,” which was signed by a number of prominent women, including Gloria Steinem, Nora Ephron, Lillian Hellman, and Billie Jean King.

Sadly, in today’s political climate, a similarly brave and powerful gesture would be most unlikely. Can you imagine a promising young starlet or up-and-coming female tennis star going public about their abortions? Exceedingly few women would be courageous enough to put their careers at risk, let alone themselves up to the cauldron of private threats and public hatred that would inevitably result.

And yet … in the U.S., abortion is the single most common surgical procedure for women. By the age of 45, more than one-third of American women will have had an abortion. Almost half of pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended, and about 40% of those unplanned pregnancies are ended by abortion.

Clearly, millions of women are having abortions. And yet, we almost never hear from them. The enormous disconnect between how extraordinarily widespread the practice of abortion is, and women’s overwhelming public silence about it, is shocking. When abortion is discussed publicly, it is almost always treated as an abstract, philosophical or religious issue, and the discussants are usually older white men (the recent vice presidential debate was a fairly classic example of this).

And yet, the more abortion is treated as a an abstract issue about “when life begins,” the further it is removed from the physical realities of women’s lives. An individual woman’s right to make the most basic, urgent decisions about what goes on in her body and her life are intellectualized away.

All of which is to say that it is vitally important that we women take charge of the terms of the abortion debate by making it about our bodies, our lives, our dreams, and our freedom to plan our families and control our reproductive destinies in any way we see fit. Breaking the long. shame-filled silence and speaking honestly about our own experiences with abortion is one of the most powerful weapons we can use to re-center the abortion debate back where it belongs: in the everyday lives and realities of individual women.

If we are to have any hope of reversing the creeping anti-choice tide, speaking about our own abortions is crucial. That’s why I think it’s so important that everyone list to this Ted talk by Aussie feminist Leslie Cannold, about breaking the shame cycle that leads to the public silencing about women about our abortions. As Cannold points out, shame silences us, then isolates us, thus severing all possibility of connection and solidarity, and by extension, political power. We must break that cycle. Cannold’s talk is a start.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

Comments

  • c u n d gulag on October 13, 2012 10:53 AM:

    How about a t-shirt that says:
    "We women are about as ashamed of our abortions, as you men are of having to take a little blue quicker-pecker-upper to get us pregnant."

    Too long, I know.

    Maybe it's a start, and someone else can shorten it?

  • SYSPROG on October 13, 2012 10:57 AM:

    I LOVE you Kathleen Geier! I had an abortion in 1974 as a young college student. God knows WHAT birth control I thought I was practising but it didn't work. I was so incredibly lucky because I had an ob/gyn that fought for choice and a mother who remembered back alley abortions. The minute it was done I went to Planned Parenthood and got on the pill. For the next 40 years I fought the cranky old white men that thought they were the 'protectors of women'...BS. NOW I'm fighting the same stupid people but they are MY generation. I want to slap them upside the head. Whoredogs in their youth and sanctimonious peckerheads in their dotage. I have talked to my 18 year old and she would be 'scared' to speak out because of the intimidation. It makes me CRAZY!!!

  • DIane Rodriguez on October 13, 2012 11:03 AM:

    Kathleen, thanks for bringing that video to this site. I enjoy your times here blogging.

    I had a moment of clarity when Ms Cannold talked about the vaginal probe as a method of shaming. Duh...what else would be it's purpose? We've already established there is no medical reason. Now I have an effective way to describe its use to others. It's such an outrageous violation that is is difficult to get past the rage.

    I think that its important for more women, who have had abortions or not, to engage in the conversation. As has been pointed out by many others, the conversation is dominated by men. Further, the dominance of men in this conversation isn't completely restricted to Republicans either. Women should be the primary talkers, deciders and educators about their own bodies.

  • castanea on October 13, 2012 11:55 AM:

    Mitch had a good comment yesterday, the gist of which bears repeating: Women who are anti-choice are just as vociferous in their views as men are.

    For every woman who is pro-choice and who wants to "take charge of the terms of the debate," there probably is a women who is anti-choice and who is trying to do the same.

    I did a quick Google search and found a Gallup poll from the recent past that showed 49 percent of American women being pro-life while 44 percent are pro-choice. Some 54 percent of men were pro-life and 39 percent were pro-choice.

    What that means is that nearly half of American women oppose their own right to choose, and that only five percent fewer men support a woman's right to choose than women themselves.

    Among my relatives, who are either strict Catholics or strict fundamentalists, to a person the women are anti-choice, while the men are more around a 50/50 breakdown.

    I guess that's why I chafe when I read comments that equate anti-choice forces with men who want to control a woman's body. From the Gallup poll, it would seem that nearly half of women themselves want to control another woman's body.

    Until that discrepancy figures in the equation, I'm afraid all we will see is a continuing erosion of the right to choose in America.

  • golack on October 13, 2012 12:19 PM:

    The sad thing is that the anti-abortion activists also are against sexual education (in schools) and contraceptives. The result is the highest rate of unplanned pregnancies and abortions in the developed world.

    Want a conspiracy theory? Anti-abortion activists fight sex ed. and access to contraception because then our unplanned pregnancies and abortion rates would drop--and they'd have nothing to rail against...

  • elisabeth on October 13, 2012 1:13 PM:

    Many women are only anti-abortion until they have an unplanned pregnancy. Then, things become a bit more real.
    I think one of the reasons that women aren't as active on this issue as I'd like them to be is that unlike contraception, most women don't regularly need abortions. That it only happens if you are unlucky and seldom more than once or twice means it is easier for some women to reframe it in some way and to return -- at least when polled! -- to an anti-abortion position.
    I am seldom in complete agreement with Chris Mathews, but I do think he is on to something when he argues that anti-abortion politicians should be pushed on whether they want to criminalize women as well as doctors, I think that's a good pressure point.

  • Old Uncle Dave on October 13, 2012 1:23 PM:

    Anti-Abortion Congressman Pressured Mistress to Terminate Pregnancy
    http://www.alternet.org/election-2012/anti-abortion-congressman-pressured-mistress-terminate-pregnancy

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on October 13, 2012 1:25 PM:

    And yet, the more abortion is treated as a an abstract issue about “when life begins” ....

    It's not an abstract issue for the individual being aborted.

    (I'm pro-life in everything, not a pro-fetal-life anti-adult-life Republican.)

  • Diane Rodriguez on October 13, 2012 1:57 PM:

    I'm sure there are many women who express strong anti-abortion feelings in polls and in public. However, the discussion of shaming in the video is one explanation for feeling the need to express those views. Men don't have near the skin in the game that women do. Reputation and morality are defined in different ways for men and women. There is significantly less tolerance for a woman who gets an abortion than a man who impregnates multiple women.

    This about way more than abortion. It is a central strike at the capability of women to control their own destinies and to have access to health care, in a broader sense.

    I can google search and can find a poll to support most anything. Gallup has admitted in the last few days their polling practices are inaccurate. @Castanea Its too bad that you feel "chafed", its not helpful to women asserting their rights.

  • exlibra on October 13, 2012 2:53 PM:

    [...] by making it (the abortion debate) about our bodies, our lives, our dreams, and our freedom to plan our families and control our reproductive destinies in any way we see fit. -- Kathleen Geier

    Not to mention our economic independence. Dragging dollars into the discussion might be as taboo as discussing abortion itself "money" being a very dirty word in this particular context. But, nevertheless, there it is: a girl who gets pregnant, drops out of school to carry to term and then raise a child, is far less likely to reach the same earning potential as the one who goes off to college, childless. Thus, she'll have both less money and less time (probably working two low-paying jobs to keep her -- and her child's -- head above water) to spend in full (both physical and mental) support of her child.

  • castanea on October 13, 2012 3:02 PM:

    "Gallup has admitted in the last few days their polling practices are inaccurate."

    That is no argument against my point at all, unless you claim that therefore Gallup admits that every poll it has taken is invalid.

    My feeling of being chafed is entirely because far too often I've seen commenters and pro-choicers fall back on some silly notion that the anti-choice movement is driven by men who want to control women's bodies, when in fact there is, according to the poll, a plurality of women who are anti-choice.

    In fact, I believe one of the sponsors of the recent vaginal probe legislation in Virgina was a woman.

    My larger point is that if you want to ensure that a woman's right to choose survives over time, as I believe it should, then understanding the landscape of supporters and opponents is essential. Anti-choicers are composed of men, but also of nearly half the females polled.

  • j on October 13, 2012 4:34 PM:

    I was shocked today to see a poll showing Romney tied with Obama amongst women!!!!!!!!

  • joanneinDenver on October 13, 2012 7:50 PM:

    I am a woman. I am pro-life. I have not had an abortion. I consider myself a feminist. I do not believe that women should have to adopt a male pattern of reproduction in order to be participate equally in this society. I do not think that
    women who have had abortion should be shamed. I do think that women who have had an abortion, should be supported and allowed to grieve, if that is what they feel.

  • Keith M Ellis on October 14, 2012 12:31 AM:

    The anti-abortion sentiment in American culture (and, I presume, some which are similar and for similar reasons) runs very deep.

    Besides the fact that abortion is stigmatized such that women are discouraged from talking about their own abortions, is a couple of other things I'm very sensitive to and which I notice regularly.

    First, that even among the pro-choice community, the notion that abortion is inherently undesirable and unpleasant (beyond that of a similar, medical procedure) is almost universal. It is, at best, a "necessary evil". It's taken for granted among the majority that an abortion is a traumatic experience. And, of course, for some women it certainly is. But for other women, it is not. The assumption is that it always and necessarily is. This plays deeply into the framing of the anti-choice argument.

    Second, in popular, fictional narratives, women who become unexpectedly pregnant almost never consider abortion as a possibility and, when they do, the "happy ending" is always that they choose to have a baby. Essentially never in American popular fictional culture do women have considered abortions, as they do in real life. It's almost never even considered. When it is, it's clearly signaled as the "wrong choice".

    I don't know how much the anti-choice movement is responsible for this. I think that the American public, though moderately and conditionally pro-choice, has always been ambivalent about abortion and viewed it with a kind of distaste. If there was a time (and I'm about fifty years old, for what it's worth) when this was becoming less the case, I don't recall it. Certainly, however, the situation hasn't been getting any better over the last forty years.

    Even so, I think this is something that deserves a lot of attention from pro-choicers and feminists and I've been trying to push against the anti-abortion bias (in the sense we're discussing) on the left and on the pro-choice side for many years. I'd like to see a lot more activity in this direction. But make no mistake -- it's an uphill battle and a lot of people who are our allies in feminism and pro-choice activism will resist or even be appalled. A whole bunch of people just don't like abortion on a visceral level, whether they think it should be legal, or not.

  • JoanneinDenver on October 14, 2012 12:59 AM:

    @Keith

    "A whole bunch of people just don't like abortion on a visceral level, whether they think it should be legal, or not."

    Why do you think this is true?

  • Keith M Ellis on October 14, 2012 1:56 AM:

    "Why do you think this is true?"

    Well, aside from anecdotes and long observation, there's the simple well-documented fact that a significant portion of those who identify as *pro-choice* say that they are personally opposed to abortion, though they prefer that it's legal. We can assume this is true of the entirety of the pro-life camp.

    And there is the pop-cultural evidence I describe in my comment. Frankly, I'm surprised that anyone would question the assertion that a large number of people, in addition those who are opposed to legal abortion, dislike abortion. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I've heard "I don't like abortion, but I think it should be legal".

    Unlike, most probably, yourself, I've a long history of publicly defending abortion itself, to the point where I often self-describe as "pro-abortion". Which, by the way, is also evidence for my assertion, as being "pro-abortion" is very unusual and almost always provokes a response from people who object to the idea of being "pro-abortion". This is to say, I've long experience because of my defense of abortion with people telling me -- many, many people -- in various ways how they don't much like abortion. Mind you, most of these people are pro-choice, as disliking abortion is presumed among the pro-life group.

    This post is all about the fact that there's some stigma associated with having had an abortion. Now, granted, there's lots of complicated sexist sexual politics involved in this, not just the opposition to abortion. But there's clearly a greater stigma attached to having had an abortion than to say, pre-marital sex, or whatever else you might argue is the true basis for this stigma. Again, I think those other forces are involved, but I also think a large portion of the stigma arises from a simple cultural dislike of abortion itself. This dislike, as I've been at pains to make clear, is not and cannot be (due to its prevalance) limited to the anti-choice faction.

  • CharlieM on October 14, 2012 6:39 AM:

    @Castenea
    Just because a significant percentage of so-called "pro-lifers" are women doesn't negate the assertion that the position is primarily about control of women.
    There are any number of "mainstream" religious organizations in which women have no vote in church affairs, cannot hold any church office, etc. And the women belonging to those organizations will tell you that they're okay with that.
    I'd agree with you in one respect. Until there is a significant shift of women away from that position - that it is somehow the natural order of things that men *should* be in control of women - then we will continue to see a steady erosion of those rights.

  • joanneinDenver on October 14, 2012 11:32 AM:

    @Keith,

    Thank you very much for your thoughtful response to my question. As I read it, I
    realized that I had not asked the question that I had meant to. I guess I was trying to know what your understanding is of why there is a "simple cultural dislike of abortion,"

    I think that most women are profoundly conflicted about abortion. As I say, I have never had an abortion. However, in my long life, I have had occasion where I felt obligated to support women who had already made the decision to have an abortion. It was very, very, difficult, but, from a pro-life point of view, the only way to support life before birth is to support the mother. If the mother has had a previous pregnancy in which she was harassed or not supported, regardless of the outcome, it can make it more difficult for her to mother a wanted child.

    For this reason, I deplore the picketing etc. around abortion clinics. I think it is vile and destructive

    I also do not think that the abortion issue is about controlling women. I think that men on both sides of the issue see it as a way to gain power. My concern about "overturning Roe" is not that the subject would be returned to the states, where the fight would continue. But, that the rationale used to overturn Roe in favor of states rights, would be used to unravel most of the civil rights legislation of the 50s, and 60s.

  • Rich on October 14, 2012 1:48 PM:

    NARAL et al have been fairly supine for decades and that is as much a part of the problem as the ability of the ant-abortionists to raise funds and enact laws. Opinions about abortion have been close to 50:50 for many years. The more important question is what people have done when confronted with an unplanned pregnancy, which I suspect is quite different from asking an opinion question embedded in a bigger survey.

  • Barbara on October 14, 2012 11:38 PM:

    We need a new narrative. I have considered this from so many different directions, but here is why I am not ambivalent: Reproduction of the species is primarily a social, not a biological undertaking. The fixation on the fetus as a physical being is distorted enough on its own (that is, the notion that it is separate from the woman, which is seriously delusional), but the fixation is even more seriously out of touch with reality when you consider that in many cases it will be born into circumstances where its welfare cannot even be assured, let alone be the primary focus of its caretakers. In utero the family unit is on autopilot -- after birth, it depends on nearly unparalleled loyalty and commitment to its welfare. I know lots of brave and heroic parents who have overcome all kinds of challenges, but the law of averages and the propensity for human failure should lead us to conclude that it is a bad idea when heroism is required for family survival. When a guy like Paul Ryan sees his little "bean" he isn't coming to terms with the physical dimensions of reproduction, he is in the beginning stages of making an emotional leap to parental protectiveness. And if you really think women don't viscerally understand this, just remind yourself that the world over, most women who want and have abortions are already mothers with one or more children.