The cover of a recent New York magazine promised so much – far more than I knew it would deliver, but I couldn’t resist. “There are over a million terminated pregnancies in American every year,” it read, under the headline “My Abortion,” “yet few women will ever talk about their experience.”
Living in a country where actually talking about abortion is discouraged by governments, regardless of their politics, who seem hell-bent on letting it continue forever in its current state of legislative limbo, I couldn’t help but welcome the premise. Yes, I thought – let’s talk about abortion, if only so that for a few minutes we can be clear exactly what we’re talking about.
I knew what to expect – New York, the founding magazine of “new journalism” in the ‘60s, is a reliable liberal magazine devoted to covering one of the most liberal cities in the United States of America, and with a euphemism like “terminated pregnancies” on the cover, there was no way that the story’s editors were ever going to let the feature inside take on anything like the tone you might expect to find in, say, the publication you’re currently reading.
But I welcomed the New York piece, notwithstanding, because even when you’re trying to defend it, abortion always ends up sounding like what it is – the death of an innocent human being – and it’s hard to cover that up, even with the most selective editing. So it’s heart-wrenching to read the account of someone like Heather, a 32-year-old mother of two from Tennessee who says that she was “brought up with a very religious background.”
“I just had to shut my conscience down,” she recalls. “The doctor was grotesque. He whistled show tunes. I could hear the vacuum sucking out the fetus alongside his whistling. When I hear show tunes now, I shudder. Later, he lost his license.”
New York’s “My Abortion” features the stories of 26 women, ranging in age from teenagers to Michelle, a 62-year-old woman who had her abortion in 1968, before the Roe V. Wade decision. After an introduction that casually observes that “abortion is part of our everyday experience” – a chilling phrase when you turn it over in your mind, but true – the women’s stories are recounted without editorializing, but with what you presume is a lot of careful editing.
The recurring theme is that it’s lack of access to abortion, not the thing itself, that’s the tragedy inherent in abortion today. With a growing backlash resulting in new restrictions being voted into law across the U.S. – helpfully laid out for the reader in a chart – many of the stories highlight the agonies of women being asked to wait and consider their decision, or travel to another town or state, as if this, and not the 1.2 million babies the story admits are aborted in the country each year, were a situation in need of a solution.
There are stories of abortions done in dire circumstances, from rape to diagnoses of a fetus unlikely to survive outside the womb, and they need to be read and understood as part of the painful gray area that will forever prevent even some sympathetic to the pro-life side from regarding abortion as a black and white issue. For many, they’re the exception that proves the necessity for untrammeled access to abortion, but they should elicit our empathy and pity, even if they give the pro-choice side ammunition.
The majority, however, are stories of abortion as birth control, justified either by economic “necessity” or the panic and confusion of a young woman caught out by the unexpected. Like 23-year old Mayah, who remembers that “afterwards, I felt this mix of regret, relief, gratitude, and I had a new sense of control and determination about my future, like I’m going to do this and this and this.”
But then there’s Ana, also 23, who had her first abortion in New York, at the urging of “progressive” parents who “always said I needed an education.” She got pregnant again later that year in Argentina, where it’s illegal, and despite trying to find an illegal provider, recalls that “I can’t even say why I decided to keep the baby. I didn’t want an illegal abortion. And I was in love, I guess. I didn’t think I could go to college with a kid, but I’m graduating this year.”
Some of the stories come from lives filled with poor choices and painful options, like Clio, another 23-year-old whose boyfriend wanted her to abort. “He wasn’t involved in anything except video games. That night, he played Call of Duty, this very gory war game that was his life. I slept alone. It mattered to me what the father wanted to do. I was cheating on my boyfriend with a guy who laid out the pros and cons and said ‘You’d have to be a mother forever.’ I kind of hoped it was his baby. My boyfriend said things like ‘I don’t have to worry about it until it pops out’.”
Others are startlingly callous, like Maria, 38, with two children, a loving husband and “plenty of money,” who’s shocked that her home state of Pennsylvania didn’t make access to abortion “easy for people like us.” She endures the waiting period, and has her abortion at one of Pittsburgh’s “world class medical centres.” It was “like a regular check-up but with painful cramping,” she recalls. “In the waiting room my husband said, ‘Where do you want to go on vacation?’ We booked a trip to Spain’.”
Mira, who had her abortion in South Dakota in 2004, recalls that “when we got to the clinic, an escort met us at the car and asked if we wanted a bulletproof vest.” For some reason, no one seems to wonder at this little bit of clinic theatre, and why pro-life protesters eager to save a baby’s life would want to kill the woman carrying it.
Pro-life protesters are viewed as sinister. Lauren, 34, from Colorado, recalls that “when I went to the clinic, there were protesters with awful, very graphic signs. I felt their judgment.” 29-year old Yolanda from Mississippi remembers that “protesters shouted, ‘You don’t need birth control, you need self-control’!” Cherise from Illinois says that pro-life counselors offering free ultrasounds told her that “If you have an abortion now, you’ll rupture your uterus and won’t be able to have children in the future.”
I have always been unsure about the efficacy of clinic protests, and it’s stories like these that give the pro-abortion side legitimacy they don’t deserve – never mind telling patent untruths as part of the pro-life counseling process (assuming these stories are true). The simple fact of abortion should be enough, and I can’t help but imagine that at least a few of the stories in New York’s “My Abortion” should be enough to give second thoughts to anyone for whom abortion is an option. Like Nicole, a 19-year-old from Kentucky, contemplating the upcoming due date of a baby that won’t be born. “When I cry about it, I cry alone,” she says. “He thinks it would make me sad to talk about, but I don’t want our baby to think we forgot.”