Shakespeare’s Sister and Jamie Lynn’s Abortion

Carole Joffe

Carol Joffe examines Jamie Lynn Spears choice to carry her now celebrity-pregnancy to term against the backdrop of a society that stigmatizes abortion as an option.

In a famous passage in A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf fantasized the consequences had Shakespeare had a sister, "Judith," who possessed the same literary talents as her brother. Woolf speculated that instead of being celebrated as a genius, Judith would have been subject to so much derision and hostility that she would "certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at." Woolf's hypothetical case brilliantly shows the power of social context to shape the reception of innate talent–and the misogynist society of sixteenth century England was most decidedly not a place in which it was acceptable for a woman to be a writer.

Let us apply a similar thought experiment to Jamie Lynn Spears, the younger sister of Britney, who is a star in her own right of a television show for young teens. Spears, as everyone on the planet presumably now knows, is pregnant at the age of 16. She has announced that she will continue with her pregnancy. While Spears has been subject to some criticism from conservatives because of her sexual activity, she has repeatedly been praised by various anti-abortion spokespersons, including presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, for her decision to not end her pregnancy.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that Jamie Lynn actually prefers to have an abortion, an option chosen by nearly half of teenagers faced with unintended pregnancies. Just as the imaginary Judith Shakespeare's talents would have been met by a society deeply hostile to women writers, so too the real Jamie Lynn's decision to end this pregnancy would take place in a society deeply polarized around abortion.

Such a move would, at a minimum, be a career-ender. Abortion has become so stigmatized in the contemporary United States that public admission of an abortion by someone in Spears' position would most likely mean the loss of acting roles, personal appearances, endorsements and so on. Admittedly, Spears' current career prospects are uncertain, with her television show on hold; but given reports that her mother, Lynne Spears, has already arranged the sale of the first baby pictures to a fan magazine, it is quite conceivable –no pun intended– that Jamie Lynn might be able to create a new celebrity persona as teenage mom.

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Moreover, were Jamie Lynn to seek out an abortion in Louisiana, her home state, her mother would have to give consent, as is required by that state's laws. And that would seem highly unlikely, in light of Lynne's marketing plans for her forthcoming grandchild.

But loss of career opportunities would only be the beginning of Spears' difficulties if news of an abortion became public. She would be denounced in the pulpits of evangelical preachers, castigated on various websites and right-wing television shows, and receive abusive and threatening phone calls and letters. Every public outing-say, an evening with friends in a restaurant -would carry the risk of strangers coming up and screaming epithets in her face.

This worry about exposure as an abortion recipient is not limited to celebrities. Attempts to "out" abortion recipients are a tactic with a long history in the antiabortion movement– for example, the many instances of photographing the license plates of cars in clinic parking lots. So fearful are some women of having their abortions revealed that clinic administrators report that often patients with insurance plans that cover the procedure prefer to pay cash, so there is no paper trail of their abortion.

The fact that a history of an abortion can taint one's identity-or serve, in sociological parlance, as a "discrediting device"– is a serious problem that goes well beyond the travails of Jamie Lynn Spears. Consider, for example, the world of electoral politics. The most recent data suggests that more than one third of American women will have an abortion by the time they reach the age of 45. Some portion of these women, no doubt, will run for elective office. Will the standard "oppositional research" that is part of modern politics now routinely include attempts to find out if women candidates have ever had an abortion? Will such information be enough to derail their campaigns?

Given the immense success that the antiabortion movement has had in the decades since Roe v Wade in demonizing abortion, it is no simple matter to visualize how to destigmatize the procedure, as well as those who receive and provide it. One promising start, however, comes from a still relevant quote made some years ago by Rachel Atkins, then the director of a women's health center in Vermont. Speaking to a New York Times columnist about the women in her waiting room, Atkins said, "The country really suffers from thinking that there are two different kinds of women — women who have abortions and women who have babies. They're the same women at different times."

To be sure, not all abortion recipients currently or eventuallyexperience motherhood-though this is an accurate description of most. But Atkins' perceptive comment reminds us that abortion is just one of several significant reproductive events that women will experience in their life times. And whether an unwanted pregnancy occurs to a famous 16 year old like Jamie Lynn, or– as is far more common– a poor teen of color, an ambitious college student who one day wants to run for office, or a waitress who has all the children she can care for, we should strive for a culture in which abortion is recognized as an honorable option.

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