STOKING FIRE: The Abortion Narrative You Don’t Hear

Eleanor J. Bader

The stigma surrounding abortion -- manufactured by a relentless anti-choice movement--has silenced women who've terminated unwanted pregnancies. As a result, the loudest voices belong to those who claim abortion has ruined their lives.

It’s a balmy October morning and five anti-abortion activists are gathered near the entrance of A Bronx Woman’s Medical Pavilion—AKA Dr. Emily’s clinic. Two female protesters are praying silently, rosaries in hand. Another is face-to-face with Maria, a would-be patient in her late teens. The others, both men, are for the most part quiet, chiming in only occasionally to underscore what their colleague is saying.

“The day you get your Bachelor’s degree, your Masters, your Ph.D., whatever you go on to do, whatever great things you achieve, one thing will never change,” the speaker begins. “The beautiful person who is now growing inside you will be missing from the celebrations if you have an abortion. Sure, you’ll see your baby in the next life, but can you stand to wait, imagining how you’ll explain why you took his or her life when you’re finally together?”

I later learn that the lecturer, named April, is a 33-year-old former dancer. Now the mother of three, her blue eyes fill as she relays her message: “I know the devastating effects of abortion because I, myself, had one. I was 26. My career was on the rise. I already had one child and saw having a second as something that would slow me down. Afterwards, I was destroyed, depressed, and sad. When I achieved things it didn’t matter. No matter what I did, my life was stopped; the pain of that abortion has never gone away.”

April’s presentation is compelling and it is obvious that she has gained a toehold in Maria’s psyche. When April stops for a moment to catch her breath, Junior, a protester in his mid-30’s takes over and ushers the young woman toward a white van. A bumper sticker—Pregnant? Call 1-800-848-LOVE—is the only thing identifying it as an anti-choice vehicle. Inside, I’m told, Junior will do an ultrasound to show Maria her baby. What happens next is anyone’s guess. Perhaps Maria will return to the clinic on another day and have the abortion. Perhaps she won’t.

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What we do know is that if Maria goes online and searches for “reactions to abortion” she’ll likely find dozens, maybe even hundreds, of testimonies mirroring April’s. In them women of every race tell a similar tale: Since having an abortion they’ve been bereft and miserable.  Some–Operation Outcry, Silent No More, Rachel’s Vineyard, American Victims of Abortion, and the Elliott Institute, among them—go even further, alleging that women who have abortions are more prone to suicide, cancer, and substance abuse than peers who don’t.

Feminists for Life [FFL] take a different tack and showcase women who’ve grappled with unplanned pregnancies and then “chosen life.” One, rape survivor Joyce Ann McCauley-Benner, is particularly gripping: She tells viewers that when she found out she was pregnant she had no way of ascertaining whether the baby had been fathered by her rapist or by her boyfriend. “Did I think about abortion? Sure,” she confides. “But I realized that I knew who the mother was, that there was as much of me inside this baby as there was of the rapist—or my boyfriend…I tapped into a strength I didn’t know I had and had my son.”

It’s hard not to be affected by such narratives. Indeed, it’s obvious that personal accounts—even those meant to scare viewers–have incredible power, touching us in ways that polemics or scientific presentations do not.

So-called Second Wave feminists knew this, which is why an organization called Redstockings sponsored a speak-out on abortion in 1969. The event featured woman after woman telling the assembled crowd what they had gone through to access the illegal procedure. The message amounted to a clarion call, a demand that government value women’s health and sanction safe, legal abortion. In short order, public opinion swung in favor of repealing restrictive abortion laws and state legislators, and later the Supreme Court, listened.

The strategy of women speaking from the heart was—and remains—a brilliant one because stories matter. They moved the public 41 years ago and they move the public now.  At the same time, the stigma surrounding abortion—manufactured by a relentless anti-choice movement–has silenced the lion’s share of women who terminate unwanted pregnancies. As a result, the loudest voices belong, not to women who are relieved to have access to legal abortion, but to those who claim that the surgery has ruined their lives.  

But there are some glimmers of breakthrough. Sites like imnotsorry.net give women a place to share positive abortion stories. Over the past seven years, more than 900 women have contributed to the site and users can rifle through their comments.  Similarly, Backline, Exhale, Faith Aloud, and Project Voices offer women a variety of pre-and-post surgery forums to discuss abortion in nuanced ways, whether their concerns are theological, pragmatic, or emotional.  

“We know that finding a middle ground for women to tell their stories without political overtones is helpful to their emotional health,” says Peg Johnston, Executive Director of an upstate New York clinic and an active member of the Abortion Care Network. “Several clinics keep a journal in their waiting rooms for patients and significant others to write in about their process and feelings. They’re often quite provocative and very tender. It gives people a chance to express themselves and also see what others have written.”

While everyone agrees that this is insufficient, it’s an important start. The pity is that people like April, Joyce, Maria, Junior, and most of the American body politic will likely never read their words or hear their voices. 

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