If you ever want to see a perfect example of how the mainstream media perpetuates abortion stigma, look no further than the reactions to Nicki Minaj’s recent Rolling Stone interview, in which she discussed an abortion she had as a teenager. In a world where most female celebrities feel they have to tiptoe around touchy issues, lest they set off the ever-misogynistic gossip press, Minaj has always been refreshingly straightforward. So it’s no surprise that she was relatively direct when discussing the circumstances of her abortion: She was in high school, her boyfriend was much older, and the entire situation was, as she put it, “the hardest thing I’d ever gone through.”
Minaj’s new record, The Pinkprint, is more personal than her previous releases have been. In the same interview, she had some choice words for people who would sit in judgment of the life choices, including her abortion, revealed on that album: “Millions of people are gonna hear it. And you gotta watch everything you say—people find an issue with every fucking thing.” It’s ironic, then, that a huge number of publications covering the interview wrote their headlines in such a way to suggest that she did something shameful and terrible:
If you did nothing but read the headlines, you’d get the impression that Minaj is saying she wishes she’d chosen to blow off her wildly successful career as a pop and hip-hop star for the less exciting pleasures of life as a teen mother. (Especially because, by her own admission, she is a bit salty for more normal jobs.) Now while I can’t get in Minaj’s head, I have to say I’m skeptical that was what she meant. Especially since she actually defended the decision in the interview, saying, “It’d be contradictory if I said I wasn’t pro-choice. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have anything to offer a child.”
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As for the “thought I was going to die” comment, that isn’t because the abortion was some terrible physical ordeal—the comment is in reference to how she felt when she got pregnant, which is exactly how you’d imagine most ambitious teen girls would feel in that situation.
This is what the politicization of abortion has brought us. Of course women frequently think about their abortions and feel pangs of regret. But for most, it’s not because, as the anti-choice movement would have you believe, they think they should have had the baby. It’s often more that they regret getting into a situation that required an abortion: an accidental pregnancy, a bad relationship, that sort of thing. It’s like when you break your leg and you ruefully look at the cast later. You’re regretting that you made the mistake that led to a broken leg, but you’re not mad that medical science was on hand to fix the problem.
But the anti-choice movement has successfully pushed the idea that women are—or should be—torn up with shame about the abortion itself. And, as Minaj’s case demonstrates, the mainstream media all too often plays along.
Back in September, Stevie Nicks got a similarly aggressive response to her own abortion story. The anti-choice website LifeNews tried to argue that her song “Sara” was about regretting her abortion, even though, in the very Billboard interview LifeNews quoted, Nicks said the song was just as much about a woman named Sara, who seems to have been her romantic rival. (Her boyfriend at the time, Don Henley, married Sara very shortly after the abortion.) Still, much of the conservative media joined in, talking about the “child” Nicks aborted. In fact, it appears as though Nicks was mostly upset because Henley readily agreed to the abortion, when she seems to have wished he had shown some interest in having a baby—and probably settling down—with her.
To be sure, there are plenty of examples of female celebrities who talk about their abortions in such stark, unapologetic terms that it’s impossible to distort their narratives to suit a political agenda. When ABC’s Juju Chang tried to prompt pageant queen, actor, and singer Vanessa Williams to express shame or guilt over her abortion in high school, Williams refused, saying, “Being pregnant is the most frightening thing that happens in your life and I knew in high school that that was something I was not prepared to do or fight or struggle with.” Her careful phrasing—emphasizing that it was the pregnancy that was frightening, not the abortion—suggests that Williams was well aware that any ambiguity in her phrasing could lead to the same misleading headlines that we see with Nicki Minaj’s story.
Similarly, comedian Chelsea Handler did not hold back when discussing her abortion in high school on Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show, saying, “You should do whatever you want with your body and you shouldn’t let anyone tell you what to do,” and adding, “I have no regret at all.”
It’s clear that the anti-choice movement’s relentless propaganda about “abortion regret” has done some real damage when it comes to women being able to tell their abortion stories in the public sphere. If you express any mixed feelings about the situation, prepare to have the conservative media—or, as with Minaj, more mainstream outlets, too—flatten your experiences to fit a narrative about how women always regret their abortions. In this current political climate, talking about reproductive decisions in a nuanced, personal fashion seems impossible to do without feeding the machine that suggests that any feelings of regret whatsoever means that abortion is bad for women.