Culture & Conversation Media

Pro-Choice Activists Should Heed Kassi Underwood’s Push for Healing After Abortion

Katie Klabusich

As one of the most anti-choice administrations in U.S. history is set to take office this week, just two days before we mark the 1973 decriminalization of abortion through Roe v. Wade, pro-choice activists must make a concerted effort to create space for all those who need and have had an abortion, including those who felt regret.

In the face of relentless attacks from anti-choice groups and the politicians they fund, it is somewhat understandable that the pro-choice side historically has shined the brightest light on abortion stories of women who are admirable and strong or tragic. But, over time, we have done a disservice to those whose complicated narratives are silenced by our need for “acceptable” ones.

This is partly why writer and lecturer Kassi Underwood felt she didn’t find the community she needed in the unapologetically pro-choice camp after her abortion at 19. She wasn’t ashamed of her choice, rather it was that she had to hide the emotions that came after. In the decade since, her feelings about her pregnancy and the life she wanted have changed dramatically several times over. Underwood reflects on her experience in her upcoming book, May Cause Love: An Unexpected Journey of Enlightenment After Abortion. Over time, she has come to love the teenager who made the choice, the child that was not to be, the adult she has become, and the people whom the universe has brought into her life, past and present.

Out next month, May Cause Love is a powerful narrative for those who support abortion rights, people who call themselves “pro-life,” and those who don’t know where they fall or how they feel. Underwood’s story and the stories of those she tells have never been more important, because they touch on feelings not often addressed by the people most affected by them. [Full disclosure: She quotes me briefly in her chapter on abortion storytellers.]

As one of the most anti-choice administrations in U.S. history is set to take office this week, just two days before we mark the 1973 decriminalization of abortion through Roe v. Wade, pro-choice activists must make a concerted effort to create space for all those who need and have had an abortion, including those who felt regret. Even as lawmakers use this very complicated emotion as a tool to further restrict access to care through mandatory waiting period and counseling laws, among others, activists would do well by learning how to talk about regret (and grief) at the same time that we are fighting against stigma and misunderstandings about what goes into the decision.

As Underwood writes: “There is no shame in regret. There’s no shame in regretting an irreversible decision a person is forced to make during a time crunch imposed by the law and ramped up by one’s own biology.”

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Underwood opens her book by explaining the pressure she put on herself after having an abortion. “I was twenty-four and had spent five years chasing my dreams like someone was holding a gun to my head … working to make my abortion a worthwhile investment, trying to be happy,” Underwood writes.

Like so many, Underwood spent the first part of her adult years in pursuit of the all-American script: career, marriage, family. She knew she had made the only choice she could as an unexpectedly pregnant 19-year-old with ambition. And besides, the potential father wasn’t exactly in a place where he could be an engaged, supportive parent or partner. Over time, however, she wondered about the choice—was it the only choice? Who decided that? What would her life have looked like?

“I was sorry about the abortion, not necessarily because I’d categorically chosen wrongly, but because the other voices were so loud,” she explains, frustrated that the “collective conscience around girls and pregnant people and motherhood and money had filled [her] head with opinions that did not belong to [her].”

Unsure how to find her own voice again, Underwood sought community; it would take her participation in multiple spiritual rites and rituals to allow herself the healing necessary to realize that she could create the community she needed.

“It was settled in my mind that I would partake of every such healing technique for abortion that I could afford, both religious and secular,” she writes. “My abortion was the heart of my life. A diamond that refracted light into my love partnerships, my friendships, my body, my mind, my ambitions, my questions, my feelings about womanhood, my relationship with history and with God.”

Her expedition would take her across the country and back; deliver her accidentally into anti-choice, shaming territory; teach her how to grieve; and give her experiences with Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and a group of “wild women” who helped her write a “new Constitution” wherein she declared her truth and needs that would guide her future conduct.

Throughout the book Underwood is, at times, painfully honest about her thoughts and feelings. She is candid about years of self-medication and regret, how her choices affected her relationships with others as well as herself, and the spaces she has occupied that don’t fit into a convenient political narrative. During a Buddhist ritual called a mizuko kuyo, for example, she asks her “water baby”—her mizuko—for forgiveness.

The mizuko kuyo is a Japanese Buddhist ritual originally intended for abortion, but has expanded to include miscarriage and stillbirth as well. Kuyo means “respect.” Women created this space to honor the potential children that weren’t: “We don’t apologize to be forgiven,” Underwood writes. “We apologize to forgive ourselves.”

Having given herself permission to feel for this water baby, as she came to call it after discovering the phrase and participating in a mizuko kuyo at the New York Buddhist Church six years after her abortion, she continued seeking validation and space for her story. She read Ava Torre-Bueno’s book Peace After Abortion and sought her out.

“I sat like a rapt student as Ava broke down what appeared to be a crisis of grief in the United States, where, it turns out, grieving is almost as taboo as abortion,” Underwood writes of her meeting with Torre-Bueno. “We have very few models for grief and mourning in this country, Ava said. We have no education in loss … Grief is the emotional, physical, and spiritual process by which one experiences a loss—any loss.”

Torre-Bueno’s description of loss is one of the highlights of the book, as it transcends the topic of abortion. Most people live with regret and wonder over the forks in the road of their life; the licensed clinical social worker very effectively positions abortion as just one more choice some have made.

While widespread “abortion regret” and its various spinoff “disorders” created by anti-abortion researchers and activists are not real (an estimated 95 percent of those terminating pregnancies do not feel regret), there will always be those who look back and consider how their life might have been different. Some of us are more prone to backward reflection and grief for what we didn’t have or do than others; abortion is one of many decisions that can prompt such reflection.

Underwood writes:

“All choice involves loss,” Ava said. We carry all sorts of griefs, not just the deaths of loved ones. Leaving a crummy job for a sexy new career is a loss. Marriage is a loss of loves not chosen, as well as a loss of singlehood and independence. With some choices, the alternative remains a mystery: one college over another, abortion over a child.

Perhaps if we hadn’t politicized grief and regret, those who fall somewhere along the spectrum between “OMG I shouldn’t have!” and “I wish I hadn’t felt I had to” would not have gotten lost in the shuffle. And while anti-choice groups are largely responsible for politicizing abortion and the possibility of grief and regret—private feelings that should never have been weaponized for public consumption—abortion advocates can take the compassionate step of welcoming these politically inconvenient narratives as acceptable ones to share openly.

Demanding that space for herself and others like her was part of what pushed Underwood to write May Cause Love. She realized that we don’t allow for grief without regret either.

“‘Grieving is scary,’ I said [to Torre-Bueno], ‘especially when so many people don’t get it—like most people talking about abortion in public,” she writes. “So far, I’ve heard two options: grieve your heart out, and then sign this affidavit to try and overturn Roe’—I was referring to the pack of legal documents distributed at Rachel’s Vineyard [weekend retreats to “redeem hearts broken by abortion“]—‘or don’t grieve at all for a first-trimester pregnancy termination in college that allowed you to pursue your education, career goals and personal freedom.’”

Eventually, her desire for community would put her in touch with Aspen Baker of Exhale Pro-Voice, a nonprofit founded “by and for women who have abortions” to provide emotional support regardless of story or political leanings. Underwood embarked on a national tour with other women telling their abortion stories—many of them as inconvenient to the political climate as hers.

Underwood quotes Exhale tour-mate Mayah Frank as saying: “I was extremely depressed about it for years, but I’ve never wanted to take it back, either.”

Certainly, Frank is not alone, and it’s long past time we intentionally made more space for stories like hers and Underwood’s in pro-choice/reproductive rights spaces. Our position on bodily autonomy is not weakened by honoring such lived experiences. Rather, we show our strength as a movement and true concern for people’s well-being by welcoming them. May Cause Love is an extraordinary contribution, an extended hand inviting more of those who wish to share into the abortion storytelling space.

As Underwood writes: “Everybody wants a place to tell the truth without being judged.”

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