Speaking of Abortion

As someone who works at a reproductive rights organization—in communications no less—I talk about abortion a lot. I talk about abortion as a “fundamental right of all women.” I talk about abortion as a “safe and legal medical procedure.” I talk about abortion as “a personal decision made by a woman and her doctor.”

So when I found out I was pregnant recently, I assumed I had not only the knowledge and resources to do what I needed to do with confidence and relative ease, but also the language to speak about it. But as I began to tell the relevant people in my life—my friends, my boyfriend, my family—I felt myself falling back on euphemisms. I was avoiding a word I say every day, and I didn’t like it. So I stopped. I made a conscious decision to talk frankly and directly about my abortion.

Call me naïve, but I wasn’t prepared for how hard that would be. I live in a liberal city, come from a progressive family, surround myself with feminist friends, and work at a pro-choice organization. Yet even in this world, talking about abortion as a personal experience is a far cry from discussing it as a political issue. Here judgment is replaced by fear of the unknown and stigma gives way to a silence.

It’s not that anyone I told was unsupportive. In fact, many even exceeded my expectations. When I called my Dad, I didn’t beat around the bush: “I have some health insurance questions because I need to get an abortion.” To his immense credit, he responded with the same matter-of-factness, answering my questions and asking none of his own. My boyfriend, after asking about the procedure, what was done, how I would feel, articulated what I considered a great stance to take: “I’m going to be as stressed out about this as you are.”

But I was thrown by so many hushed voices, the consistent tone of oh-my-god-this-must-be-the-end-of-the-world, the many utterances of “I don’t know what to say.”

I was bemused as a close male friend, with sincere kindness and concern, seemed to grasp for some cultural script to help him navigate a conversation he’d never had to have before. “Did you consider other options?” The question was strange and out-of-place coming from someone who has no qualms about abortion himself and, knowing me as well as he does, must surely have realized that it was no hard decision for me.

Far from the trite expression it usually is, “I don’t know what to say” actually seemed to be an honest and surprisingly accurate description of the problem. When women who have abortions are more closeted than gay people and the absence of abortion leaves a gaping hole in most T.V. and movie narratives, it’s no wonder even solidly pro-choice people are left floundering for a way to talk about it—free of euphemisms—as a real and unique experience instead of a flattened and shameful cliché.

As I had these conversations, I was reminded of this nugget of insight from a recent article on RH Reality Check by Sarah Seltzer:

“In America, abortion is always a choice that “someone else” makes—except in this case someone else is a huge percentage of the population…No wonder Americans are so confused about where they stand. The acceptable position is to frown on the practice but begrudgingly insist on its legality in case “someone else” desperately needs it.”

This sentiment is so pervasive it affects, to varying degrees, those on either side of the debate. Even among those who adamantly insist on abortion’s legality, those who spend their lives fighting to protect this right, there is the temptation to see it as choice made by someone else—someone who doesn’t know better or someone who is poor or someone who couldn’t protect themselves or someone who is a teenager or someone who was raped. In a self-filling circle, this belief that abortion is always someone else’s choice is both cause and consequence of the shroud of secrecy and silence around it.

A colleague asked me if having an abortion myself changed the way I think about the work we do. I’d say it has. My commitment to reproductive rights is not deeper. Certainly, it’s crazy to know some people would condemn me for a choice I believe to be solely mine and entirely legitimate. But the absurdity of that is what’s obvious—what can always be counted on to fuel the fire of any passionate advocate for reproductive rights.

What I didn’t truly appreciate before experiencing it myself was the depth and the breadth of this silence—and just how damaging it really is. One-third of American women have an abortion in their lifetimes. For some it is a terribly difficult decision. For others it is the only choice they can imagine. Yet this silence allows anti-choice extremists to paint all these women as heartless monsters and baby-killers, instead of as their mothers and sisters and neighbors.

The late Florynce Kennedy said, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” I’d say we can get at least partway there if we expose the illusion that abortion is someone else’s choice. I really believe that no matter how many legal battles are won, until we can talk about our experiences with abortion, it will remain stigmatized, inaccessible to many women, and constantly under threat.

So if you’ve had an abortion, tell a friend (or a stranger), talk about your experience in the comments, or share your story here or here .

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • Lily A

    Thank you for sharing your story! I agree that the silence around abortion is a big problem, and I appreciate when brave women like you speak up about your experiences.
    Just one comment… one of the reasons people might say something like “I don’t know what to say” is that they are not sure how YOU feel about the abortion, so they don’t want to react in a way that will upset you or seem inappropriate. For some women, abortion is just a “safe and legal medical procedure,” and having an abortion is just like another surgery. So if someone gave that woman a big hug and said “honey, I support whatever decision you make, and I’m always here for you,” it might seem a little odd or condescending or like you were trying to make the woman feel like she had made a momentous decision that wasn’t a big deal to her.
    But for other women, it’s a wrenching decision, or a really stressful life event, or a scary medical procedure, or whatever… so the hug / support reaction might be the appropriate one, while “ok, rock on” or “good luck, I hope it goes well and you feel better soon” or any other reaction you might have to other types of surgery might seem out of place.
    So if a friend told me she was going to have an abortion and I wasn’t sure precisely how she was feeling / thinking about it, I might struggle to find the right words, too. Of course I’d always want to be supportive of my friend’s decision, but I would also want to acknowledge that the decision to have an abortion (and the procedure itself) is not always an easy one, and would want to be there for my friend if she was having a hard time emotionally for whatever reason.
    Just to be clear, I am NOT excusing some of the other reactions you got — it’s nobody’s business what other options you considered. I bet nobody would ask you that for any other type of surgery (except maybe cosmetic…)!

  • Ellen Marie-Frances

    It took a lot of courage for you to write this post and for that I give you the utmost respect. Good luck to you and I hope that you find that we here at Feministing will support you no matter what.

  • Maya

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Lily. I absolutely agree. Certainly women have incredibly diverse experiences with abortion, and erring on the side of offering more emotional support rather than less seems like a generally good stance for friends to take.
    And I didn’t mean to imply that I was annoyed by the supportive responses I got–I actually appreciated them a lot. While choosing an abortion was pretty much a non-decision for me, the process of going about actually getting one was more stressful than I expected–even for someone like me who knows a lot about it.
    So I definitely appreciated the kind emails, and cookies, and Exhale E-cards. I just felt like that kind of struggling to figure out/guess at an appropriate response was revealing of this larger silence about abortion–a silence that seems to paint all women’s experiences with abortion as the same.

  • kahri

    Yes! Thank you! We who have had abortions are real women and there are so many of us, though our abortion experiences are silenced by an entire culture.
    Even I thought at one point in my life that I would never, ever have to have an abortion because I would do anything and everything to prevent an unintended pregnancy. But I was wrong. An abortion was in my future. And I didn’t really see the silencing until I’d gone through it.
    The thing that pisses me off the most are the assumptions people make about abortions and who has them. The assumptions are most outrageous among the protesters at the women’s health clinic where I escort, but I think assumptions like these are rampant throughout U.S. culture.
    The protesters often yell things like, “these girls [referring to me and the other WOMEN who serve as escorts] would never have abortions, but they want you [the patients] to do it…” or “if you [me and the other escorts] knew what abortion really was about you wouldn’t be here supporting it…” or “every woman wants to be a mother…” or “every woman regrets her abortion…” or “abortion is always the man’s decision and he’s always intimidating the woman to do it…”
    gods, i have to just stand there and take it but i want to grab their shoulders and shake them and make them listen to me: “I’VE had an abortion. i AM these women. that is EXACTLY why i’m here doing this work. my abortion has made me value abortion more for all of us. for all humanity. so crawl back to your church, you f***er, and show some of that humility you claim to value so dearly…”
    I am angry at the silence and the lies.

  • Appetite for Equal Rights

    Thanks so much for sharing! Although it is a completely legal procedure in the U.S., the word “abortion” is rarely uttered as if it were some horrible curse word. It is important to shatter the silence not only to give women the chance to share their experiences and relate to one another, but also to counter all the bullshit “I regret my abortion” stories the anti-choice movement shoves down our throats.
    We’re planning an abortion speak-out on my campus, and I’m so excited for it. I can’t believe we didn’t think to do it earlier.

  • Comrade Kevin

    My little sister had an abortion a couple years ago. The family hushed it up immediately and indeed, I didn’t know about what had happened until nine months after the fact. It is a topic that has become a family secret and is never alluded to regardless of the context. Her boyfriend at the time was a drug addict and he, as well as his family refused to pay a cent for the procedure to be done. My father quietly arranged for the abortion to be performed and paid for it in full.
    My sister is already an intensely private person who only talks about her struggles, regardless of the context when in a state of crisis, so I know that her abortion will end up stuffed down deep inside like usual and barely acknowledged.
    Women I have dated have mentioned their abortions from time to time when some current event fosters discussion on the subject. But, as this post eloquently discusses, it was never a topic discussed in much detail or for very long. They admitted they’d had one with much visible discomfort and then quickly changed the subject to other matters.
    I had a creative writing teacher in college who read a passage in a book describing in detail an abortion she’d had. I’ve never felt quite so uncomfortable in my entire life. It was a tender rendering of what could have been reduced to a sterile retelling of the facts and quite courageous. Yet, the woman was often considered by faculty and students alike to be a bit of a loose cannon and highly unprofessional in the boundaries she refused to set. Still, in this context, I think her reading was highly justified, and that it took someone who was frequently known for oversharing personal details and talking openly about the men with whom she’d had affairs is indeed food for thought.

  • AspenBaker

    This is a very beautiful, well-written and personal piece and I’m so glad you shared it. What you’re describing – the need for public discussion of abortion to be grounded in personal experiences with abortion – is Exhale’s pro-voice position. We agree with you 100% that “no matter how many legal battles are won, until we can talk about our experiences with abortion, it will remain stigmatized.”
    Given that abortion is stigmatized and telling a personal story with abortion can still come at great personal risk, women and men who want to talk about their experiences with someone they can trust and who they know will not judge them are also welcome to call Exhale’s national, multi-lingual post-abortion talkline. Our website is: http://www.4exhale.org/. Between 5 and 10 p.m. Pacific time, Monday through Friday, and between 12 p.m. and 10 p.m. on the weekend, trained volunteer peer counselors are standing by to listen and to be your witness. Call 1-866-4EXHALE to talk freely about your abortion experience.

  • Leah

    Thank you for that honest and beautifully articulated piece. It’s so important for people to recognize the damage caused by silence. I really admire what you, and groups like Advocates for Pregnant Women are doing.

  • MiloJ

    I really appreciate you being able to speak out about your experience, and I think that it would be great if more people could speak openly about their experiences.
    There are three people in my life that I know who have had an abortion, but in all three cases, I am only one of a handful of people that knows, and that knowledge is trusted to be kept very secret. I understand the reasoning behind each person’s secrecy (mainly families that would disown, freak out, etc.), and I respect their right to keep their decisions private.
    That being said, IF these women would feel comfortable talking about their experience or just admitting that it happened, I think that it would cause an amazing shift in mindset for people who are friends with them. Two of these women are from the small, conservative town that I grew up in, and I have had many many conversations with mutual friends and acquaintances where I am the only or only vocally pro-choice person in the crowd, and often the abortion debate turns to really vilifying women who have had abortions (any number of things that the anti-person says, well if they just didn’t engage in x behavior then they wouldn’t need an abortion), all the while someone that they consider a close friend is sitting next to them feeling horrible because she has chosen to keep her experience a secret. I’ve been in this situation multiple times, and I just wish that people really did understand that the women who have abortions are their friends, sisters, and mothers.

  • Maya

    Thank you, Aspen. I appreciate the work Exhale does now more than ever, and I was very touched to receive E-cards via Exhale from a couple of coworkers.

  • Courtney

    Amazing post Maya–courageous, thoughtful, well-articulated, and politically insightful. It totally changed the way I look at abortion in a way few writing/films etc. have, which is remarkable for an issue that everyone is always clamoring to put a stamp on.

  • coreroar

    First, thank you for writing this.
    Second, I have been struggling with the question of “what if?” for about a year now. What if I got pregnant. I’m not ready, I don’t want a kid, but… That’s when I would start to see friends and family looking at me in shock as I told them. But after reading this I’ve realized that really there is nothing shocking about it. If I don’t want a kid, why WOULDN’T I get an abortion?! I will never know what I would do in that situation unless I am ever in it. But, I am thankful for your story because I now feel I have the confidence, if I would ever need it, to make my own true decision.

  • Phenicks

    I think part of it is that for some women abortion was *not* a choice but the lesser of two evils. If you WANT to choose life and you WANT to be a mom but drastic things like suddenly being thrust into poverty, fetal abnormality, going from being pregnant and married to expecting and divorced, not being able to physically handle pregnancy or emotionally or mentally continue a pregnancy though the end result of a baby is something you truly desire. Having to choose between your successes as a woman and becoming the mom you suddenly find yourself wanting to be is NOT a choice at all. Its a compromise, whatever you decide. And that has a LOT to do with the silence of abortion.
    I couldn’t fathom why any woman, totally confident in her choice, unphased by her decision would want to keep it a secret. But I have not been in those shoes of a woman who decided to make that choice and was totally confident and unphased by that decision. Abortion for some is like getting a decaying tooth pulled- maybe physical painful and dreadful because of the discomfort but something you got done with no regrets and sweet relief. For others, abortion was the compromise they never hope to have to make ever again in their lives.

  • dormouse

    I absolutely love your post.

  • Katjusha

    Thank you so much for this article.
    When I had an abortion three years ago, I chose to be open with my circle of friends about what was happening. Although some were taken aback, everyone showed support and understanding, often in very touching and practical ways such as offering to come with me, to collect me afterwards or just to go for a coffee and talk about it.
    After the procedure, I suffered very badly from depression. That was a lot harder to talk about than the actual abortion, because it is the accepted wisdom that if you’re pro-choice, you don’t give the abortion a second thought after it’s over. Through a support website, I came into contact with many women who’d had the same experience – that they didn’t regret their decision, but it had had strong emotional consequences for them. Because I’d been open from the beginning, it was easier to seek support. It pains me to think how many women suffer in silence because they fear the reaction of their families and friends. I found out, when I spoke of my abortion, not just that my mother was strongly pro-choice, but also that many of my friends had been through the same experience and only spoken to their partner.
    Breaking the silence is empowering, but taking that first step towards being open felt like the most enormous risk. I had a great fear of rejection, even in Britain, where abortion is less controversial.

  • kahri

    I couldn’t fathom why any woman, totally confident in her choice, unphased by her decision would want to keep it a secret.
    I can fathom plenty of reasons. What about safety, physical and emotional?
    I have experienced a feeling of physical terror [trembling hands, painful churning in my stomach, fluttering in my throat, pounding of my heart] and a feeling of being trapped and needing to flee around several people (women and men, alike) who have spoken about abortion with a sense of disgust, condemnation, and/or a holier-than-thou attitude.
    I NEVER feel safe talking about abortion in general (nevermind personally) because these reactions are EVERYWHERE. My fear of these reactions keeps me silent around many, many other people. Aside from my fellow clinic escorts, my husband, and a therapist, there are 2 people who know about my abortion. Neither of those people are in my extended family.
    To me, that is secrecy. There is no other major life event that I have kept hidden from all of my family and most of my friends. And I hide it because I am SCARED. I am scared because I know that if my abortion were known, some people will stop talking to me, some people will not stop talking about me, and other people will take it as their personal mission to pray for me. I WANT NONE OF THAT.
    And I am sick of the new-age b.s. that says we can never be affected by other people’s actions or opinions, only by our own reactions. If you’ve ever been beaten– or worse– for voicing a “wrong” opinion, you also know that’s b.s.

  • kahri

    Right on. Where I live there’s a group that has a pro-choice after abortion counseling group. It is truly awesome because it does just what you say: acknowledges that women who don’t regret their abortions also have deep and troubling emotions around issues of pregnancy, abortion, and lots of other stuff.

  • Little Mermaid

    Amen, sister!!! I have been harping on this point for a long time: Women NEED to start speaking out frankly about their abortion experiences so that we can finally shatter the silence and stigma that surrounds the issue. But I totally understand why that is so hard to do. It’s hard to take the first steps to speak out when people out there can be so cruel and hateful. Unfortunately, I am all too familiar with that anti-choice hatred. I had an abortion when I was 21. Although I didn’t regret having an abortion, I still kept it secret because 1) I didn’t think it was anyone’s business to know, and 2) I feared the negative reactions I might get from certain people if they knew. A few years later, a fellow female college student who hated me did a little digging into my past and found out that I had an abortion years before. What she did then was absolutely BEYOND believable. She created a fake AOL instant messenger screen name and sent me IM’s impersonating my aborted baby, asking questions such as “Mommy, why did you kill me? Didn’t you want me? Oh well, maybe it’s better that I’m dead instead of being born to a whore of a mother.” I was called a “murdering slut and a whore who needed to get my ass to a church and pray for forgiveness” and told “You should’ve kept your legs closed if you weren’t ready for that shit!” This girl even made a webpage telling all about my abortion and covered it in graphic pictures of dead, mutilated aborted fetuses and zombie babies that were supposed to represent my aborted baby who was “burning in Hell.” Lovely. An old friend and college roommate of mine, who was very Catholic, also learned of my abortion and quit speaking to me. She told me, “You’d know what being a real mother truly is if you hadn’t aborted your baby.” Apparently she thought that I should have just followed in her footsteps by having the baby and dropping out of college like she did. She got pregnant in college, dropped out, and never got to return to school to complete her degree. Now she has 3 children and very little chance of ever finishing her education. But anyway, my point is that I can certainly understand why other women stay silent about their abortion experiences. The fear of being targeted by psychos like the ones I just mentioned is enough to keep millions of women silent. I wish we could all find the courage to band together and speak out loud and strong about our abortions. Trust me, those who are anti-choice would find it awfully difficult to criticize us once they see just how big of a crowd there is of women who have had abortions. There is strength in numbers. I am quite sure there are MORE women who have had abortions than women who HAVEN’T.

  • AspenBaker

    That really warms my heart, Maya. I’d love to connect with you privately. If you’re interested, please email me through info[at]4exhale.org.

  • Sweet Pea

    Thank you for writing this.
    I got an abortion when I was 17 (almost a decade ago) and I still struggle with the decision I made. When I got pregnant later (years later when I was more mature and ready), the nurse was asking about previous pregnancies. I told her I had one pregnancy, 0 babies. She asked if I had a miscarriage and I stammered, “no I um, when I was 17 I… uhh…” and I trailed off, she understood what i couldn’t say. But it was that moment that I realized I couldn’t even say the word out loud. and I guess I never really dealt with it b/c I never really talked about it. I just wanted to bury it and forget it.
    I don’t know if I could ever bring myself to tell anyone else about it though. Just thinking about it brings up the worst feelings.
    I agree that abortion shouldn’t be a secret and we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it, to make efforts to de-stigmatize abortion… And I do feel like a “bad feminist” because I believe it should be a shame-free procedure but I can’t escape the shame I still feel about myself and my own decision.
    It’s hard, for me…
    But I am so thankful for posts like this that inspire or encourage others to overcome the shame or stigma to try to help others do the same…