When a friend is sick, you bring her soup. When she loses a loved one, you bring her flowers. But what do you do when she has an abortion?
Last week, one of my good friends announced to me that she was two and a half months pregnant, and had booked an appointment for an abortion that weekend. I offered to come with her, an offer she refused, saying she preferred to be alone.
Saturday morning came and went, and she had her abortion. She wasn’t emotional about it; she had only recently discovered that she was pregnant, and felt no attachment to the fetus. She wasn’t nervous or afraid; it wasn’t her first abortion, and she knew what to expect. Nor had it been a difficult choice for her; she didn’t feel ready, either emotionally or financially, to raise a child. An abortion was the obvious choice for her, and luckily, she was able to afford it (with some help from the father) and arrange an appointment early in her pregnancy.
On Saturday afternoon, I stopped by her place to find her in good spirits, bundled up on the couch watching TV. On my way over to her place, I wondered what the accepted protocol was for visiting someone who’d just had an abortion. I wanted to bring her flowers, or soup, or a magazine to read, or something, but none of those seemed appropriate. So I just gave her a hug.
The reason that none of those things seemed appropriate was that my friend wasn’t sick, or grieving. She had had an abortion; an uncomplicated first trimester medical abortion, about which she was in no way conflicted or upset. I knew she didn’t want comforting or moral support: she just wanted to sleep it off alone, and get back to work.
A few weeks ago, Heidi Fleiss, currently a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother in the UK, caused something of a controversy when she said on camera, “Thank God for abortion. I don’t mean to offend anyone but I wouldn’t be a good mother. I shouldn’t have kids.” Some found it refreshing to hear a woman speak so unapologetically about abortion; others found it shocking. Personally, I was surprised, upon hearing something that so totally deviated from the cultural script to which we expect women who have had abortions to adhere, by just how well I had internalized that script.
In the US, abortion is framed as a deeply moral and highly emotional issue. In the public imagination, the choice to have an abortion is a wrenching one, one that often leaves women feeling emotionally fragile for months and years afterward. No doubt this is sometimes the case. But for many women, my friend included, it is not a wrenching or painful decision, but an easy and obvious and matter of fact one.
But we don’t have a cultural script for those women. When women speak publicly about their abortions – which, given the stigma around abortion, happens very rarely – we expect them to speak with reverence, not relief. We expect to hear stories of excruciating indecision, not of easy, obvious choices. We don’t have a blueprint for women who weren’t wracked with indecision, women who felt emotional attachment neither to the fetus nor to the decision to terminate it. And as a result, we also lack a script for supportive friends that doesn’t somehow frame abortion as a tragic illness.
Because abortion is so controversial in America, because we have such strong ideas in this culture about the kinds of women who have abortions, it’s incredibly difficult to talk about. Women who have abortions rarely talk about them, and when they do, they often feel the need to adhere to the cultural script of reverence and indecision that Heidi Fleiss so publicly flouted.
My friend didn’t, and I’m sure there are many women out there who don’t either. But there’s no space in public discourse for that kind of frank, irreverent discussion of abortion, and there won’t be until abortion becomes less taboo. At the end of the day, the personal and the political aren’t just intertwined, they’re symbiotic: The taboo around abortion confines us to a certain script, and sticking to that script keeps the taboo around abortion firmly in place. For me, changing that script began at home – specifically, at my friend’s home, on her couch. It began with the awkwardness that comes from not quite knowing what to say to someone who wasn’t at all upset about her abortion. For me, change began with a hug.
For more about speaking unapologetically about abortion, check out Jennifer Baumgardner’s book Abortion and Life and her film I Had an Abortion, as well as the site I Am Dr. Tiller.