A new script for talking about abortion

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.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • strangedays

    Fostering being simple? Seriously?
    I know a couple who could not conceive and fostered a child… it was very much NOT “Oh, you’ve been amazing foster parents, here’s the kid for good.” This couple had been going through painstakingly long processes to adopt this child, and had fostered him for years. All they wanted was to provide a good home for him and to finally be (officially) parents. The adoption process was about to be finalized when the birth parents came back into the picture. In a heartbeat, the adoption process was over, the child was seized and they never saw him again. That was heartbreaking for them.
    My partner grew up in a family with three biological kids (himself and his sisters) and two foster children (his brothers). The foster kids came from extremely violent and drug-ridden families, and they had mental health concerns as well as learning disabilities. The birth parents kept coming in and out of the picture, making the children’s lives even more difficult. It made the family dynamic in the foster household pretty tough, too. My partner said he would always be a bit nervous when he came home from school, because he wouldn’t know if his brothers would be there or not. When they would come back from their birth parents’ houses, it would be even more difficult, he said. They would withdraw, they would wake up screaming, they would be nervous and jumpy. My partner and his family have not heard from one of the foster children in years, and the other (very) occasionally contacts them–usually when he has run into some kind of trouble.
    I am not trying to say that the foster system is totally bad. It is needed, but it is not simple, easy or perfect. I’m also not trying to say that all foster kids grow up to have all sorts of issues. I just take issue with portraying the system as “Here’s a kid, enjoy being parents!” This trivializes the experiences of the children and families. Fostering is definitely not for everyone, just as “regular” parenthood is definitely not for everyone.

  • strangedays

    Thank you for this comment!

  • RevolutionarilySpeaking

    Strangedays, please do not misquote me. I never said being a foster parent was universally simple. I meant that in the state of illinois, from what I have seen, the state generally allows the parents to adopt the child.
    Furthermore, I never said that foster children are perfect little angels without issue. I am aware of the flaws in the foster system (my mother was a foster parent) but I was asking a question – Why is it not a valid choice? You answered it. There was no need for the “Seriously?” in your response. It was unappreciated, and I felt personally attacked.

  • RevolutionarilySpeaking

    I see what you’re saying about health problems. However, I still feel that hiring a surrogate from any country less wealthy than America is exploitative and some (not all) surrogates in America are to a degree being exploited.

  • rebekah

    okay, well then there are several assholes on this very site, because any time I have ever brought up my fertility that is the reaction that I get. Women who have fertility issues are as silenced as women who have had an abortion in our society. At least women can talk about their abortion experiences in feminist communities, but bring up your infertility and forget it. You will forever be a chastised individual.

  • rebekah

    there are ways to talk about being a mom without shoving it in the faces of the people who cannot have them. There are ways for women to not like being a mom and bitching about it without being insensitive to those of us who want children and cannot have them.

  • shsally

    first, who are these mythical woman who are complaining about having to “fit in” an abortion to women that they know are infertile?
    all i hear is another group of people telling women who have had abortions that their personal reaction to it was not appropriate.
    i understand that hearing about someone else’s abortion might make an infertile woman feel bad. they are entitled to their feelings. but so is the woman who had her abortion.
    one woman’s hurt feelings does not trump another person’s right to express *their* feelings. we can acknowledge that something is insensitive to *some* people without demanding that people never ever bring that things up again. i mean it’s just too easy to twist around and say that when infertile women discuss their infertility that might distress a woman who wants an abortion, but can’t afford it.

  • Sloppy Sandwich

    Think you were misquoted? Here’s a quote:
    “…once you’ve fostered a child for a while with no mishaps, the state is pretty much like, here ya go. Have’em”
    I am an adoptive parent in Illinois. You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.

  • mermeg

    I’ve had 2 abortions and I’ve taken the morning after pill at least 6 or 7 times (and btw I completely support the above poster whose family was attributing her depression to that…I didn’t even realize we were supposed to feel guilty for Plan B!). I don’t feel ashamed, or guilty, or regretful, or however else society (and not just the anti-choicers) expects me to. From the moment the first one was over I felt relief flood through me like I had never felt before. I was only 18 and though I identified as feminist (I read BUST! I loved Hole!) it wasn’t until my abortions that I understood *why* feminism existed. I remember thinking “thank god it’s not 35 years earlier.” And it was really profound for me, realizing that had I been born merely a few decades earlier I would not have EVEN HAD THE CHOICE to obtain a safe, legal, (insurance-covered even!) abortion. And that realization was what really fueled my relief, as well as my staunch pro-choiceness ever since. I mean…that’s too close for comfort for me…35 years is nothing, and yet things were so different. Even though I truly didn’t have regrets I still remember thinking I must be some kind of horrible person, not for having the abortions so much as for being irresponsible (side note: all of the pregnancy/scares happened in the context of an 11 yr monogamous relationship…I guess even today it makes me feel better to qualify my story with this). And I have a very specific memory of being at the gyno’s after the second one and admitting to her that I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to have children in the future because of having 2 abortions, and she told me that wasn’t true, and then she told me that she knew a woman who had 10 abortions and still had kids after, which…well it did make me feel a bit better.
    I have no qualms about talking about my experience. And yet. Even here, in this supposedly safe space, I feel a bit weird telling you guys that oh, by the way, my abortions were only 4 months apart. Now *that* statement will make people look at you like you’re the pushy queen of slut-town. So even though I don’t have a problem with people knowing any of this, most people don’t. Because I do get that, while it doesn’t bother me to tell it, it might bother others to hear it. I think I would either get looked at like I was evil or deserving of sympathy. And I’d prefer neither. Honestly, the extreme sympathy would probably be worse. So maybe one day I’ll be able to put it out there more casually, but for now it tends to be easier to just not bring it up. And now that I think about it, the most common response I’ve gotten when mentioning it in the context of a relevant conversation has been the other person basically pretending I didn’t say it (yet something in their eyes always changes!).
    And of course I’m aware that many women do look at abortion as a heart-wrenching ordeal. And I have no desire to lessen or invalidate their experience, or to not offer support. See, the thing is…we’re all aware of them. For better or worse they tend to be the public face of those who have had abortions. But I don’t feel that way, at all. And aren’t I valid too?
    Btw, when I got home from my first abortion my boyfriend gave me a little scarecrow he had picked up at a craft fair while he was riding his bike around town, killing time for me to get home. It’s like an actual little crow, with overalls and a straw hat and it’s much less creepy than it sounds. I immediately deemed it my abortion scarecrow and I still have it. So maybe a random quirky gift? Oh and he got me a card. You can never go wrong with a card…

  • Lissla Lissar

    rebekah, I’m really sorry you had to deal with that, especially on this site. That’s really unfair and unfortunate.

  • RevolutionarilySpeaking

    Well my mother was a foster parent in illinois and they pretty much did EXACTLY THAT. I don’t appreciate being sworn at, and nowhere did I say SIMPLE, even if my description was a bit flippant or over simplified. THEN, when I tried to explain what I said, this is the response I get?
    I am so SICK of this forum, you try to have a conversation with people who have differing views or different experiences and everyone calls you an idiot. I’m so sick of it. I’m sorry your experience was rough. You have no right to treat me like a jerk, sorry.

  • RevolutionarilySpeaking

    Rebekah, I am so sorry you have experienced this from a community that is supposed to be welcoming to whomever believes in equal rights for women.
    I’m beginning to find out, as you have experienced, that only certain experiences count on this website and if your experience differs from someone else’s, yours doesn’t count at all.
    I kinda feel like I’m done with feministing, to be honest, if it’s a community where a woman can be told she’s LUCKY to have fertility issues. Where feminists have to swear at each other and can’t have a civil conversation. Unbelievable.

  • Brianna G

    Quietly getting an abortion and not getting upset about it, even talking casually about it, shouldn’t offend someone. However, it is DEFINITELY offensive to sit there and complain that since you can’t have a baby, it’s unreasonable for someone else to not want one.
    I am not very well-off financially. My fiance’s stepmother has money, and spends it conspicuously, purchasing at times thousands of dollars worth of things I would never buy because I consider them a waste. When she is throwing things out, I will often offer to take things she does not want. However, I would not dream of telling her not to buy things or getting upset because she threw out things like underwear that is in good condition. Sure, it’s a waste. Sure, if my underwear was in that condition I would keep it. However, I do not want HER underwear. So she’s welcome to throw it out.
    Similarly, people who are undergoing fertility treatments have no desire to adopt the child that someone else aborted. They want their OWN. So they are getting offended that someone else is wasting something that they themselves do not want and would not accept if it was offered.
    I can somewhat understand a person who is waiting to adopt a newborn getting upset at an abortion– somewhat. I still don’t agree, but I at least understand and would be careful about what I said to such a person. I would have no such qualms about someone undergoing fertility treatment, because they don’t want my baby, would reject my baby, and want their OWN baby instead.
    You can be upset if I actually have something you want and get rid of it. But I don’t. I have a baby you do not want. You don’t want “a baby.” You want YOUR OWN baby. Babies are not interchangeable, experiences are not interchangeable.
    Now, anyone who says “you’re lucky to be infertile” or something, that’s just horrible. But it’s also different. Talking about my pregnancy, my abortion, my baby– it has nothing to do with your infertility.

  • gadgetgal

    Don’t worry, you’re not alone – with my 3 abortions it makes me sound like the queen of slut too, or the queen of stupid (I think that one’s worse – I can bear being called a slut!). I’ve never told anyone in the day to day world the whole story for all the reasons you said. Also because it’s a weird thing to bring up – bit of a conversation killer!
    And your scarecrow sounds great – I kept the PJs and dressing gown my boyfriend at the time bought for me (first one) and used it 4 years later at the second one. Weird, but apt!

  • claraba

    I very much like this piece. It is such a change from pro-Life extremists. A break from Catholic fundamentalists. Wow. Thanks.

  • TabloidScully

    What I can’t understand is why one experience must define the other. There’s a lot of discussion that women who go through abortions and speak of them “glibly” are offensive to women facing issues of infertility.
    As someone who did not, emphatically DID NOT want to be pregnant, the last thing I needed were those same infertile individuals complimenting me on my “blessing.” This, by the way, as I was sitting in the waiting room at my local OB-GYN, preparing to obtain the referral to have my pregnancy terminated. Should I have told these same women, themselves besotted by grief at their inability to conceive, not to shove their infertile privilege, in my face?
    Of course not. What people fail to realize is that the same societal stigma that pushes mommyhood as the bastion of feminine power which so disproportionately injures infertile women also disempowers those of us who have no such dreams of mommyhood. As an earlier poster pointed out, few of us can access the same medical procedures which would allow us to exercise our full reproductive choices–yet fertility options are available, in some cases, before we can legally drink a beer.
    What I see is that much of these discussions (“Be sensitive to my infertility, don’t speak of your abortion in a way I find distasteful!” “Don’t preach to me about your infertility struggles, I hate my ability to conceive!”) are the same lines of division that keep women separated. We can be so busy fighting with each other over these dueling perspectives we completely miss that some of our experiences are manufactured by the same patriarchy that has no interest in seeing us unified to access our rights in the first place.

  • Emma_Goldman

    do you know how offensive that is? “dumping ground for the world’s unwanted children”?
    I am sure you are not adopted or know nothing about adoption.