Human rights, privilege, and why I bowl for abortion access

National Abortion Access Bowl-a-thon

I had to pay for my abortion out-of-pocket.

Luckily, I had a modest but steady income. The out-of-pocket price of $400 for a first-trimester abortion was a big unexpected cost. But I could afford it. My boyfriend at the time contributed half. I cut back on take-out, downgraded to drinking 40s, and kept an eye on my balance for a few weeks. That was that.

If I had needed an abortion a year earlier, when I had recently moved to New York City and was making just enough for rent and eating sandwiches for every meal, I wouldn’t have had the money. But even then I could have called my parents and they would have unquestionably lent me whatever I needed. And if my parents didn’t happen to be supportive, middle-class, pro-choice folks, I could have still depended on at least half a dozen friends to pool together the funds.

This is all to say: I am a very privileged lady. Even as an underemployed recent college grad, I was still seriously privileged. The cost of an abortion would never, ever have prevented me from getting one.

But I know that the very first thing I did when I found out I was pregnant was check to make sure I had enough in my account to cover the cost of an abortion. In those initial moments of anxiety, holding two positive pregnancy tests and trying to figure out how to get unpregnant as soon as humanly possible, knowing I wouldn’t have to scramble to come up with the money was an enormous relief.

The U.S.’s commitment to human rights involves a rhetorical nod and some half-hearted policy. Theoretically, at least, we believe there are some things that all people should be entitled to regardless of their ability to pay. Although the public school system is plagued by inequality, we pay lip service to the idea that every child, rich or poor, deserves an education. Although our social safety net is relatively flimsy and filled with holes, it exists because we tend to believe that people shouldn’t go hungry or fall into poverty when they’re laid off or die because of lack of health care.

We do this because we know that we all benefit from a free, educated and healthy society. And also because we know that basic things like education, food, and medical care are necessary to the pursuit of happiness and that if we don’t want that promise to be a total lie, we should at least pretend these things are rights granted to all instead of privileges enjoyed by the few.

But there is no pretense when it comes to abortion. The right to abortion is not a true right in this country. It is treated as a negative right when it’s actually a positive one. It is allowed to be systematically denied to many women simply because some people don’t like it. Roe v. Wade may mean the government can’t prevent you from ending an unwanted pregnancy, but the Hyde Amendment ensures that’s only true if you can pay for an abortion yourself.

The right to choose without federal funding for abortion is like the right to an education without a public school system. It’s a mean joke.

Abortion does not just happen. Unlike the right to free speech or to assembly or to worship, the government cannot protect the right to choose simply by getting out of the way. Exercising this particular right requires paying for a pretty expensive medical procedure. And as long as that procedure is excluded from coverage under federally-funded health care programs, it’s a right that is meaningless to millions of women.

We have a word for a right that you can only access if you can afford to pay for it: it’s called a privilege. And that’s what being able to safely and legally terminate a pregnancy is in the U.S.

And so we’re bowling for abortion access again this year to raise money to help women who live paycheck to paycheck get the abortions they need. And, frankly, I hate it. Because these women shouldn’t have to rely on charity in order to control their reproductive lives. Because the need for abortion funds is evidence of a complete failure to uphold any semblance of equality when it comes to abortion rights. Because I want abortion to be federally funded now.

But until it is, I’ll keep donating. As one of the privileged women who actually has a true right to choose—and has used it gratefully—it’s my duty to pay it forward to all the women who still, 38 years after Roe v. Wade, do not.

Click here to donate to Feministing’s team, The Boehner Killers, in the National Abortion Access Bowl-a-thon.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like,, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

Read more about Maya

Join the Conversation