Steven Tyler, Julia Holcomb, and abortion remorse as political fodder

steven tyler looking serious
Anti-choicers are practically drooling over the testimony of Julia Holcomb, Steven Tyler’s ex-girlfriend from her teenage years, who this week is speaking out about her choice to abort after becoming pregnant by Tyler many years ago — and her subsequent remorse and religious awakening.

Complete with a near-death experience, her story is as heartbreaking as it is frustrating, an altogether too-common tale of a teenager’s physical, financial, and emotional vulnerability.

Holcomb describes in painstaking detail the circumstances that led to her situation with Tyler. Her brother died in a car crash, her father was largely absent, she disliked her mother’s new husband, her stepfather, and her sister was also out of the picture.

Enter Tyler.

According to Holcomb’s account, she attended an Aerosmith show and deliberately tried to get backstage to seduce Tyler. They began a relationship that spanned several years and contained all the trappings of a dysfunctional rock and roll relationship: drugs, infidelity, and lopsided power dynamics, which weren’t helped any by the fact that Holcomb’s mother signed over legal guardianship to Tyler so that she could travel with him across state lines. Things apparently went downhill from there.

Holcomb’s story suggests that Tyler threw away her birth control pills after telling her he wanted to start a family with her, maintained total control of her finances, encouraged her to get pregnant, and then pressured her into getting an abortion while she was still woozy from the effects of a serious house fire.

As commenters over at Jezebel have pointed out, this story is consistent with signs of reproductive coercion, a form of domestic abuse in which one partner pressures the other, through verbal threats, physical aggression, or birth-control sabotage, to make a reproductive decision they would not otherwise choose to make.

And it sounds really traumatizing and fucked up.

But as disturbing as these details are, I’m less interested in the details of the story (their romance took place a long time ago, nothing can be done to change what happened, and Tyler and Holcomb display quite conflicting accounts) than I am in its modern-day use.

After all, what was Holcomb’s conclusion, after recounting this difficult story?

“Someone may say that my abortion was justified because of my age, the drugs, and the fire. I do not believe anything can justify taking my baby’s life. The action is wrong. I pray that our nation will change its laws so that the lives of innocent unborn babies are protected. ” [Empahsis mine.]

While I’m genuinely glad to hear people of all backgrounds and experiences share their personal abortion stories to whatever extent they feel it’s important, I’m disappointed and frustrated that Holcomb chose to use her own story as a political tool to restrict the health and rights of other people. Attending an abortion speakout at last year’s CLPP Conference reinforced the importance of discussing abortion in public places. But heralding the importance of each person’s story should never replace or overwhelm the importance of recognizing a diversity of reproductive needs and experiences.

Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon put it well:

“…what religious conservatives can’t seem to grasp is that the cautionary tale of one shouldn’t be taken as an argument against changing laws that profoundly affect others. Reproductive choice isn’t about forcing women to have abortions; it’s about protecting those who do want them. It’s also, for the record, about making sure pregnant women have decent prenatal care and safe childbirth options. Holcomb’s story of being grateful that her mother didn’t have an abortion, of being passed around from her family to a man who couldn’t care for her, of the horror of surviving a fire and the adolescent pain of a pregnancy and abortion, makes sense for her. It doesn’t, however, take into account that a different pregnant teenager, under different circumstances, would tell a different story. And that the United States is full of girls and women who would no more want to be bullied and pressured into a life-changing course of action than Holcomb did, all those years ago.”

[Emphasis mine.]

Stories of abortion remorse are as important to the fight for reproductive freedom as stories of abortion ambiguity, pride, melancholy, or relief are. I just wish people’s individual experiences weren’t being co-opted as political fodder and used as an excuse to deny others choice, rights, and freedom.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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  • nazza

    This is so typical. The thing is that the Right and Left both have different definitions of what constitutes “individual rights”. The Right thinks that individual women should not have the right to abortions, but should have the right to not be taxed. And in this bitter battle over abortion, a strictly individualist stance gives way to paternalism among the anti-choicers.

    I’d like to see what a truly, 100% individual rights stance looks like, and hopefully it won’t be Libertarianism.

  • jenniwildflower

    One book I value and think more women should read is “Abortion-My Choice, God’s Grace”. It’s easy to dismiss because of the horrible title and cover of the book. But it’s a really insightful, nonjudgmental collection of abortion experiences Christian women have had- married women, teenagers, pastor’s wives, etc etc. The insights in it are deep and it offers a lot of information on womens limited reproductive rights and choices over the last 100 years or so in the US. One woman’s story tells of how her extremely religious, anti-abortion church actually advised her TO get an abortion, as that was what her husband wanted. (She did not want the abortion, but was pressured to obey her husband.)
    Another woman tells of a relative who had many children, was deeply religious, and had an abortion due to financial and health reasons. All the other women in the family knew of it and spoke of it with compassion and sadness because it was a hard experience on the relative — but never with judgment. It was seen as necessary for that relative, and as the right choice. Her spirituality was in no way diminished in her family’s eyes. For women like me, raised in fundamentalist Christianity, I think this book is a revelation. And unlike Holcomb, none of the women in this book use their individual experiences as a platform to tell other women what to do.

  • jenniwildflower

    I want to add that I just read some of Holcomb’s story and it is REALLY, horribly tragic and I think it is worth reading . Forcing a woman to have an abortion is as bad as denying a woman her right to have one. Her story is really heartbreaking.

  • Kristen

    This is such a good point made here. A woman at my church had cancer while pregnant and was advised to abort in order to complete her treatment. She did what she believed was right for her, she carried the pregnancy to term and now is cancer free and has three healthy kids. It’s actually an amazing story of God’s healing. But for someone to insist that everyone must rely on the grace of God for their life, the life of their child, or even the provision of necessities would be a crime against humanities. I know this is a pretty extreme example, but sometimes the arguments are that extreme.

  • Jamie Blue

    Julia is using Steven’s latest popularity wave as a way to push her own right-wing, conservative, pro-life agenda. She is no victim. She was a groupie who had had plenty of sex before she went hunting him down. She deliberately went to a concert to meet him and offer herself to him. She did know what she was doing. He never mentioned her by name in oderr to protect her. He has only said sweet things about her. Good thing he didn’t marry her: she can’t be trusted. She is manipulative. Yes, sad tragedies struck her family, but Steven took care of her and loved her. That baby might well have had brain damage due to the drugs and cigarets she used and because of the smoke from the fire. Very sad, but not Steven’s fault. She was too young to raise a child. She couldn’t even take care of herself. They both used drugs, he was always on tour etc… so, what kind of life would their child have had? Very dysfunctional most likely. Over 30 years later she decides to blow this up! I say it’s because ST is so famous and on the cover of every magazine, on all the talk shows, on tv, new book, new song, new tour etc…. she is manipulating this to push her narrow-minded ideas.

  • Josiah

    I don’t understand why people never side with the “voice” of the child. The child has a voice and the pro lifers defend that voice. I can not understand why feminists are against certain woman, say republicans, or conservatives. These woman have risen to the top of their profession. Why is it not applauded?
    I understand that feminists defend women, well why not defend the baby girl in the womb? Just a thought.