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 started blogging with Feministing in 2008, and now runs partnerships and strategy as a co-Executive Director. She is also the Director of Youth Engagement at Women Deliver, where she promotes meaningful youth engagement in international development efforts, including through running the award-winning Women Deliver Young Leaders Program. Lori was formerly the Director of Global Communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and has also worked at the United Nations Foundation on the Secretary-General's flagship Every Woman Every Child initiative, and at the International Women’s Health Coalition and Human Rights Watch. As a leading voice on women’s rights issues, Lori frequently consults, speaks and publishes on feminism, activism and movement-building. A graduate of Harvard University, Lori has been named to The Root 100 list of the most influential African Americans in the United States, and to Forbes Magazine‘s list of the “30 Under 30” successful mediamakers. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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

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