Every woman’s reason is unique: Why rape exceptions and abortion stereotypes are harmful

One super important conversation that’s come out of uproar over Rep. Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment is how rape exceptions are total bullshit anyway. Irin Carmon explains:

But when progressives cede the moral center to the rape exception, they are implicitly buying into the idea that some reasons to have abortions are more justified than others — and that we should be interrogating these reasons at all. As Tracy Weitz, who conducts empirical research on women who have abortions (remember science?), wrote recently, ”In many ways people opposed to abortion in all cases have a more consistent, and I would say, honest position. For them, either a blastocyst, embryo or fetus has a right to life, no matter how it was conceived, or a woman doesn’t have the right to terminate a pregnancy, no matter the circumstances.” She calls out commentators, including the very pro-choice Rachel Maddow, for saying that politicians are extreme when they even oppose exceptions for rape and incest. ”Unfortunately,” Weitz writes, “it is extreme to oppose the right of any woman to make decisions about the direction of her life, no matter the circumstances under which she finds herself pregnant.” In other words, either you believe a woman has the right to decide not to be pregnant anymore, or you think you should get a say in her decision.

It’s not that I don’t understand why people, including pro-choice organizations, like to talk about rape or life endangerment exceptions. They illustrate how incredibly cruel opponents to abortion are, how divorced they are from the difficult and knotty circumstances of real life. And they help people who can’t understand what kind of woman has an abortion — despite that real 1-in-3 statistic — realize that all kinds of women have abortions, including ones they find sympathetic. Women who have abortions have been so demonized that storytelling helps make that essential empathic leap that so many people are missing. But as Akin shows, once you start haggling over reasons, you’re giving up half the fight — which is that this is about bodily autonomy and respect for women’s ability to determine their own lives.

The standard “rape, incest, and life endangerment” exception language is part of this broader tendency to categorize abortion into types. The heart-breaking fetal anomaly. The teenager who didn’t know any better. The poor mother who can’t afford another kid. The condom that broke. We create these stereotypes because we want to put a face to abortion, and there aren’t enough real women telling their stories–for all sorts of understandable reasons. (And, of course, we deploy the ones that are most likely to be sympathetic to the most people–and the other side does the opposite.)

But, more and more, I think these abstract, simplified stereotypes do more harm than good. Because it’s only natural for people to stack them up–to place them in their own personal hierarchy from acceptable to not-so-acceptable reasons. Not just anti-choice people. Everyone does this. We’re all judgmental assholes. And nothing is easier to judge than a nameless stereotype. Which defeats the purpose. The potential power. That “empathic leap” that Irin talks about. People don’t feel empathy for stereotypes. Or rather, they may feel a sort of abstract sympathy. But we only feel true empathy for people we really know.

And, anyway, I’m not sure the object of abortion stories should be to garner empathy for this or that particular woman. (Because for every reason there will always be some people that will empathize and others that won’t and it’s nobody’s business anyway.) The point, to me, has always just been the humbling reminder: You don’t know anything about other people’s lives. The point is to show that we can’t categorize abortions into these different types, because every single woman’s reason for getting an abortion is absolutely unique. Like millions of little snowflakes. Some that you’ll identify with; some that you may find totally uncompelling. Women you love get abortions and women you hate get abortions. (Put that on a T-shirt!) But the point, as Irin notes, is that you don’t get to pick and choose. Simply because you can’t! Because there are just too many reasons to judge. So many profoundly specific reasons. Reasons that just might break your heart if you actually heard each one.

I’ve long believed that telling abortion stories could really transform the political discourse–which is why I’ve been public about my own abortion. But without a critical mass, there’s the danger of the single story. And there’s the danger that they’ll be slotted into these stereotypical boxes and, in the process, they’ll be stripped of the layers, emotional depth, and, above all, specificity, which gives them their power. I don’t really have a solution here. I guess I’ll just keep talking about my abortion at dinner parties and hope that life teaches the Lila Roses of the world a little more and one day they’ll finally throw up their hands and say, “Yeah, I guess shit’s complicated.”

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 Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, 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.

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