How many is too many?

I’m currently slugging my way through Kristin Luker’s incredibly informative and thought-provoking book, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (a highly recommended–though now rather outdated–read). In it, whenever Dr. Luker refers to the 20th century’s ideological and political shift from exclusively physician-controlled abortion to abortion as a woman’s right, she calls this new claim “abortion on demand.”

For some reason, whenever I read this phrase, it makes me uncomfortable. As radically pro-choice as I may be, my mind responds with, “on demand? That’s too much!” The phrase makes me think of giving little kids candy and junk food “on demand.” It makes me think of how “on demand” access to basically any television show thanks to the various passwords I have collected from friends (Netflix, HuluPlus, etc.) has monopolized much of my free time. It seems greedy and irresponsible. So, like any good feminist, I interrogated that impulse in myself.

It seems like this can be chalked up to a continuing super-stigma against having multiple abortions.

The idea of women using abortion as birth control has been a long-held battle cry of the right. This nightmarish scenario (to them) has the connotations of condoned promiscuity and freedom from the consequences of bad decision making. But anti-choicers are not the only ones falling into this narrative.

Even as the most progressive among us rally against the social stigma of abortion and political constraints such as 20-week bans, waiting periods, and mandatory ultrasounds, we generally use the same hypotheticals: Say a young teenager accidentally gets pregnant and will be disowned by her conservative family if they find out. Say a college student is sexually assaulted and risks being forced to give up her education/promising future to carry out a pregnancy that isn’t her fault. Say a low-income mother just can’t afford to raise another child. Say there is a fetal deformity that risks the life of the mother, and the baby probably won’t survive anyways. The subtext in all these “justified” scenarios is: Just give them this one free pass. It won’t happen again, we swear.

Granted, it is important for the non-abortion-having public to understand why it is an essential right for so many women. In that way, our stock-stories are important. However, a side effect of this dominant rhetoric (that of justifying the just-this-one-time abortion rather than shouting “I own my own body! If I want abortion on demand, that’s no one’s business but mine!”) is that women who have multiple abortions are still the despised butts of jokes.

The joking about multiple abortions was recently brought to light for me in two different shows that I consider to be pretty feminist and great: Orange Is The New Black and Inside Amy Schumer (see above: unlimited access to online TV is taking over my life). In OITNB, the character Pennsatucky/Tiffany Doggett is a pretty comedic character for her white-trashiness and rabid religiosity. When the viewer finds out that she is actually incarcerated for killing a nurse who was snide to her about having a fifth abortion, it’s a little funny. Not so holy righteous now, are you, Doggett? When she names and constructs tiny, flimsy crosses for her five unborn children on Mother’s Day, it’s a little sad, but still made out to be a little funny. Her friend tells her that it’s good that she chose to get all those abortions, because (according to Freakonomics) those fetuses would probably have grown up to be drug-addicted criminals just like their mother. Until the show humanizes her in the latest season, Pennsatucky’s many abortions resulting from an irresponsible, ignorant lifestyle are her punchline.

In a recent episode of Inside Amy Schumer (“80s Ladies”), there is a skit where Amy, accompanied by friends in her childhood bedroom, says, “If you told me that at 33, I’d be divorced six times, after seven abortions, living back with my mom??” She dissolves into tears. Her friend, patting her back, says, “Seven seems like a lot.” Amy responds, “Yeah, they really sneak up on you. They’re like Pringles. Why can’t I meet the right guy?” Obviously it’s super funny. The rest of the skit just gets better. But I’m not here to talk about what a big Amy Schumer fan I am. I’m here to talk about how this character’s devil-may-care attitude about her seven abortions efficiently sets up the premise that most of Schumer’s skits share: she is a terrible, awful, despicable person. So much so that it’s unbelievable, and therefore really funny.

Why is it that I, Amy, the writers of OITNB, and presumably plenty of other feminists are laughing right along with these jokes? Sure, to quote Amy’s friend, seven seems like a lot. But isn’t it still your body, your choice? I think the explanation for our gut reactions here is twofold.

First, in our mainstream political dialogues about choice, we aren’t hearing “big numbers” like Pennsatucky and Amy share. We’re hearing about excusable, one-time offenses. Any abortion still carries a ton of stigma here, but if you can spin a good story to justify one, many of us will let it slide. In this way, even post-Roe v. Wade abortions hearken back to the days when abortion totally belonged to a physician’s compassion or whim, and therefore whether the patient could portray herself as adequately victimized and repentant and her story as adequately compelling. In other words, could she make herself the ideal patient (also meaning white, affluent, married, etc.)? Multiple abortions do not an ideal patient make, and that’s probably why we hear about them more from the right than the left.

Secondly, there are certain traits that we associate with people who have “too many” abortions. Do I really have to list them out for you? We all know. It boils down to this: Women who have “too many” abortions are irresponsible, promiscuous, unladylike. Combine that with the racist and classist assumptions, and those women become unworthy of compassion, understanding, even love. The prime candidates for mockery.

At the end of the day, I won’t pretend that I don’t still get a twinge at “abortion on demand.” But I think it’s important to consider what deep-seated prejudices and preconceptions that twinge might be coming from. I also try to remember something super wise that Susan Robinson, one of the late-term abortion providers interviewed in the documentary After Tiller, said: “What I believe is that women are able to struggle with complex ethical issues and arrive at the right decision for themselves and their families. They are the world’s expert on their own lives.” Trust women! (And don’t defund Title X/Planned Parenthood, ahem).

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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