Abortion: Choice and Trusting Women

ProgressOhio via Flickr Creative CommonsBy Ashley-Michelle Papon

TRIGGER WARNING: This content deals with accounts of rape, abuse, and abortion.

This past January marked the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and Republicans celebrated by proving that the war on women is alive with their continued efforts to circumvent abortion access. The latest insult, HR-7, dubbed by sponsor Chris Smith of New Jersey as “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” seeks to go “much further than Hyde” by preventing even private insurance from providing pivotal services for the health needs of women.

The fact that Republicans believe the way to protect the American taxpayer is through gutting abortion access isn’t surprising. Numerous states have captured headlines recently for their continued assault on reproductive autonomy, from manipulating tax codes to requiring the name and address for sperm contributors. An ocean away, France is being heralded for offering reimbursement for abortion services and free birth control, while a retrospective by the Guttmacher Institute reveals that 2012 ushered in the second-highest number of abortion restrictions to date. This latest move suggests we’re getting closer to living in an age where a woman can face criminal charges for having a miscarriage.

Oh wait; we’re already there, in a time and a land where people trust politicians without medical backgrounds to decide the fate of their reproductive autonomy.

The late, great, Dr. George Tiller, the Kansas doctor who provided late-term abortions until his assassination in 2009, had a much better philosophy: trust women. Trust women to know which action is in their best interest, and that includes whether an abortion is right for them. It’s ironic that anti-choice legislature focusing on what women can and can’t do with their bodies is so often written by, and ultimately, championed by men.

When I was 25, I found myself unexpectedly pregnant. Suddenly, abortion, previously only a political and ideological concept, became personal. I had a lot of misgivings about motherhood. Complicating matters, my boyfriend and I had spent the last year negotiating a nasty paternity dispute and custody situation over his son. I had no family or close friends nearby, and my partner’s family, my only means of support, was vocal in their wish for him to leave me in the hope of creating a happy family unit with the mother of their newly-discovered grandson. No choice felt right, no matter how many of them I turned over in my head, but what I knew is that I wanted, very badly, to keep my pregnancy.

However, I had an abortion. I understood I was not being given a choice. I feared for my safety and well-being if I didn’t terminate a pregnancy they had no use for.

As my boyfriend and I left the Planned Parenthood clinic, everything changed. My world had stopped turning. I found myself thinking the last time I had walked to a car so disjointed after a medical procedure—it was because I’d just had a rape kit done. I felt an almost identical sense of loss.

I was still in too much shock to appreciate how different I would come to perceive my rape and abortion. That rape, which involved tangling with law enforcement’s disbelief when I reported it and then the threat of criminal charges against me if I didn’t recant, was never something I could stay silent about. I’ve become a committed anti-rape activist in the decade since.

This journey as a survivor has led me to hone my ideology as a Feminist. While I had always been keyed into gender disparities and focused on how oppression between minority groups seemed interrelated, rape made a lot of my rhetoric personal. When I deconstructed why messages like, “You put yourself in a bad situation” propped up a rape culture, I was no longer talking hypothetical “your daughter/mother/sister/girlfriend” narratives. I was talking about me, as well as all the women who had been raped before me and who would be raped in the future. Believing that I was part of something bigger, changing the world, got me through a lot of nights when the depression and anxiety threatened to be too much.

The similarities between my abortion and rape end there. While my rape was inevitably the beginning of a new, more concrete identity as an advocate with a clear idea of what a better world looked like, my abortion absolutely destroyed that vision. As Molly Crabapple so bravely writes for Vice:

“Pregnancy felt like a mixture of stomach flu, clinical depression, and having a damp gray blanket wrapped around my brain. Every day on the freezing subway platform on the way to school, reeling with fever, I’d think about throwing myself on the tracks. As much as I dreaded surgery, I was militantly pro choice. Because I believed abortions were a right, I pretended mine was no big deal.”

I’m not suggesting that abortion is as traumatic as rape. At least, not in a vacuum. I can say for me, however, that it absolutely was. Surviving sexual violence didn’t make me fundamentally question my own values and beliefs. My abortion did.

I felt completely abandoned by both sides of the abortion debate. In desperation for relief, I found an abortion support workshop series in my area, which turned out to be a Bible-based “recovery” program. Despite not identifying as a Christian, I went anyway. I did find some peace in sharing my experience with other women hurting as I was, but that stopped when we were given bogus pamphlets warning us that our abortions put us at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. When I argued with the group leader that the link had been debunked, it dawned on them that despite how much I regretted my own abortion, I clearly hadn’t joined the anti-choice side. I hadn’t been successfully recruited and I never would be.

Sadly, those in the pro-choice camp left a lot to be desired, too. I began to wonder, very seriously, if there was any place for me in the same movement that had helped me come to terms with being a rape survivor. I could contextualize the more painful parts of being raped, but with my abortion, I had no baseline for knowing when things would correct themselves again. I was apprehensive that my narrative would be twisted to serve an anti-choice agenda I didn’t believe in, but more than anything, I was terrified that coming clean about the regret over my abortion would mean rejection from the Feminist collective I desperately wanted to be part of.

I felt like a nun who had discovered there was no God.

A few months ago, Feministing co-founder Jessica Valenti posted to Facebook, “I truly feel for women who regret their abortions. But regretting a decision will always be better than having none at all.” In theory, I agree with her. This is likely why I have never waivered on choice rhetoric. Despite this conviction, it took years to understand why the abortion had been a betrayal of everything I stood for, but eventually, it hit me: Someone else was allowed to decide and exercise what was best for them, at my expense. For me, choice was never on the table.

Not that such a reality has stopped people from insisting it was my choice all along; my in-laws had simply “offered an opinion”—which just happened to come in the form of financial extortion and emotional abuse. I often describe the experience as “an Intervention-style confrontation with numerous family members demanding I terminate.”

While most people hearing my experience are disgusted at what I went through, few are willing to acknowledge that these tactics amounted to force. The subtext? Just as my in-laws didn’t trust me to make the best decision for me, secondary supporters don’t trust me to evaluate and label my experience for what it was. This isn’t particularly shocking: as a survivor of numerous episodes of violence, I’m used to people dismissing my aggressor’s actions, whether it’s someone suggesting I led my rapist on by going to his house or implying I deserved to get my lip split by my mother for talking back.

Over the last four years, I’ve come to realize that what was traumatizing about my abortion wasn’t that I had one. It’s that I wasn’t given the time and space to make the decision I needed for myself, and in the absence of that time and space, I was forced by people whose self-interest masqueraded as my own. The fact that such a personal choice could some how turn into an open forum with everyone except the person pregnant having a right to make the decision illustrates the painful zero sum game that is being a woman in need of options. On a macro level, what I experienced happens every day—only male politicians, hidden in their offices and away from the constituents they seek to control are overwhelmingly deciding women owe it to the state to stay pregnant.

We’re familiar with stories of women who were not able to access the abortion that they needed, like Savita Halappanavar, the 31-year-old Irish woman who died of septicemia because hospital policy prevented aborting a pregnancy if a heartbeat could be detected. We also know that, despite the Turnaway Study disputing that abortion presents unique mental health concerns compared to carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term, numerous sources subscribe to the idea that abortion is damaging to anyone associated with it. I disagree.

My abortion doesn’t hurt because it was an abortion. My abortion hurts because it wasn’t my choice. Even now, I know that there’s a chance, however small, that I might have voluntarily chosen to have an abortion, had I been allowed to. Had I been trusted to decide for myself. What keeps me up at night isn’t that I ended a pregnancy; it’s that another notch has been added to the list of victimizations that will probably keep me in therapy for a long time to come.

And yet this is becoming the reality for too many women to count.

That includes those of us in the movement to preserve choice. We cannot keep dismissing women who struggle with their abortions as nonexistent straw men for the anti-choice agenda. The distrust for post-abortion syndrome, which seeks to turn the very act of abortion into a medical condition rather than a medical procedure, is understandable and may be well-founded. However, many women are hurt by their abortions, and our community isn’t always willing to hear those narratives. That needs to change. Our movement is built on the premise of helping women, which doesn’t jibe with keeping any number of them, however small, confined from sharing their stories. Worse, trying to redefine what they pinpoint as the cause of their trauma smacks of paternalism, which is a pretty big thorn in the side of abortion rights to begin with.

We need to have more conversations on acceptance in response to abortion disclosures. Last week, Renee Bracey Sherman published a moving piece over at Ebony, essentially advising readers to shut up, hold their judgments and listen, because while everyone has an opinion on abortion, someone’s disclosure of the experience is no place for “political talking points…one story isn’t every story. And we all deserve to be heard in our own words. Take a moment to truly listen.”

Talking about abortion is difficult. I’ve never been so apprehensive about publishing a post before. But the risk of rejection from my support network is worth the possibility of furthering the conversation so we get to the place where we trust women—from the beginning of their decision-making process to the end of how they perceive those experiences.

Pieces like Sherman’s are showing that the dialogue is changing. We’re starting to be more inclusive of stories that deviate from the assigned roles in the choice debate, but the reach isn’t far enough. We can honor these experiences without ceding ground to the anti-choice agenda, and as abortions become increasingly difficult to access, it’s more important than ever we don’t allow any woman to be left out in the cold.

Image courtesy of ProgressOhio via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

One thought on “Abortion: Choice and Trusting Women

  1. “Someone else was allowed to decide and exercise what was best for them, at my expense.”
    That’s what it really comes down to, isn’t it? Coersion comes in many forms.

    Thank you for speaking out on this painful issue honestly and meaningfully.

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