The XX Factor

IVF and Then Abortion

Before he was murdered by an anti-abortion activist/terrorist, Dr. George Tiller’s motto was “Trust women.” On its surface, it seems like a strange and shallow motto-is the implication that half of the human race is inherently trustworthy? But once you start to really look at the way the abortion debate is concocted, it starts to make sense. Dr. Tiller was countering millenia of misogynist propaganda that painted women as inherently untrustworthy, as fickle, stupid, deceitful, or otherwise incapable of making decisions as soundly as men are expected to do. And if you have a smidgen of doubt that people are primed to believe the worst of women, reading about the alarm raised over the teeny-tiny percentage of IVF patients who abort should change your opinion.

If you invest in Dr. Tiller’s worldview, the news that a small number of women who get IVF decide later to abort won’t ruffle your feathers. You’ll think, “I’m sure they have a very good reason.” You imagine birth defects and broken relationships. And, of course, you’d be right. I had an abortion counselor tell me once about a lesbian couple who went through fertility treatment hell only to have an abortion because of a terrible birth defect, a tragedy that felt so cruelly ironic to the couple in question that they had to joke about it to cope. But if you’re most people, you’re so primed to believe the worst of women that you immediately go where the Times of London did , and conclude that the women who have abortions after IVF are bad people, too fickle to deserve rights.

Danielle Friedman, writing for the Daily Beast, says this about the outrage over the relatively rare IVF-to-abortion path: “[S]ome people believe that mothers who conceive through in vitro fertilization give up a degree of bodily autonomy.” Of course, that’s true of any decision a woman makes. Some people believe that women who go drinking in clubs give up their right not to be sexually assaulted. Some people-you may call them “pro-lifers”-believe that a woman who has sex at any time for any reason gives up her right to control her body. It’s all a dressed-up way of saying that women didn’t have a right to bodily autonomy in the first place.

Saying “trust women” doesn’t mean believe women are better than men or especially trustworthy people. It’s just assuming women are human beings, and, like men, can be expected to make rational decisions most of the time. And indeed, as Friedman points out, that assumption plays out when you look at women who abort after conceiving through IVF. And if you doubted that before you hear their stories, you should be hit with the sudden realization of how your sexism took you to an ugly place. Viewed with empathy, women who go through the hell of IVF and then abortion are people who deserve our utmost sympathy for their struggles, not our contempt.