The Mother Majority

Women with children have more abortions than anyone else, and by an increasingly wide margin. So why is the topic taboo?

Why are women with children having more abortions?

Photograph by Jupiterimages/Thinkstock.

A few months ago, I was late. You know what I mean: My usual period day came and went without a spot, and suddenly every wave of exhaustion, every twinge of anxious nausea, became a harbinger of a very unintended pregnancy, a sign that my NuvaRing had failed me. I’m married, happily at that. And I’m a mother, happily as well. But our family feels “complete,” as demographers put it, at one child. And so my husband and I had to make a choice—or so we thought, for a very tense week before my body made the choice for me. As we lay awake at night whispering pros and cons for continuing the pregnancy, stopping only when our daughter padded in to snuggle under our covers in the predawn hours, I wondered if our mere deliberating might call into question my soundness as a mother. If I, already happily immersed in parenting, chose to terminate, wouldn’t I be unusual for doing so, maybe even stigmatized as a sort of prenatal Medea?

I was wrong. Women who are already mothers have more abortions than anyone else, and by an increasingly wide margin. When Guttmacher Institute researchers last ran the numbers in 2008 they found that 61 percent of women who terminate a pregnancy in this country already have at least one child. That was before the recession, though—before the poverty rate rose to swallow 40.7 percent of women who head families, many of whom know they can’t afford another child.* So I asked the National Abortion Federation, a professional association of abortion providers, to run the numbers on the women visiting their clinics and calling their hotlines in the past few years. The resulting figures shocked NAF President Vicki Saporta, who called to tell me that every year since 2008, a whopping 72 percent of NAF clients looking to terminate a pregnancy were already mothers, up at least 10 percent from the years before the economy crashed.

But while the typical abortion patient is a mother, very few people seem to realize it. Lawrence Finer, Guttmacher’s director of domestic research, told me that this fact is “one of the most unknown and surprising statistics across the board.”* Guttmacher is trying to correct the public’s misperceptions with a YouTube PSA designed to show that women who have abortions aren’t necessarily who we think they are. But why are these misperceptions so skewed in the first place? Is the intersection of motherhood and abortion a minefield that activists choose not to navigate?

NAF’s Saporta told me she thinks anti-abortionists have successfully depicted women who choose to terminate a pregnancy as sexually indiscriminate. “It’s much harder to demonize the mother who is struggling to support the kid she already has,” she says. But then why doesn’t the group that she leads make this very point? “Good question—I think we should,” she replied. I also put the question to Gloria Feldt, the former longtime Planned Parenthood Federation of America president. “I believe the whole movement has made a terrible mistake,” she said, referring to the pro-choice movement’s decision to avoid talking about mothers’ motives for having abortions, and instead focus “on the less frequent reasons, which are rape and incest or teens who are simply not ready to be parents.”

For her part, Rachel Jones, a senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute, thinks that public perceptions of who aborts and why are skewed mostly as a result of all the political heat around late-term abortions and adolescent abortions (minors have only 7 percent of all abortions). In other words, she argues, mothers who abort are invisible not because anyone is conspiring to keep them that way, but because so much attention is focused on other women.

But why do mothers have so many abortions in the first place? Jones co-authored a qualitative study titled I Would Want To Give My Child, Like, Everything in the World: How Issues of Motherhood Influence Women Who Have Abortions,” which found that most mothers who abort say they are doing so to protect the kids they already have. As Jones points out, that rationale is tough to demonize politically, especially when you consider that most women making this choice are contending with some combination of low income, unemployment, and a lack of health insurance, or are struggling to raise kids on their own.

These are the kinds of stories Anne Baker hears daily across the little round table in her office at the St. Louis-area Hope Clinic for Women, where she has been counseling abortion seekers for 35 years. In 2008, the last year for which the clinic has available numbers, 62 percent of its patients were mothers. But Baker says the number of mothers coming in has swelled markedly since then, just as it did during the economic slowdown of the late ’70s, when she was first starting out at the clinic. She has compiled a list of 25 reasons mothers commonly give her for not having another child. By far the No. 1 reason is a desire to protect the families they already have. Most of the time, this calculus is an economic one, though Baker has also noted a growing number of women like me, women who are “less apologetic than they used to be about saying they’re a good mom and for them to continue to be a good mom, they choose to do it with one.”

Of course, when it comes to public opinion, it’s one thing for a mother to choose an abortion out of desperation, and another to do it out of preference. Feldt says the motivations behind a mother’s choice to terminate place her on a sliding scale of public opinion. Recalling her days polling voters at PPFA, she describes the American view of who gets to have an abortion like this: “The less in control of a woman’s life she is, the more the public supports her right to make that choice [to have an abortion]. The more she is in control of her life, saying this is the life I choose, the less people support it.” So if a mother who is destitute chooses to abort, we might accept her decision. But someone like me, who could support another child if only I moved to a less expensive ZIP code and got a job with a steadier paycheck? I’d be a moral pariah.

“It’s scandalous for white women like you and me,” Jennifer Baumgardner recently told me over coffee. When Baumgardner gathered women’s abortion testimonies for her book Abortion and Life, she had yet to terminate a pregnancy herself (on the book’s cover, she’s pictured pregnant with her second child). But when she subsequently found herself pregnant again, she chose to abort rather than have a third child. When we start talking about why the pro-choice movement hasn’t made mothers more of the story of abortion in America, Baumgardner rolls her eyes. “Women in the movement have this enormous disconnect between actual lives and what they believe in,” she says. “They’ll talk about other women but they think their own story can be used to undermine them.”

Is all this true, though? Is the stigma that attaches to abortion actually compounded if one makes this choice as a mother? Are we right to think that terminating a pregnancy after carrying another one successfully to term will undermine our standing not just as women but as good parents?

At the University of California-San Francisco, Kate Cockrill directs the Social and Emotional Aspects of Abortion Program, and is trying to measure sources of stigma. She has found that many mothers deliberately explain their choice to abort in the context of their motherhood, thinking that doing so will ward off judgment. “Motherhood is an assertion of their humanity,” Cockrill told me of women who fear condemnation, “and claiming their motherhood is part of managing the stigma of abortion.”

Still, Cockrill has found that once they have established social identities as mothers, many women will do everything they can to avoid tarnishing that identity. For example, she found women who had babies delivered by an OB-GYN refused to see that physician when they found themselves in an unwanted pregnancy. “They wanted to be seen as a mother,” she said, “not an abortion patient.”

Corrections, Oct. 18, 2011: This article originally stated that 42 percent of women live in poverty. This statistic refers only to women who head families, and the correct percentage is 40.7, not 42 percent. (Return to the corrected sentence.) The article also misidentified Lawrence Finer as Larry. (Return to the current sentence.)