The XX Factor

Yes, Women Denied Abortions Love Their Kids, But That Doesn’t Justify Banning Abortion

Women need access to clinics before they are too far along, which means we need more clinics.


Joshua Lang at the New York Times has an in-depth look at a study that we briefly covered here about what happens to women who seek abortions but, usually because they’re too far along in their pregnancy, get turned away. These women, dubbed “turnaways,” have been little examined in the past, but head researcher Diana Greene Foster of the University of California San Francisco decided to compare them to the demographically similar group of women who got abortions right under the cut-off date to see if they had wildly different turnouts. They did: Turnaways had worse physical and financial outcomes than women who had access to abortions when they wanted them. 

That said, most turnaways who keep their babies eventually come around to accepting and even embracing their status as mothers. (Only 9 percent give their children up for adoption.) The turnaway that Lang interviewed for his piece is typical when it comes to discussing the baby she tried to avoid having:

S. now says that Baby S. is the best thing that ever happened to her. “She is more than my best friend, more than the love of my life,” S. told me, glowingly. There were white spit-up stains on her green top. “She is just my whole world.”

It’s no doubt tempting for abortion opponents to cite the many stories of turnaway mothers who grew to embrace motherhood as a way to make their case for banning abortion. But bluntly put, what other option do these women have? Women who want abortions are not heartless or somehow incapable of forming a parental-child bond or without a moral compass. The fact that people adjust to unwanted situations such as forced parenthood or arranged marriages is not, at the end of the day, an argument for removing their right to choose against those situations. In addition, being able to love a child who is actually here while being opposed to having the child while it’s in the womb highlights the very real difference between an actual person and a potential one, a difference the anti-choice movement tries to deny.

After all, S.’s journey toward feeling the same love and enthusiasm as a mother of choice might was a difficult one:

“I felt like she didn’t love me, like maybe she was mad at me.” S. watched bitterly as her family members held a contented Baby S. When S. held her, the baby would begin to cry. It went on like that for weeks. S. sometimes buried her head in her pillow, crying, when the baby cried. “Her tone was negative,” one of S.’s sisters remembers. “She would become angry, saying she wished the baby would shut up.”

It’s hard to blame S. for being so stressed out, because, like many women denied abortions, having a baby at the wrong time has been a financial disaster for her. Her entire extended family lives in one small house and she lost her job. She sounds like a woman with a lot of love to give, and it’s hard not to imagine how much better it would have been if she could have waited to give that love when she was in a better position for herself and her children.

That, ultimately, is the important takeaway from this research about women denied abortions: Abortion access is very rarely about being a mother vs. not being a mother, about having a baby to love or not. While that’s true for a small percentage of women seeking abortions, for most women, it’s about timing. Women just want to give the children they do have the best possible shot at a good life by having them at the right time.

While there’s not much that can be done about women who show up at abortion clinics too late in their pregnancies for legal abortions, the struggles and suffering of turnaways should compel us to support policies that make it easier for women to get abortions when they want to earlier in their pregnancies. This means opening more clinics and stopping the tide of legislative attempts that would have a woman turned away as early as six weeks into her pregnancy.

Correction, June 14, 2013: This post originally stated that a study of turnaways found that they had worse mental health outcomes than women who had access to abortions when they wanted them. While these women do suffer anxiety and a loss of self-esteem directly after being turned away, those health differences do not persist over time.