The XX Factor

Enough With the Grueling, Wrenching, “I Had an Abortion” Essays

Let’s be honest.

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

In the New York Times, Beth Matusoff Merfish has an essay about her mother’s abortion. Right before Merfish went to college, her mother confessed to her that she’d terminated a pregnancy when she was 20 and her 21-year-old boyfriend—who would become her husband and Merfish’s father—were just poor college students and not ready to have a child.  Merfish describes how her mother’s voice shook when she told her about the abortion and about the shame her mom expressed. Merfish uses the essay to ask other women to be honest about their abortions, in light of the Texas anti-choice legislation. She tells these women, “You have the power to cement in the minds of your communities and families the importance of reproductive freedom.”

There have been several essays like this published in recent weeks, as Texas, North Carolina, and Ohio try (and succeed) to pass anti-choice laws. All of these essays describe how wrenching and horrible the choice to terminate a pregnancy is, and they also read as an attempt to change anti-choice minds about the necessity of a woman’s right to choose. This is a noble goal, but as the years go by and state legislatures see more and more challenges to abortion rights, it’s also a futile goal. Humane essays aren’t going to change the entrenched anti-choicer. Instead they do something else: push the rhetorical battle even further rightward than it has already been pushed.

The pro-choice side remains in a defensive crouch. We trot out the saddest stories: a woman who really wanted a baby but terminated because the baby was not going to be able to live outside the womb or a woman who can’t afford another child without tumbling into poverty. But a lot of women have abortions and don’t look back. A lot of women don’t want a baby, and they don’t care whether the fetus is viable or how much money is in their bank account. Where are their essays?

First-person abortion stories in major publications are almost always about “appropriate” abortions. Shrouded in mournful tones, regretting the baby that couldn’t be, reflecting on that upsetting choice. But this is such a narrow way of looking at an experience that a third of women in America have. Most people who get abortions aren’t teenagers or terminating unviable babies. Six in 10 women who get abortions are already mothers, and 3 in 10 women have two or more children. The abortion rate is highest among women in their 20s. And there is a range of emotions that women feel when they’re getting what is essentially a medical procedure. Some feel relief, some feel nothing, others even feel joy.

It’s not surprising that we need to look beyond the media gatekeepers for authentic expressions of this range of emotion. When I was an editor at Jezebel, there was a Tumblr that made the rounds called “What to Expect When You’re Aborting.” The 23-year-old anonymous author put the site up because when she needed an abortion, she tried googling “abortion blog” and only came up with anti-choice nonsense and women who regretted their terminations. So she wanted to publish something servicey that explained what an abortion was like and how to go about getting one. But what I liked best about the site was how blithe and unapologetic she was about her choice. She described the aftermath of her abortion like this:

By monday my hormones were a little wonky but in all i just felt like this parasitic creature that burrowed its way into me and fed of my energy, apetite, [sic] and joy was removed. And I had been restored.

This kind of honesty might not change any anti-choice minds. But it pushes forward the idea that there isn’t one right way to feel about terminating a pregnancy. And it has the potential to nudge the battle back leftward after ceding so much ground.