The XX Factor

New York Times Poses Question About Abortion but Isn’t Really Interested in the Answer

Regret posters are the new bloody fetus posters.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Room for Debate is a regular feature on the New York Times website and also where intelligent discourse goes to die. The strategy is to ask an asinine question that often has a straightforward answer and then get a panel of “experts” to weigh in. Recent examples include “Should Atheists Pray?” and “Is Interracial Marriage Still Scandalous?” (the answers to which, respectively, are “no” and “only to racists”). It’s not really a debate so much as various voices speaking for their cause, often heavy on the talking points. Monday’s debate topic was “Coming Out on Abortion,” and the question posed is: “Would support for abortion rights grow if more women discussed their abortions?”

Not according to the anti-choicers included on the panel, who, as is their habit, showed up full of misinformation that the New York Times just ran because apparently that is what making “room” for “debate” is these days. The story these panelists tell, which is increasingly popular in the anti-choice movement, is one of regret. The narrative goes a little like this: Women who get abortions, being fickle females who don’t know their own minds, rush into the decision and come to regret it later, because they rejected their only true destiny as women, which is making babies. Daniel Allott trots this one out, saying, “the number [of women who have an abortion] who experience grief or depression after abortion is significant and rising (though underreported),” though he fails to state where this information can be found. Georgette Forney, the president of Anglicans for Life, agrees: “The challenge facing women who have had abortions is ensuring our voices are heard by a complacent society that has signed on to choice without really knowing what is being chosen.”

It’s not hard to understand why the “regret” narrative has taken off on the right. They’ve tried for decades to scare people with bloody fetus images without moving the needle on public support for abortion rights. Now they’re changing course and trying to make themselves into a consumer protection movement, just trying to take this awful product of safe, legal abortion off the market for your own good, ladies.

But in terms of consumer products, frankly, abortion gets an A+. Abortion is roughly 14 times safer than giving birth and probably more so when you consider the fact that women with unplanned pregnancies—the kind that are exponentially more likely to be aborted—are more likely to have substandard prenatal care. (However, illegal abortions—the kind that will explode in number if abortion is restricted to the point where women no longer have access—are many times more dangerous than legal abortions.)

As for the claim that women suffer from mental illness because of abortion, it has been repeatedly studied, and the American Psychological Association says no evidence of a link has been found. And as for the vague concept of regret: While of course some women will regret their abortions (Forney is one of them), the Guttmacher Institute’s research into women who have abortions shows that, “for most women, however, the time of greatest distress is likely to be before an abortion; after an abortion, women frequently report feeling ‘relief and happiness.’ ” Nor are women who have abortions at a loss because their opportunity to be mothers has been permanently snatched from them. Most women who have abortions are already mothers, and many of the rest will eventually have children. 

But anyway, whether or not women telling their abortion stories affects the political views people have on abortion really isn’t a “room for debate” type question, where various people spout off what they think might be true, but nothing ever comes from it. It strikes me as an empirical question that would probably be pretty easy to study: Gather some people up, have them listen to uncoached women tell abortion stories, and measure their support for abortion rights before and after hearing the stories. Why don’t we do that instead of engaging in pointless, anti-factual speculation?