The 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision should be a meaningful moment for our country to take a step back to appreciate and discuss abortion rights in our country. But it’s not necessary to pause from our political discourse to reflect on abortion rights because everyday we’re inundated with discussion around the rights we supposedly achieved four decades ago.
While the historic decision did legalize a woman’s right to abortion access, it certainly didn’t lay the divisive issue to rest. Last year saw 43 anti-abortion measures passed at the state level, the second highest number of all time--only 2011, with 92 measures intended to restrict abortion was higher. It seems the abortion issue–and the general issue of women’s rights surrounding their reproductive healthcare--things are getting worse, not better, for women in our country.
Image via Guttmacher Institute
I say “abortion rights” in lieu of the more current “reproductive healthcare rights,” a phrase that came into use as a more encompassing and inclusive term, but also as a way to distance ourselves from the endlessly provocative power of the word “abortion.”
The thing is, it seems like we’re getting less comfortable, not more, with discussing abortion. In defense against the bizarre anti-Planned Parenthood rhetoric that was so prominent during our most recent election cycle, spokespersons from the organization repeatedly reminded us that abortion services are a very small part of what they do. And this is true. Planned Parenthood provides a wealth of services like contraception, gynecological exams, sexual education, outreach, and more. But while this is accurate, abortion is something that many Planned Parenthoods do provide, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The word “abortion” strikes us, I think, as a bit too radical, a bit impolite.
Before I moved to New York, I lived in the South, in Georgia, and I interned at a women’s health clinic, an abortion clinic. This was in the immediate aftermath of George W. Bush’s presidency and the slew of restrictive state legislation around abortion that accompanied it. As part of the internship program, we were required to go through all the steps of being an abortion seeker to help us better understand the process.
So I called up this non-profit clinic and made an appointment like everyone else. I showed up at 7:00 AM one Saturday and filled out the endless forms and sat in a waiting room filled with other women who sat with their parents or their partners or their friends. At the time there were around five abortion clinics in the state. Many of the other people in the room looked bedraggled; likely they had been driving since before dawn from more rural areas without a clinic--even today 87 percent of counties in the country lack an abortion provider.
What I saw in the waiting room, and in the back where I was offered the opportunity to both listen to a fetal heartbeat and to view my sonogram (both recent state laws enacted to make sure I understood the gravity of my decision), and in the rest of my work with the clinic was that abortion is the great equalizer.
This is not a new observation, but it was a profound one for me at that age. College women and businesswomen and a young girl with her mother who looked like they could have been members of the Evangelical church I attended in middle school. Fully one-third of women in our country will get an abortion at some point in their lives. Consider that number, then consider how abortion is treated in popular culture. I really don’t think I can handle another female television character bursting out of the abortion clinic’s doors, unable to go through with it. Many women who seek abortions are unflinching; they know they’ve made the right decision for themselves. We should portray them too.
Andrea keeps her baby.
Sure, more people think that Roe v. Wade should stand today than ever before, and this is wonderful. But what our society seems to value, in its popular culture and often in its political rhetoric, is that the right to have an abortion should remain intact for other people. So many politicians don’t “personally” agree with abortion, though they want it legal; television teenage sweethearts (almost) always end up keeping their babies.
We’re left with the impression that abortion is a little wrong, probably shameful, and really emotionally difficult. Some women do regret their abortions. But sometimes human beings regret things. Abortion can be a major life decision for some women, but for others it isn’t. We can’t hear the women who don’t regret their abortions because they don’t have a voice. It’s still too taboo a topic. What's more, our cultural expectations around women are still so defined by motherhood. A woman who doesn’t struggle with her abortion is somehow lacking in softness, in femininity, or in maternal instinct. This is the great opportunity that Roe v. Wade afforded us--the ability to no longer be defined by our reproductive capacity.
I’ll leave you with the closing from one young college woman’s story I read on I’m Not Sorry, a website that provides a space for women’s abortion stories.
“Besides feeling better physically (good-bye morning sickness) I feel relief from the stress and worry of being pregnant. I also feel stronger as a person, as a woman who was sure of what she wanted and did it. No worries, no questions, no regrets.”
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