When I was young—really young—my parents used to picket abortion clinics. I still remember the picket signs, with big permanent marker lettering and pasted cutouts of ultrasound images, that they kept stowed in the upstairs closet. I remember the pewter paper-weight molded into the shape of a womb with a fetus inside of it that sat on my father’s desk. I also recall the more bloody images nested inside brochures—I doubt if I was meant to see them at that age, but I did.
Everything seemed self-evident then. Of course abortion was wrong. Of course all babies should be born. What madness could make someone say anything to the contrary?
One of my first experiences of reading outside of my ideological comfort zone— and thereby encountering something more than a straw-man depiction of an opponent’s position— happened in high school when I read (I don’t remember where) a relatively straight-forward explication of the pro-choice position. Exposure in college to some of the more rigorous philosophical arguments for abortion rights, like Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” in an Intro Ethics course, also added complexity to my thinking on the issue. Through my early exposure to the pro-life movement I’d only seen the child’s rights; I’d never really stopped to think about the rights of the woman or the way in which ethical situations could get really hairy when you had one person literally living inside another. Slowly but surely, I found myself drifting from the pro-life side to the pro-choice. My relationship to both positions was largely intellectual, though I did cringe a bit, as a woman, at some of my father’s descriptions of women who had abortions (I don’t remember any choice words being directed at the men who also had a role to play in their pregnancies).
But then, several years after graduation, I got pregnant. And I had an abortion. Since that time, I’ve been on both sides of the pro-choice/pro-life divide and my position in both cases has been inseparable from the fact that I had an abortion—I can still talk about my position intellectually and abstractly, but I’d be kidding myself to think that there was really anything purely intellectual and abstract about my relationship to the issue. Of course, when I talk about the issue, people usually don’t know about my personal investment in it. To this day, only a handful of friends know that it happened and no members of my family do. While a substantial percentage of women in the United States have abortions, for the most part it’s not something that we talk about, regardless of what we think about what we did. When stories do appear, they’re almost always put in the service of a particular politics: pro-life rallies can include an “I regret my abortion” story or two and pro-choice advocates can point to the heart-rending stories of women who had abortions after being raped, or after becoming pregnant at extremely young ages, or after learning that their child would have very serious medical issues. But these are all stories in the service of an argument, not stories in their own right. As I was trying to process what I’d done and how I actually felt about it, I longed for stories in their own right.
When, in the wake of the abortion, I’d left my old state and my old relationship and had started a new life as a graduate student several hundreds of miles away, I used to imagine a book project that I wanted to spearhead one day. It would be full of the stories of women who had had abortions. Some of them would regret them, some of them would feel like they made the right choice, and perhaps many of them just wouldn’t even know exactly what they felt. The book wouldn’t have agenda, it would just have stories.
I’m pro-life now—I have no qualms about admitting that—but when I tell my story (which I hope to do in a future post), I don’t want it to simply be a vehicle in which to convey the message “abortion is wrong.” I want it to be true—which is to say, I want it be related with all its messiness, its shame, its frustration, and its complexities. I think that I owe that much to my readers, particularly any who have had or who are thinking about having an abortion—and, frankly, I think I owe it to the never-to-be-born unborn child who won’t ever be able to tell his or her own story. I don’t want my story to be a stand-in for the stories of other women who have had abortions or a rebuttal to their stories. In short, I don’t want it to be universalized, I want it to be insistently particular—because only then can it be true.