The Pop Culture Version of Abortion tends to go something like this: A woman finds out she's pregnant; she agonizes over the decision to have an abortion; she sits in the clinic, watching the terribly sad people thinking about the terrible thing they're doing; audio fades during the painful and terrifying procedure; the woman leaves the clinic (hopefully), numb almost to the point of catatonia. This is followed by the woman further agonizing over the decision; devastation and sadness are the norm, but occasionally the writers will allow the woman to feel some modicum of relief among the sadness. Oh, and she can't have children now. Because abortion ruins your insides. Pop Culture Abortions are bullshit.
Let me specify that in no way is this to delegitimize women who do deal with some or all of this scenario when they exercise their right to choose. Sadness and depression are real and legitimate reactions after a woman has an abortion, and we need stronger support systems for these women. But it is by no means a universal response, yet there is extreme pressure in our society for women to feel shame or guilt after any abortion, even among those that consider ourselves pro-choice. These attitudes are damaging to women and to the fight for reproductive rights.
There is no right way to feel after an abortion, but even ostensibly pro-choice people are prone to framing the debate in the language of the anti-choice movement. The women whose stories we choose to tell are carefully selected to have had the "right" kind of abortions. "Responsible" women whose birth control failed, rape survivors, cases of fetal abnormalities or women who have struggled with the gut-wrenching decision are held up as the sole reason abortion should be available. This sets up a debate in which the morality of abortion is already defined by the terms of those who would strip women of their basic bodily autonomy (h/t to Kinja user Kirov):
But I'm writing this because the emphasis on "responsibility" in the comments really bothers me. When anti-choicers level the charge of irresponsibility against a woman, we accept it. We don't accept that she was irresponsible, but we accept that it's a legitimate criticism. We accept the terms. We say: oh no, she wasn't irresponsible! She was using birth control! It fails sometimes! (Or: she was raped.) Because fuck those women who have unprotected sex and then have abortions. Let's just throw them under the bus and suggest that while they have the legal right to abortion, they're inferior to the women who did everything "right."...
We are letting [the anti-choicers] frame everything, and then making measly little points within the frame they created.
We grant them that: women who don't use birth control are irresponsible when we say "but birth control fails!"; that if a woman made the choice to have sex, she should have to face some sort of negative consequences, when we say "but some women get pregnant through rape!"; that there is something inherently wrong about abortion when we say that they should be "rare"; that "sluts" shouldn't be able to "get away with it" when we say "but no woman uses abortion as birth control!"; that all women want babies and just want the best for them, when we say that it's all about "timing"; and most importantly, when we say that abortions arealways difficult choices, we grant everything: if the procedure was morally neutral, then why would it always be a difficult choice? The supposed universality of that difficulty — that moral struggle — suggests that the procedure isn't morally neutral at all... so maybe that fetus really is a person. So maybe abortion shouldn't be legal.
There are no good abortions and bad abortions. Abortion is a medical procedure that is safe and legal and the only relevant moral judgment is that of the person having the procedure. Your view (and mine, and anyone else's) about the propriety of her abortion is immaterial. Limiting the number of unintended pregnancies is a noble goal, and one that I share. But all the single-payer health care and free birth control in the world won't change the fact that abortion is a procedure that carries with it no reflection on the morals of the person having the procedure.
An abortion is an abortion is an abortion, whether the pregnancy is a result of rape or failed birth control or reproductive abuse - or even if it's none of these things. Even if no precautions were taken to prevent an unintended pregnancy, abortion is a legitimate choice free from any inherent judgment of morality. Advancing the myth of the responsible abortion unavoidably sets up a system in which we deem some abortions as acceptable and others as unacceptable. The fact that we support the legality of both types doesn't diminish the truth that this viewpoint continues to stigmatize women for a valid and personal choice.
This stigma extends to a woman's behavior post-abortion. Society's view of a woman as an acceptable candidate for abortion can be revoked at a moment's notice if she doesn't show the proper post-abortion remorse and deep reflection, from pro-choice and anti-choice alike. When Emily Letts filmed her abortion in an attempt to deconstruct some of the fear and stigma that has been unfairly attached to both abortion and those who have them, she was set upon not just by conservative and religious fanatics, but by self-described "passionately pro-choice" people like Dina Rickman, who wrote in the Telegraph:
I support Letts's choice, and the choices of millions of women like her around the globe. But that doesn't mean I need to applaud her video stunt. A positive abortion story isn't about filming the procedure or doing a piece to camera a month later saying you have no regrets - it's about the rest of the life you make for yourself afterwards.
Even those who consider themselves the most ardent of reproductive choice advocates turn into moralistic bluenoses when a woman dares to be happy with her choice to have an abortion. Abortion is a medical procedure that unquestionably has saved the lives of an enormous number of women and improved the lives of millions more. Happiness is not only an acceptable emotion following an abortion; it's to be expected in many cases.
What's immoral is not the choice to have an abortion, whether for socially-accepted reasons or not. It's morally incongruous to support reproductive rights in one breath while propping up societal condemnation of women who have abortions in the next. There are no bad abortions and there's no wrong way for women to feel about their abortions. Anti-choicers are winning in a whole lot of places, and we need to stop giving ground.
Joshua David can be found on Twitter at @joshuaadavidd.
Image via David Jackmanson.