It’s abortion season again. We’re all yet again awaiting a Supreme Court abortion decision as states compete over who can punish the most women for the crime of getting pregnant. And as always, social media timelines across the globe are filled with the same tired abortion debates.
When should women be banned from having abortion?
What is the right way to feel about an abortion?
Which type of abortion-seeker is a bad person?
How much trauma should a person feel about their abortion?
How much of that personal trauma should a person have to subject to public judgment to justify their choice?
The debates are predictable, boring, and harmful. They get us no closer to common ground. That’s because we continue to let the right set the terms of the debate, then adopt a reactive stance and endlessly argue with them according to their own terms.
We can do a better job talking about abortion, and a much better job advocating for people who need abortions. Here are some ways we can begin to do that.
Not Talking About Abortion Like a Medical Procedure
On the left, we say all the time that abortion is a medical procedure between a woman and her doctor. But we almost never talk about it that way.
On one side, we have the "Yay abortion! I heart abortion! Shout your abortion!” crew, who depict every abortion as a glorious triumph. And on the other side of our pro-choice contingent, we have people who insist that abortion is a necessary tragedy, never to be talked about without shedding a tear or feeling guilt.
This is a reactive stance. It’s a response to Republican anti-choice ideas, and it’s a mistake, because it allows them to frame the debate.
We don’t talk about any other medical procedure in this way. We understand, for example, that chemotherapy can be something we are incredibly grateful for, something life-saving, something miraculous, and something that is also deeply traumatic and awful. We know that getting a cavity filled can be no big deal, or it can be a few minutes of horror, or it can be truly traumatic. We acknowledge that doctors run the gamut from amazing saviors to dangerous abusers, and with that recognition comes the recognition that we can always improve medical care, and must always be on the lookout for abusive providers. We don’t think that the negative experiences associated with dentistry, or oncology, or surgery, or any other branch of medicine mean that people shouldn’t have access to those procedures.
So why do we insist on setting a different standard for abortion? Abortion is a medical procedure that some people need. Some abortion providers are spectacular; others are terrible. Some abortions are no big deal; others cause lasting pain. Abortion can be a difficult decision or an easy one, a moment of empowerment, or the only available choice in a devastating circumstance.
Just like every other medical procedure.
Getting Into Debates About the Morality of Abortion
Pop quiz: A woman finds out, 22 weeks into her pregnancy, that her baby will live mere minutes outside of the womb, and will suffer a terrible, agonizing death. She’ll have to go through labor to deliver this doomed baby, endangering her own life, too.
Who is better equipped to determine the morality of whatever decision she makes? A random Internet commenter? A philosophy student? The #notallmen dudebro in your Facebook feed? The legislator who thinks women have abortions for funsies? Or the woman who has intimately known her baby for nearly six months, who has felt that baby move and kick and grow and become more and more human?
The answer is obvious: The person who loves that baby most—the person who would very likely lay down her life to prevent the baby from having this terminal diagnosis—is the only one who has any real insight into the morality of her decision.
This is the entire premise of pro-choice politics: that the law can’t account for every situation, and that only a pregnant person and their doctor can understand the full weight of the decision.
Yet when we talk about abortion, we act as if women need to be policed—as if they routinely change their minds about wanted babies at 24 weeks, as if they think abortion is fun, as if they prefer going through surgery to using birth control. We confidently assert that this abortion is fine, but that abortion is categorically not.
It is not up to you, to me, to anyone to determine which abortions are ok and which are not, because we can never know another person’s circumstances. Abortion can be, and often is, a profound act of love for an unborn baby—or for a future baby one hopes to have one day, or a current baby when a family is in poverty. Women don't have abortions because they’re bad or don’t care about their kids. They have them because they need them.
Ignoring Maternal Mortality
The United States has the worst maternal mortality rate in the wealthy world—and most deaths are completely preventable, in spite of the fact that we’re doing basically nothing to prevent them. It is more dangerous for a woman to give birth today than it was for her mother to do so a generation ago.
In this climate, every birth is potentially life-threatening. Abortion access is intimately related to maternal mortality; women denied abortions are more likely to die giving birth. And a 2019 study found that fewer abortion restrictions can lower maternal mortality. Abortion does not exist in a vacuum and we must discuss more clearly and specifically how it saves women’s lives.
Forgetting About Other Reproductive Justice Issues
Reproductive justice does not begin and end with abortion.
It includes the right to informed consent and refusal during childbirth.
The right to give birth in ways that respect a person’s culture and their medical needs.
Paid parental leave.
Support for new parents overwhelmed by the challenges of life with a newborn.
Affordable access to healthcare.
An end to racism and sexism in maternity care.
Each of these issues connects back to abortion. They also help us on the left find common ground with those on the right. Many women in very religious communities, for example, are deeply committed to the right to have homebirths. They view this as an issue of bodily autonomy. Partnering with them on this issue gets us closer to understanding, and may help begin bridging the chasm between the left and right on choice.
Being Personally Anti-Abortion
“I’m pro-choice, but I’d never have an abortion.”
It’s a statement that sounds like you’re conceding something, but it’s really a condescending judgment of people who do have abortions.
No one knows what they would do in a situation they have never faced, and the blanket assertion that you would never have an abortion depicts people who do have abortions as morally flawed.
What happens when your baby is diagnosed with terminal birth defects and your blood pressure is threatening your life?
What if you’re raped and have a history of postpartum hemorrhage?
What if your doctor tells you another pregnancy will mean a uterine rupture, and your abusive partner pokes holes in the condom?
What if you’re 15? 12? 8?
Pro-choice means that we acknowledge our own short-sightedness, our own lack of knowledge, our own limited comprehension of the complex and scary world around us. You don’t need to elevate yourself above people who have abortions. And doing so plays directly into the far-right narrative of abortion as a morally loaded choice that only deeply flawed people make.
Talking About Abortion Like Something Only Other People Do
1 in 4 women has had an abortion. Abortion is a normal part of women’s health—not something suffering people do in the shadows when their lives are beyond hope.
Yet we on the left love to engage in theoretical discussions about abortion, and pretend that people who have had abortions aren’t listening—or engaging in the discussion. This can be incredibly damaging. Because it forces people who have had abortions to see that the people in their lives think they make bad decisions. It forces them to continuously relive something that may have been difficult, or even traumatic. It reminds them that society thinks they are bad.
And for the fraction of abortion seekers who aborted wanted pregnancies for medical reasons, it can trigger trauma, flashbacks, the full PTSD experience.
The line between abortion, miscarriage, and infant death is not nearly as clear as we might like to believe it is. People who have miscarriages have abortions to remove dead fetuses from their bodies. So too with people whose babies die right before birth. When you talk about abortion, you talk about a wide range of trauma—poverty, domestic violence, watching a beloved baby die, escaping an abusive marriage. Treating it as a theoretical debate is disrespectful to the lived realities of millions of women whose lives matter.
Don’t turn someone else’s trauma into your talking point.
Not Working to Make Abortion Better
If I go to the dentist and get anxious, my dentist will spend extra time with me to calm me down. The provider may have trauma training, or a number of interventions to make dental care easier for anxious people. Not so with abortion clinics. If I seek an abortion, I’ll sit for hours in a crowded waiting room while protesters outside scream vile things. I probably won’t be able to take my partner or any support person back with me. If I’m scared and alone, I’ll have to just deal with it. There won’t be time for me to get extra support or trauma-focused care, because abortion clinics are forced to overbook and provide assembly line care.
This is a direct result of anti-choice sentiment. It’s still not ok, and is potentially harmful to abortion seekers. Abortion clinics could be routinely giving out ear plugs, developing strategies for people to build abortion plans just like they build birth plans, and find protocols that prevent scared people from waiting alone for hours. Most aren’t.
The message here is clear: Be grateful you can get an abortion. And maybe you deserve for it to be a bad experience. Abortion is a right, and we do not owe gratitude to abortion clinics. Reproductive justice activists must expand their focus to include making abortion a better experience.
There is no single abortion narrative, just as there is no single abortion case that will convince the far right that women are human beings who deserve to control their bodies. We need to expand our understanding of abortion, treat it like the medical procedure it is, and reclaim the moral high ground. Because the high ground has never belonged to people who shoot doctors, think women should die from pregnancy, and want to punish miscarriages.