At the bottom of my pain is the fear I won’t be able to have babies. I don’t deserve them. I will be punished. This fear appears molded by a vocabulary of morality, when its very appearance is in fact an ethical dilemma. Why should I, a then 21 year old, now 26 year old woman, who was financially and emotionally incapable of raising a child, who was still a child and wanted to remain so for a while, but who was also grown up enough to experience the responsibilities and consequences of sex and parental independence, why should I be subject to the culturally embedded harassment of a moral language to think about my very personal pain?
The dilemma is that sometimes morality is unethical. Sometimes what appears to be a discussion of “right” or “wrong” is actually a discussion about what are legitimate acts vs. illegitimate, or in some cases illegal acts, by individuals in the eyes of the state. Abortion is widely understood to be a dilemma of the law—Roe v. Wade is the most famous abortion case that has leaked into popular culture is constantly problematized and delegitimized in the media, and the politicizing of the female body by both liberals and conservatives, lobbyists and law-makers, is a never ending race track of propaganda and divine right that leaves women and women’s pain at best reductively, at worst utterly out of the narrative.
In the case of Pro-Choice rhetoric this means denying the emotional, psychic, energetic factors of Abortion. To publicly say things like “It’s just cells” or “women don’t get depressed”. In the case of Pro-Life rhetoric it is to say, above all else (no matter how deeply hypocritical it is) we support the potential for human life and consider the woman’s womb the house in which life can grow and nothing else. Her womb doesn’t belong to her it belongs to god. In response liberals have to negate the house in which life can grow, and say wombs are parts of the female anatomy meant only for what they want inside, be it life or other. The right will talk about death. The left won’t. The left will talk about female autonomy, structural oppression, and racial justice. The right refuses to.
These polarized tactics while politically strategic, are deeply out of touch with the actual experience of abortion. The unique differences between women, women’s situations: the men in their life, their upbringing, families, parties, support systems, ages, sensitivities, races, desires etc. Left out of the political conversation is the potential for a young liberal woman to actually want to have a baby and feel pressure not to, and for a young republican to feel unable and forced. Left out is the potential for one woman to feel loss and grief while another feels relief; the potential for one woman to feel relief and years later be caught up in grief or anger or self-sabotage.
None of the above reactions are strange.
When I had an abortion when I was 21 three surprising things immediately became apparent. The first, most of the older women in my life who I loved and respected had had an abortion and never talked about it. The second, girls my own age were also having abortions and not talking about it. The third, going onto online blogs to discuss feelings you think are weird allows you to see the spectrum of experience and feeling women are having and the thousands upon thousands of women having them.
Even in the throws of my most monstrously liberal upbringing I was and am surrounded by women whose abortions are fundamentally marked by quietness, internalization, and silence. In a world where many women’s sexuality is marked by violence and death this is not the most terrible thing, but excruciatingly anachronistic given the plethora of feminist barriers we’ve trampled in the last 100 years. Not only that, but being silenced is and always has been telling of greater structural oppression for all marginalized peoples. In theory, a reason why our democracy dotes on First Amendment rights to freedom of speech is to break those silences which enslave people. In practice, society and the state still choose whose speech matters according to race, class, gender, income…and in turn whose lives matter… which obfuscates the motivations of having free speech in the first place. Silence is particularly notable as a symptom of female oppression, with such famous feminist texts as The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir, In A Different Voice by Carol Gilligan and Talking Back by Bell Hooks, delving into the superstructures and intimate managers that silence the female voice.
This silencing or as I like to call it “quietness”, because in some women it is a “choice”—and usually a smart one given the potential violence she has been taught to face when she is not quiet—is another symptom of the moral vocabulary and ethical dilemma I am addressing.
If you don’t let women talk about their pain they will remain in pain. If you don’t let women talk about abortion on their own terms, using their own vocabulary it can be detrimental to their mental and physical health. If you expect women to allow their bodies to be politicized without resentment and internalized feelings, whatever they may be, you are missing an opportunity to better understand, listen, and learn from female wisdom.
At the bottom of my pain are dreams of running over little children. A fear, that comes from guilt, and a response to guilt written inside me as “I don’t deserve to have kids.” Would this fear be there if I lived in a society that dealt more honestly with the contradictions and painfulness of not just women’s abortions, but women’s lives? It is hard to say.
There is a movement now of women leaving the medical establishment in exchange for less moralizing and allopathic ideas about women’s health. These women often turn to Doulas for guidance and care. Some Doulas are committed to helping women through abortion, some are called “full spectrum doulas” who support women through life transitions such as birth, abortion, and death. And of course there are Doulas who help women give birth! The Doula Project in New York City, The Lilith Fund in Texas, The Outreach Doula Project in Kentucky are all sources of help for women facing difficult desires.
But these projects, and many others like them—though the women behind them are fearless in their demand for proper health— are few and far a part and are in need of considerably more funding and resources in order to survive.
In a country where burial rights for aborted fetuses were just attempted to be passed in the House of Representatives, a bill in Ohio for a 6 week “heartbeat abortion ban” was vetoed in favor of a bill for a “20 week abortion ban”, and our new President signed an anti-abortion executive order called the Global Gag-Rule, the necessary anti-establishment alternatives for women’s health glow ferociously in the shadows of patriarchal and punishing laws, making those alternatives all the more necessary and scarce.
The pain of this alone is unbearable. The misogyny hard at work castrating women’s self-understanding and growth, our dignity and voice is both alarming and utterly unsurprising.
The pain of undergoing a medical procedure I was mentally unprepared for, followed by an emotional response I was taught not to have, followed by years of undoing internalized sexism while going through the natural late-adolescent developmental stage of grieving parental attachment and childhood, was all a lot. And I am lucky to have had a lot of support, great resources, caring friends etc…for women less privileged, where does all the pain go?
Learning to accept difference is the first of many steps in living in an empathetic society. On the 5th anniversary of my abortion I want to say I’m thankful for you. I’m thankful that whatever your experience, whatever desires or pressures lead you to make the choices you made, and whatever ways you have inside you to talk about, not talk about, and deal with your responses, painful or otherwise lead you to who you are now and will continue to help you grow. I’m grateful that you exist. That you’re real. And that we can be different from each other, and learn from those differences.
Abortion is not for anyone else to define, but us.
Featured Image Credit: PREGNANT WOMAN, 2009, Louise Bourgeois via Artsy