The first time I visited a Planned Parenthood, I was 17 and seeking birth control with a teenage boyfriend. The second time, I was 20 and seeking a pregnancy test. It came up positive.
No one there advised me to have an abortion. I was handed a folder full of pamphlets, more than half of which had information for women intending to carry the pregnancy to term—adoption agencies, resources for young mothers, things to expect when you’re expecting. I didn’t read any of them, and I didn’t schedule my abortion then or there, although I immediately decided on it. But “immediately” is perhaps misleading—it was not as if I decided in an instant without deliberation. It was more like I’d already decided, long before I was ever faced with the choice. It was something I’d thought about, not just that month when my period was more than a week late, but every month of my sexually active life when my period or even a friend’s period was more than 12 hours late.
As a young woman in America, you think about these things. It’s posed to you as a hypothetical, by your body and by the debates, by the Supreme Court rulings, by the media circus. What would you do? Nearly one in three women terminate an unplanned pregnancy in their lifetime—and yet, the possibility of being a part of that statistic terrifies us. When it is perfectly safe, legal (if challenged) throughout most of the country, easier and more affordable than ever, why does just the idea of abortion give us so much anxiety?
This week in the New York Times, Katha Pollitt put out a call to women, men, and everyone who benefits from access to abortion to speak up and defend providers like Planned Parenthood and advocates for abortion rights. We—as supporters and, especially as recipients—need to talk about abortion, and not only as a “necessary evil.” We need to talk about the good that it does on a large scale when women are allowed to make their own reproductive decisions. To quote Pollitt:
We need to say that women have sex, have abortions, are at peace with the decision and move on with their lives. We need to say that is their right, and, moreover, it’s good for everyone that they have this right: The whole society benefits when motherhood is voluntary. When we gloss over these truths we unintentionally promote the very stigma we’re trying to combat. What, you didn’t agonize? You forgot your pill? You just didn’t want to have a baby now? You should be ashamed of yourself.
A couple of months ago I had the opportunity to speak with a representative at Carafem, a new abortion clinic based in Washington, D.C., whose mission, aside from providing safe, affordable, private, and—perhaps most uniquely—comfortable abortion care, is to put an end to the stigma that comes with it. I was tasked, months ago, with writing about their bold and important advertising campaign, which features gems like this YouTube video mocking the around-the-bush way abortion is discussed in “polite conversation,” or this subway ad that proposes the abortion pill as a simple, viable answer—and which, of course, was the cause for a great deal of conservative outrage.
It was inspiring to talk to someone there. To be able to talk to this woman on the phone, whose voice I had no face to match to, about my own experience years earlier terminating a pregnancy, and to feel comfortable and supported in doing so, proved outright that the organization practices what they preach. And yet, eight weeks after the interview, I had nothing written. I didn’t know how to talk about abortion without talking about my own, and I didn’t know how to talk about my own without shame, or fear of being shamed. The very stigma I wanted to write against was the bearer of my insurmountable writer’s block.
I had an abortion because I didn’t want to have a child. It isn’t much more complicated than that. I got pregnant using an apparently defective condom with a very cautious boy. I was entering my senior year of college, and just starting to see someone new (said cautious boy) after finally walking away from a lousy relationship I’d stayed in since high school. I was approaching my long-awaited 21st birthday; anticipating a glorious entry into the most fun and free years of my life. I worked restaurant and tutoring jobs here and there throughout college, but financial stability was a longshot, and for the most part I depended on my parents. At that point in my life, could I have birthed and raised a healthy child? Yeah, maybe. Did I feel ready or willing to? Absolutely not.
What the Carafem ad slogan (“Abortion. Yeah, we do that.”) achieves in its flippant tone is a kind of middle finger to the dramatists in both the pro-life and pro-choice camps. Defenders of Planned Parenthood constantly find themselves needing to understate abortion care, to focus on the all of the other good the organization does to offset the so-called baby-killing, or to emphasize the extreme or emergency situations in which women come to terminate pregnancies. But Carafem, as a private provider of the abortion pill, can take ownership of the simple and reasonable service they provide to everyday women who become pregnant by accident. “Carafem is here for you,” another of their videos states, with open information, meaningful aftercare, and “spa-like” amenities—because women regularly seek abortions, and “there’s nothing controversial about making [these] women comfortable,” says Melissa Grant, Vice President of Health Services. The approach underlines the tagline which closes their YouTube ad: “Because there’s no shame in it.”
Motherhood should always be voluntary. I didn’t want to be a mother. I didn’t want to be pregnant. Why does it feel, though, like I ought to have a better excuse? Why do I need to contextualize, to explain myself? Do we explain ourselves so much for other surgeries, for failing organs, for illnesses, for allergies? Do we explain ourselves so much for cosmetic alterations? Something happened to my body that I did not want. I took care of it—got better.
Carafem emphasizes this notion of healing in their rhetoric, reminding both patients and critics that abortion is a part of mainstream medicine and should be treated just like any other procedure. “It’s a social myth that abortion clinics are these sad strange lonely places,” Grant, pointed out when we spoke. Abortion is always painted as tragic and solitary—and perhaps in some ways it is, but in more ways we are simply trained to think of it that way, to internalize the notion that this is something to be sad about. Every image or idea associated with abortion in the public view is grim.
A study cited in Pollitt’s op-ed shows that more than 95 percent of those one in three abortion-having women “felt [it] was the right decision, both immediately after the procedure and three years later.” It doesn’t match up: the bleak imagery, the crying women and bloody fetuses, the exceedingly high death rates in fictional abortions on screen, the accusations of providers profiteering off patient’s misery—none of this tells the real story.
The real story, the one we should be telling, is the one where a woman chooses not to have a child and no one gets hurt, and the world keeps turning. I don’t mean to undermine the emotional heft or the physical pain that might, for many women—myself undoubtedly included—accompany the procedure. But if we keep talking about abortion as tragedy, as agony, as “necessary evil,” we give in to the anti-choice narrative. We risk setting back decades of progress in reproductive rights if we allow our opponents to use our experiences against us, rather than owning them for ourselves.
I benefit from the freedom to make my own reproductive choices. And there is no shame in that.