Wicked Witch of the West
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In Search of New Words: Redefining the Abortion Debate
By Monika Bauerlein
Some women of the Roe v. Wade generation -- speaking from experience -- are calling for a more nuanced abortion debate. When we start looking beyond "pro-life" and "pro-choice," how will abortion rights fare?
Dropping Out of the Abortion Debate
Peg Johnston dropped out of the abortion war almost 10 years ago, in 1998. She didn't give up her convictions, or her job. As the director of an abortion clinic at a time when her colleagues around the country were facing firebombs and sniper attacks, she wasn't about to bail out. She stayed on the job, making her way to the office past "Baby Killer" signs every day, working the phones to raise money for her clinic, Southern Tier Women's Services, in upstate New York, and counseling women to make sure they really wanted to end their pregnancies. What Johnston abandoned was the idea of a war.
Talking about the abortion debate as that kind of conflict, she realized, was paralyzing her thinking, locking her into a defensive mind-set, and leaving her, finally, disconnected from the people on whose behalf she had been fighting. To most Americans, Johnston thought, the battle over abortion had begun to look distant, unintelligible, with extremists on both sides growing more and more entrenched. "It's like the uninformed American perception of the Rwanda conflict," she wrote in an essay published in Our Choices, Our Lives: Unapologetic Writings About Abortion, urging others in the pro-choice camp to reexamine the debate. Many Americans "don't see any difference between the Hutus and the Tutsis. It's a remote conflict between sworn enemies, whose positions we cannot begin to fathom."
So Johnston tried to stop thinking and acting like a general defending a hilltop. She even stopped yelling back at the protesters. And then something unexpected happened. Paying less attention to her adversaries, she found herself listening -- really listening -- to her patients.
A Blurred Front Line
The grandniece of suffragette Elisabeth Freeman, Johnston grew up among political activists; the abortion war for a while had seemed a righteous fight, boosting her adrenaline. Over the years, when protesters had conducted sit-ins and blockades and locked themselves inside the clinic, she recalls, "I would go out there and scream at them. Then I would come back in and listen to a woman talk. Frequently the words were almost the same. The protesters would be saying, 'You're murdering your baby,' and the women inside would be saying, 'I feel like I'm killing my baby.' I used to think, 'Well, they're just echoing what they are hearing.' There was a time when I would correct them if they used those words.
"The word killing was hard. It was so difficult to see women that guilty or distressed," continues Johnston, who has run the clinic since 1981. "But eventually we got into conversations about the difference between murder and killing. Now our reaction is more: 'Well, does it feel like killing to you?' And 'How are you going to make peace with that?'"
You wouldn't know it from the rising clamor in the abortion debate -- the fight over the abortion ban now on the ballot in South Dakota or the furor greeting each new Supreme Court vacancy -- but away from the headlines, many people in the pro-choice movement have, like Johnston, been engaged in a lively and sometimes gut-wrenching reassessment of rhetoric, assumptions, and messages having to do with abortion. What is going on when a pro-choice woman posts her "baby's" ultrasound picture on the refrigerator door? When a pro-life woman has an abortion? When people tell pollsters, over and over, that they think abortion is "morally unacceptable" but also that it shouldn't be illegal? Are we straining at a pro-choice/pro-life straitjacket? If so, how do we work our way out?
Questions such as these are being asked in closed-door meetings of pro-choice leaders; they are sometimes broached, gingerly, by politicians, as when Hillary Clinton last year said abortion could sometimes be a "tragic choice." They are talked about most often and openly among people on the front lines, who are less interested in political messages and more focused on the needs of the women who are at the center of this quandary.
Could it be that the abortion debate is, at last, coming of age?
Roe v. Wade, Then and Now
An entire generation of women have now lived their reproductive lives in the era of Roe v. Wade; a girl who turned 13 in 1973, when the Supreme Court decision came down, is now 46. During those years, 35 million women have had abortions, notes the Rev. Debra W. Haffner, who runs a think tank called the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. "The majority of these women think this has been the right experience for them," she says. But these women "also have a lifelong memory of the experience. It's not a casual thing you did when you were 22. It's part who you are."
Most of those women -- most women, period -- have also had other experiences. They may have had babies, miscarriages, fertility problems. They may have gone around the world to adopt a child, white-knuckled their way through prenatal tests, raised sons and daughters who are now, in turn, hormone-fueled teenage accidents waiting to happen.
"When I was 20 and trained as a pregnancy counselor, I believed it when they told me it was a 'product of conceptus' in there," says Haffner, who is now 52 and has two children, 13 and 21. "It was startling for some women of our generation, when we had our wanted pregnancies, to develop a relationship with a fetus really early on. That experience is very different." That distinction is part of what Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice was contemplating in an essay in Conscience that drew press attention when it was published in late 2004. Abortion-rights activists should think about "the value of fetal life," she wrote, even while championing the right to end it. "Why should we allow this value to be owned by those opposed to abortion? Are we not capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, of valuing life and respecting women's rights?"
Kissling and others point to the enormous changes in women's lives since the Court made abortion legal nationwide. In 1970, the average age of marriage for women was almost 21, and the average age when a woman had her first baby, just over 21. The pill had been widely available for only a decade. Divorce often meant a plunge into poverty; single mothers were seen as either morally deficient or dangerous. There was, of course, no Internet -- no sites like GirlMom.com, a "radically pro-choice" site for teenagers who abort or who decide to become parents, or I'mNotSorry.net, for women recounting their positive experiences with abortion. Lennart Nilsson's photos of fetuses floating in the amnion, sucking their thumbs, had been published, but they were not yet ubiquitous; people didn't name their babies before birth (and without prenatal testing didn't know whether they were expecting a Gerald or a Genevieve anyway).
The Personal Behind the Political
Yet amid all the changes, abortion rhetoric seemed to stay suspended in time -- coat hanger symbols, "Keep Your Laws Off My Body" buttons -- all of it conveying a single-minded defiance. "I remember going to the last big [pro-choice] march in Washington," in 2004, Johnston notes. "And it was just odd how all the slogans were the same. Something seemed to be strangely missing," she says: the experiences of women for whom abortion is not an abstract right but an urgent and often wrenching decision. "Every day I talk to people who have always been against abortion, who never imagined that it would happen to them, and who are having an abortion. Or I talk to people who are pro-choice, but who are unexpectedly freaked out by [having an abortion]. My patients are a microcosm of society."
Here are some interesting numbers:
* About half of all American women have had an unintended pregnancy by their 45th birthday; more than one-third of those had an abortion.
* More than 60 percent of abortions are done for women who already have children.
* Pregnancies among women over 40 are almost as likely to end in abortion as those among adolescents.
* Of women getting abortions, 27 percent say they're Catholic.
We've really been witnessing two kinds of abortion debate: The kind that typically plays out in political campaigns and the media, and the kind that millions of women have with themselves and their families when confronting an unwanted pregnancy. In politics, it's all black and white; "choice" and "empowerment" on one side, "murder" and "sin" on the other. In real life, every decision is a shade of gray; political slogans often feel empty or two-dimensional.
Charlotte Taft, a former director of a Dallas clinic who has wrestled with these complexities, says, "No woman ever had an abortion because it was a right. No one ever came into my office saying, 'Yay! I get to exercise my right today.'"
Why don't we hear leaders of pro-choice organizations, or politicians, talk like this? Because, in a nutshell, they're terrified. "It's interesting how the movement has reacted to women who raise any kind of ambivalence," Kissling says. "Often, those women are greeted with suspicion and anger. It's as if when we are not absolutely, firmly uncritical, we are giving ground to the enemy."
Revising the Pro-Choice Perspective
Sure enough, Kissling's usual allies greeted her essay with suspicion: What was she doing, questioning pro-choicers' values rather than those on the other side? Wasn't she giving them ammunition? Taft, the former Dallas clinic director, encountered even more grief when she told a reporter that abortion was "a kind of killing." Her airing of such issues in public, and inside the clinic, made other providers -- including the clinic's owner -- uncomfortable. Referrals diminished. Taft was pushed out of her job, and she believes her approach was a contributing factor. Kate Michelman, the former head of NARAL Pro-Choice America, was once quoted as saying, "We think abortion is a bad thing. No woman wants to have an abortion," and then backpedaled furiously, insisting that she would "never, never, never, never, never mean to say such a thing."
And then there was Hillary Clinton's famous speech to 1,000 fellow abortion-rights supporters. In the middle of a long argument for birth control and legal abortion, Clinton noted that abortion can represent a "sad, even tragic" choice for many women. "I, for one, respect those who believe with all their hearts and conscience that there are no circumstances under which any abortion should ever be available," she said. There were "gasps and head-shaking," according to the New York Times, and pundits rushed to gauge whether Clinton was pulling back on abortion rights. The mere suggestion of complexity, it seemed, constituted a retreat. She hasn't used that kind of language since. (She did not return calls asking her to comment for this story.)
And yet, the ferment continues. At one invitation-only meeting of pro-choice activists this spring at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., the talk was about framing the issue. One participant, liberal columnist William Saletan, has argued that pro-choicers need to get comfortable saying that abortion is "bad" and should be prevented, whenever possible, with birth control.
Pro-choice groups certainly aren't using words like "bad" to describe abortion. But they are employing other language to shift the debate. In March, NARAL ran a "Pro-Prevention" ad in USA Today that advocated reducing the "need" for abortion. NARAL literature stresses "values" like personal responsibility and freedom. Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards often tells interviewers, "We provide abortion, and thank goodness we do, but 90 percent of what we do is prevention."
Pro-choice advocates caution that birth control, too, is under attack. In reporting for her recent book, How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America, NARAL researcher Cristina Page says she found that every major anti-abortion group is opposed to most or all forms of contraception.
It should go without saying -- but, in the minefield that is the abortion debate, nothing ever does -- that the ferment on the pro-choice side is not about questioning women's right to decide whether and when to bring life into the world. On the contrary: It's about getting out of the defensive crouch many people backed into years ago. "It became really [hard] to have that honest conversation," says Taft, who now lives in New Mexico. "We felt we had to emphasize that there was nothing difficult about abortion. So long as we held on to that kind of language, we thought, we would be able to protect [our] rights. But I came to the conclusion that the only way to protect that right was to speak about the whole thing -- the moral piece, the emotional piece, the way the experience is different for different people. Everything."
Evolving Approaches to a Complex Issue
In that spirit, providers such as Peg Johnston are experimenting with new words and rituals. The November Gang, an alliance of abortion providers, has worked to welcome patients who see abortion as a medical procedure as well as those who want to write good-bye notes to their babies, to see the fetal remains, even to perform impromptu baptisms in the procedure room. Some clinics have hired chaplains to talk to women about their religious concerns and have developed "all-options counseling" that explores parenting and adoption as well as abortion. Johnston has also helped launch a group called the Abortion Conversation Project, which tries to link people in online and real communities for "open conversations that do not demonize those with differing views."
Elizabeth Toledo, vice president of communications of Planned Parenthood, says that its clinics have always seen, and shown respect for, a wide range of attitudes. "We don't assume that a patient has any particular set of feelings." And she notes, the clergy has long been involved with the organization. Still, a source at the group says that the social climate forces officials to "comb through" every word they say. New ads aimed at teens were being quietly tested this summer before any national rollout, the source says.
Soul-searching, of course, can also be a sign of a movement in trouble; people don't always take time to be introspective when they are winning. Some years ago, many abortion opponents participated in Common Ground forums with pro-choicers around the country, but those efforts fizzled as that movement began to sense victory. Yet recently, a growing number of anti-abortion activists have been turning away from the political arena and doing more direct "service" -- offering support to women who are carrying unexpected pregnancies to term or grieving after an abortion. One group, the (comparatively tiny) Feminists for Life, is arguing that it's hypocritical to work against abortion without also fighting for programs such as family leave.
Conventional wisdom has it that younger women have opted out of the debate. In fact, the generation that came of age with the legal right to abortion may simply be looking for fresh ways to think about it. Jennifer Baumgardner, 36, who has written about young women and feminism, is at work on a book about what it means to support abortion rights and yet be "pro-life." Women under 30 have started two of the most interesting projects that address abortion as an experience: Backline, a telephone hotline for women facing decisions about a pregnancy, and Exhale, a pro-choice, "nonjudgmental" talk line for women who've had abortions.
Jan Neufeld, a 63-year-old San Francisco real estate agent, volunteers as a counselor for Exhale three or four times a month. Neufeld had two abortions as a young woman, one before Roe, the other, after. She has always been at peace with those decisions, she says. But, she adds, "If anyone thinks that it's an easy decision for a woman, they are completely f---ing bonkers."
Many women of her generation, Neufeld says, weren't consumed with the morality of abortion so much as the practical problems: "You had to make such an effort to actually do it, you didn't have the mental bandwidth to think of anything else." By contrast, younger women who call the hotline find it easy to get an abortion but hard to deal with the emotions -- guilt, loss, relief. Many say they haven't talked to anyone about their abortion -- just as, Neufeld notes, people didn't talk about it in the days when abortion was illegal. Callers are profoundly grateful simply to have someone listen. Some are defiant, some are regretful, some are at peace. The question they all ask: "Am I normal?"
It's a question that might not need to be asked if we hadn't crammed almost the entirety of this critical debate into slogans that fit on bumper stickers. Pregnancy, as Johnston notes, is usually a "transformative experience." It brings us face-to-face with hard questions about ourselves -- and about love, sex, power, life, and death. No wonder things get messy sometimes. Maybe it's time for them to get a lot messier, more interesting, and more honest.
Monika Bauerlein, investigative editor at Mother Jones magazine, has covered abortion politics for 15 years. In 2002, she faced a possible second-trimester abortion for medical reasons. Now a mother of two toddlers, she is writing a book on how we think about abortion and other issues at the margins of life.
Originally published in MORE magazine, October 2006.
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