Abortion In Our Culture: Between a Moral Dilemma and a Medical Procedure
As soon as I told him, I knew it was a mistake. The shift of energy in the air was palpable.
“Are you okay?” he asked uncertainly.
He shifted his weight on the seat next to me, moving his hands away from my body, where they had rested a moment before. I could tell he didn’t know what to say. He rambled a bit about medical procedures and how commonplace they could be. I nodded fervently, desperately trying to revive the moment we’d been sharing just minutes before.
I had interrupted Matt’s and my make-out session to tell him that I’d had an abortion three days earlier. Sensing his uneasiness, I quickly explained that I’d gotten pregnant from someone I’d slept with more than a month before. That our two forms of birth control had failed. That I was no longer in contact with him. That the sex had meant nothing – and, indeed, was truly regrettable, considering the position it had put me in.
This was the third time I’d been out with Matt, and I was having fun. I hadn’t even meant to tell him about the abortion that day, not knowing quite how he would take it. But some combination of hormones, emotions, and anxiety compelled me to tell him.
As a person who works in public health, I’m familiar with abortion both as a procedure and as a political hot button. I am deeply pro-choice and have been ever since I learned there were two sides to an issue that, to me, is a no-brainer. I always knew that if I were to ever find myself in the position that I did – single, 29, and pregnant from sex with a person whose phone number I had deleted – I had a solution that I wouldn’t be afraid to take advantage of.
Aside from Matt, in the days following my positive pregnancy test, I also struggled with the decision about who else in my life I would tell. After some deep thinking, I ultimately decided not to tell my parents, fearing that their reaction would be one of intense worry and concern – something that would cause them even more emotional pain than what I was experiencing. For different reasons, I also didn’t tell my boss, who I know to be pro-choice, fearing that the subject was too personal for the workplace. I decided to take a day off of work for the abortion in order to give myself the afternoon to rest and recover. Rather than an abortion, I told her I was simply having “a medical procedure.”
As I had this internal debate, it occurred to me that I was worried about how people important to me would react, even though I knew the vast majority of them to be pro-choice. I feared judgment, and I also wanted to avoid an overbearing concern for my well being, as if I was about to have open heart surgery. Matt’s reaction didn’t help matters. It jarred me in a way I wasn’t expecting – apparently, I had shared something either too heavy or too personal, too early on. Even in my little blue-washed, pro-choice bubble of a world, I realized I was confronting stigma – either directly, or the fear of it. As a result, I’ve attempted to unpack abortion stigma into its building blocks in order to get to the bottom of why and how it gets created, even among people who fully support a woman’s right to reproductive freedom.
First, let’s take the idea that the subject was “too heavy” or “too personal.” Why is this? The media and popular culture have taught us that being in the position of having to choose between a baby and an abortion is deeply emotional – turbulent, even. Television and movies – Knocked Up, Sex and the City, and Jane the Virgin, to name just a few – often present the concept as a moral dilemma. The character facing the choice originally decides to have an abortion, and at the last minute changes her mind, thereby framing the decision to have a child as the right one.
Sure, for some women it probably is a hard choice, especially if they feel that they may want a child one day. What if this is their only chance? But I’d venture to say that for a lot of women who have had abortions – myself included – the “moral dilemma” simply isn’t a reality. Because I live in New York, I was fortunate enough to find an abortion clinic where I got an appointment two days following my positive pregnancy test. Because I have health insurance, the entire procedure cost me $30. Had none of this been the case, however, I would not have hesitated to drive multiple hours to a Planned Parenthood as soon as I possibly could.
Birth control isn’t fool-proof – we all know that. Sometimes we don’t use it correctly. Sometimes it simply doesn’t work like it’s supposed to. But why does the degree of separation – in terms of moral connotations, topics of polite discussion, and general comfort level – between the concept of “birth control” and “abortion” feel like a chasm as wide as the Grand Canyon? Is sucking out a sack of unformed cells from my uterus that much different from my copper IUD repelling sperm away from an egg? Sure, an abortion is an uncomfortable procedure that no one wants to have. Abortion is extremely safe, but like any medical procedure, it comes with some risks that it’s always ideal to avoid through prevention. But – among people who consider themselves pro-choice, anyway – why is it so hard to re-cast the morally-weighted action I took of “choosing to end a potential child’s life” as simply “I had a medical procedure because my birth control failed”?
Our hesitancy to talk about abortion comes from our lack of understanding about what it is. So let’s talk about it here. There are multiple ways to have one. A responsible, patient-centered clinic will explain each and allow you to choose – without any judgment or coercion – the type you feel is best for you. The procedure I had, called an aspiration abortion, took less than ten minutes. You can choose to be given light anesthesia and go under for about 20 minutes in order not to feel the discomfort, but I made the decision not to. The sensation I experienced during the procedure felt like extreme period cramps. It wasn’t fun, certainly, but it was over before I even had time to focus on the pain.
After the procedure was finished, a medical assistant helped me slide onto a gurney (unnecessary, really, because I felt fine) and then wheeled me into a recovery room, where I laid on a recliner for about 25 minutes with several other women who had also just undergone an abortion. I took two Advil and sipped apple juice. After about 15 minutes I was texting my sister in the waiting room and swiveling my head around to see if I could catch the eye of a nurse and ask her if I could leave. Over the next week, I experienced cramping and light bleeding. About five weeks later I got my period again as if nothing had happened. My body was back to normal.
This is all just my experience, I realize, but here are some facts about first trimester abortions (which occur in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy):
1) They are extremely safe; in fact, they are 10 times safer than continuing a pregnancy and putting oneself at risk of complications that come with being pregnant
2) They are 99% percent effective, meaning the chance of the abortion failing and not entirely removing the pregnancy is extremely small
3) Like any procedure, there is the risk of complications; however, these are very rare, and most are easy to treat
4) Having an abortion doesn’t affect your fertility or your ability to carry a child to term later in life.
I still tell people that the easiest part of having an abortion was the procedure itself. The difficulty was finding myself face to face with the culture of silence our society has about this subject, even among people who are pro-choice. Not knowing who I could discuss it with. Having a general idea of what the procedure would entail, but not knowing the specifics until I was at the clinic. And, of course, feeling I had been rejected by someone at least partly as a result of the culture of silence and the subsequent stigma it breeds.
Right now, Roe v. Wade is in peril as we wait for Trump’s inevitable nomination of an anti-choice judge to the Supreme Court. As such, the energy of pro-choice advocates should stay focused on keeping women’s reproductive freedom legal. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that the specifics about abortion shouldn’t be discussed, or incorporated into sexual education. It’s time that pro-choice individuals confront the fact that abortion stigma is still alive and well.
By: Elly Schofield