“I have had four abortions. I didn’t talk to anyone about them for years,” says a woman named Erin, photograph placed opposite her story, adorned in colorful, watercolor tattoos, and a dark beanie, standing tall behind what looks to be a marimba, on a stage somewhere––presumably in Seattle, the place most of these activists call home.
I thought about including details about my abortions in this story. I thought about talking about the circumstances surrounding them and the men who were involved. I thought about talking about how the life I have now would have been wildly different, if not impossible, without abortion access. I thought about talking about how I don’t want to be a mother. I thought about talking about how much I love my nieces (so I must not be a ‘bad person’ who hates children). But ultimately I don’t think any of these things are relevant. They feel like justifications, and I don’t believe justifications are necessary.
This passage is par for the course in “Shout Your Abortion,” the book compiled by Lindy West, Amelia Bonow, and Emily Nokes. It’s zine style, but higher production quality and finely polished. If you didn’t know what abortion was, it would look like a tasteful coffee table book, ready to be flipped through, with photos of fashionable women and embedded images of posters advertising #SYA events in the Seattle area.
I’m sure for some people it is a coffee table book. A light read. A celebration of rights and female liberation. Not for me, but I do have a sort of macabre fascination with the marketing tools and rhetoric of the pro-choice movement. It is, after all, what I’m supposed to believe as a city-dwelling, educated, inked-up woman with no hangups about sex, who isn’t a Republican, and spent a long time as an atheist.
The Shout Your Abortion (SYA) activists held a book launch party a few weeks ago, at the Neptune Theater in Seattle. To garner publicity for the book’s thrilling release, activist Lindy West was invited onto Trevor Noah’s “The Daily Show” to talk about removing the abortion stigma. It was a jumbled mess of mental leaps.
‘Anti-Choice People’ Don’t Want To Stop Abortion?
West claimed: “Anti-choice people are not trying to stop abortion. They’re trying to legislate who can and cannot have abortions. Because conservative politicians—their wives, and mistresses, and daughters are always going to be able to go get an abortion somewhere.”
She went on:
Really, all anti-choice rhetoric does…is keep people trapped in poverty and drowning in poverty for generations. That’s the goal. If it wasn’t the goal, they’d spend their time and money on comprehensive sex education, free birth control, free contraception, and all the things that pro-choice people do spend their time on that actually do affect the abortion rate.”
According to West, the SYA movement started in 2015 when the Planned-Parenthood-sells-baby-parts videos were circulating. “My friend Amelia went on Facebook kind of spontaneously and wrote a beautiful post that said ‘I had an abortion at Planned Parenthood and it was an overwhelmingly positive experience, I felt nothing but relief…and I’m a good person. My abortion made me happy.” West screengrabbed this, posted it on Twitter, and hashtagged it “#shoutyourabortion.” Thus, the movement began.
West claims they get letters of support from religious people and conservatives, as well as the usual obvious ardent abortion advocates. “The conversation has really been dominated by what’s essentially a fringe opinion. Anti-choice rhetoric is not actually the norm,” she tells Noah. West goes on to claim that 70 percent of Americans support Roe v. Wade. She’s right, in a sense––a December 2016 Pew poll found that 69 percent of Americans are not interested in overturning the seminal abortion case. As of 2018, nearly 60 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
But 2018 polling from Gallup supports the idea that Americans do not believe all women should be given carte blanche to do whatever they want at any age of gestation. Roughly 60 percent of American adults support legal abortion in the first trimester, about 28 percent support legal abortion in the second trimester, and only a measly 13 percent support abortion in the third trimester (but per the book’s logic, if all abortions are morally okay, there’s no need to feel icky about late-term abortions, right?).
To further complicate matters, Pew reported in 2013 that only about 62 percent of Americans surveyed were aware that Roe v. Wade had anything to do with abortion. (Interesting, Pew found that more Republicans knew that Roe concerned abortion than did Democrats.) So there is a decently high degree of broad public support for abortion in some form, but opposing it isn’t nearly as fringe of a belief as West makes it out to be. Most people still have moral hangups in some form about the ethics of it, especially as the pregnancy progresses, whether it should be used as a form of birth control, and whether they perceive a woman to be aborting out of “necessity” or out of selfishness.
But West acknowledges none of this, and goes on to use ye olde catchphrase, claiming that her activist group is comprised of “those of us who are trying to be on the right side of history” and that there’s just a “tiny fringe group”––pro-lifers, or anti-choice people, as West terms us––controlling the abortion discussion.
Noah plays right into West’s agenda and ends the segment proclaiming, “It’s a beautiful book with an amazing movement behind it.” Is it really? Or is West promulgating her own peachy form of propaganda, aided and abetted by the late-night talk show industrial complex, which churns out standard comedic fare for coastal elites with the “correct” politics?
I ordered the book to get more insight into how the more radical wing of the pro-choice movement brands themselves.
Disconcerting Mental Leaps
For the sake of fairness, I appreciate the candor and diversity of stories presented. The authors clearly demonstrate that there’s no singular correct script or set of priorities that women must adhere to. As a libertarian woman, and one who revels in making my own choices, this appeals. But it’s hard to look past many of the mental gymnastics clearly going on within these pages.
One woman’s story begins with “I was as young and dumb as every 20-year-old has every right to be.” She goes on to detail how she conceived her baby because she didn’t put her diaphragm in before having sex (she had gone through considerable pains to get birth control at all, so you’d think it would be used). She goes on to detail how a kind woman arranged an abortion on her behalf, since she was a foreigner living in Israel, where abortion was illegal in the 1960s. She says the woman “made three calls. The first was for an appointment with a leading gynecologist who didn’t believe in forcing women to have children.”
This use of the word “force” is repeated many times. In the beginning of the book, West claims, “On an individual level, those who are forced to bear children are denied the ability to lead self-determined, fully realized lives.”
Another account reads: “The simple truth is this: if a sperm and egg come together when a child is desired, a human being is born. But if a sperm and egg come together when a woman knows in her bones that it is not the right time for her to be a mother, then perhaps what is born is her own confident agency over her life.”
And another: “Pregnancy is what happens sometimes when people have sex, and an abortion is what happens when a woman becomes pregnant and does not wish to procreate.”
Yet another: “I’m telling you my story plainly, proudly, flippantly even, because we’ve all been brainwashed to believe that the absence of negative emotions around having an abortion is the mark of an emotionally bankrupt person. It’s not. I am a good person and my abortion made me happy. It’s perfectly reasonable to feel happy that you were not forced to become a mother.”
For people who ostensibly support “the party of science,” these explanations don’t make sense. Unless it’s a rare situation of rape or coercion, or a woman is kept in some sort of cult-like environment where the possibility of pregnancy resulting from sex is never mentioned, women are not “forced” to have children; they freely consent to sex, which has the sometimes inconvenient side effect of conceiving a baby. The pro-choice side would be wise to acknowledge this and adjust their language to make it more honest.
Furthermore, a baby’s (or a fetus’s, or a zygote’s, depending on your word of choice and the stage of development) humanity isn’t contingent on whether it’s wanted, though that seems to be the dominant way of thinking in our culture. In no way does that hold up to scientific scrutiny, or apply at any other stage of development (i.e., an elderly person isn’t any less of a person if none of their family members wish to take care of her, nor is a person with an intellectual disability any less of a person if his family members feel burdened by his existence and tired by the significant feat of helping him live a decent life).
The Stigma of Multiple Abortions
One woman talked about the stigma of having multiple abortions and using abortion as birth control, saying:
Here’s a radical idea––who cares if that’s how people use abortion?
Listen, we aren’t born with a single token that’s good for one abortion each until we’ve used it up and then too bad, you have to become a parent now! Abortion is a medical procedure that we use as part of reproductive health care. We are allowed to have as many of them as we like, and certainly as many of them as we need. It is nobody’s business but our own how many abortions we choose to have in our lifetimes, and the only people we are obliged to even discuss it with are the people who are trained to provide them.
But it is also okay to use abortion as a form of contraception because abortion is a form of contraception.
One woman, Angela Garbes, was raised by immigrant parents from the Philippines, a Catholic country where abortion remains illegal. When she told her mother, she recounted, “She began crying immediately.”
‘Well it was your choice,’ she said. ‘But you have to know it goes against everything your father and I fundamentally believe in our hearts.’
She went on to tell me about how she would have taken care of my baby, how my cousin in the Philippines, who is unable to have children, would gladly have taken my baby. How so many people would have wanted my baby.
My baby. I realized quickly there was nowhere for the conversation to go. The life she was concerned about was that of a weeks-old embryo. I was thinking of my own.
It’s hard not to approach these stories with a bit of compassion; these women, in my mind and the minds of most, if not all, other pro-lifers, made selfish decisions and now take part in a weird activist culture that glorifies them and makes Froot Loops-colored zines about them. But it’s sad that our culture led them to this––it’s sad that, in many cases, they didn’t feel like they would be supported in choosing motherhood. It’s sad that abortion was a more appealing option than all the other ones on the table.
It’s sad that, per many accounts, adoption wasn’t really seen as a viable option, for one reason or another (probably mostly because it’s challenging, and if you see abortion as morally fine––akin to any other type of birth control––why would you not go the easier route?).
Mostly, it’s sad that the rhetoric surrounding the abortion debate has strayed from honest assessment of the moral trade-offs and priorities at play. This conversation should be about whether ending a life is morally permissible at any stage; about whether ending a life takes on less weight early in development compared to later; about whether a woman’s ability to pursue a child-free life should trump her fetus’s right to be kept safe and secure, able to enter this world.
As a pro-lifer, I have my opinions on all these questions. But it feels near-impossible to actually explore these diverging ethical lines when pro-lifers are smeared as woman-hating, internalized misogyny-ruined, prudish bigots who hate female sexual pleasure, and when pro-choicers defensively clothe themselves in rhetoric that absolves all responsibility and couches their decisions in the verbiage of rights and freedoms (or in this case, pithy “f-ck the patriarchy” shirts).
Rights are absolutely important, and any adherent to the non-aggression principle must grapple with the fundamental question: at what point do I begin to do harm toward another being? What happens when my right to make a self-interested choice, in pursuit of career or comfort or financial security, impedes another being’s right to get a chance at living a meaningful life? Have I been tasked with keeping this living being safe, and do I have a moral responsibility to help it grow and develop, accepting the consequence of my choice to have sex? Does my responsibility to my unborn child rub up against my belief that I cannot realistically give my child a chance at a good life?
You Don’t Have To Be a Prude to Abhor Abortion
Women celebrating their sexual agency by having sex with as many people as they want does not skeeve me out. These women look like me; for all intents and purposes, I should believe what they believe. They, like me, have tattooed arms and legs and torsos, sometimes dyed hair or an undercut. They wear fashionable dresses and don matte lipstick. They live in Seattle or NYC or Portland or San Francisco or Austin.
If the goal of this book is to make them relatable, it succeeds a bit, but I already knew women who get abortions are relatable. I have many friends and acquaintances who have had abortions, and I think about them every time I write an article on abortion. Their choices eat at my soul, but so does their pain.
I have very few moral qualms with other people having as much sex as they want, but I feel complete moral clarity that abortion is wrong — clarity that was formed via secular beliefs, not religious ones, and exploration of the stages of fetal development. I feel no such clarity––especially as a libertarian––on what to do about it, and what sort of legal framework prioritizes harm reduction while sending the clear message that innocent life in the womb absolutely deserves to be valued and protected.
But what I’m saying is that these are all discussions worth having, and much of America, or at least a good chunk of those polled by Pew and Gallup, believes that the answer might not simply be “ban all abortions” or “legalize all abortions and never ask any questions or pass any judgement.”
“Shout Your Abortion” and Lindy West and Trevor Noah all make me feel like hope is lost in terms of having that discussion, like it’s futile to try to push for a more intellectually honest way of framing abortion. Like it’s pointless to try to write about it from a place of nuance and charitable framing with, yes, an inescapable pro-life bent.
Most of all, they make me worried that our culture isn’t one that rallies for mothers––like the only way for women to become equal is to erase or hide our status as givers of life, lest we be unable to get ahead. “Shout Your Abortion” is complicit in this, and in reducing our discussion surrounding abortion to one that does not actually confront the issue, but hides behind zine illustrations and parties with indie bands and fashionable women celebrating their faux liberation in a way that feels sad, empty, and divorced from the issue at hand.