Research published in the January 2008 Journal of Family Issues reminds us that abortion is not the opposite of motherhood. For one thing, 61 percent of U.S. women who have abortions are already mothers, note the authors of "'I Would Want to Give My Child, Like, Everything in the World:' How Issues of Motherhood Influence Women Who Have Abortions" (Rachel Jones et al.), who conducted in-depth interviews with 38 women who had had abortions. (Abstract here; the full text was provided to Broadsheet.) "This study suggests that many women who obtain abortions are doing what they consider best for their existing and future children," they write. "Women avail themselves of abortion throughout their reproductive years and in many instances do so because they are motivated to be a good parent."
Well, sure. We know this intuitively, from our own experience or other narratives, including those of abortion-rights advocates; it's not breaking news itself. And yet, since "in the prevailing discourse on abortion in the United States" -- on both sides of the issue -- "abortion and motherhood are often regarded as opposing interests," it helps to be reminded in concrete terms. Obviously, this concern for children and motherhood offers a counterpoint not only to the Cruella DeBabykiller stereotype but also to the (slightly more nuanced) notion that there are women who have abortions, and there are women who have babies. Even when those of us who support abortion rights discuss the issue, we'd do well to remember that it's not all about teenagers, not all about women who have abortions now, babies later.
Still, while I do not question the motivation of the study (which also makes clear that not all respondents cited good motherhood as a chief concern), I do think we'd also do well to be careful about how we frame such arguments in defense of abortion rights. Yes, it's lovely and honorable -- and crucial to make clear to all concerned -- that many women who choose abortion do so in the interest of being a "good mother," now or when circumstances allow. But it's equally defensible to have an abortion for, you know, "selfish" reasons. In the interest of being a "good student," say. Or, yes, in the interest of not having children, ever, because you hate them. "Good mother" is both a real-life goal and a narrow, freighted paragon of womanly virtue -- we should take care not to imply that the latter is the most or only worthy defense of abortion rights; that's just beating ourselves at their game. While this study doesn't go there, we should make sure related pro-choice rhetoric does not either.