4 ways to change the conversation about abortion: Start with talking about what comes after

What about the lives and loves made possible by family planning and abortion care? Those matter too

Published September 3, 2015 9:57AM (EDT)

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Picture a future in which children come into the world by design rather than by default. In this future, young women and men pursue their dreams and form the families of their choosing without the ever-present risk of a surprise pregnancy that plagues young lives today. Contraceptives almost never fail, and most pregnancies are healthy thanks to “preconception care” and prenatal care. Even so, early screening lets prospective parents decide whether to carry forward the rare ill-conceived pregnancy or opt for a fresh start. Their decisions are honored either way. Since kids get created only when both parents feel ready, more babies have their toes kissed and receive the physical and emotional nourishment they need to blossom into thriving children and youth.

This vision of chosen lives and flourishing families is what advocates for reproductive health, rights and justice fight for, and it is a profoundly moral, life-affirming quest.  

The choice to bring forward a new life—or not—is tied to the biggest questions we face: questions about meaning and purpose, values, faith, love, goals and dreams, and letting go of one potential life to claim another. Women terminate pregnancies in spite of the enormous cultural weight of shame and stigma surrounding abortion, because they are reaching for a better future—whether for themselves, their children and families, their communities or even the broader web of life. And those who provide abortion care, again despite stigma and threats, often do so because of their own deepest values—including compassion, respect and service.

For too long, religious conservatives and sexual prigs have claimed the moral high ground around sexuality and family planning, including abortion care—even though their position often is anything but moral.

Our grandmothers who marched in the streets during the 1960s probably thought the fight for chosen lives and chosen childbearing would be long over by now. But it isn’t. In fact, hysteria about abortion now threatens access to our best means of making abortion obsolete.  To secure reproductive rights for once and for all, we must embrace the deeper meaning and values underlying abortion care and the powerful emotions that accompany those values. We can do that by expanding the conversation in four specific ways.  

1. Expand public dialogue about abortion and contraception to include the missing half of the moral spectrum.

The word “moral” sits uncomfortably with many civil and human rights advocates for good reasons that I will address later, yet the concept is one that helps us to understand something that is missing in the public discourse about abortion. Let me explain:

The moral spectrum ranges from actions that are forbidden, like kicking a dog, to those that are morally obligatory, like pulling a wandering toddler out of the street. In between are those that are ill-advised, or acceptable, or prudent-but-discretionary. But today’s public discourse about abortion addresses only the negative half of this spectrum.

We argue about whether abortion is morally forbidden and should be illegal or is acceptable and should be allowed, and under what circumstances. But when women choose abortions or medical professionals provide them, they are almost always operating on the positive side of the moral spectrum.  Women experience their own abortions not merely as "acceptable," but as prudent, realistic, wise, empowering, responsible and even loving—a necessary (if complicated and painful) step to something better.

In other words, our public dialogue about abortion is utterly misaligned with the lived experience of abortion patients and providers.  

Real Lives Include Moral Values

Artist Favianna Rodriguez is a rising star who uses her bold, gripping graphics to drive conversation about an array of social issues and to inspire change. When she got pregnant as a young art student, she looked back on all that her immigrant parents had done to create opportunity for their children and she looked forward at the creative endeavors that were just becoming possible, and to her, the choices were clear. Like millions of other women, Favianna’s decision to abort her pregnancy was grounded in her values and dreams.

My friend Judy’s abortion decision was driven by her family values, her deep commitment to being a loving parent. Judy says, “I believe that parenting begins before conception.” This belief compelled Judy and her husband, Peter, to terminate a malformed twin rather than bring a newborn into the world to suffocate at birth. Their decision combined love with foresight and prudence, courage and compassion. It was a powerful expression of Judy and Peter’s most deeply held values.

Until we reclaim the missing half of the moral spectrum we have no means to honor thoughtful, aspirational young women like Favianna or loving parents like Peter and Judy.  

Awkward Associations, Huge Pitfalls

It’s tricky to speak about moral values like responsibility or about questions of harm and wellbeing because it feels like we’re opening a conversation about what people should do. Too often shoulds and shouldn'ts related to sex and reproduction are used to denigrate those who don’t conform to someone else’s norms. “Moral values” have been used to justify coercion, whether that takes the form of forced childbearing or forced sterilization. For many poor and minority women, these violations are all too fresh, and any discussion of shoulds associated with reproduction feels risky.

The last thing liberals and feminists want is to create a mirror opposite of the patriarchal right by shaming women who choose to carry forward difficult pregnancies. But in trying to avoid shoulds imposed from the outside, we've silenced the very powerful values that are inside each of us.

So how can we talk about this?

Speak for Yourself

Decisions about the beginnings and end of life are too big and too important for us to make for each other.

But, as I know from writing and telling my own abortion story, there are truths we can talk about in the first person that would be tricky if not impossible to talk about in other ways. I would not say You have a responsibility to end this pregnancy any more than I would say You have the responsibility to have a baby. That is a form of reproductive coercion.

However, I can and do say I felt a responsibility to end my pregnancy. It would have been wrong to me to carry that life forward. I can do this without disrespect or coercion toward others because I am speaking only for myself, and my claim is grounded in my values and my experience.

But in order to talk about these values, we have to expand the conversation in another way.  

Tip: To honor the lived experience of other women use values words like wise, strong, generous, prudent, honest, self-aware, better, thoughtful, faith, conscience, living by your values, respect, determination, goals, responsible, personal responsibility, realistic, ideals, faithful, duty, love, obligation, compassion, courage, vision.

2. Expand from talking about women, health and rights to talking about families and flourishing.

Those of us who publicly advocate for chosen childbearing have a specific and limited set of constructs that we use when we talk about contraception and abortion. We speak of health and rights and justice and the idea that a woman's body is her own and that this should be true for every woman, no matter her race or age or social class. But we shy away from talking about the effects of our childbearing decisions on men, children, society at large and the broader web of life—even though these effects are enormous and enormously important to us.

When and how babies come into the world doesn’t just shape the life of a woman or couple; it also can stack the odds in favor of thriving children and flourishing families and even communities—or can stack the odds against them. No one is more keenly aware of this than a person or couple facing an unsought or unhealthy pregnancy. As Charlotte Taft, former director of the Abortion Care Network, says, “In my 30 years as a counselor, I never spoke with a woman who came into our clinic to exercise her rights.”  Many did come to the clinic, though, because of the values of love, loyalty and responsibility they felt toward their children.

Women’s Liberation and Caretaking

Why doesn't the pro-choice movement talk more about flourishing families?

For millennia, women have been forced into the roles of breeder and caretaker. Consider the words of Protestant Reformer Martin Luther: “If a woman grows weary and at last dies from childbearing, it matters not. Let her only die from bearing; she is there to do it.” Hundreds of ugly variations on this theme can be found in the writings of political and religious leaders and even the Bible.  In this ugly historical context, talking about benefits that contraception and abortion bring to children, families, communities – and even men – positions women right back in the old script. So, it makes absolute sense that feminists fighting to lead lives of our own choosing talk about the liberation of women rather than the wellbeing of children.

Feminism Includes Loving and Caring

That said, loving and living in service to others are among the most meaningful aspects of what it means to be human, even if they happen to be the only dimensions of humanity that many women of past generations were allowed.

Caretaking, nurturing and service are fundamental to our childbearing decisions, including the decision to abort. When we shy away from talking about this, we deny some of the deepest and richest veins of our inner selves. We also cede a vast swath of reality and moral authority to the right.

Tip:  To talk about flourishing families use words like our/your children, loving parent, mom, dad, healthy baby, parenting, protect, plan, budget, resources, mothers and fathers, best chance, stacking the odds, strong family, community, thriving, nurturing, caring, and family values.

3. Expand from talking about pregnancy circumstances and medical procedures to talking about what comes after, the lives and loves made possible by family planning and abortion care.

I want to illustrate this point by analogy. Two years ago, I was using a brush mower in the woods by myself when the mower got stuck on a root. Tired and on autopilot after a mile of mowing, I walked around in front of it and yanked without disengaging the 3-foot blade. As the wheels hit the root and the front of the mower tipped up, my leg slipped under it. I won't go into the details of how I dragged myself out of the woods, but I will be forever grateful to the surgeons who reassembled my kneecap and sewed up the horror movie gashes.

One could weave a cautionary tale about the accident.  Or one could wax eloquent about the details of the repair. But what's the real story of my orthopedic surgery?

I can walk again, and even run. I can bicycle downtown. I can sit for long periods writing, and afterwards my knees don't hurt any more than most knees do at my age. This winter I even got back on cross country skis with my two daughters and husband in Yellowstone and skied to a frozen waterfall.

Far too often, the fight about abortion focuses on the procedure or surrounding circumstances instead of the empowered life that follows. Those on the right want to keep it that way. When we argue about whether IUDs prevent implantation or when a fetus feels pain, which we sometimes must, we’re on their turf.

That is because the compelling moral story isn't found in the procedure. Nor in the accident. Nor in the budding life that was ended. It isn't found even in the mercy and relief of a fresh start or grieving the path not chosen, although that relief needs to be expressed and that grieving needs to be done.

The Story is What Comes After

The prudence or wisdom of an abortion may be obvious at the time, but the power and the full meaning of that decision only begin to come into focus in the years and decades that follow.

The meaning of abortion is found in small blessings: The woman who has enough change at the laundromat because she only has three loads, not five; the dad listening attentively to the one toddler he's bathing; the mom who actually makes it on time to her kid's soccer game; the family that can afford to eat out once in a while.

And it’s found in big things: a high school graduation ceremony, a receptionist job that is a first step out of poverty, a Peace Corps volunteer teaching in Africa, a stable loving partnership that comes when the time is right, and the chosen child born to the mom who waited.

These are the stories we must begin to tell.

Tip: Tell the real story. Use words like healing, education, graduation, a step ahead, life plan, middle class, stable and loving relationship, friends, family, home, opportunity, financial security, community service, chosen children, leadership, flourishing, secure, right time, right relationship, a better life, dreams and goals, a life that fits your values, a life well lived.

4. Expand from sporadic, defiant disclosure to a culture of openness about childbearing decisions.

If we want the full spectrum of family planning services to be available to young men and women, if we hope to make chosen childbearing the new normal, and if we want to replace shame and stigma with understanding and honor, we need to transition to a culture of openness about reproductive decisions, including abortion.

Look at the mothers, grandmothers and other accomplished women you know over age 40.  One in three of them has had an abortion that helped her care for herself or her children, to fend off poverty or serve her community. All around us are women who have never told their abortion story to a soul, or maybe just to a close friend or their husband. The price of their silence is enormous – for some of them personally, for their daughters and sons and nieces and nephews, and granddaughters and grandsons and our society at large.

Idolizing Privacy Reinforces Shame and Stigma

A whole generation was trained to advocate for abortion rights by emphasizing privacy. The Roe v. Wade focus on privacy was a legal compromise that worked. But privacy was and is a proxy for what women really want – and what patriarchal conservatives don't want women to have: freedom and self-determination. And over time, our cult of privacy has become counterproductive. It perpetuates shame and stigma and in some cases trauma, by reinforcing the idea that abortion is too horrible to talk about.

To the extent that we ourselves promote secret-keeping, we contribute to this harm. Conversely, by inviting women into a culture of openness, we can do the opposite. Ending secrecy about abortion offers healing for individuals who are currently, to some degree, walking wounded. Secondly, there is potential for far-reaching change as intimate story sharing erodes shame and stigma and fosters a norm that truly honors chosen childbearing.

Not every woman can talk about her reproductive decisions safely, but millions could.  Just as Harvey Milk exhorted queer men to come out as they were able, paving the path for others who would come later, we must face our fears and challenge and support each other to do the same.  Our daughters are depending on us.  

Tip: To tap the transformative healing and cultural power of openness, share your own experiences, values, and vulnerabilities—and (with permission) those of men and women you love. Ask people you love and trust—like your grandmother, aunt, mother, father, daughter or friend—about their childbearing decisions including their abortions. Invite others into the conversation.

Moving Forward: Abortion as a Positive Social Good

Half of pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended, and one in three American women has an abortion at some point in her life. Today, there is reason to hope that just and equal access to better birth control, meaning state-of-the-art long-acting IUDs and implants, will drastically reduce unwanted and ill-timed pregnancy.

But we humans are imperfect, and there will always be pregnancies that go wrong. The lives of women and the ability of parents to bring healthy children into the world—children who grow and thrive, who delight in the wonder of their own existence and enrich the lives of others – will always depend on access to abortion care. An abortion when needed will always be—as it was for my family—a blessing, a mercy, the gift of a fresh start, and a renewed opportunity for life to flourish.


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