“You should keep your legs together”: The shaming women can expect when they open up about abortion

It's time to end the secrecy about our childbearing choices -- including abortion. Here's how to answer the shamers

Published September 20, 2015 2:00PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Stephen Lam)
(Reuters/Stephen Lam)

One in three American women has an abortion by the time she hits menopause. Each of those abortions involves a man—many of whom play an active partnership role in the decision-making process. That means by midlife almost all of us have a close, loving relationship with someone who has ended an ill-conceived pregnancy, or we’ve done so ourselves, or both. Hundreds of millions of people in the U.S. have a story to tell, but a relentless campaign of shame and stigma has most of us keeping secrets—even from people we otherwise love and trust.

More and more people are recognizing that the only way to get over our collective hangups about sex and pregnancy, including abortion, is to end the secrecy about our childbearing choices. At some point you may decide for the sake of your children or grandchildren or nieces or young neighbors that you are going to come out about an abortion that has empowered your life or that of someone you love.

If so, before you speak up, you need to be prepared for the muck that’s likely to get slung your way. Getting ready to go public may require heartfelt, scary conversations with people you love, or a process of clarifying your own values, or carefully lining up social support. You may have to deal with masterful guilt-mongers, including those now residing in your own head. That can take time.

Fortunately, once you move beyond your inner circle of people who matter, much of what comes your way will be ignorant comments and insults from people who don’t. As someone who is public about why I am pro-abortion, and about my own story, here are some of the thin arguments and shaming attempts I’ve encountered, along with answers that help shed the shamers.  

1. You should be against abortion because you exist.

Example: How would you feel if your mother aborted you?

Answer: I wouldn’t. Try this exercise. How would you feel if your mother had partnered with someone other than your dad? How would you feel if she had a headache the night you would have been conceived? How would you feel if she’d rolled over in the opposite direction after sex on that key night in history and a different sperm got to the egg first? Hint: People who don’t exist don’t have feelings.

2. It’s a baaaby.

Example: It is a tragedy that Tarico killed her firstborn because she wanted a “better” baby. (LifeNews)

First “born”? Uh, no. That was the whole point. My firstborn (who exists only because of my abortion) is now a junior in college and, although I’ve had my moments, I’ve never once tried to kill her. But the pro-life writer’s slip perfectly fits with the movement’s inability to differentiate between a fetus and a child. Zygote, blastocyst, embryo, fetus: To pro-life advocates they’re all babies or pre-born children, as if repeating the words enough would somehow make us all forget the difference between a dozen chickens and a carton of fertilized eggs—or the fact that these differences matter.

3. A person who is capable of abortion is capable of killing anyone.

Examples: “If a mother can kill her own child, what is left for me to kill you and you to kill me? There is nothing between.”—Mother TeresaNot sure why we need to put time limits on these things? 3 months . . . 3 years, by all the arguments listed above we should be able to snuff out the kid whenever it becomes convenient.” “If somebody is making things inconvenient for you just slaughter them. Kind of like ISIS.”

Look around you. Almost a third of the women you know over age 40 have had an abortion—and many of them have had several. How many of them do you think have killed an infant? Infanticide was practiced regularly on every continent by our ancestors who had no other means to control their fertility, but where people have access to modern contraceptives and abortion, infanticide becomes exceedingly rare. Most people have little trouble differentiating abortion from murder and they instinctively choose abortion over infanticide just as they choose contraception over abortion when both are freely available.

4. If that embryo is human, it’s a person.

Example: The fetus is alive and has human parents and human DNA so we know they are human. After this people will come up with conflicting arbitrary definitions of what makes a human a person. The only definition that makes sense is that someone becomes a human at conception because that is the only meaningful change in someone's life. (BennyW) “How could a human individual not be a human person?" (Pope John Paul)

At one point, pro-lifers co-opted the Dr. Seuss phrase “A person’s a person no matter how small,” from the book "Horton Hears a Who." Seuss’ widow, Audrey Geisel, a longtime supporter of Planned Parenthood, was not pleased. In the book, the phrase refers to tiny people who sing and shout and live in community with each other and who value their own lives and world. That’s what makes them people—not sharing Horton the elephant’s genetic code. Abortion foes completely missed Seuss’ message.

Personhood has long meant something much more than mere human DNA. That is why we are able to imagine a Seuss character or fictional extraterrestrial like Wall-E, or even an intelligent animal like a dolphin as a sort of person with moral standing. What makes personhood is the ability to feel; to have preferences, desires and intentions; to be aware and even self-aware; to live in relation to others; and to value our own existence. Fetal “personhood” trivializes each of these.

5. Your abortion means you are a bad mom, and your kids would think differently of you if they knew.

Example: How does your daughter feel knowing that you killed her sibling? (comment)

One of my daughters wouldn’t exist without my abortion and the other one adores her. How do they feel about my abortion? Grateful.

The Christian right constantly slurs women who have ended pregnancies by suggesting that we love our children less—or are incapable of loving children at all. In reality, the vast majority of women who have abortions either already are or go on to be devoted moms.

Six in 10 women who have an abortion already have a child, and three in 10 have two or more. In fact, our commitment to mothering is why many of us choose to end an unsought or unhealthy pregnancy—because of our loyalty and responsibility to the family we already have or hope to have.

6. Aborting a defective fetus devalues people with disabilities.

Examples:You aborted a baby that *might* have been blind? All the blind people in the world, and Helen Keller, spit at your selfishness. Shame on you. What on earth will you do if your child ever becomes disabled? Kill her?” (comment) “Valerie, I hope that someday you will know the kind of joy that my 'bundle of risks' has brought to my life. Veronica will be 26 tomorrow. She will never walk, talk, see normally, feed herself, be toilet trained, etc. She has the mental ability of a nine-month-old. It is my privilege to care for her each day.” (comment)

Pro-lifers forget that to many of us, a fetus is a potential child like the countless potential children we have said “no” to by abstaining from sex or using birth control. For me and my husband, who see it this way, it would have violated our moral values to carry forward a fetus infested with parasites, as in our first pregnancy, or one with knowable genetic defects, which we ruled out in the second. Would we have loved and cared for a baby born blind or a child who got injured along the way? Of course! What a bizarre and insulting question! Fencing my yard and teaching my kid not to play in traffic doesn’t mean I would abandon her if she were to get hit by a car.

7. Women are naive victims who need protection from our own ignorance.

Example: “... once a father or a mother who are seeking an abortion see an ultrasound, it's true that upwards of 90 percent of them decide not to have an abortion.” (Rachel Campos-Duffy) If abortion were not legal, I never would have chosen to have one.” (Hannah Rose Allen)

Forced ultrasounds, scripted warnings of (false) abortion risks, legally mandated descriptions of fetal development ... According to the latest antiabortion strategy, the only way to protect hapless females from physical and psychological harm is to take the choice out of our hands. How inconvenient that abortion is far, far safer than childbearing, which kills 800 American women each year. In other disappointing news for pro-lifers, women who have abortions don’t suffer increased rates of anxiety and depression.

Also, in contrast with Campos-Duffy’s fabricated statistic, 98 percent of women who see the images from a mandatory ultrasound go through with their abortion, meaning they know their own minds. It’s true that deciding to end or carry forward a budding life is a big deal. And like any big decision, some women or men will regret their choice. But 90 percent of women report that the primary emotion after their abortion was relief and, even among those with mixed feelings, 80 percent still say that the choice was right for them.

8. Abortion is selfish.

Example: “There is no better example of selfishness leading to an even greater evil act; the destruction of an innocent human life. This selfishness is so obvious and disgusting that abortion proponents manufacture and inflate all sorts of ridiculous situations to make their case as though the only option is to kill.” (comment)

Set aside the fact that on a planet denuded by human need, one on which almost 20,000 children starve to death each day, it can feel selfish to have a baby . . . .

Yes. Choosing, instead, to finish high school is selfish. Choosing to save for a reliable car or first month’s rent is selfish. Choosing to join the military is selfish. Choosing to become a teacher or doctor or engineer or artist is selfish. Choosing to prioritize time with your husband is selfish. Choosing bubble baths and bedtime stories with the kids you already have is selfish. But choosing not to do these things can also be selfish!

I could go on. Choosing to spend your time and money pursuing the (dubious) bliss of heaven is selfish. So is “letting go and letting God” manage decisions (like parenthood) that are your responsibility. So is trying to impose what seems best for you on everyone else.

Everything we do is selfish to some degree. That doesn’t mean our decisions can’t also be wise, prudent, loving, brave, generous or altruistic. 

9. A child is a punishment.

Examples: “You should keep your legs together.” (comment) “Your lack of control over your own hormones, stupidity, carelessness, laziness and inconsiderateness created another life within you." (comment) “She should have to deal with the consequences.” (comment)

I confess, I’ve never been able to wrap my brain around this one. On the one hand we are told that every child is a blessing, no matter how ill-conceived. On the other, we are told that a child is what slutty sluts deserve for having sex outside of marriage. Even more twisted: If you got raped, the baby is a blessing. If you had sex of your own free will, it’s what you had coming. Can we at least pick one or the other? 

10. God cherishes every snowflake.

Example: God doesn’t make mistakes. God makes miracles happen.” (comment) “The Magisterium of the church has constantly proclaimed the sacred and inviolable character of every human life, from its conception to its natural end." (Pope John Paul)

If God doesn’t make mistakes, the existence of babies with no brain or no limbs or a teeny, slow-suffocation quantity of lung would suggest that He’s a rather big jerk. In these situations, prayers for healing fall on deaf ears. Miracles are on the rise, but only because compassionate doctors fix God’s mistakes by repairing defective infant hearts and palates and other incapacitating deformities.

If every snowflake is precious in His sight, God has a peculiar way of showing it, because spontaneous abortion is a critical part of reproduction—one of the key mechanisms for producing healthy babies. Most fertilized eggs self-abort at some point before maturing into babies—billions to date. Why? Spontaneous abortion stacks the odds in favor of healthy babies being born to healthy moms who will be able to feed them. Therapeutic abortion supplements spontaneous abortion when the natural “abortion mill” in a woman’s uterus fails to identify and expel an ill-conceived pregnancy.

11. God hates aborters even more than He hates fags.

“Abortion – is an irreverent assault on the unique work that God performs.”(Jon Mitchell) “God HATES those who shed innocent blood!” (J. Melton)

Given that women have been ending ill-timed pregnancies for millennia, the Bible is remarkably quiet about abortion, with a few vague references that together can be interpreted in either direction. One writer prescribes an abortion potion. Another says God knew us before we were born. A third specifies the fine to be levied against a man who accidentally causes a miscarriage. A fourth equates life with breath.

Knowing this, you might think that Christians who claim abortion is anti-biblical are simply cherry-picking to suit their own purposes. But at a more fundamental level, they have a point. In the Bible, women are best understood as chattel—property belonging to men, as are slaves, livestock and children. In this Iron Age worldview, a woman’s reproductive capacity belongs to her owner—her father, or husband, or slave master, as do her offspring. She has no more right to prevent or abort potential offspring than would a slave or a cow.

Mercifully, a growing percent of people, including many Christians, don’t think the Bible is the perfect word of God. More and more see human handprints all over it, for example in its many endorsements of slavery and sexual slavery, and demeaning passages about women.

As long as freedom of conscience remains, many of us will be guided by our own moral values to end pregnancies we believe are ill-conceived, and we will devote our lives to the people and dreams that we hold most dear. And if God’s self-appointed messengers insist on arguing and insulting us–well, that’s their choice.

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