I’m a proud and avid supporter of Planned Parenthood for the many necessary and safe services they provide. I volunteered a bit for Planned Parenthood while in high school, and they provided me with affordable birth control then and in college. In graduate school, I found myself sitting in the waiting room of my local Planned Parenthood to accompany my partner while they got tested for STI’s.
And though Planned Parenthood offers a wide array of healthcare services for people of all genders, we’re here today for a particular reason – because a small portion of their services include providing safe abortions for those who choose to have them.
So today, I want to talk about abortion, a healthcare service that is relatively small in proportion to other services Planned Parenthood provides, but equally necessary for the health and well-being of all people, including women, men, families, and our communities.
I want to talk about abortion because it is the service that motivates others to rally around calls to defund Planned Parenthood.
I want to talk about abortion because, frankly, for many people it’s a more difficult service to get behind than mammograms, pap smears, and free condoms.
Part of why abortion is more difficult to talk about is because a lot of people quickly jump into a moral debate about abortion.
In this country, we don’t often talk about abortion as the crucial and important medical procedure it is.
Instead, our discussions have been hijacked by a rhetoric that attempts to reduce or hyperbolize abortion to moral issues (a rhetoric which is overwhelmingly dictated and informed by the political agendas of men) about when life begins and legal rights kick in; about the thresholds of personhood versus living, breathing persons; about bodies as vessels versus body sovereignty and a citizen’s right to choose what happens to it.
We’ve been entrapped by inflammatory rhetoric and false narratives that drip with moral claims about what’s right and wrong – moral presumptions that influence our politics mostly by creating stigma, taboo, guilt, silence, and shame in an attempt to override our constitutional and human rights to liberty and freedom, and control over our bodies and lives.
Most importantly, the moral framing that underpins such detrimental rhetoric has a very loose and tenuous grip on reality, at best.
So, I’m not interested in talking about the ethics of abortion right now because BEFORE we can engage in a meaningful debate about the morality of abortion, we have to first know about the realities of abortion.
On moral and political levels, we often take a stance on abortion by engaging with abstract values and ideas. Even the word “abortion” is tossed around like a concept more than anything else.
Rarely does the debate surrounding abortion center on concrete lives, particular situations. Real people. Real circumstances. Real abortions.
But before you think such abstraction is only committed by those who picket clinics, write restrictive legislation, and seek to defund Planned Parenthood, let me be clear:
Many of us who support Planned Parenthood’s mission to provide care, no matter what; who will stand with Planned Parenthood and defend a person’s right to choose; we do our cause a disservice when we continue to engage with these issues in only abstract ways, thinking our concepts and principles are enough to provide a solid foundation for our commitment and conviction.
I’m saying this because, years ago, that was me.
I definitely supported a person’s right to choose, but I didn’t know how much room I had left to become certain, to passionately and unequivocally defend that right, until I realized how much I didn’t know about the very thing I was committed to defending.
While every situation, every person, and every story is different and unique, here’s a short list of some of the things I didn’t know about the realities of abortion until I ended up with an unintended and unwanted pregnancy, and chose to have an abortion myself.
First, I didn’t know the clinic I had waited in with my partner a couple years prior had been shut down by the time I would need it, even though I lived in a central Pennsylvanian college town with a student population of over 40,000, hours away from the nearest major cities.
I didn’t know just how important access to unbiased information and a clinic was (let alone the services it could potentially provide) until I needed to talk to a medical professional about my options. So I went to the healthcare center on campus.
I didn’t know I would face judgmental and prying questions from the staff at the reception desk, or that the doctor’s recommendation would be to carry the pregnancy through the first trimester. “Wait and see if it’s even viable,” he said. “Come back at week 12 for blood work to see if you’re still pregnant, then we can discuss how to proceed.”
There’s a good chance I would have taken his advice.
Up until the night before that appointment, when I did my own research online to learn about available options, I didn’t know that actually, if you wait until week 12, your options change pretty dramatically.
I didn’t know that there are multiple types of abortion procedures that, depending on the week of the pregnancy, range in terms of invasiveness and risks of side effects like scarring and future complications.
Until I did my own research, I didn’t know that a lot of people who have early abortions have medical abortions, which can be done in the first several weeks of a pregnancy by taking a few pills.
I didn’t know that these medications are far more readily available in other countries with relatively little controversy.
I didn’t know that abortions done in the first trimester are extremely effective, very safe, and have hardly any risk of negative side effects.
I didn’t know that for medical abortions you don’t need anesthesia – there are no tools or special, expert skills required. (But thank goodness for special, skillful experts, too.)
In fact, you don’t even need a doctor present. It’s not exactly a walk in the park, but you can be in the privacy and comfort of your own home. You can even be surrounded by your pets, your partner, your family or friends as you go through something akin to a very heavy period.
No baby parts fall out of you, because there is not a baby inside of you that early in a pregnancy.
Like any other menstrual cycle, you shed uterine lining. Within the first several weeks, a pregnancy is literally a clump of cells, which is precisely why the commonality of miscarriages that occur in the first trimester are so frequently unknown, unnoticed, or remain unmentioned.
Thank goodness I read up before I went into that doctor’s office, because it helped me advocate pretty hard for myself and demand to hear more about my options.
What I didn’t know, but quickly started to appreciate, was how important it was for me to be the twenty-something year-old woman working on my doctorate degree in feminist philosophy, because that helped me feel empowered enough to push back on the doctor’s advice.
I didn’t know what it would feel like to be one of the roughly 20,000 18-22 year old students around me who might find themselves in a similar situation, also assuming they could trust that a doctor would provide them with adequate, unbiased resources and support.
Ultimately, I made my decision to have an abortion.
My friend and I drove the three hours round-trip to be met by harassing protesters outside of a shady clinic. (Not a Planned Parenthood.)
Fortunately, I had a reliable car of my own to get me there. I didn’t have to take time off of work, nor was I responsible for taking care of any other people whose needs would restrict my ability to go on such short notice. I was able to pay the near $400 cash out of pocket. And I was able to make the trek all over again two weeks later for the required follow up.
Before making those trips, I didn’t really know how profoundly one’s own privilege can obscure the tremendous need that exists for providing safe and accessible abortions through organizations like Planned Parenthood.
Only a thick veil of privilege could prevent one from being appalled at the hundreds of regulations put in place over the last several years to purposefully limit access to abortion services, which disproportionately affect women of color and low-income women and families. (Here are some additional reflections on Planned Parenthood and Black women in particular.)
My journey wasn’t easy or convenient, but it was smooth compared to what others are forced to endure and sacrifice in order to receive the same service.
I do know that.
I didn’t really know the diversity of people who might make the decision to have an abortion.
In the waiting room, we were all very aware of one another as we sat in such a small space, which also meant there was very little privacy – we learned each other’s names because they got called over the loud speakers and we could hear one another’s conversations.
There were twin sisters who both took the pills. Some women, like me, brought their support system with them in the form of a friend. Some people were alone, maybe because they didn’t want anyone to know. There were couples. There were married couples. There were even married couples with kids.
There were people who may have struggled to come up with the funds out of pocket. And there were people who looked like they were just taking a day of sick leave from their corporate jobs.
Statistically, there were definitely some Christians among us, too.
There I sat with other real people, our paths crossing on one particular day due to a myriad of different circumstances, about which I would never know the details, details that I, nor anyone else, should ever feel the need to know.
Being in that space helped me put memorable human faces behind my conviction that the only people qualified to make a decision about whether someone should get an abortion are the people who seek them for themselves.
And until I was in a situation to make a decision for myself, I didn’t know how the statistic that 1 in 3 women will have an abortion manifested in my own life.
When I found out I was pregnant and started weighing my options, it felt important to talk through it. Not just with my closest friends, but with pretty much everyone I encountered.
I called multiple family members, all of my friends, my potential business partner at the time. I even talked openly with my professors and faculty advisors.
Considering that my other option was to carry the pregnancy to term, have a baby, defend my dissertation, move back to Idaho to live with my family as a single mom, talking about it with people in my life was the second best decision I made in during that whole process.
Choosing to have an abortion was clearly the first.
Talking about it was so important because, until then, I didn’t know just how many people in my own life had previously made the same decision. In my immediate family. Among my closest friends. Even the guy who was going to be my business partner.
And would you believe it?! Had I heeded the doctor’s initial advice and not pressed him to talk about options, had I not been totally clear in stating what I needed from him, had I not found a way to connect with him on a personal level by letting him know I was friends with his son, he and I wouldn’t have eventually had a real, and supportive, conversation.
Because he would not have felt compelled to tell me about the time when he and his wife chose to have an abortion.
Who would have thought that the first person to share their experience of abortion with me would be a man?
In fact, as I kept talking with people, I didn’t know that just as many men as women in my life would support me.
More importantly, I didn’t know so many men would empathize with me because they had been through it before, too.
Honestly, I didn’t really know the extent to which access to safe, legal, and affordable abortion also directly impacts men.
But it makes sense.
I saw men in the clinic, sitting next to their partners. Husbands. Boyfriends. Maybe some were just friends.
If one in three women have an abortion at some point in their life, there are likely almost as many men who have also had to consider the available options; who have processed feelings and concerns and goals; who have witnessed the clinics and all the people who go there (including themselves) and may have sat beside a partner or friend through an abortion.
All of this means there a lot of men who have as close to first-hand experience with the realities of abortion as you can get without it actually involving your own body.
Before I chose to have an abortion, I didn’t know how important it is for men to talk about their own experiences to show genuine understanding, advocacy, and support.
But I learned how imperative it is that men stand up, be vocal, and speak out to defend providers like Planned Parenthood – not just as allies for other’s reproductive rights, but as direct beneficiaries of those services.
Having an abortion didn’t just help me continue to pursue my goals and do meaningful work that helps others so that I can live the life I want. Having an abortion maintained the life trajectory of my partner at the time, as well – his path wasn’t unexpectedly, unwittingly, dramatically altered either.
Until I had an abortion, I didn’t know the extent to which access to safe, legal, and affordable abortion directly benefits all of our lives, including the lives of men, and the lives of our children. This is not just a women’s issue. (Furthermore, this is not just a “people with uteruses” issue either.)
Am I getting too abstract again? Do I need to make it concrete?
To a certain extent, the necessity of access to safe and legal abortions will always seem a little abstract because, unlike having a baby – which literally changes everything – abortions help maintain the status quo.
I don’t mean ‘status quo’ in an anti-progressive sort of way. I mean it in a way that acknowledges that, with abortions, life can go on as is.
For one, all of us are fortunate to be in a position of defending Planned Parenthood, because for most of us, our status quo is one where we don’t know the horrific realities of abortion before Roe v. Wade.
On a collective level, we are fighting to preserve our existing rights and resources so that we never go back to those times of extreme danger, violence, risk, and mortality. Hopefully, we will read about the way it was, but never have to relive it.
On another more local level, if we don’t talk about our abortions, we won’t fully understand how access to abortion services is a social good that has enabled and supported the status quo of our personal lives as we know them – the families we have, the jobs we hold, the communities we live in, the people we are, the lives we lead.
Until I had an abortion, I didn’t know how much I would thank myself for making the right choice for me.
I never regretted my decision. I didn’t go through an extensive period of emotional distress, grieving or loss for what might have been.
My deepest trauma stemmed from the stress of having to confront my own ignorance (a direct byproduct of a much larger, cultural ignorance) about what it would mean to have an abortion, what that would entail, and the stress of not knowing how people I love would respond to me.
But, of course, now I know. And I continue to be so confident that I made the right decision, that, if I had to, I would do it again.
In fact, I did.
But the second time was different.
By then, I didn’t feel compelled to talk to everyone about it because I already knew that abortion is familiar for a vast number of us, and I didn’t need the same kind of support to figure out what to do. I knew the time frame in which I needed to act to make it as easy as possible. I knew the questions to ask. I knew what to expect. I knew how to prepare.
And I knew where to go.
I went to my local Planned Parenthood in my current town.
Myself and those closest to me are far better off because of those decisions. My life has continued, just as it has, with love, joy, pride, and confidence. Without regret or a burden of shame.
And it’s in large part thanks to all those who dedicate their time, resources, lives, and careers to support and defend abortion providers like Planned Parenthood, who have fought for decades to protect our right to choose our own paths and make life as we know it possible.
So, from the deepest place in my heart and the hearts of so many others, thank you.
*A version of this post was originally delivered in February 2017 at a rally to support Planned Parenthood.