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Something No Woman Wants

 [Human Life Review, Symposium on Post-Abortion Syndrome, Summer 2007]

Shortly before Christmas, I got an email from the journalist and editor Emily Bazelon. She said that she was writing an article for the New York Times magazine about “women’s experiences post-abortion.” She said she hoped to talk to me that day or the next, and apologized for the short notice. Since I was in and out of the office a lot those pre-holiday days, and thought we might not connect by phone in time, I drafted a quick email it hopes she could mine it for some quotes. Here’s what I wrote her:

I feel bad that I’ve gotten rusty on this topic—lately I’m writing more about Eastern Christian spirituality, etc. So I’ve forgotten all my statistics, and hope I can be a useful interview.

The main general reflection-thing I’d say is that it seems that the abortion issue is “cooling off” — not that advocates on either side are any less passionate about it, and not that the political fight is concluded, but that the public has lost interest. Other issues have grabbed their attention. I first noticed this in 2000, when Newsweek’s 6-page comparison of Bush and Gore on important issues did not include abortion.

So I like to say “The abortion debate is over,” meaning that folks aren’t listening any more. The “fight” isn’t over, from the point of view of either side, but the debate is over because we’ve run out of interested listeners. The auditorium is empty and the lights have been turned off.

I think in a way this is a good thing. That there is a lot of ambivalence about abortion out there, as well as much submerged post-abortion grief. This needs a “moment of silence” to be able to rise to consciousness, so people can admit and recognize these conflicted feelings, and move to a new stage. As long as the debate is hot, people immediately think in terms of “which side are you on,” and these deeper questions — about what abortion really is, about how it makes us feel, how it affects our relationships and our sense of ourselves—keep getting stuffed down.

One of the women I interviewed in my book “Real Choices” told me that after the abortion she felt she couldn’t tell anyone about her sad feelings. She said that if she told pro-life friends she was depressed about her abortion, they would reject her, saying, “You had an abortion? You’re a murderer!” And she couldn’t tell her pro-choice friends because they would say, “What are you complaining about? You had a choice. Are you a traitor to the cause?” It seemed like there was nowhere to go. As the heat cools off, voices like hers can be heard.

I think that as these conflicted feelings rise to the surface we’ll be better able to understand what abortion does to a society, and admit how many of them are negative. That abortion adapts women to a hostile situation, rather than challenging and changing that society — adapts her physically, like a whalebone corset does.

When I was a college feminist and championed women’s right to abortion, I thought of it as something liberating. I had no idea that there would be so *many* abortions—I think the total now is 47 million. We all thought it would just be a few “hard cases.” But it seems like abortion is a funnel that women’s complex situations get stuffed into — she gets changed, so that those around her don’t have to. And the idea that an abortion was a liberating experience was quickly overturned by the reality that women go into it pressured and panicked, and come out of it weeping. Abortion is not something any woman wants. And if women are doing something 3500 times a day that they don’t want to do, this is not liberation that we’ve won.

best wishes for your article, and give me a call if I can help any more.


I did get a call from Emily a little later. I was struck by how young she sounded, and also by the fortification of her voice—the way responsible journalists talk when they’re interviewing psychos. It was clear that there was nothing a pro-lifer could ever say that she could consider reasonable. A pro-lifer who sounds reasonable is worse than a clinic-bombing freak, because at least those guys are honest. A pro-lifer who sounds reasonable is also *lying*—misrepresenting herself and impersonating a normal person. And that’s just sad.

Early in the conversation I learned that her article was not so much about post-abortion grief as about the political usefulness of the concept. And, though I might have had something to say about the pro-life cause in general, I’m a complete washout when it comes to politics. I took part in the Maryland abortion referendum of 1992, and finished the course depressed and drained. That was my first and last foray into politics, as I detailed in an essay for these pages (Human Life Review, Spring 1993).

After our phone conversation, I described it in a note to a friend:

I had a hard time getting a handle on what she was getting at. Her theory seems to be that some time, years ago, pro-lifers became interested in using post-abortion women in their political efforts. But after Surgeon General Koop disappointed them by failing to endorse the concept of post-abortion trauma they let it drop. (He believed that argument diluted the strength of pro-life argumentation based on the right to life of the unborn.)

I told her that it wasn’t like that, from my perspective; post-abortion women had always been steadily present in the movement. And that I didn’t think there was ever any broad attempt to “use” them in a political sense. Even though some of us had been encouraging a broadening of the pro-life message to emphasize the good works we do for women and their needs, the emotional core of the message pretty consistently focused on unborn babies and fetal development. I said, “We walk the walk but we don’t talk the talk.” The great efforts pro-lifers make to help women are not something we parade in the public square or employ to change opinion.

Emily told me that there is now revived interest in post-abortion women, and mentioned the organization Operation Outcry. But, she asked, if pro-lifers support post-abortion women, why won’t they fund them? Why won’t they give them money?

I kept saying “Huh?” Give them money? I didn’t get it. Eventually I said that pro-lifers do fund projects for post-abortion women. They do it mostly through local pregnancy care centers, because that’s where the services are.

It turned out that Emily meant funding for political campaigns. Apparently someone in South Dakota had told her that national organizations would not fund the recent campaign in that state, and Emily seems to think this is because the campaign used post-abortion women.

I said that couldn’t be so. There was no blanket refusal to speak of post-abortion grief in political settings. There must be another explanation. I told her that I thought I’d read somewhere—maybe the New Yorker—that some pro-lifers felt the South Dakota campaign was not the right way to go. But that wouldn’t have anything to do with the involvement of post-abortion women.

I don’t think she was convinced. I am frankly not sure what she’s getting at.

Since I’d proved my incompetence to answer Emily’s questions, we concluded the conversation, and I suppose she went on to locate other pro-lifers who were more familiar with the topic under discussion.

This morning I went to a local Catholic girls’ high school for Career Day; I talked about being a free-lance journalist. Several of the girls want to write fiction and others want to be opinion or nonfiction writers; one wanted to be an editor. I warned them about how tough the competition is, and how hard it is to get started, and how thin the pay is thin even when you’ve been at it for decades.

But, I said, there’s good news. One day, everybody who’s my age will be dead. And people in your generation will be writing the novels and opinion pieces and features and book reviews, and editing them, too. The best, most influential writer of your generation is someone who is your age today, I told them. Why shouldn’t it be you?

When that day comes, perhaps pro-life convictions and reasoning will be heard in the big Establishment publications, and allowed to express themselves in their own terms. I hope some of those girls will make it happen. I will be happy to lean over the edge of the cloud and cheer them on.

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