Framing Abortion


I love this recent essay by Janet Harris. Ms. Harris explains that:

[W]hen the pro-choice community [adopts the anti-choice’s notion that the decision to abort is fraught and] frames abortion as a difficult decision, it implies that women need help deciding, which opens the door to paternalistic and demeaning “informed consent” laws. It also stigmatizes abortion and the women who need it.

Often, abortion isn’t a difficult decision. In my case, it sure wasn’t. When I was 18, my boyfriend, whom I was with for more than a year, frequently pressured me into having sex. At the time, I lacked the maturity and experience to exert more control over the situation. For more than 10 weeks, I progressed from obliviousness about my pregnancy[,] to denial[,] to wishful thinking: Maybe if I ignore that I missed two periods, that pesky little fact will go away. Once I faced reality, though, having an abortion was an obvious decision, not a difficult one. The question wasn’t “Should I or shouldn’t I?” but “How quickly can I get this over with?”

This was in the mid-1980s, when abortion was about women having control not just over their bodies but over their destinies. An unwanted pregnancy would have derailed my future, making it difficult for me to finish college and have the independent, productive life that I’d envisioned.

For many, the same ramifications hold true today. A Census Bureau study released in July found that women who have their first child out of wedlock get less education and are more likely to be unemployed and single — even many years later — compared with other women.

Today, when advocates on both sides of the debate talk about the decision to have an abortion, they preface their statements with adjectives such as “difficult,” “hard” or “reluctant.” For anti-abortion conservatives, the reason for using such language is clear: Abortion is murder, they contend, but characterizing a woman who has one as a murderer is a bit, well, harsh. A more charitable view is to assume that she must have struggled with making this immoral choice. Pro-choice advocates use the “difficult decision” formulation for a similar reason, so as not to demonize women, [even though demonizing them buys into the notion that abortion is wrong and that women who get an abortion are doing something wrong.] It also permits pro-choice candidates to look less dogmatic, [something about which the criminalization crowd never worries].

But there’s a more pernicious result when pro-choice advocates use such language: [that language] is a tacit acknowledgment that terminating a pregnancy is a moral issue[,] requiring an ethical debate. To say that deciding to have an abortion is a “hard choice” implies a debate about whether the fetus should live, thereby endowing it with a status of being. It puts the focus on the fetus rather than the woman.

As a result, the question “What kind of future would the woman have as a result of an unwanted pregnancy?” gets sacrificed. By implying that terminating a pregnancy is a moral issue, pro-choice advocates forfeit control of the discussion to anti-choice conservatives.

Ms. Harris is right. We need to stop adopting the other side’s framing when we discuss abortion.

Genuflecting to the notion that abortion is a “difficult decision” just buys into framing that makes it easier for politicians to restrict abortion. After all, if it’s such a “difficult decision,” maybe it’s ok to make women wait 24, 48, 72 hours; to make them get their partner’s permission; to force them to undergo ultrasounds and to look at the pictures; to make them travel out of state; to make them walk through a crowd of screaming protestors holding pictures of bloody fetuses, etc., etc., etc.

Yet, I’ve heard even people who consider themselves feminists insist, when discussing abortion that, “There’s always a cost.”

Sure, there’s a cost: your insurance deductible, if you have insurance, or the entire cost if you don’t. And maybe a day off work: that’s a cost. Some discomfort, just like when you have a mole removed or have a molar extracted.

But beyond that, let’s quit insisting that, at least for many, many women, there’s some other, deeper, scarier “cost.” Because it’s, you know, a “difficult” decision. Costly. Fraught. One that maybe if she were stronger or less selfish, she wouldn’t have made.

You know what? I’ve had breast cancer. Lots of women who get breast cancer have to make a decision about whether or not to have a mastectomy. Lop off a breast. Then decide whether to try and rebuild it or to go through life with only one breast. To wear bras with pads or to skip it and figure that your interview suits won’t fit and your bathing suits will make everyone else uncomfortable. Decide now whether your husband/future partners will be more put off by a reconstructed breast or the complete lack of one. Guess now how you’ll feel looking in the mirror decades from now.

I had to decide whether or not to undergo chemotherapy and lose my hair. Turban, wig, or baseball cap? (Given my job, there was only one choice. I still remember having to explain to the nice lady from the American Cancer Society that, no, my job wouldn’t adapt to me wearing a turban or baseball cap to work.)

But you don’t see mastectomy or chemotherapy continually described as “difficult decisions,” as decisions that come with “a cost.” Which is why women get to make those decisions without waiting periods and without walking through crowds of spittle-flecked yahoos. You consult with your doctor, do some research, and then you go ahead and do what needs to be done.

Of course, in the small percentage of cases where the pregnancy was planned and desired and it turns out that an abortion is necessary, the woman may feel quite a bit of grief at the loss of a wanted potential child. But that’s due to whatever underlying condition required the abortion, not the abortion. If you’d always wanted to be a dancer and you had to have pins put in your broken ankle, you might be sad at the loss of your dancing career, but the decision to fix your broken ankle wouldn’t be described as “difficult,” nor will your regrets be due to the pins that allow you to walk today.

Oddly, we don’t feel the need to insist that men who decide to take Viagra pay some amorphous “cost” or have made some incredibly “difficult decision,” even though there are rather serious side effects, not least of which is the need to take a pill before having sex. Surgery for prostate cancer can sometimes cause men to become impotent, but no one prefaces every discussion of such surgery by calling it “difficult.”

Some women may feel ambivalent. Perhaps if their situation were different, they might want to complete the pregnancy. Again, that’s true of dozens of medical procedures that we don’t feel obliged to insist are “difficult decisions,” that “come with a cost.” In other situations, some people would prefer not to have bariatric surgery that will limit what they can eat and drink for the rest of their lives; not to have to take medication with long-term side effects; not to have to spend, for years, an hour every week with a psychiatrist; not to have to undergo weeks of physical therapy to recover from a hip replacement, and so on and so on. But we don’t feel a need to say, every time that we discuss bariatric surgery, or medication, or mental health, or physical therapy that the those decisions are “always difficult decisions.”

As Ms. Harris concludes:

Getting an abortion is not something any woman wants to go through. An unplanned pregnancy is highly stressful [just like extracting a molar or taking drugs with side effects], and for many it is humiliating evidence of a failure in judgment. Getting an abortion is expensive — not as costly as carrying a baby to term or raising a child, but expensive enough that half of all patients need help paying for it. And in many places, getting a safe and legal abortion can be more difficult because of parental-consent laws, distance to an abortion provider[,] or a gantlet of hostile protesters outside the clinic doors. Of all these difficulties, deciding whether to get an abortion is often the least of them. The situation may be difficult, but the decision is usually straightforward.

Picture found here.


3 responses to “Framing Abortion

  1. Jane Gagle-Bennett

    I was lucky, never got pregnant, but after Roe v. Wade, it would have been an easy decision for me. I’ve never wanted children. Of my friends who’ve had abortions, the only one who had difficulties w/ her decision was pregnant when abortion was illegal and dangerous. She was scared of dying, so have the baby and muck w/ her future? Or have an abortion and die, no future?

  2. Yes, yes yes. I have had two abortions, many years apart; one due to contraceptive failure and one a massive lack of good judgment. But both played out as Hecate describes: how to arrange to get it done asap and as cheaply as possible just like any other medical procedure.

    And yes the occasional “what-if” crosses my mind but no more so than the same thought about any other crossroads event where the other choice would have changed paths into a different future landscape. I feel vastly less angst about the abortion than about, say, not knocking over a liquor store if that’s what it would have taken to finish college when I ran out of bux in senior year. Sigh.

  3. Thank you very much for posting this. For me, my abortion was not a difficult decision at all. The circumstances that led to me getting pregnant were not circumstances that were going to lead to a good environment for a child, and would have taken me from impoverished and clawing my way out to hopelessly stuck.

    The difficulty was in figuring out how I was going to pay for it. The difficulty was in figuring out how I was going to get there (I drove two hours to a different state) and the difficulty was in finding someone to go with me so that they would be allowed to use anesthesia on me instead of me needing to be awake. The difficulty was teaching a class while in pain so that I could pay for the gas money.

    It was the right decision for me. It was the responsible decision. I didn’t need days to make the decision, I didn’t need counseling appointments. I needed the money to get it done. I’ve read that almost all of the post-12-week abortions are from women who couldn’t raise the funds to get an abortion before then. It’s not that women get that far along and then suddenly decide, “Oh, I changed my mind.” It’s that they can’t afford the procedure.

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