Many years ago when I directed a family planning clinic, an abortion patient (“Jenny”) informed me that she was there for her eleventh abortion. With neutrality, I responded to Jenny with questions about birth control usage, wanting to encourage options for her. Like the experience of so many other women, birth control pills produced intolerable side effects for her. Referring to herself as a “fertile Myrtle,” Jenny shared that her menstrual cycle and ovulation had always been inconsistent, making the rhythm method of birth control impossible. At age 36, she had several years of fertility ahead of her; finding a compatible birth control method was important but not necessarily easy.
Jenny knew that she did not want children and had once tried to get a tubal ligation. The gynecological surgeon practicing near her small Arkansas town of residence – and the only doctor her insurance would pay for – refused Jenny for a tubal because she was single. Even today there are some doctors with antiquated views that all women deep down want children. Such doctors maintain policies not to perform tubal ligations on childless or unmarried women. They also tend to be the type to have harsh attitudes towards women who enjoy their sexuality.
A lawyer I knew once confided that she had had five abortions. Two of the pregnancies were a direct result of being young and uneducated about birth control, which was also difficult to access in her hometown. Two of her abortions were due to medical issues and one was due to becoming pregnant soon after having survived a high-risk pregnancy and delivering a premature baby. Around the same time, a colleague shared her experience of being an unwed teen mom who later had two abortions, both while in college.
In recent news, also posted on Abortion.com, an aspiring United Kingdom actress and model, Josie Cunningham, has been the target of rancorous commentary because she announced her plan to probably have an abortion to avoid “[having] a baby she didn’t want , by a man she didn’t love, and abandon[ing] the career she craved” (M. Robbins, blog @ Guardian.com, 4/23/14). She is the mother of two boys and at this writing she is about 19 weeks pregnant. Cunningham was previously known for being on reality TV and receiving a breast enlargement paid for through England’s National Health Service. Upon learning that she was pregnant, she sought to take advantage of the National Health Service’s provision of dental care for pregnant women. Apparently pregnancy was at least a temporary benefit for Cunningham. Whether she has an abortion or not, she has no guarantee of a future as a model or a reality TV star.
The outrage towards Cunningham expressed in reader comments was/is steeped in a range of opinions about her personality and behavior generally. It is the abortion itself that is generating the most vitriol. “‘Murdering cow,’ ‘ugly no good cunt,’ a ‘rank slut,’ who ‘doesn’t deserve the ability to conceive’ and needs ‘a good hard kick in your piss flaps’ ” are among the comments(M. Robbins, blog @ Guardian.com, 4/23/14). The Guardian.com blog cited here was making the argument that those who really support reproductive rights should be defending Cunningham. A similar view was published in Vice; both writers are saying that choice is choice whatever the reason and whoever the woman. Who are any of us to judge who should have an abortion or why?
As a staunch pro-choice person, I could not imagine deciding abortion as many times as Jenny nor could I imagine life for her and 11 children had she not had access to abortion. Both the lawyer and my colleague were smart women. Had they not learned from the first pregnancy or first abortion that birth control was out there? My judgments about both stopped quickly as I considered all the variations in the reproductive lives of women, my own included.
All sexually active women can relate to the anxiety of late or missed periods. Many of us know the intolerable side effects of the pill and many of us have experienced being denied a tubal ligation due to our marital status. Most of us also know that young women in particular might say they will “never have sex again” after a failed relationship, only to later find themselves in a spontaneous situation in which only old condoms, or nothing at all, are available for protection.
Roughly 25 years have passed since I first interacted with women who shared their experience of multiple abortions. When I first heard about Josie Cunningham, I did not judge her at all. If she actually has an abortion, I wish she had decided in the first trimester, but under no circumstance would I want her to be forced to give birth. I don’t think Cunningham did herself, or her children, any favors by sharing any of her personal information, but people share intensely personal information all the time without receiving such public shaming.
Abortion is constantly presented as a negative for women, with media reinforcement through films and other art forms. Many who would judge women for multiple abortions, or one in the second trimester, would likely also shame them for having children they could not afford or did not want. Oh, sure, adoption can always be chosen, but it is as wrong to force that option as it is to force abortion or parenting.
According to the National Abortion Federation, 83% of all abortions are for unmarried women and 57% are low-income women. Most abortions are performed in the first trimester and with approximately three out of 10 women having an abortion before the age of 45 (Guttmacher 2/24/14), it is a common medical procedure. The Nation’s Emily Douglas titled an August 12, 2012 article, “Does It Really Matter Why Women Have Abortions?” While the article is well worth reading, the title is apropos to this blog post. The correct answer? It really does not matter why women choose abortion. It is impossible for anyone but the pregnant woman to know and understand the reasoning behind her choice. How can anyone, pro-choice or anti-choice, have the audacity to judge any woman who chooses abortion more than once or later than most of us would prefer?