Over the years I have come to expect those opposed to abortion to be judgmental about women seeking one, regardless of their circumstances. Pro-choice Facebook pages, such as Abortion.com, and blogs like this generate variations of anti-choice comments admonishing women for having sex in the first place. Many will “reason” that pregnancy is a gift of life from God and abortion is therefore murder. Others avoid religious reference and use junk science, unverifiable claims, and outright lies to judge.
An anti-choicer will occasionally make an exception for abortion in the case of pregnancy resulting from rape or due to a medical circumstance.Ironically, in stating their reluctant acceptance for such abortions, they can be even more harshly judgmental about women. Their comments about the frequency, or infrequency, in which women are in those situations with pregnancy minimize the trauma of the circumstances women might experience. The frequency arguments also often imply that abortion rights advocates – and pregnant women – lie about or exaggerate the circumstance. Aside from the fact that women should not have to explain why they choose abortion, if their reason is due to rape or medical conditions, they do not need anyone scrutinizing their stories or suggesting that they somehow had control of their circumstances.
Many years ago, a 16-year-old homeless woman was raped. Her fear of being placed in foster care or, worse, someone contacting the parents who abandoned her, was greater than her interest in having the rapist arrested and prosecuted. It was also improbable that she would be taken seriously as a victim – a teenaged girl living on the streets was asking for “trouble.” She pushed the trauma from her mind and continued working in restaurants to save enough money to eventually find a place to rent. Over five months after the rape, this young woman experienced what seemed to be an extreme amount of blood loss for her monthly period. At first she attributed it to having spent a day of bicycling. She was not particularly alarmed – she had given birth to her son almost two years before and had become familiar with normal changes that occur with menstrual cycles. Her past few periods had seemed light and short. Maybe this was her normal blood flow returning to normal.
Towards the end of the night, the young woman was getting weak and went to an emergency room. With her legs in the stirrups of a cold table in a cold room, almost as soon as a hurried, rude doctor began a pelvic exam, she felt a gush from her body and heard a thump on the floor. With sarcasm, the doctor told her that she had miscarried a roughly five-month-old fetus. He glared at her with incredulousness as she explained that she had been having periods and had no idea that she was pregnant. After shaking his head, he left the room.
Staring at the blood and fetus on the floor, the trauma of the rape returned to this young woman’s mind. Since she had not been in a sexual relationship for almost a year, the pregnancy was a result of the rape. She berated herself for not realizing she was pregnant at the same time she was grateful that she miscarried and did not have to find a way to have an abortion. She was humiliated by the attitude of the doctor, how quickly he seemed to blow off her surprise that she had been pregnant, especially since she had been pregnant before. The medical and administrative staff at the emergency room and at the follow up appointment a couple weeks later did not conceal their harsh judgments. The experience was so shameful that she never acknowledged the pregnancy or miscarriage on subsequent health histories requested by her doctors.
That young woman was me. Although I did not have an abortion, the experience ultimately allowed me to connect with women who did. The experience also served me well when I directed a family planning clinic. No woman should have to provide a reason for choosing abortion. However, if her pregnancy was the result of rape, I had empathy and knowledge of how she felt. When patients showed surprise that they were pregnant, I presumed that they were being truthful about having had periods. When effort was made to require rape victims to be offered the morning after pill, I was actively supportive. The psychological imprint of rape, an unknown pregnancy, and miscarriage was powerful.
In an earlier post, I wrote about how women are shamed for multiple or second trimester abortions. Instead of reinforcing that women should not feel shame, pro-choice people should be reinforcing that no one should sit in judgment or doubt of a woman who chooses abortion, whatever her circumstances and regardless of their views about abortion or sexuality. The frequency of rape, surprise pregnancies, or medical anomalies is irrelevant, not to mention difficult to accurately quantify. Through initiatives like Abortion Conversation Project, reproductive choice advocates and medical care providers have and continue to put great effort into furthering the knowledge and understanding people of all perspectives have about abortion. There should not be a stigma to abortion, women’s sexuality, or any of woman’s personal attributes. Only when people stop judging will the stigma end.