Preface comment: I wrote this paper over 15 years ago, but it is even more true today.
“Women’s right to choose, ooommmmm. Women’s right to choose, ooommmmm. Women’s right to choose, ooommmmm.” And on it goes, the mindless mantra of abortion supporters. Irregardless of factual evidence and logical arguments, the result is always the same: “We believe in a woman’s right to choose.” While living in California, I wrote letters opposing abortion to three pro-choice Congressmen, U.S. Senator John Seymour (Rep.) and U.S. Representatives Pete Stark (Dem.) and Tom Campbell (Rep.). My letters included facts about the developing fetus and women’s health concerns caused by abortions, but these Congressmen never even acknowledged my arguments. They simply asserted their support for “a woman’s right to choose.” “Don’t confuse us with the facts, because we believe in a woman’s right to choose, ooommmmm.” Like an ever trusty shield, it wards off all unwelcome information.
But when does a choice become a compulsion? Why is it that the main beneficiaries of this choice are the boyfriends and husbands who escape all responsibility and most of the negative consequences of their actions? Why doesn’t free choice include full access to information about the various risks associated with abortion? Why do the women themselves suffer such grievous physical and psychological consequences from exercising their freedom of choice?
In his book, Aborted Women Silent No More, David Reardon has compiled the heartbreaking stories of women who have experienced abortion. For these women, abortion is not an abstract right or political concept, but rather a starkly realistic experience. Their stories are those of women who have been to abortion hell and back, and survived to tell about it.
In the words of Lorijo Nerad:
When our caseworker found out that I was pregnant with a third child, she was just disgusted with us. She couldn’t believe that we had been so ‘irresponsible.’ She urged us to have an abortion, saying ‘You just can’t go around having babies all the rest of your life.’ After making us feel like dirt, she reassured us that Medicaid would pay for the abortion and that we could always have children later.
From that point on, there was pressure from everyone around me to have an abortion….Confusion mounted, tension and pressure took control, and I became another victim of ‘free choice.’ (Reardon 274)
Carol St. Amour was living with her boyfriend when she became pregnant:
….I was very satisfied, nearly ecstatic about our baby.. . .
Jim however didn’t feel that way. At first he was very quiet about it and didn’t speak to me for over a week. When I pressed him about it, he stated that he did not want me to have the baby; and that if I did, he’d leave me. I was crushed…but this was his child, too.
. . .
So I weighed the costs, and wanting very much to please him, plus being fearful of his leaving me, I made an appointment…
. . .
I wasn’t impressed by any of the people working there—there was no compassion or counseling, just an attitude of ‘let’s get it over with; there are many patients to deal with.’ I was instructed to get up on a table, put my legs in the stirrups, and relax (easy for them to say).
. . .
…the machine started. The noise was unforgettable—I can still hear it, even now. I grabbed at my chest and closed my eyes and started praying. Then I felt this gripping pain—it hurt so bad that I cried out. The doctor told me to ‘shut up’ because there were ‘other girls’ and the ‘walls were thin.’…This depression worsened as several weeks went by. Jim’s compassions and concern began turning into anger, as I started lashing out at him—‘I want my baby back!’
. . .
…To me it was a baby, my baby. To Jim it was a products-of-conception blob, a problem…. (Reardon 78 – 79)
Carol married her boyfriend, Jim, but their marriage ended in a bitter physical struggle. She admits that she neglected her children and progressively abused drugs, eventually including heroin. The turning point of her life was a religious conversion, after which she became involved in pro-life organizations. But the scars of her abortion experiences are still with her:
I was informed that I had cervical cancer.
. . .
Their suspicions are that the psychological aftereffects, such as I suffered from abortion, have triggered this cancer growth….The radiation treatments left me hopelessly sterile for life….I am thirty one years old and experiencing mid-life crisis. My strong desire to have another baby is heartbreaking….As a feminist–and former ‘pro-choicer’—I believe that the feminists have gone too far in supporting legal abortion. I know that my body is not my own when I am pregnant. That baby is its own person.
Where was the feminists’ protection of my rights at the doctor’s office and at the abortion clinic? No feminist was encouraging my male chauvinist pig boyfriend to take a walk. None of my feminist friends offered to really help me. No, they rallied to his side….Today I had to go see my oncologist (cancer specialist) because the radiologist found another ‘spot’ on my cervix….[While waiting in the examining room] [t]o my shock and complete loss of control I saw, two feet from my left foot, a suction aspirator machine! I freaked out. I had a total flashback of the abortion experience. I began crying uncontrollably, got up, dressed, and ran into the hall hyperventilating….[The nurse] understood, and tried comforting me, reassuring me that their office did not do abortions…[and] took the machine out of the room. I returned shaken and surprised at my lack of self-control. I wonder…will it ever end? (Reardon 80 – 81)
These stories are very typical; abortion is a “choice” that is in great measure forced upon young women by those unwilling to help in any other way. The results of one of the most comprehensive surveys ever done of aborted women show that “over 84 percent said that they would have been very willing to keep the child ‘under better circumstances’ ” (Reardon 12). “[M]ore than 83 % would have chosen against abortion” (Reardon 11) if their husbands, boyfriends, abortion counselors, friends, parents, or others had encouraged them differently.
Women who choose abortion are responsible for their choice, as the women in Reardon’s book freely admit, but equally so are those who encourage them down this path. “[I]t appears that, far from freedom of choice, women facing termination feel they have no choice at all—no real choice” (Kennedy 35 – 36). In the words of Jerri “Porter” who was talked into an abortion by her boyfriend and Planned Parenthood over her own desire to keep the baby: “At the age of eighteen, the law says one is an adult. But emotionally, many eighteen-year-olds are not strong enough on the inside to stand up for what they really want” (Reardon 280).
We used to care for pregnant women. Now we just send them in for surgery, and leave them by themselves to pick up the broken pieces of their lives afterwards. Several women in Reardon’s book reported the feeling that they themselves were being aborted, not just their baby. Their post abortion experiences certainly reflect the incredibly distressing effects of exercising their choice.
Women considering abortion are typically told that this procedure is safe and simple, but statistical information indicates otherwise. Because of various legal factors, “information about abortion complications is generally obstructed in the United States, [but] this is not always the case in other countries” (Reardon 103).
According to one Japanese study [of legal abortion], women undergoing abortions experienced the following complications: 9 percent were subsequently sterile; 14 percent suffered from recurring miscarriages; 17 percent experienced menstrual irregularities; 20-30 percent reported abdominal pain, dizziness, headaches, etc.; and there was a 400 percent increase in ectopic pregnancies. (Reardon 104)
The records at one hospital in Great Britain
…revealed a 27 percent infection rate among aborted patients; 9.5 percent hemorrhaged enough to require blood transfusion; 5 percent of early vacuum and D&C abortions tore the cervical muscle; and 1.5 percent perforated the uterus….the author of this study made special note that: ‘It is significant that some of the more serious complications occurred with the most senior and experienced operators. This emphasizes that termination of pregnancy is neither as simple nor as safe as some advocates of abortion-on-demand would have the public believe.” (qtd. in Reardon 104)
The experiences of aborted women described in Reardon’s book are compelling. But in fairness it must be admitted that there are many women who have had abortions and claim to feel good about the decision. In the book, Choices We Made, many famous women including Whoopi Goldberg, Ursula LeGuin, Linda Ellerbee, Margot Kidder, and Anne Archer describe their abortions, legal and illegal, and affirm their support of a woman’s right to choose. However, their ambivalence about abortion is striking. For instance, Linda Ellerbee writes: “No woman comes away clean from an abortion, even if you come away clean physically. I’ve said over and over again that I am not for abortion, that no one is for abortion. I am for a woman’s right and a man’s right—I’m for your right to make your own hard choices in this world” (Bonavoglia 86). The theme of “hard choices” runs throughout the book.
These pro-choice women are honest up to a point. Many of them admit that abortion is probably murder, but quickly justify it by stating that they were not ready for children and that it would be wrong to bring unwanted children into the world. Practically no mention is made of adoption as an alternative. Margot Kidder describes horrible nightmares and grief after her abortion and then writes:
I knew that having that baby would have been wrong for the baby, and that you don’t do that to children.
Abortion might be killing a life; I don’t know. That to me is not an issue. If there is a sin, it is the sin that we adults perpetrate on the children of the earth who are truly innocent and defenseless by bringing those children into the world when they will not be cared for. (Bonavoglia 99)
But why stop there? The logical extension of this argument includes killing babies after birth, adults, and the elderly if they, too, are not being properly cared for. Would that not be equally merciful? As pro-life feminist, Breda O’Brien, writes:
[In the case of abortion] [w]e are expected to apply none of the moral criteria normally applicable when a person consciously kills another…because it is the woman organising [sic] the killing of the foetus [sic] in her womb. Imagine, if she were speaking of a six-month-old baby, and elderly mother, or her partner….All of those actions would be found morally reprehensible, but not [her] decision, because it is her ‘right to choose.’ (Kennedy 34)
In my opinion, the narratives in Choices We Made lack emotional depth and conviction compared to the accounts in Aborted Women Silent No More. This is especially surprising considering the literary, dramatic, and journalistic talents represented by the pro-choice women. As I stated before, the pro-choice women of Bonavoglia’s book are honest, but only up to a point; they sound like women defending the indefensible. They approach the horrible reality of abortion at times, but immediately rationalize it away. The women in Reardon’s book, however, have nothing to hide. They have confronted the darkest and most painful secrets of their lives and have reconciled with themselves and their community. Their stories are resolutely honest and straightforward, the stories of descent into emotional and psychological darkness and of renewal, usually accompanied by a religious conversion. In short, they ring true.
Another point of comparison is that many of the women in Reardon’s book were once pro-choice or even pro-abortion activists, but have now become adamantly pro-life. However, none of the women in Bonavoglia’s book were pro-life activists who are now pro-choice. In fact, I have never heard of a pro-life activist converting to pro-choice; there may be a few exceptions to this, but the exodus is primarily one way. If the pro-choice position were equally valid or even superior to the pro-life position, wouldn’t we expect to hear of people who were adamantly pro-life changing their position to pro-choice? But that is exactly what isn’t happening. The pro-life movement is swelling with the ranks of aborted women, many of whom were pro-choice activists.
So why is it that many women still vehemently defend their right to choose while acknowledging their ambivalence about abortion and even their lack of emotional peace about their abortion experiences? My theory is that women who have had abortions, but still defend their freedom of choice, are not as far along the road of recovery as those in Reardon’s book. They are still denying what every pregnant woman instinctively knows: that a separate and equally valuable life is developing within her, that to abort that life is to kill a child, and that this is wrong in all but the most desperate and life-threatening circumstances. In Bonavoglia’s book written in 1992, Norma McCorvey, the original Jane Roe of Roe vs. Wade, wrote her defense of a woman’s right to choose. In 1995, Jane McCorvey rejected her pro-choice stance, relinquishing her position as pro-choice icon (Associated Press 1). One day while at an empty playground, she began to wonder “where are all the children.” She became filled with an overwhelming sense of grief, experienced a religious conversion, and immediately gave up her position with a Dallas abortion clinic. Afterwards, she worked for Operation Rescue, a pro-life organization, and now runs her own pro-life organization. I have to wonder: have any other women in Bonavoglia’s book also repudiated their pro-choice stance?
Women like McCorvey and the women of Reardon’s book represent the most potent opposition to abortion. By encouraging so many women to abort and by resisting any and all restrictions on abortion, the pro-choice movement is sowing the seeds of its own destruction. The women who have first hand experiences of this “choice” are rising up in mass against abortion on demand. Monica Harshbarger says,
[o]ften, after telling my story to a group, I will have a woman come up to me with tears in her eyes, thanking me for having the courage to tell what she has been unable to tell. They are my sisters. And you watch us; pretty soon that fear and doubt will turn into strength and determination, and we will put an end to this degradation. (Reardon 159)
Associated Press. The Face Behind Roe: Norma McCorvey. 22 January 1998. <http://www.usatoday.com/news/index/abort/abort006.htm> (1 April 1998)
Bonavoglia, Angela. The Choices We Made. New York: Random House, 1991.
Kennedy, Angela. Swimming Against The Tide Feminist Dissent On The Issue of Abortion. Dublin: Colour Books Ltd., 1997.
Reardon, David C. Aborted Women Silent No More. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1987.