The Real Choices Women Make
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I leaned across the small cafe table and asked, inappropriately, "So, what brings you here?" I knew better, but the laughter, clinking of glasses, lit votives and mellow trip-hop made it feel like a real party.
"I had an abortion eight months ago," the young woman said after a pause. "I just saw this in the paper and I decided to come."
"That's so great," I nodded, my social graces still on strike.
"I was living in another country and I came home for it ... the abortion." She looked away. By this point, the place was packed.
About a hundred and fifty of us – mostly women, mostly young, mostly white, mostly with hip hairstyles – crowded into Seattle's Capitol Hill Arts Center, an old brick building next to the state liquor store and across from the police parking lot. We had left the warm and Seattle evening to attend "I Had an Abortion," an event put on by Aradia Women's Health Center and co-sponsored by abortion resource and referral organization the CAIR Project, self-defense organization Home Alive and the magazine ROCKRGRL.
The gathering was part of a nationwide campaign to take the stigma out of abortion, according to Amie Newman, Aradia's communications director. She points out that "even in progressive communities, people don't talk about it" and "with our administration's excellent strategy at really stigmatizing abortion and creating this evil aura around it, [we need to] hear women's real stories."
Frankly, I approached the evening with war-weary frustration that this type of event still had any type of political resonance. I had spent my time on the front lines more than a decade ago, in the tense dance between pro-choice clinic escorts and Operation Rescue protestors. I was skeptical that an event like this could do more than preach to the choir.
But the event was held in a place that felt more like a nightclub than a women's center and the three Seattle women who told their stories added just what the abortion debate so sorely lacks: real, multi-dimensional people grappling with much more than how to handle an unintended pregnancy. It was such a relief to talk about abortion without blown up pictures of alien-like fetuses on sandwich boards, or pithy pro-choice bumper stickers.
We then screened Jennifer Baumgardner's documentary Speak Out: I Had An Abortion . The film interviews women who had abortions between 1938 and 2003. Proceeding in chronological order with a beguiling pastiche of family photos and historical footage, each woman articulately talks about her family, relationships, personal aspirations and reproductive history. I learned the most from stories that rested squarely outside of my liberal experience. Like Robin, for example, who peacefully protested abortion clinics. When she learned she was pregnant, soon before entering the University of Tennessee on a cheerleading scholarship, she called a Christian center for support to give the baby up for adoption. The woman praised her courage and expressed delight that she was college-bound. After extensive screening, she asked Robin about the race of the father. Hearing that he was black, the woman refused any assistance. "There just isn't a demand for interracial babies," she curtly informed her. Devastated, Robin talked with her boyfriend and decided to have an abortion.
There was the woman whose twenty-seven year old cousin impregnated her when she was fourteen, three years after a stranger snatched her from an amusement park and raped her. This woman chose to have the baby and earned a scholarship to Radcliffe – which was later withdrawn when they learned she was a teenage mother. She went to Howard University instead and, after her mother refused to sign a permission slip for contraception, got pregnant again. When she talked about her decision to end this pregnancy, many of us in the audience gave a sigh of relief.
Jenny grew up in a Mormon family, the middle of five children. She described herself as "the daughter of a teenage mother who was the daughter of a teenage mother" and when she got pregnant after her boyfriend pressured her into sex, she decided to have an abortion. The trauma came when a letter from "The Brotherhood" informed her parents of her decision. A tremendous family fight ensued which pushed Jenny away from her family and her community.
The power of this film and of the women who shared their stories in person comes from their ability to show that the act of terminating a pregnancy means precious little outside of the context of family, partners, friends, faith communities-that is to say, life itself. It provides a powerful counterargument to Hillary Clinton's contention that abortion is a "sad, even tragic, choice," by highlighting women who frame their choices as responsible and life affirming. The 44-year-old married mother of two in the movie who ended her pregnancy in order to enhance her ability to be a mother and partner is a perfect example of someone who can't be pigeonholed by the current abortion debate.
I reentered the warm Seattle night inspired, moved, and maddeningly still within my blue-state bubble. I have never lived in the 97 percent of U.S. rural counties that have no abortion providers. I've never had anyone I love tell me that abortion is a sin or that women who terminate pregnancies are murderers. If someone like me, who is already passionately pro-choice, is re-inspired by this event, in the swath of red-state communities, it could affect real change.
Karen Rosenberg is a writer and doctoral candidate in women's studies at the University of Washington.