Readers Write: Women Waiting To Exhale
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AlterNet editors were floored by the number of thoughtful, engaging comments readers posted in response to Jennifer Baumgardner's article of June 1, Women Waiting to Exhale.
In her story, feminist author/activist Baumgardner reported on the Exhale clinic in Oakland, Calif., which runs a non-judgmental post-abortion talk-line that focuses on "supporting women's experiences, rather than legal rights or lobbying."
Baumgardner also mentioned other abortion-themed projects currently being unveiled by women across the country. From zines like Emily Barcklow's Our Truths/Nuestras Verdades , to Web sites like I'm Not Sorry and Pregnancy Options, to documentary films such as The Abortion Diaries and the author's own Speak Out, Baumgardner noted that the growing number of women talking openly about the conflicting emotional impact of abortion is part of a growing cultural shift "in the national conversation. From 'Keep your laws off my body' to...talk about feelings and sadness, and even (gasp) whether fetal life has value."
Of course, the idea of women who have had abortions debating "whether fetal life has value" is controversial -- and not just for the anti-abortion contingent. It's especially divisive terrain among pro-choicers, who have traditionally downplayed abortion's ethical ambiguities in favor of focusing on the procedure's legal accessibility and safety.
"I'm not surprised at all by the response," says Baumgardner via e-mail. "People have a lot to say about this issue. Obviously, my bias is toward the people who think it's high time we had this conversation more publicly. But I'm intrigued by the people who think that I -- and my sources -- have simply bought into right-wing brainwashing."
The lively comments provoked by Baumgardner's article moved us to highlight them in a forum of their own.
Malkaa began a mini-debate when she wrote, "I was appalled and disappointed in your article about counseling after abortion. Jennifer has bought into right-wing propaganda. Most polls show that the overwhelming reaction to abortion is relief... I was especially taken aback by the statement that women who have an abortion because they couldn't afford another child feel awful about it. That is a blatant lie for most of us...What is wrong with our young people today?"
Reader Xenacat agreed: "This article is the most appalling example of right-wing propaganda cloaked in phony concern for women that I've seen in a long time. Right-wing religious groups have long played up the 'counseling' aspect, the feelings of 'sadness,' etc. It is merely another manipulative tool to get women to buy into the anti-reproductive rights camp."
She continued: "The truth of the matter is that the overwhelming majority of women are just grateful that they can end a pregnancy, period. It is pretty cut and dry: the sense of relief is far greater than...thoughts of motherhood...Enough with the conservative guilt tripping. We don't need this tripe in AlterNet."
Ouch. Thankfully, many readers felt differently. Terihu noted, "Yes, the INITIAL reaction includes relief, but for MANY women -- not all, but many -- there are other complex feelings mixed in... What is so awful about acknowledging the wide range of experiences with abortion? Your rigidity, claiming your own experience as the 'right' one, is as damaging as the psycho right-wingers insisting that it's a sin. Not everyone falls neatly into these two ends of the spectrum...there are shades of gray that both sides are purposely choosing to ignore. If your goal is to be a compassionate advocate of women's rights, you should be more open to listening to real women's talk about their real lives."
Draylinjae added: "I applaud the author's fearless exploration of all of the honest aspects of peoples' feelings. She's promoting a forum for the total acceptance...of women's feelings. Everyone is different. Every BODY is different. Just because you felt relief doesn't mean someone else can't feel horrible following an abortion, even if it IS the best decision for that woman. Why should we be afraid to admit that deciding to have an abortion is difficult? For most women, I think it is a difficult decision, but one that needs to be protected."
Gargirl agreed: "Women who seek abortions need all their emotional responses...accepted by those of us who are ardently pro-choice. They deserve our help and loving concern, not our censure. They are not mind-controlled dupes of the right wing; they are women experiencing painful emotions after a medical procedure...The fact that you experienced no mixed emotions does not invalidate the emotions of other women... Having mixed emotions can happen over choosing which of two parties to go to on a Saturday night, why are you shocked that some women experience mixed feelings over ending a pregnancy?"
Some readers simply shared their stories. Cin9713 wrote, "It's been thirty years since my abortion, and I have never looked back with anything except profound gratitude! Guess that makes me a really bad person, but at least I'm an honest one. I suspect more people feel this way [than admit to it]. It is somewhat unacceptable to feel glad you made this decision."
And CJC piped in, "I'm a lucky woman who had two healthy planned pregnancies. But I'm not surprised, much less dismayed, that women feel ambivalence and even grief over reproductive experiences. Women grieve if they want children and are not successful. They grieve after miscarriages...It is NOT 'right wing' to talk about this."
Evenstar reflected on her mother's abortion experiences: "My mother had two abortions when I was a child. She already had three children, and was in poverty. While she expressed relief at having the abortions, she still experiences pain over [them]... Because of the difficult choices she made, my siblings and I have all been able to come out of our poverty-stricken childhood as successful adults."
LizB, too, referred to the emotional hardships she's experienced since her own abortion years ago: "This article has opened a window in my soul that I didn't even know was shut. I am actively for abortion rights, and was for several years before I had to make my own choice. I have always had regret, not for the decision I made, but that I was in the position to have to make it. It is not the abortion I regret, but the unplanned pregnancy.
"I have dealt with this conflict alone for a long time. I do not speak of it because I'm afraid of playing into the anti-choicers' hands -- 'if you feel sadness, if you mourn, then it is murder.' Better to deny how you feel than to have the option taken away from you.
"When EXHALE goes national I will call. I've been waiting a long time for them."
Self-described "serious progressive" Smadams appreciated the "human language" of Baumgardner's article, and the subsequent dialogue it sparked on AlterNet. "This was the most nuanced, adult, complex...discussion I've seen about this topic in a long time. I consider myself a serious progressive, and I'd love to see progressives be able to talk about rights using human language, not just political language."
But (apparently pro-life) reader SENTINEL mocked the notion that Baumgardner's piece reflected right-wing arguments about the heavy emotional toll of abortion. SENTINEL wrote, "After getting an abortion, a large percentage of women develop serious guilt issues, and are often overcome with sadness...Many of these women will eventually change their thinking on abortion rights and join the legions fighting for life.
"Pro-choicers feel this movement must be squashed, so they try to nip these feelings of guilt and regret immediately by attracting guilt-ridden women into 'counseling' for their feelings. What they are really doing is trying to convince these women that they did absolutely nothing wrong and that there is no reason to feel they did anything against God and/or the...dignity of life."
Reader Papergirl also touched on the ideas of faith and religious upbringing in her reaction to Women Waiting to Exhale. "What if all our left-wing values are wrong? What if what our parents and our churches told us are right?" she asked. "Nobody wakes up one day and says, 'Gee, I think I'll go out and get pregnant just so that I can have this experience [of abortion].'
There are many things to consider, some of which include your upbringing and your community. As much as we would like to think we are liberated and the fetus is merely a bunch of unformed cells, many of us believe deep down...that this is a real person growing inside of us, and just maybe we [will]...answer to a higher power one day for the ending of this pregnancy. The questions are scary."
Finally, a lone male reader, Nakis, bravely shared his opinion: "I'm both pro-life and pro-abortion. I believe life must be respected, but no one has the right to tell someone what to do with her body. No two people are alike. It's not fair to categorize this article as being pro-right. Everyone handles tough decisions differently.... Family and friends don't always understand."
Laura Barcella is an Associate Editor at AlterNet.