Abortion: Trouble in Numbers?

My friend Marion Banzhaf is the kind of feminist who wears an "I had an abortion" T-shirt with "TALK TO ME" scrawled by hand beneath the message.

She worked at feminist health centers throughout the 1970s where she demonstrated vaginal self-exams and performed menstrual extractions. In its 1980s heyday, she was a pioneering member of the AIDS activist group ACT-UP. She recounts the story of her abortion in a film I produced called Speak Out: I Had an Abortion.

The year was 1971, and there were only a couple of states, notably New York, where abortion was legal. Although her boyfriend thought they should drop out of school at the University of Florida and get married -- they could live with his mother -- Marion disagreed. She raised the money for her abortion in one afternoon by standing on the quad, asking for donations.

She then flew from Gainesville to New York, had her procedure, and, after she left the clinic, ran skipping down the street. "I was so happy to see that blood," she says, in a trademark Marion Banzhaf way (somewhat shocking, totally confident). "It meant I had my life back."

Dauntless radical though she is, there is a part of her abortion story she rarely tells. A year after her 1971 procedure, Marion got pregnant again. This time she didn't have to worry about the money. Her new boyfriend pulled out his checkbook and put her on the next flight -- and she knew it was the right decision. "But it was a much harder [abortion] for me personally. I felt I shouldn't let myself get pregnant," says Marion, now fifty-two. "Even to this day, I have shame about it. An accomplished, consciousness-raised feminist like me!"

One abortion, that happens. Two? Well, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, two smacks of carelessness. My father, a doctor in Fargo, North Dakota, expressed surprise when I mentioned the second-abortion stigma to him: "It's odd, given that it's the exact same situation as before, no more or less of a life," my father said. "It's as if women don't really believe they have the right to have abortions."

Dad, like Marion, is often shockingly logical. Still, abortion itself (whether your first or fourth) is so shrouded in secrecy, it's easy to imagine that only certain kinds of women would ever make a mistake like that twice. If "she" did, this almost unconscious thinking goes, it's clear "she" didn't care enough to learn from the first one. Fears about these repeat cases contribute to the unlovely idea that, because terminating a pregnancy is legal, women use abortion as birth control, leading to a cliché of this debate: the "I'm pro-choice, but I don't think it should be used as birth control" line.

In the clinic world, repeat visitors are called, not unkindly, "frequent flyers." The reason that casual term is not an insult is simply due to how common multiple abortions are. "You have 300 possibilities to get pregnant in your life," says Peg Johnston, the director of an abortion clinic in Binghamton, New York. "A one percent failure rate -- assuming the best possible use of contraception -- is still three abortions," she says. "In what endeavor is a one percent failure rate not acceptable?"

According to Planned Parenthood, two out of every 100 women aged fifteen to forty-four will have an abortion this year and half of them will have had at least one abortion previously. Yet virtually everyone I've talked to about multiple abortions said she shouldn't have let it happen again, implying it was her fault.

Why is that? Well, some of it is surely the anti-woman culture, a robust pro-life movement that, when abortion became legal, mobilized to scream at women on what is already not a fun day. But it's not just a vast right-wing conspiracy. Many women -- pro-choice women -- believe that abortion is taking a life (although not an independent life). What justifies that loss of life is the woman's own life. It's almost as if she is saying, "I recognize that this is serious, but my own life is too important to sacrifice for an unplanned pregnancy." But each additional abortion makes it harder to believe she is making an honorable decision.

Or that he is. My friend Matt, like many men in my life, has been part of more than one abortion. When he was younger, he was "knee-jerk pro-choice." If an unplanned pregnancy occurs in high school or college, he figured, of course you have an abortion. That's just commonsense. He didn't revisit that with any sort of introspection until the first abortion, "but I wasn't in love with [the woman in question]. We had no future together. I was comfortable saying we need to abort," Matt concludes. "I gave her money. She didn't express any need for me to be there with her."

He says, bluntly, that the abortion last year felt "more like murder," and that he was disgusted at himself for being the reason his girl was at Planned Parenthood, confronting scary toothless protesters and enduring this awful procedure. The circumstances had changed -- Matt did have a future with the woman he got pregnant with the second time, although having a baby just then, a few months into their relationship, wasn't a good idea at all.

Mostly, though, it felt unseemly and immature to be there. "I sat at the clinic with all of these younger guys and I thought, 'I am too old to be here, man,'" says Matt, now thirty-eight. "When do I stop giving myself the out -- that is what abortion feels like -- a free pass. But it's not totally free. There are emotional consequences, and as you get older the sense of taking responsibility for your actions grows."

"There is something in that moment where you are supposed to smarten up," agrees Jenny Egan, a twenty-five-year-old ACLU staffer who had an abortion at age sixteen. "That is your one fuck-up. [After that,] birth control can't fail and a condom can't break." But, as Jenny points out, the shame is often not the abortion itself -- it's not the idea of killing a second baby when we are only allowed to kill one -- the shame is the shame of getting pregnant. It means that you don't having enough control and power to take care of yourself.

Which brings us to a paradox of feminism. The success of the women's movement is not just in its overhaul of all of the institutions that kept women down -- although it has made inroads in all of them, including national abortion rights, birth control for single people, and sexuality education (all under fire and that last almost eradicated in favor of abstinence-only education). The more profound revolution, though, was the raised expectations this once-utopian movement suggested to its daughters. The mantra of empowerment means that women feel like responsible actors in sex -- not merely ignorant victims -- and that knowledge makes it harder, in a way, to justify the "mistake" of unplanned pregnancy. If you're so smart, if you read "Our Bodies, Ourselves" at age thirteen, if you knew about condoms, how did you get pregnant?

In Speak Out, the film ends with dozens of women saying, "My name is ____ and I had an abortion." A few -- an older matron, a curly-haired professor type -- say "I had two abortions." One woman says "I had three abortions," and at a recent screening her presence provoked one young female audience member to wonder aloud why the multiple-abortion woman didn't use birth control and should we, the filmmakers, be promoting that?

At that same screening, a well-known second-wave feminist, the writer Alix Kates Shulman, replied to the requisite "where's the birth control" comment that she had had four abortions -- "and not one was the result of carelessness." A few audience members vigorously nodded their heads in a "Hear, Hear" manner. But it looked as if most people quietly wondered if the birth control girl -- the one pointing out that once was funny, but twice is a spanking -- was right.

In September, Pauline Bart, another second wave woman of some reputation within the movement, suggested at a screening of Speak Out that younger women learn to do abortions themselves just as the collective of women known as "Jane" did pre-Roe v. Wade.

"It's just like taking a melon-baller and scooping out a melon," she said, referring to performing an abortion in ones' own apartment. I nodded earnestly but thought, "No, it isn't." Or, at least, it isn't to me. I don't doubt that some women experience abortion as devoid of angst as Pauline Bart depicts, and for them each abortion is created equal.

For many women, though, getting pregnant when you don't want to be is because you made a mistake. Often the mistake is not your own fault -- Alix was not told by her doctor that diaphragms could slip out of place, Marion got depressed on the high-dose pill and found it almost impossible to take. But if an abortion is meant to correct that mistake, is it anti-woman to presume a learning curve? I don't know. Fertility and sexuality are very complex. Let's be real, some people are better at birth control than others. I've had unprotected sex more often than protected sex myself, so I'm hardly one to tsk-tsk.

Peg Johnston, the clinician, thinks multiple abortions points to something larger than an individual snafu -- occasionally that larger thing is carelessness, but usually in the context of a life out of control in other ways. Often it's a woman who has several children already and a chaotic, stressful life. At around $30 a month for the pill, others can't afford their birth control.

"That's very common," says Johnston, noting that a majority of the forty-five million uninsured in this country are women. Meanwhile, "some people are really fertile and others simply have lots and lots of sex. Frankly, if you have a lot of sex, you'll get pregnant more often."

As for Marion Banzhaf, she did find a way to make sure she didn't have another birth control failure but still had lots of sex. Soon after the second abortion, she came out as a lesbian.


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