Admitting the Complexities of Abortion


Planned Parenthood was packed on a Thursday in the frigid Colorado dead of winter. I remember giving up my seat to a woman who looked to be in her thirties and totally unfazed by the crowded lobby on abortion day. She alternated between gabbing on her phone and yelling at her toddler. I flipped through a magazine without really looking at the pages and hated her a little.

It wasn't that I thought she was an evil person. I am not, nor ever was, a conservative Christian -- despite having grown up just miles away from Focus on the Family. In fact, I was at that Planned Parenthood, in order to support a pregnant neighbor. After a condom-break and twist of fate, she was too scared to tell her parents, but too determined to protect her own future. We marched past the pro-lifers with their gruesome placards and went inside, arm in arm.

I was unequivocally pro-choice, but I hated that woman in her 30s because she seemed (I didn't ask) to have such an uncomplicated relationship with abortion. I was jealous. Past my conviction that abortion should be legal and safe, my own feelings were a mess.

I felt that way again at a screening of Jennifer Baumgardner and Gillian Aldrich's film, I Had an Abortion, a couple of years ago. After a riveting film collage of real women who had experienced the complexity and power of abortion, a rather one dimensional discussion took place where older feminists expressed their disappointment in younger women's ambivalence over the issue. A young woman spoke about her conviction that abortion should be legal, but not easy, and another woman, who looked to be in her 50s, immediately yelled out "Abortion is a form of contraception!" Another feminist veteran teared up talking about her misguided students who expressed shame over abortion, but there was a hint of patronizing mixed in with the sadness.

The truth is that my generation (Gen Y, Third Wave, whatever you want to call us) doesn't have the black and white zeal of second-wavers when it comes to abortion. Some of my friends believe that abortion should absolutely be legal, but that they, themselves, would not get one. Some of my friends have already had them; they don't regret it, but a few have seen therapists and healers afterward, aching to make peace with their decisions. I've had heart-to-hearts with many a guy friend trying to support his significant other through an abortion and feeling inadequate and confused.

I see abortion as a very grave and complicated personal decision, and one that every woman is entitled to make for herself. Even though I am pro-choice, I am pro-admitting the complexity of that choice. The fact that so many older feminists are unwilling to even entertain my generation's ambivalence over the psychological or even spiritual implications only serves to squash potential dialogue.

As we celebrate the 35th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade this week, I hope we can remember a bit of the spirit at the Women's March for Choice in Washington, D.C. -- a gathering of over a million people according to some estimates -- back in 2004. Surrounded by men, women and children of all ages, I felt empowered to stand up for every woman's legal right to reproductive choice (not to mention health), but also free to disclose my complicated feelings over the issue. There was space for transformational dialogue as we lay in the grass, listening to the diverse speakers. There was time to look women of all ages in the eyes and say, "This is where I'm coming from. How about you?"

Too often women's studies academics and veteran feminists end up preaching to the choir, cutting off contention, being exclusive with their language. I have sometimes felt like I would be disrespecting my legacy, or worse, personally offending various older feminists that I have deep respect for, if I initiated a conversation about abortion that didn't stick to the movement tag line. Does it really weaken the argument that it should be legal, just because we admit it is also fraught? Divorce is legal and it can cause depression, regret, and animosity; it can also free women up to fulfill their potential, live their fullest lives, have some control over their fate. No one would ever claim that it was unfeminist to acknowledge these potential complications.

I recently taught Introduction to Gender Studies at Hunter College, an affordable city school in New York City with a great reputation, largely populated by recent immigrants or first-generation Americans. In one of my small, discussion courses, a young, working class woman from Far Rockaway raised her hand and said, "I always try to avoid saying this in my women's studies classes because I am afraid I'll get beaten up, but I kinda think abortion is bad."

I urged her to feel free to speak her mind, that this, in fact, was the point of coming together in learning communities. And she did. And, yes, sometimes it made my skin crawl, especially when she said that she "understood how people could want to bomb abortion clinics." Perhaps I experienced a bit of what some older feminists feel when a young woman in their midst wants abortions to be "safe and rare" or expresses concern over its mental health effects. Belief exists, after all, on a spectrum.

It wasn't comfortable for me to listen to that student's opinions, but it was necessary. We created a space where people of very different religious and moral persuasions came together and had a really tough conversation. Pro-choice -- as a stance -- had been personalized for my student; she liked me, how could she ever again hate or advocate violence against "my kind?" (I've known, and am even related to, many a pro-lifer, so that wasn't a new experience for me).

None of us changed our minds, but we left enriched, informed, and, most critically, fully owning our ideas. This respectful exploration, not the intimidating zealousness of some pro-choice veterans, is the ultimate aim of feminism.

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