Bravo for Wendy Davis, But Women's Abortions Are Nobody Else's Business
When her memoir hits stores in the middle of her campaign for Texas governor on Tuesday, readers will be privy to extremely personal moments in the public life of Wendy Davis. Early excerpts of the book revealed over the weekend show that Davis had two abortions—one that terminated a dangerous ectopic pregnancy and another that ended a second-trimester pregnancy after a doctor found severe fetal abnormalities.
In a political climate so antagonistic to women and reproductive rights, this kind of disclosure is undoubtedly brave. But in a world where there is no privacy for women and their bodies, it’s shameful that we have to lay bare our reproductive lives just so others can—maybe, if we’re lucky—view us as full people.
Because, really, women’s abortions are none of your business; not even those of a public figure, not even one who became an international figure because of abortion rights. We shouldn’t have to explain ourselves or justify our life decisions: our abortions are ours alone.
Research shows that talking with people about issues like abortion helps to lessen stigma around terminating a pregnancy. But why must women display their most intimate moments out into the world in order for people to understand how basic and necessary abortion rights really are? If you look closely, at politics and beyond, these disclosures are not so much willingly shared as they are desperate reminders of women’s humanity.
In 2011, for example, California Rep Jackie Speier disclosed her abortion in the midst of a debate on the House floor that could have cut federal funding to Planned Parenthood. Speier felt compelled to say something after a New Jersey lawmaker described a second-trimester abortion in detail:
"That procedure that you talked about was a procedure I endured. I lost a baby. But for you to stand on this floor and to suggest, as you have, that somehow this is a procedure that is either welcomed or done cavalierly or done without any thought is preposterous."
Speier’s comments arrived at a time when the largest provider of women’s reproductive healthcare was under a full-scale attack from the GOP, a year in which states enacted a record number of abortion restrictions, when the House of Representatives passed a bill that would have allowed hospitals to let women die rather than give them a life-saving abortion.
But Speier was hardly the first woman to come out as having had an abortion and move the “debate” from the disconnected theoretical to the reality of women’s lives.
In 1971, feminist Simone de Beauvoir published Le Manifeste des 343, a demand for abortion rights followed by a list of people divulging their abortions. The manifesto, published four years before abortion became legal in France, condemned the secrecy around illegal abortions, saying women were “veiled in silence.” In its inaugural issue a year later, Ms. magazine ran a similar list. One year after that, Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in the US.
So maybe abortion disclosures lead to progress: today, the 1 in 3 campaign (a nod to the one in three American women who will have an abortion in their lifetime) features stories of women (and some men) talking about their experiences with the procedure. As Steph Herold, deputy director of the Sea Change Program, told me after Davis’ book excerpts went viral on Friday night: "Friends sharing stories with friends, family members sharing with family members — that does have the potential to shift attitudes."
Herold added that public figures like Davis who talk about abortion also opens the door for other women to disclose and share their experiences.
But not all of us have the Wendy Davis support network. Not all of us want to be that brave. And none of us should have to be. “People shouldn’t have to disclose intimate, personal, painful moments in order to change hearts and minds on an issue,” Herold told me.
There’s no doubt that the passages about abortion in Davis’ memoir will resonate with women, especially those who have had to terminate wanted pregnancies. And to read something like this, at a time when much-needed clinics are closing and the US supreme Court has declared that the bullying of vulnerable women outside abortion clinics qualifies as “free speech,” is to understand how wrong it is to legislate family medical care:
"I could feel her little body tremble violently, as if someone were applying an electric shock to her, and I knew then what we needed to do. She was suffering. ... In our doctor’s office, with tears flowing down both our faces, Jeff and I looked at our baby daughter’s beating heart on the sonogram screen for the last time. And we watched as our doctor quieted it. It was over. She was gone. Our much loved baby was gone."
To share a moment like this is an act beyond generosity. But it shouldn’t be necessary.