Coming Out About Abortion
J.D. Candidate 2014, UCI Law
Forty years ago, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the Constitution protected a woman’s right to an abortion. Compared to other landmark decisions of that era whose names are instantly recognizable even to the lay public—Brown v. Board of Education, Miranda v. Arizona, Loving v. Virginia—Roe v. Wade is remarkable for how little public opinion has changed in support of it. The Gallup Poll’s data on the question of whether abortion should be legal has held relatively steady: in 1975, two years after Roe was decided, 21 percent of those surveyed said it should be legal under any circumstances, 54 percent said only under certain circumstances, and 22 percent said it should be illegal in all circumstances. In 2012, those numbers were 25 percent, 52 percent, and 20 percent, respectively.1
Parsing the “certain circumstances” of the majority opinion likewise remains as controversial as ever. There’s still some truth to the old chestnut that everyone supports abortion in at least three cases: when the pregnancy was the result of rape, when the woman’s life is at risk, and when the unwanted pregnancy is their own. Just ask U.S. Rep. Scott “abortion for my mistress” DesJarlais, the voters who defeated Todd “legitimate rape” Akin, or the millions who received with horror the news of Savita Halappanavar’s death in an Irish hospital after doctors refused to perform a lifesaving abortion. Meanwhile, one in three U.S. women will have an abortion in her lifetime,2 and most of them—despite the fact that they weren’t raped and their pregnancies were not especially dangerous—never come to regret it.3
Rape victims, maternal deaths, and gruesome third-trimester abortions make headlines, while every year over one million first-trimester elective abortions are quietly performed across the country on women of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds.4 These abortions are safe—14 times safer than childbirth, according to a study published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology last February5—and the emotion women most commonly report afterward is relief.6 Women who have abortions fare particularly well compared to those denied the choice; the latter group, called “turnaways,” are more than twice as likely to stay in abusive relationships, and three times as likely to fall into poverty.7
Yet despite abortion’s benefits and ubiquity, we seldom talk about it. Although over half of the women who have abortions are in their twenties,8 I didn’t know of anyone in my social circle who had had one when I became pregnant at 23. I’m sure there were many, and if I had been open about my own predicament, I might have discovered who they were. But before I went in for the procedure, the only person I told was my boyfriend; for a long time after, the only other person I told was my mother.
My situation was fairly typical. Like 85 percent of women who choose to terminate their pregnancies,9 I wasn’t married. I was, however, in a committed relationship with a man who eventually wanted kids, and I had a job. I was out of college, and I was in love. But I wasn’t ready.
At the time, law school wasn’t even on my radar. I was working my way up the chain at a restaurant where I had waited tables in college, and I was considering making a career of it. The pay was good, the benefits were great, and I told myself that growing up meant you didn’t always get to do what you wanted. I told myself similar things about my boyfriend: that he was loyal and great with kids, and besides, relationships take work. I couldn’t have imagined then that I would find a career path so stimulating, a relationship so compatible, or a life so fulfilling as I have now.
Women who have an abortion have every right to keep it private. Privacy is, after all, the basis for our constitutional right to choose. But privacy has its price, and it’s one we all pay every time an anti-abortion measure is passed.
In the early days of the gay rights movement, proponents fantasized that all gay people would turn blue, on the theory that if they couldn’t blend in, they would have to collectively stand up for themselves. As more and more gays and lesbians come out, more and more homophobes among their friends, relatives, and colleagues are forced to grapple with the cognitive dissonance of supporting laws that hurt someone they care about. As a result, more and more of them are coming around on same-sex marriage and other equal rights for gays and lesbians.
It is easy to concede ground in the abortion debate when abortion is an abstraction, not a choice made by our friends, our mothers (yes, our mothers—61 percent of women who have abortions in this country already have a child10) and perhaps, someday, by ourselves. The sanctity of our bodies is so paramount that we permit dying individuals to refuse treatment, and we perform lifesaving organ transplants only with the express consent of the deceased or their families. A parent could not be compelled to donate even a pint of blood to save his child’s life.
However we regard the refusal to receive treatment or donate organs, we hold an individual’s right to make that decision as inviolable. It’s time more of us applied the same reasoning when those individuals are pregnant women.