You Are Not Owed a Reason for Somebody’s Abortion
For too long abortion stories were split into "good" and "bad." And as a journalist, I walked right into that trap.In Depth
Illustration: Vicky Leta
Kaia was nearly 42 when she learned her fetus had a chromosomal abnormality that would likely lead to a painful death. Liz found out she was pregnant right after a long-distance relationship ended. Ophelia, already perimenopausal, was raising two children with mood disorders. Natalie wanted to be homecoming queen. Dima knew the dude wasn’t right. Layidua was undocumented and attempting to change her immigration status after getting married. Yas was about to start her senior year of high school. Deb had just graduated college.
I have interviewed dozens and dozens of people who had abortions for dozens of articles. I have spoken to people who chose to self-manage their medication abortions at home, who chose first-trimester abortions in hospitals and clinics, who got later abortions, multiple abortions, secret abortions, people who got abortions as minors, whose fetus wouldn’t survive, who did it to protect their health, who didn’t want to be parents ever or just not right now, and who couldn’t afford the procedure. Every one of these safe and wanted abortions was a good abortion.
After each interview I come away with profound disbelief that this is my life’s work: chronicling the stories of people who decide to divulge their private health information in service of others. They spill their abortion secrets in the hopes that their public honesty might mean those in power finally realize people who have abortions are simply that: people. I am so grateful for them. I wished I could offer them a better outcome than an accurate record of events. All I can offer them now is my own honesty.
It took me years to make so bold yet so fundamental a statement as “every safe and wanted abortion is a good abortion” on behalf of these people, because the notion of capital-J Journalism still had a hold over me. The profession has sworn, from William Randolph Hearst to Marty Baron, to not bring a point of view to practice; journalism forgets that Ida B. Wells was a reporter, too. I trained at newspapers in New Orleans, Seattle, and Phoenix. Even when I moved into political reporting, it was still a toe-the-line liberal blog. When I got to outlets that could take a bit more bite, I held back. I wrote about the fight for abortion access without explicitly mentioning the goodness of these choices. And I was fair, always trying to find the balance between pro- and anti-abortion sources and stories.
As I watch reproductive rights get stripped away, after years of my own professional cowardice, I know stopping short of being pro-abortion only does harm to the people I write about. A part of being fair is giving space to the entire world of abortion experiences—there are people whose abortions made them deeply sad and others who never thought twice about the decision, and those feelings exist in even the same person. But it’s no longer my full and honest account to write about the fight to ban abortion without saying I also believe in the right to abortion—and the right to abortion without judgement or indictment.
For decades, politicians succeeded in cleaving apart the reasons to get an abortion. It’s time for clarity. Last year, the Supreme Court heard a case that could end legal abortion as we know it. Last year, the state I love enacted legislation so cruel—no abortions after six weeks in Texas and the threat of civil legal action against anyone who helps—that it surprised even me. States across the country are clamoring to follow suit. And still, people who support abortion access are falling into traps that I did. They still take into account the reasons people want abortions. So, it’s time for clarity: No one owes us their reasons for having an abortion, and it is not our job to convey relief, give praise, or recoil at certain reasons for abortion if we do learn them. Abortions that are safe and necessary are good. When a person is able to take control of their own life, that is good.
Jessie and her spouse were thrilled when she got pregnant. It was 2016, and they conceived with the help of a fertility specialist. At 14 weeks, Jessie went in for typical screenings; there was abnormality on the bloodwork and ultrasound. Further testing revealed chromosomal and physical issues. Her abortion happened early in her second trimester. “Woke up in the morning, saw Donald Trump won, and went to go have an abortion for a pregnancy that we desperately wanted,” she said. “It was the worst day of our lives, and at the same time we were so lucky.”
We spoke recently, five years on, and Jessie still couldn’t believe how clueless the people around her had been. When she went back to work, still in shock, she told colleagues about her pregnancy loss but danced around the word “abortion.” And when she finally did decide to tell certain people it was an abortion, the responses validated her original hesitancy. They told her things like, “Well, you had to,” or, “Well, you wanted the baby. It’s not like you were just running around having abortions for birth control.” A friend suggested the word “miscarriage” was available for her to use. Jessie’s reason for having an abortion had been societally coded, and it made Jessie feel like she had done something wrong. “And I know I did not do anything wrong,” she told me.
Policy makers have long used general categories of “good” and “bad” abortions to draft the laws that regulate our bodies. From the beginning they made a “good” abortion easy to pick out: an abortion made necessary because of rape or incest. These exceptions date back to 1959, when the American Law Institute proposed model legislation that would legalize abortion, but only in cases of “rape, incest, severe fetal abnormality, or threats to a [pregnant person’s] health,” according to Abortion and the Law: Roe v. Wade to the Present by Mary Ziegler. At least three states would pass bills based on that legislation by the end of the 1960s. Soon after, abortion was legalized through the Roe decision, which marked its 49th anniversary last weekend. But the standard had already been set: Exceptions for rape or incest or extreme health gave people an easy way to sort of support abortion, a supposedly divisive issue, but only abortion done for what they thought were the correct reasons.
“Right to choose” language continues that tradition. While pro-abortion activists advocated for literal safe zones around abortion clinics, the larger pro-choice movement continued to push for “safe, legal, and rare” abortion, a framework that came into play during the first Clinton presidency. This rhetoric was a classic Third Way deflection: a compromise that supported a left-leaning agenda item, but only in certain circumstances so that it would appeal to right-leaning audiences. It effectively privileged certain abortions—those needed after heinous crimes were committed, for example—over others. Namely, it demanded just not fucking having one unless you absolutely have to!
During the “safe, legal, and rare” phrase’s heyday in the 1990s, people murdered abortion providers and their staff in Alabama, Massachusetts, New York, Florida, Louisiana, and multiple Canadian cities. And many people who wanted abortions, or knew people who wanted abortions, internalized that abortions were not OK, but if you had to have one, there were a few circumstances that made it acceptable. Those internalized notions still sit inside us.
These days, “safe, legal and rare” abortion has been exchanged for its shorter counterpart, “safe and legal.” But even “safe and legal” is not without its flaws. By giving so much credence to legality, we continue to put many pregnant people at risk for ending their pregnancy. And still, the smoke-and-mirrors show of rape and incest exceptions continues to allow anti-abortion politicians to proclaim they weren’t anti-women, they were just against those women. You know those women (there are no queers in these beliefs). The ones who don’t want to be mothers (or mothers yet again). The ones who had unprotected sex, regardless if they did or didn’t know better. The ones who had sex before marriage to a man. The ones who needed that “rare” procedure that one in four women will have in their lifetime.
Maybe you are one of those people who wanted an abortion. I’m here to tell you that making a decision for your own well-being is good. Choosing yourself is okay. And you owe no one an explanation of your reason.
As conservative lawmakers are becoming emboldened to throw away even rape and incest exceptions, even those who support abortion find themselves falling for the policy trap that some people are more deserving of abortion care than others. I’ve read the latest news and really asked myself, What do you mean this new law doesn’t even have rape and incest exceptions? My outrage over the lack of rape and incest exceptions played right into the anti-abortion zealots’ hands. I should have been asking, What does this mean for all people who want abortions?
Ophelia said she couldn’t bring a baby into an environment where her family’s main activities are therapy appointments. She chose her family; how could she be present for all three kids? She knew this was the right decision and agonized each day she had to remain pregnant. Kaia knew her fetus wouldn’t survive outside the womb. She was running out of years to carry a pregnancy to term. Remember, she was almost 42. Now she’s trying again. Layidua couldn’t handle the stress of a pregnancy during an immigration status adjustment that—like her marriage—seemed to be going poorly.
There has been an astounding lack of clarity about the way we talk about abortion. Let us be unflinching. None of these people wanted to be pregnant. So they decided not to be. They were not ashamed. It will always be good for pregnant people who don’t want to be pregnant, whose pregnancy is incompatible with their life, to be able to safely end it. None of them should have had to share their reasons for getting an abortion with me on behalf of reproductive rights journalism.
The first time I really understood that society categorized abortions was when I was 17. Scott Roeder assassinated abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in the foyer of Tiller’s church as he handed out church bulletins. I lived in a conservative area, a real “hate the sin, love the sinner” type of place, where the murder of a doctor wasn’t rattling everyone. But since Tiller was a doctor who performed abortions, even later in pregnancy, it was sad but not really that sad. Those were “bad” abortions.
I couldn’t believe it then. I can believe it now, because I’ve seen how easily people in power fold when it comes to bodily autonomy, and how uninterested politicians are in protecting the right to an abortion. Tiller’s motto was “Trust women.” I trust people who have the capacity for pregnancy, and I will never accept that only certain people deserve access to certain kinds of healthcare. I will never accept that someone’s personal choice about their pregnancy was made for the wrong reason. I’m happy to tell their stories knowing that the abortions they chose were good and needed, but I hope their reasons for getting an abortion will no longer matter to the rest of us.