Many years ago, I accompanied my friend to a clinic where she, like millions of other women in this country, had an abortion. Despite the fact that she had a loving family and many friends, she sought only my support. I remember every detail of that experience — from the unusual silence that enveloped me and my friend on the drive to and from the clinic, to the music that was piped into the waiting room, the smell of her jasmine-scented lotion, and most especially the warmth of our hug before the nurse led her away. While we remain friends, she and I have only talked about that experience once — when she granted me permission to write this missive.
Whether we want to admit it or not, abortion is commonplace in this country. By age 45, nearly one in four women in the US will have an abortion. Think of all of the women between the ages of 15 and 45 that you encounter on a daily basis. Think of your friends, relatives, neighbors, and coworkers. Think of the barista who serves you coffee, or the cashier at your local store. Then imagine that one fourth of them have had, or will have, an abortion.
While abortion is an inherently private and personal issue, it has become very public and polarizing. Many refer to abortion in the third person, as if it happens to others but never to them. Our predominantly male policymakers who banter about this issue refer to ethics and dogma, not from any personal experience. Of the 536 members of Congress, only 5 have publicly shared their abortion stories.
Many women who are courageous enough to share their stories are often branded with a modern-day scarlet letter, destined to be cloaked in guilt, sin, judgment and what-ifs. In truth, each person has her set of circumstances to consider, and her own way of coping with the experience. One woman wrote -
“It [abortion] is supposed to make us a bad person. But I must say, I never felt that. I used to sit and try and figure out how old the child would be, trying to make myself feel guilty. But I never could! I think the person who said: ‘Honey, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament’ was right. Speaking for myself, I knew it was the first time I had taken responsibility for my own life. I wasn’t going to let things happen to me. I was going to direct my life, and therefore it felt positive. But still, I didn’t tell anyone. Because I knew that out there it wasn’t [positive].”
Like this writer, millions of women lock this experience deep in the closets of their memory. But as a gay man, I know that locking away such stories can be more damaging to our spirit and psyche than coming out with our stories.
“We, both women and men, who have personally experienced abortion need to tell our stories if we are ever going to build a compassionate society,” Gloria Steinem said at a recent lecture I attended. She spoke of the courage of LGBTQ folks who risked their personal relationships, careers, possible imprisonment, and even their lives to come out and share their stories. “But they came out by the thousands,” Ms. Steinem said, “shining the light on sexual orientation and identity for all the world to see.”
Ms. Steinem continued by saying that, thanks in large part to these courageous people, sexual orientation is no longer an abstract concept wrapped up in dogma, but something that touches the very fabric of our families and our nation. Nowadays, an ordinary American can claim to have a LGBTQ friend, relative or coworker. In a matter of a generation, LGBTQ characters are considered ordinary folks on tv shows. Gay-straight alliances are commonplace in schools across the country. And same sex marriage is the law of the land. We cannot underestimate to power of our stories to change attitudes, behaviors, and policies.
As I reflected on Ms. Steinem’s words, I thought about the women who are closest to me — my sisters, cousins, nieces, coworkers, and dear friends. I imagined half of them having an unintended pregnancy and considering, if only for a moment, whether having that baby was right for her. If they needed support, were they able to seek it out? Did they, and do they, feel safe enough to call on me for support?
I reflected on my own tangential experience with my friend, and the looming shadow of secrecy and shame that prevented me from writing about it for decades. I wondered what conditions would need to be in place for women, and men, to feel safe enough share their stories. While I cannot do much to change the conditions of our nation, I can make a promise to the women I cherish that I will be your friend, ally, and confidante should you ever need me.
Perhaps if you can make similar pledges to your loved ones, women and men will have the confidence to come out by the millions with their stories, shine some light in our nation’s closet, and ensure that women will receive the support, services, and care that they need in considering this very personal and important decision.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. Think about a secret that you are holding. What conditions must exist to share that secret with your loved ones? In public?
2. How would you respond if a loved one confided that she was pregnant and needed your support in considering her options?
3. What recommendations do you have in moving toward consensus in the national debate on reproductive rights?