The anti-abortion movement has had many triumphs; one of the most unfortunate ones is that they have driven the millions of women who have had abortions back into the closet. Women who have had abortions have not always been so silent; during the second wave of the women’s movement, many women spoke out, for the first time, about their abortions. For example, when Ms. magazine made its debut in 1972, one of its most talked about features was a statement entitled “We Have Had Abortions,” which was signed by a number of prominent women, including Gloria Steinem, Nora Ephron, Lillian Hellman, and Billie Jean King.
Sadly, in today’s political climate, a similarly brave and powerful gesture would be most unlikely. Can you imagine a promising young starlet or up-and-coming female tennis star going public about their abortions? Exceedingly few women would be courageous enough to put their careers at risk, let alone themselves up to the cauldron of private threats and public hatred that would inevitably result.
And yet . . . in the U.S., abortion is the single most common surgical procedure for women. By the age of 45, more than one-third of American women will have had an abortion. Almost half of pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended, and about 40% of those unplanned pregnancies are ended by abortion.
Clearly, millions of women are having abortions. And yet, we almost never hear from them. The enormous disconnect between how extraordinarily widespread the practice of abortion is, and women’s overwhelming public silence about it, is shocking. When abortion is discussed publicly, it is almost always treated as an abstract, philosophical or religious issue, and the discussants are usually older white men (the recent vice presidential debate was a fairly classic example of this).
And yet, the more abortion is treated as a an abstract issue about “when life begins,” the further it is removed from the physical realities of women’s lives. An individual woman’s right to make the most basic, urgent decisions about what goes on in her body and her life are intellectualized away.
All of which is to say that it is vitally important that we women take charge of the terms of the abortion debate by making it about our bodies, our lives, our dreams, and our freedom to plan our families and control our reproductive destinies in any way we see fit. Breaking the long. shame-filled silence and speaking honestly about our own experiences with abortion is one of the most powerful weapons we can use to re-center the abortion debate back where it belongs: in the everyday lives and realities of individual women.
If we are to have any hope of reversing the creeping anti-choice tide, speaking about our own abortions is crucial. That’s why I think it’s so important that everyone list to this Ted talk by Aussie feminist Leslie Cannold, about breaking the shame cycle that leads to the public silencing about women about our abortions. As Cannold points out, shame silences us, then isolates us, thus severing all possibility of connection and solidarity, and by extension, political power. We must break that cycle. Cannold’s talk is a start.