Over time, the abortion rights movement has taken different approaches to marketing its position. The position has been consistent: women are entitled to terminate a pregnancy, period. But the slogan was once “safe, legal, and rare.” The current thinking encourages women and girls to talk about their experiences having an abortion so that others can hear that they are not alone. One girl of 16 spoke of having had to persuade a judge that she was mature enough to terminate her pregnancy without her parents’ consent. She said that she wanted to tell the judge that she was not a baby making machine. How should we interpret the switch from “safe, legal, and rare” to encouraging women to “come out” about their experience?
The Meaning of Pride
I will use the word “pride” here to describe the “coming out” approach to abortion. Though the notion of “abortion pride” might sound dissonant and even blasphemous, I mean it in a way that ought to be familiar.
When LGBTQIA+ people celebrate gay pride in their parade, they are not literally expressing pride in the fact that their attractions or identities are something other than cis hetero. What they are doing is countering the crippling shame that our society long heaped upon anyone who departed from norms of sexual orientation and gender identity. That shame, which religion and psychiatry united to impose, led to tragic results, including suicide by and murder of nonconforming individuals.
Some argued, when the concept of gay pride first made an appearance, that neither shame nor pride is an appropriate emotion when it comes to sexual orientation. None of us controls our sexual orientation, so how can we take pride in it? One answer to this question is that pride is equal and opposite to shame and that when we have spent centuries shaming people for who they are, only a sense of pride in who they are can undo the damage.
The same could be said for abortion. Women have experienced shame regarding abortion for at least as long as sexual orientation has been a source of disgrace and humiliation. (I speak of “women” seeking abortions because prohibitions and stigmas have tended to target women, though I recognize that trans men can also suffer the effects of anti-abortion fervor). I suspect the reason has generally had little to do with the “killing” (given how recently various religious people have decided that a one-celled human organism is a moral person) and much to do with what pregnancy symbolized, the fact that the woman in question had had intercourse.
While secret liaisons might be happening, there was nothing like an unwanted pregnancy to broadcast for the world that here was a person who was sexually active. Indeed, as I and others have suggested, pregnancy struck many as the karmic punishment for out-of-wedlock sex. And some of the questions that judges have posed for minors seeking an abortion have effectively come down to investigating whether the girl had an excuse and was sufficiently penitent for her behavior. In a sense, seeking an abortion accordingly seemed to manifest a desire to avoid one’s rightful punishment for engaging in prohibited sexual relations.
A similar dynamic accompanied the AIDS epidemic when it first started appearing in the 1980s. It was initially named “GRID” for Gay Related Immunodeficiency, and our government took very little interest in finding out how to cure it or even prevent it. Many people seemed to regard AIDS patients as disposable and unworthy. The government took its time about investing in finding a vaccine or a cure.
Having AIDS was like a big banner that said “this man has probably had sex with other men.” Religious people did (and still do) see the illness as a punishment from God for homosexuality. It is curious that God wasn’t powerful or smart enough to keep hemophiliacs receiving blood transfusions or infants born to AIDS patients from contracting the disease. But who said God was omnipotent and omniscient anyway?
AIDS inflicted a badge of shame from which it has taken time to recover. But pride is not just a reversal of shame. It is also the sense that one’s life experiences are worthy of social discussion. When I married my husband, I told all of my friends in advance and celebrated with a big party called a wedding. People gave us advice, and we went looking for wedding-related things as vendors congratulated us. What we felt was more than the absence of shame. We felt pride, pride in being part of the community of families. The pride was not of the sort that one feels in achieving something, but it was pride nonetheless. Being able to chat unselfconsciously with people—strangers and friends alike—was something I could take for granted. The gay pride movement was about extending that unselfconscious openness to LGBTQIA+ folks.
What strongly unites the ideas of gay pride and abortion pride are the reality that the groups that both represent have faced society’s sex-related shaming practices. Gay people once had to hide their true sexual orientation or risk arrest, psychiatric diagnosis, or worse. Women trying to end their pregnancies face a stigma that very much comes from their attempts to escape the “natural” punishment for illicit sexual contact.
Beyond the shame that pride helps to overcome, it is also true that our sexual relationships and our decisions about having or choosing not to have children are the sorts of things we all feel a desire to talk about. We want to tell our friends and family about the person we are dating, no matter what that person’s gender identity or sexual orientation (or our own) might be. To announce, “this is my partner” and have people look at the floor or change the subject is devastating.
On abortion, people who have been through the experience want to be able to say so and to describe what it was like—painful, scary, easy, a relief, or whatever—without attracting judgment, without having to wear the scarlet “A.” As social creatures, most of us need to share our experiences, both positive and negative, with others who will empathize, laugh with us, cry with us, and understand.
If people who have had an abortion keep their mouths shut and speak of it only on a “need to know” basis, they will continue to feel alone, stigmatized, unheard, and misunderstood. They will inevitably find themselves an audience to ignorant people issuing moral nonsense on the subject and wonder whether anyone they know has also been through this experience.
Support groups, for LGBTQIA+ and for people who have had an abortion, can offer some solace. But abortion pride, like gay pride, can reduce the need for specially designated support groups. Learning just how crowded our world is with people just like you is liberating. Being “out and proud” means knowing that whoever you are is okay and makes you just like so many others. Though “safe, legal, and rare” may make sense as an aspiration, its message is an unwelcome one, well left in the trash bin of slogans. Abortion is here, don’t fear, get used to it.