My Reading Life: The Abortion Books, Part 1

During my recent book purge, I found certain books jumping out at me. First, This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor by Susan Wickland, and then, its counterpart: Redeemed by Grace: A Catholic Woman’s Journey to Planned Parenthood and Back by Ramona Trevino.

I need to read these books right now, I thought. If ever I needed to read these books, it’s right now.

Making that decision, I pulled the other books from my shelf that dealt with abortion: Rebel Girls by Elizabeth Keenan; Beyond Pro-Life and Pro-Choice by Kathy Rudy; Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict by Irene Vilar; and Borrowed Light by Anna Fienberg.

I decided to read all of them, along with The Story of Jane by Laura Kaplan and The Turnaway Study: The Cost of Denying Women Access to Abortion by Diana Greene Foster from the library. And to round it all off, the original opinions in Roe v. Wade and Dobbs v. Jackson.

I’m still not sure exactly what my aim is in this self-directed study of abortion literature and law, except perhaps to educate myself as fully as possible on an issue that has become all-too-relevant.

On June 24 of this year, I was on my way to an acupuncture appointment when I heard the confirmation that Roe v. Wade had been overturned. On the way home, the coverage continued, and I cried as I drove, trying to absorb the reality that overnight abortion had become illegal in the state in which I live.

It also did not escape my notice that, had this ruling come twenty years earlier, I would have been on the side rejoicing over it.

I’ve been reflecting on this journey a lot lately. I was raised both Catholic and feminist, two camps with differing philosophies on abortion. I don’t remember hearing the word “feminist” in my childhood, but my mom was very vocal about feminist ideals, such as prioritizing self-actualization over relationships with men; pursuing your own independence (financially, in particular); and discarding the opinions of anyone who told me women couldn’t do this or that thing — even and perhaps especially when that came from the Catholic Church.

But my mom never talked about abortion as a feminist issue, and so I absorbed the Church’s teaching, my heart aching over all the “babies” that would never have the chance to be born.

I carried this conviction with me when I began working for a feminist organization after college, although I observed that it was at odds with the work culture and kept it to myself. At the time, I saw feminism as standing for the rights of those who are oppressed, and I saw a fetus as oppressed and needing to be spoken for. I was not the only feminist to make this connection or to claim both the titles of being feminist and pro-life, but I’ve come to see that those positions are generally at odds for a reason.

There was not a single moment that I remember “turning” from one side of this issue to the other. But I do remember beginning to see the sinister side of the pro-life movement — namely, that many who wanted to make abortion illegal also wanted to control women’s decisions in other ways, such as limiting access to contraception. Wanting to limit abortion and ALSO making sex education and birth control less accessible made no sense to me, and I realized that there is a strong branch of the pro-life movement that doesn’t see a fetus as a baby that needs to be saved, but instead sees a pregnancy as an appropriate “punishment” for a woman who has had sex.

I also began learning more about the dangers women faced when they attempted to secure an illegal abortion. I saw the hypocrisy of those who called themselves “pro-life” murdering abortion providers. I saw the hypocrisy of those who called themselves “pro-life” shrugging off the deaths of women who attempted illegal abortions as a fitting “consequence.” And most of all, I saw how many in the pro-life movement were not willing to support women or mothers who made the very choice the pro-lifers wanted them to make. Unmarried pregnant teachers could be fired at Catholic schools. Those who were politically pro-life all-too-often opposed the programs that would make life easier for mothers. They made snide remarks about “welfare queens” and argued that women who couldn’t adequately provide for their children should stop having babies or, if already pregnant, give those babies up for adoption. Essentially turning underprivileged women into a breeding mill for wealthier families. Forcing a woman to undergo the physical trauma and stigma of an unwanted pregnancy so that in the end someone more “deserving” could take the baby.

This, despite the fact that our foster care system is utterly overrun with just such babies, grown into children and teenagers, in desperate need of the homes that are often just not there for them.

Where is all this “pro-life,” pro-child, fervor for the children that actually need it? The living, breathing, beautiful, difficult, impulsive, exhausting children that already exist?

So for a while, I defined myself as “morally pro-life, politically pro-choice.” Meaning I didn’t think I could terminate a pregnancy, but I didn’t think doing so should be illegal. I later dropped the qualifiers, because for one thing, I don’t really know how I would react to an unplanned pregnancy in certain circumstances. I’ve had the extreme privilege of only ever having to face that possibility within a financially and emotionally stable relationship. And for another thing, how I feel about abortion in my own life is beside the point. If I believe women should be able to make that choice for themselves, I’m pro-choice. Full stop.

When I was younger and desperately wanted this issue to be less complicated than it is, I believed that the “choice” came when a woman “decided” to have sex, reasoning that any act of sexual intercourse could result in pregnancy so a woman was accepting that risk with that choice.

What a judgmental, short-sighted, naive position to take. My defense is that I was sixteen, although even then, I was smart enough to know better. I just didn’t want to see it. The way many people of all ages still don’t want to see the reality of this issue.

Because what I realize now is that, in our current culture, abortion is unfortunately desperately needed as a fail-safe for all the choices women do NOT have.

Women cannot choose whether or not their birth control fails.

Women do not choose to be raped.

Women do not choose to have an ectopic pregnancy or to carry a fetus that has disabilities making it incompatible with life.

Women do not choose health conditions that make pregnancy dangerous.

Women, for the most part, do not choose the legacy of policies and priorities in this country that fails to support almost all choices women make but then wants to forbid them from making this one.

And most importantly of all, a woman’s life also matters. A woman is a full person, not just a potential incubator for future people. And as such, the law needs to get out of the way when she makes this personal choice not just about her body, but about the course of her life.

I am terrified to post this because I know how vitriolic talk around this issue can become. But I am posting it because, although I don’t completely understand my driving need to undertake this “abortion book study,” one thing I knew from the beginning was that it felt fairly useless if I just kept it to myself. Especially now, in my state and in many others, where women’s lives are subject to the whims of other people’s opinions.