Stop Expecting Women to Regret Their Abortions

Jennifer Wright
Photo credit: Erin Lux

From Harper's BAZAAR

Most women who have abortions don’t regret them. And that’s not just anecdotal. A 2015 study that examined hundreds of women who received abortions found that 95 percent reported feeling they’d made the right decision. Seemingly, there is nothing more enraging to anti-choicers than that—except maybe those who talk about it.

At this year’s Golden Globe Awards, Michelle Williams won Best Performance by an Actress in a Miniseries or Motion Picture for TV for her role in Fosse/Verdon. During her acceptance speech, she said, “I’m grateful for the acknowledgment of the choices I’ve made, and I’m also grateful to have lived at a moment in our society where choice exists. Because as women and as girls, things can happen to our bodies that are not our choice. I’ve tried my very best to live a life of my own making. ... I wouldn’t have been able to do this without employing a woman’s right to choose.”

Williams never uses the word abortion. And her speech could apply to a number of topics—birth control, sexual harassment, and even rape. But her implication seemed pointed, and it was both surprising and refreshing to hear a woman speak so positively about an experience that is so often assumed to be negative, if not ruinous.

Nevertheless, a controversy about whether the actress was “glorifying abortion” followed, dragging with it some of the most hilariously awful cartoons you will ever see. Like this one, in which a woman holding an infant is so maternal she appears to have developed nipples for knees. As well as the birth of the “Was it worth it, Mama?” meme.

It’s worth pointing out that Williams is indeed a mother; she had her 14-year-old daughter, Matilda, with late partner Heath Ledger. She is also reportedly expecting her second child with fiancé Thomas Kail. In fact, the majority (59 percent) of women who have abortions already have at least one child.

If Williams did have an abortion, that hardly seems newsworthy. What’s to be celebrated about her speech is that it shows that she doesn’t feel shame. And if there is one thing anti-choice people want you to think every women who has an abortion feels, it’s shame.

Teen Vogue recently published 39 stories of women’s abortions. I recommend reading all of them. They range from a teenager who said, “Having an abortion was the most responsible thing I did for myself and my future, and I will never regret it,” to a woman who made the difficult decision to abort after learning the fetus could not survive outside the womb.

There is no shame in sight.

Abortion may not be overly stigmatized in the United States, but it remains one of the most divisive social, medical, and religious issues in the country. Many other high-profile women who consider themselves lucky enough to live here have spoken out in similar ways. The Good Place actress Jameela Jamil shared on Twitter last year that she had an abortion seven years ago. She later tweeted, “Receiving THOUSANDS of messages about how I made a mistake having an abortion 7 years ago and how I must be a miserable person... I am in fact a happy, thriving multi millionaire, madly in love, with free time, good sleep and a wonderful career and life. But thanks for checking.”

Her very happiness in life—and her contentment with her choice—are deeply intolerable to anti-choicers. One of the main drumbeats of their opposition is that women lead miserable lives full of regret following their decisions to have abortions. After Williams’s speech, one writer at The Stream—“a rich and lively source for breaking news, Christian inspiration, and conservative commentary”—offered riveting fan fiction with an article titled “What Ricky Gervais Should Have Said to Michelle Williams.” In addition to doing absolutely no research on Gervais’s prior abortion comments, the writer bemoaned the “women in poverty who chose abortions out of fear, who still live with regret and shame over their mortal choices.” Our Sunday Visitor, a Roman Catholic publisher, responded to Williams’s speech, claiming, “As people who have suffered abortions, regretted them and found healing know, women’s ‘self-interest’ does not have any room for abortion.” (They recommended sacrificing oneself to God instead.)

Over at anti-choice Pregnancy Help News, a woman claimed, “I’ve never met a single woman who did not regret her abortion—and I’ve met hundreds and hundreds of these mothers over the years. ... To my friends—and they are MANY—who did not choose life ... God never wastes a hurt. Turn to Him for healing.”

And yet, non-anecdotal evidence suggests most of the people who have had abortions are doing just fine and not in desperate need of turning anywhere for healing. One of the largest studies to date on the topic, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, found that most women described the emotion they experienced post-abortion as relief, not regret.

Still, regretful rhetoric endures. Actress Alyssa Milano shared her story about abortion on her podcast, Sorry Not Sorry. Predictably, it led to comments on social media like, “Common theme with most women so vehemently in favor of abortion: they had one and regret it but continue to try to convince themselves and everyone around them that they HAD to do it. You can admit that you regret it. I would have so much more respect for you if you did.” Anti-choicers may believe that women ought to feel regret after abortions. It’s their right to feel that way, but their feeling does not make it so.

No matter how viciously or consistently commenters continue to gaslight women about their emotional states, for the most part, the people who experience psychological distress aren’t women who have had abortions; they’re women who are denied abortions. A 2017 study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that “eight days after seeking an abortion, women who were denied an abortion reported significantly more anxiety symptoms and lower self-esteem and life satisfaction” than women who received an abortion. Meaning, denying women abortions “may be initially associated with psychological harm.”

For those women, incubating an unwanted stranger inside them for nine months is not a blessing; it is a brutal curse. Those who think it is perfectly fair for the government to force a woman to house an unwanted fetus for nine months would be outraged if the same government demanded they host a fully living human in their home for any amount of time.

Still, the myth that women who have abortions universally regret them persists. In her book The Witches Are Coming, co-creator of the Shout Your Abortion movement Lindy West noted that “the US network that aired Degrassi refused to run [an episode in which a main character, Manny, has an abortion]—not, as I understand it, because Manny had an abortion but because she had an abortion and didn’t regret it. That was in 2004.”

It’s important to address this not just so that women who might need an abortion realize that they won’t be doomed to lives of unhappiness after exercising their constitutionally protected right (although, to each of those women: Buddy, I promise, you are not doomed. Please make the choice that fits with what you need for your future); rather, it’s important because this faulty rhetoric shapes legal restrictions regarding people’s right to access an abortion.

In the United States Supreme Court case Gonzales v. Carhart, which upheld the restriction on women’s rights to certain abortion procedures, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “It seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained.” Some do. But research shows that a vast majority don’t.

That argument is almost sure to come into play again very soon. More than 200 lawmakers, the majority of them being Republican men, just filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to consider overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that has attempted to ensure women safe access to abortion. With the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, there is a real possibility it could happen.

Women’s rights are never settled. They will always be up for grabs. And though the opposition is never silent, it’s understandable that a lot of women prefer to stay muted about abortion. Especially when it’s clear that even those who lead the most enviable lives aren’t immune to public shaming when they mention their truths. No amount of shaming, however, will change the fact that nearly one in four women will have an abortion by age 45.

As West wrote in her book, “Silence is a vacuum the abortion opponents can fill with whatever they want.” When women speak up about their abortions, it’s not because they’re bragging or encouraging others to go out and get one. (No one wants to undergo a somewhat painful and expensive medical procedure.) They’re offering testimony about their lived experience and how they felt about it. Doing so isn’t gratuitous. It provides an incredibly vital counter narrative to the prevailing notion that to have an abortion is to live a life of regret afterward.

When that one out of the four women who has actually had an abortion stays silent, that silence is filled with myths from anti-choicers. As long as one side is silent, opposing voices can ring out loudly with their own worldviews. And that is a path that might very well fill women’s lives with regret.

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