BY S.E. SMITH
Is abortion always a tragedy? Over at the Huffington Post, critic Jonathan Kim is joining the growing pushback against negative depictions of abortion in pop culture; Kim was writing about Obvious Child, the new abortion rom-com starring Jenny Slate. Yes, you read that right. It’s not only a film starring a female comic at a time when few stories about women make it into theaters, but as Kim argues, Obvious Child’s pro-choice message makes it one of the most important films of the year.
There will be over two and a half million unplanned pregnancies in America this year, and those women (especially those who are young and frightened) need to know that they have a choice. That choice isn't good vs. bad, tragedy vs. blessing, or guilt vs. celebration, but whether making the lifetime commitment to having a baby at this moment with this father is really what they should be doing at this point in their lives.
And I’m with Kim: It’s about time. Abortion happens, and it’s past-time to talk about it onestly, openly, publicly, and without stigma, even though many seem to find this uncomfortable.
While progressives are eager to defend the freedom to choose, many seem unwilling to fully commit to the freedom to choose in all circumstances; opinion piece after opinion piece reminds us that some abortions are more acceptable than others (third trimester abortions are often cited as something that should be limited, for instance), and stresses the notion that abortion is a horrible, awful decision that rends the hearts of those who opt to make the choice. It should be “safe, legal, and rare,” they tell us—when rare isn’t the point.
The message sent to fellow liberals as well as the public in general is that you’d better have a “perfect” abortion—or not talk about it, because you don’t fit in with the abortion narrative. To be perfect, your abortion must involve an unintended pregnancy through no obvious fault of your own. It’s the result of rape, incest, or a failure of birth control—not “carelessness” or a failure to consider the risks of a decision in the heat of a moment.
See, for example, the vicious attacks on blogger Cat Marnell, who freely admitted to using Plan B as a regular form of birth control. Abortion can also be an acceptable part of the narrative if the fetus shows signs of disability, and not just impairments incompatible with survival but other disabilities which in no way interfere with the ability to live a rich, full life.
And even if your abortion fits within these categories, you still need to be sad about it, or you’ll be thrown off the island.
I had an abortion, over a decade ago. If I was telling you the right abortion story, I could tell you about how it was a tubal pregnancy that could have ended my life, about how I needed emergency care to terminate the pregnancy that was trying to kill me.
And that’s true, but that’s not the whole story: My abortion was awesome. Yes, you heard that right, too. I was in college and having a baby would have been a terrible choice for me. Abortion was absolutely the right decision and my medical team was amazing, but more than that, my feeling about my abortion is one of unmitigated joy. I’m alive, and I don’t have a child.
That’s not how everyone feels about their abortions. Numerous patients experience relief. Others feel more neutral. They did what they needed to do, and now it’s over. Others feel sad about missed opportunities, about the circumstances, about any number of other things. Others are devastated, because sometimes, an abortion is forced upon you, as for example when a pregnancy is threatening your life. Someone in circumstances similar to those I was in, with a tubal pregnancy and the clock ticking, might have been thrown into an emotional tailspin at the thought of being forced to terminate a very much wanted pregnancy.
I speak openly about having had an abortion, and about my feelings on the matter—I think the right to choose is awesome. I think being able to access compassionate, loving, effective medical care is awesome. I think abortion providers are awesome. I’ve encountered a great deal of backlash for talking about abortion in a way that defies the narrative that I’m supposed to stick to as a responsible progressive representative for the right to choose.
In 2012, when I posted a picture of myself at xoJane holding a sign reading “abortion is awesome,” I was reminded that I’m the right’s wet dream, because I’m allegedly emotionally callous about abortion and its aftermath.
I argue the contrary: The more we talk about abortion, the less taboo it becomes, and the more varied experiences we present, the less of a monolith it becomes. When abortion counselor Emily Letts filmed her abortion and posted it online, she sparked a national conversation about normalizing the experience. Her video treated abortion as another medical treatment, and one among many reasonable options for handling a pregnancy.
But I can speak only to my own experience with abortion, which was overwhelmingly positive and affirmative. That doesn’t mean that other experiences are invalid—or didn’t occur. But it does mean that those aren’t the only experiences, and as long as we fill up the narrative with those stories, it makes it harder to be honest about abortion. Obvious Child is a story that threatens social attitudes about abortion, turning it both into one of the few examples of abortion in pop culture, and also a comedy, destabilizing the way people consider abortion.
For some people, abortion is terrible—a grueling and horrific experience. For others, it’s a troubling last resort. Those folks may consider it to be a somewhat difficult decision, but one that’s ultimately correct for them. And then there are those of us who found it liberating, who rejoiced in being able to access reproductive health services in a safe, professional environment. Telling us not to tell our stories suppresses the reality of abortion and makes what should be a private medical procedure into a tragedy.
Individuals can and should have their own responses to abortion, and they should be able to access any resources they need both during the procedure and afterwards, like Exhale, the post-abortion counseling hotline. But the procedure itself needs to become depoliticized, and the only way to do that effectively is to turn it into something that is value-neutral, something that people can approach on their own terms instead of in a charged environment.
People have been practicing abortion for thousands of years, in various forms. And they’ve been experiencing complex emotions over it for just as long. It’s time for the left to face up to that, and to welcome diverse depictions of the abortion experience, rather than stigmatizing some patients and celebrating others. You want to defend the right to choose? That right applies to everyone, not just those who perform an emotional sturm und drang over the decision.
s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California. Ou focuses on social issues, particularly gender, prison reform, disability rights, environmental justice, queerness, class, and the intersections thereof, and has a special interest in rural subjects.
Photo via Obvious Child/Film