I’ve had an abortion.

Over at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ place at the Atlantic, there is a lively discussion surrounding one simple statistic:

35 percent of all women of reproductive age will have had an abortion by the time they’re 45.

Now, one can argue with the efficacy of statistics that are dependent on the use of the future perfect tense (“…at current rates, more than one-third [35%] will have had…”), but it’s not like we’re looking at a possible reversal of the trend. If the folks behind the statistic, the highly regarded Guttmacher Institute, are off, they’re off by a matter of percentage points. So I feel entirely comfortable with the phrase “roughly one-third.”

Entirely comfortable, and entirely unsurprised. Abortion is one of the greatest open secrets in American society. We all know that it happens a lot — we just don’t talk about it. God forbid! We need to feel ashamed, horrified, and deeply guilty! Or, if those of us who have had abortions don’t feel that way, we at least know better than to raise the fact publicly. We know how thoroughly we’re judged before anyone even opens their mouth. (Aside from anything else, we’re admitting that we’ve had sex. Shhhh!)

But if we don’t start talking about it, if the roughly one-third of us who terminate a pregnancy in the course of our reproductive lives don’t get more honest and more bold, the Stupak amendment may well do more to take away our right to this entirely legal surgical procedure than any other anti-Roe move before it. As Jeffrey Toobin explains in the New Yorker (thanks, Ta-Nehisi):

Today, most policies cover abortion; in a post-Stupak world, they probably won’t. With a health-care plan that is supposed to increase access and lower costs, the opposite would be true with respect to abortion. And that, of course, is what legislators like Stupak want—to make abortions harder, and more expensive, to obtain. Stupak and his allies were willing to kill the whole bill to get their way; the liberals in the House were not.

He goes on to say (and I can’t tell you the depth of my gratitude when I hear a man saying it):

…as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg observed not long ago, abortion rights “center on a woman’s autonomy to determine her life’s course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature.” Every diminishment of that right diminishes women.

This matters. It really, really matters — the right to choice matters as much as health care reform, because it is health care.

We have to fight against the Scott Roeders of the world (who, by frightening doctors away from late-term abortion practices, are the very definition of “the terrorists are winning”), and we have to fight against the Bart Stupaks (D-MI [D!! In the course of writing this, I discovered that he’s a Democrat!!]), and we have to fight against the powerful tendency among politicians to behave as if women’s health is somehow negotiable. As if we are an interest group of some sort — and not half the country, a third of whom will need access to an important reproductive health option in the course of their lives.

You can go to Planned Parenthood, read up on Stupak, sign their petition and send them money (and while you’re at it, you might also look into Medical Students for Choice). You can also call or write to your Representative, Senators, and President and tell them how wrong-headed Stupak is, and why. I frankly think that this is the more important of the activism options, because our elected representatives have to understand that freedom of choice matters deeply to the people they serve, and they will hear that better in personal notes and calls than in any petition delivered by anyone.

Write to them. Tell them your story. We do not need to be ashamed. We need to have our rights defended.


In 2006, I ran the first of several pieces that I wrote for daily newspapers about the secrecy surrounding abortion. Each opened with the line “I’ve had an abortion. Have you?” Here’s the one that ran in the Chicago Tribune:

Maybe You Just Don’t Know

By Emily L. Hauser
Chicago Tribune
March 16, 2006

I’ve had an abortion. Have you?

The recent decision to ban virtually all abortions in South Dakota has generated a great deal of raucous arguing; many abortion opponents hope the new legislation will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and lead to the reversal of Roe vs. Wade. As usual, the argument suggests the existence of clear-cut opinion, the “supporting” or “opposing” of the act itself.

What is not discussed, of course, are people’s hearts.

Women readers, of course, know their own answer to my question; many of their men would be surprised by it.

Many men don’t know that their wives, sisters or mothers have, in fact, terminated a pregnancy. They don’t know because the women they love fear their response. Will he see me differently? Will he — figuratively or literally — kill me?

So, as a nation and as individuals, we largely don’t talk about it. And when we do, we’re often not honest. The shadow of perceived opinion is very long. We speak publicly as if there were two clear positions — but in private, most of us know this isn’t the truth.

My abortion is a thing of which I’m neither ashamed nor proud. I wish that I hadn’t had to do it, but I did.

The average reader will want to know why — because most of us have a sliding scale of morality.

Even some staunch opponents will agree in cases of rape; others where there is genetic defect; a larger number, if the abortion takes place early in the first trimester; many, of course, think it’s always a woman’s choice.

I believe there is a vast middle ground made up of most Americans, those who feel abortion is neither irredeemably evil, nor free of moral implication. Witness polls conducted recently by the Pew Research Center: 65 percent of respondents don’t want to see Roe vs. Wade overturned; 59 percent feel it would be better if fewer abortions were performed in this country.

At least some of our ambivalence may be cultural. Japanese society maintains a standard ritual, mizuko kuyo, to memorialize aborted or miscarried fetuses and stillborn babies. In a paper discussing the rite, Dr. Dennis Klass, a Webster University psychology of religion professor and a grief expert, writes: “The abortion experience is seen as a necessary sorrow tinged with grief, regret and fear which forces parents to apologize to the fetus and, thus, connect the fetus to the family.”

This describes my own experience well — but I’m an American. I carry a different culture, and I fear that in apologizing, I accept some notion of personhood that somehow “makes” the entire thing — murder. So, I hesitate.

I ask myself: When I aborted my first pregnancy, did I kill a baby? I honestly don’t think so. But did I stop the potential for life? Absolutely. Insofar as life itself is simultaneously the most mundane and most divine fact on our planet, this means something.

But I’m willing to say that I don’t know what that something is. I can only function in the cold reality of my own world — and as such, I alone can judge whether my abortion was a moral choice. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t happy, but it was the least-bad of two bad choices. It was moral.

I don’t know anyone for whom abortion is easy; I don’t know anyone (any woman, at least) who sees abortion as birth control. These choices are stunningly complex. When we deny that, when we talk as if we are all 100 percent clear on this issue, we deny our humanity. And we deny our grief.

And why, in the end, did I have my abortion? I’m not going to record that here. You and I don’t know each other, and my reasons are personal. I don’t need to defend them, and neither does your neighbor, the stranger at work — nor, perhaps, your girlfriend.

Emily L. Hauser is a freelance writer living in Oak Park.

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  1. Persia

     /  November 17, 2009

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  2. Sorn

     /  November 17, 2009

    Thanks for this.

    Dropping by to say hi and all that. Hi.

  3. More people need to put it this way, for people to understand.

  4. Max

     /  November 17, 2009

    Thank you for this moving piece. Too often, the media, the lawmakers, the church and even the activists are allowed to define this issue, and that process very often portrays a false portrait of women who have had to make this very tough choice. Abortion is legal, yet those of us who have had them are subject to the usual assumptions of our character. I’ve had an abortion. I used to have a drug problem. They are not related to each other and happened at different periods in my life. Guess which one draws sympathy from others and which one is met with scorn.

  5. slag

     /  November 17, 2009

    Nice post! I understand the need to talk about this issue in personal terms, but another part of me rejects the notion that we need to get into a woman’s personal business. The point that Ruth Bader Ginsburg made pretty much sums up the issue nicely. This is a moral question. And that moral question is whether women should “enjoy equal citizenship stature.” My stance is definitely yes, so any legislation that jeopardizes that equality is immoral. However, from my individual perspective: If a woman chooses to carry her pregnancy to term, then more power to her. If she chooses to not carry her pregnancy to term, then more power to her. Either way, more power to her. Because these personal issues are complicated enough even with that power. Let alone without it.

  6. Oh, Emily, I was so, so glad to see you in there fighting on TNC’s blog today (and so, so glad I was teaching during the afternoon), because had I waded in my head might have exploded. I’ve written repeatedly on this issue on my blog, and thought, g*d*mmit, do I have to do this all over again?!

    So, thank you.

    As I was reading your post, I flashed back to those who were ‘surprised’ by the 1/3 number: men, and/or those women who apparently held a pro-life view. Men, presumably because they don’t think about the experiences of the women they know (unless they were somehow involved in the situation), and pro-life women because, well, the women they know who’ve had abortions are unlikely to tell their pro-life friends & family members about them.

    I’ve never had an abortion, so I’m not really in a position to tell women who have had one to talk more about it—but I do wish more would.

    So, again, thanks.

  7. Thanks for reminding us just how personal abortion really is. The fact that an old, withered prune of a man like Bart Stupak could have so much impact on the lives of women is staggering and shameful.

  8. Paul in KY

     /  November 18, 2009

    Great post, Emily. Keep up the great work. Also.

  9. Lynzie

     /  November 10, 2010

    “I don’t know anyone for whom abortion is easy; I don’t know anyone (any woman, at least) who sees abortion as birth control.”

    Of course abortion isn’t easy, but how is it not birth control? It controls birth, does it not? I feel like getting rid of that specific stigma would make a huge difference.

    • Its not birth control which we chose to use – its the last resort birth control. We don’t have unprotected sex and think oh it doesn’t matter we can go through the physical and emotional turmoil of an abortion. No body would choose this

  10. Brian

     /  June 15, 2011

    Thank you.

  11. Perhaps another way to look at it is from these three categories: black, white, grey.
    We all most likely agree that what falls in the “white” which surrounds medical reasons i.e. the woman might die if she gives birth, the woman’s life is in danger because some traditionalists are shamed by the fornication of a family member etc.
    Others in the “black” mainly revolve around the timing of the child. e.g. most people obviously disagree with abortion in the extremely late stages of pregnancy without medical reasons.
    There are many issues in the “grey” that people are mostly indifferent about or do not have enough expertise in the issues of “morality” to claim it right or wrong: genetic defects from bodily abuse, supporting a child in poverty, a result of rape etc.

    We cannot attest to saying that “nothing” should be put it in the “black” category because that would be blindly supporting the notion without even considering that some cases may go beyond the moral high ground.
    People should be just as open (as you seem to be) that if cases of abortion can be justified, there are others that cannot.

    The biggest topics revolve around defining the placement of the “mistake” complex in these categories.
    I think this particular issue is more deep seeded. In this case society in general shouldn’t be trying to decide how to deal with abortion, but rather how to prevent the pregnancy from occurring in the first place.
    The same can be said about the rise of deaths resulting from drink driving, and the campaigns associated with drinking responsibly and dedicated drivers who need to stay sober.

    With the “mistake” complex, campaigns surrounding contraception should be improved, as well as the general decency in society with regards to promiscuity instead of selling sex as bi-products in movies, billboards and ad campaigns. People need to start remembering that a family unit is what keeps society thriving rather than self-absorbed animal instincts that do nothing but destroy this unity. Mistakes can be minimised with positive approaches to encouraging alternate options to one’s lifestyle.

    I do agree thought, mistakes are mistakes, and one should never judge a person until all their own sins are removed. No one is perfect; everyone is forgiven.