A Questionable Pro-Choice Strategy (in 140 Characters or Less)

In February a woman named Angie Jackson made national headlines by live-tweeting her abortion. In doing so, she sparked a firestorm of criticism and raised important questions about what role, if any, such efforts to demystify abortion should play in the fight for reproductive freedom.

The details of the situation that led the twenty-seven-year-old Florida native to decide to take the abortion-inducing drug RU-486 are not so uncommon. After experiencing a medically complicated first pregnancy with her son, who’s now four, she decided not to have any more children. But with the failure of her birth control, she found herself facing another dangerous pregnancy and decided it was safer to have an abortion. It’s a situation that many women have been faced with——in fact, 54 percent of women who’ve had abortions were using a contraceptive method during the month they became pregnant and 60 percent of all abortions are obtained by women who already have children.

However, Jackson made what for other women would have been a very personal (if common) experience into a very public one by deciding to broadcast the details of her abortion across Twitter for anyone who cared to listen. In a YouTube video explaining her decision, Jackson said:

I’m doing this to demystify abortion. I’m doing this so that other women know, “Hey, it’s not nearly as terrifying as I had myself worked up thinking it was.” It’s just not that bad. This is nothing compared to childbirth, compared to labor, or, for me and my risks, late-stage pregnancy.

Which begs the question, do such attempts to remove the fear and the stigma associated with abortion work for or against the pro-choice movement?

Jackson’s demystifying efforts are certainly not the first undertaken in the pro-choice community. In 1972 the first issue of Ms. magazine featured a petition signed by several prominent American women who had terminated a pregnancy—a petition the magazine recently relaunched and which is currently still running. In 2004 the film The Abortion Diaries debuted, documenting a dinner party with twelve women sharing their abortion stories. In 2005 a website titled Project Voice was launched as a forum for women to recount their personal experience with abortion. And these are only few of many such examples (met with varying levels of praise and/or criticism).

But perhaps one of the most well-known (and notorious) attempts to demystify abortion came from Planned Parenthood. In 2004 the group began selling t-shirts that read, “I had an abortion.” The shirts were designed by feminist activist Jennifer Baumgardner (who also directed the aforementioned documentary, The Abortion Diaries), and were intended to challenge the taboo associated with abortion. Although they initially sold hundreds of shirts in the first few days available (singer Ani DiFranco and feminist activist Gloria Steinem were seen wearing them), Planned Parenthood decided not to order more t-shirts after they sold out because of the wave of controversy they sparked—not only in the pro-life community but also among pro-choice supporters and Planned Parenthood’s own affiliate chapters.

The problem with the “I had an abortion” t-shirts was that instead of coming off as a well-intentioned effort to let other women who’d had abortions know they weren’t alone, they were seen as boastful— promotional even. The idea that abortion is no big deal—and is even something to declare proudly—can seem callous and tacky to even the most ardent supporter of reproductive freedom. But to anti-abortion forces who consider abortion to be equivalent to murder, it can be seen as an egregious moral offense. In addition, broadcasting such a message on a t-shirt comes off as so cavalier as to make a mockery of the emotional pain that most women who’ve had abortions go through.

The cause of making abortions safe, legal, and rare, as President Bill Clinton famously put it, is difficult for advocates of reproductive choice to champion when at the same time they are posturing that abortion is “no biggie.” For one thing, it lends credence to anti-abortion activists who use buzz terms such as “abortion on demand” and claim that abortion is being used in lieu of other methods to reduce unintended pregnancies (which to strident foes often means abstinence, but to more moderate forces means birth control). All of which helps to paint a believable picture of abortion rates gone out of control, giving fire to the argument that the government needs to step in: if pro-choice advocates truly are so cavalier about abortion, then what incentive do they have to make reducing it a priority?

But the message that abortion isn’t at all difficult also undermines the fact that how a person feels about abortion—let alone how they would feel about undergoing the procedure themselves—is very personal. And thus it undermines what has been for the pro-choice movement a central argument for keeping the government out of the decision. Not everyone agrees on exactly what is abortion’s moral weight—for some people it comes down to a deeply held religious belief that it’s wrong in any circumstance, for others it’s a principle of individual autonomy and the freedom to make one’s own medical choices, and for many others it’s a grey area. But the pro-choice camp has long held—and rightly so—that whatever your opinion of abortion, it’s a very difficult and personal decision to make, and thus it should be left up to you and your doctor as to whether it’s the right thing for you.

Jackson’s decision to live-tweet her abortion mirrors many aspects of the Planned Parenthood debacle. Using Twitter and YouTube as mediums through which to broadcast her story seems to be nearly as crass as using a t-shirt (although at least with Twitter and YouTube someone would need to be seeking her message out, instead of being barraged with it as a passerby on the street). Watching Jackson’s YouTube video, one could certainly get the impression from her casual tone that she’s proud and even boastful about her choice: “I just want to let everybody know that you too can have an abortion if you want one,” Jackson says. “It’s okay. It’s not shameful; it’s not secret; it’s not killing a child.” Although certainly comforting to some women, I’m not sure such a declaration would be much help in convincing the approximately 45 percent of the population who support restricting access to abortion in most cases (according to a 2009 Pew Research Center survey) that the government should play no role in regulating it. Moreover, Jackson fails to acknowledge— in terms of physical discomfort and trauma—the difference between inducing an abortion in the privacy of one’s home and undergoing a surgical procedure at a health clinic.

Personal stories about abortion can no doubt be helpful to individuals who choose to terminate a pregnancy—especially in letting them know they’re not alone and to answer questions about what to expect. But I’m not so convinced that attempts to demystify abortion help to support the pro-choice movement when considered within the context of public policy. Ultimately, the pro-choice movement should be wary of foisting onto an unconvinced public the idea that abortion should be understood or experienced uniformly by everyone one way or another—and especially avoid asserting or implying that abortion should be legal because it’s no big deal. Such attempts are counterproductive and, ironically, do the same thing pro-choice advocates charge the pro-life movement with doing, which is to promote one version of morality as absolute truth.

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