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The Abortion Stories We Didn’t Tell

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In 2004, I covered a pro-choice gathering of over a million people in Washington, D.C., called the March for Women’s Lives. I was 28, and most of the speakers and celebrities onstage were much older, many of them veterans of the second-wave feminist movement. I watched with dismay as Whoopi Goldberg waved a coat hanger at the crowd and chided its younger members: “You understand me, young women under 30? This is what we used!”

At the time, I wrote that Goldberg “was scolding a generation for its privilege” and thereby committing movement malpractice by alienating young people, blaming them for not knowing about a world into which they were not born. I still think it was bad form; after all, if people in the crowd didn’t know about pre-Roe abortion practices, half the blame surely lay with the elders who had not told them and who had perhaps evinced less curiosity about what abortion care was like during Roe. But I’ve also thought a lot in the years since that gathering about how everyone should have talked about it more: about pre-Roe abortions, Roe-era abortions — about abortions, period. Now, in a post-Roe world, I feel even greater frustration at the decades wasted, the millions of stories that did not get told, not just onstage in front of big crowds but in families, social circles, and civic and religious contexts.

The smug incuriosity of the mainstream American media has played a role in the absence of abortion stories. So has the caginess of the Democratic Party, which is loath to even say the word abortion and has too frequently pushed the framework of “safe, legal, and rare,” casting abortion as some dolorous outcome rather than a cornerstone of reproductive health care, economic and familial well-being, and, therefore, equality itself. Even the reproductive-rights movement has kept a distance from nuanced, varied stories of abortion, leaving us with a dearth of understanding, an absence of sympathy, a cluelessness about the conditions under Roe and the state of things going forward.

Ironically, it has been young people — like those Goldberg was haranguing in 2004 — who have pushed for a more explicit conversation about what abortion is, how people experience it, and why it is a tool for liberation. But their work has really just begun. They are playing catch-up after decades of silence and curtailed narratives.

I haven’t had an abortion, but when I was pregnant with my second child, the erosion of access across the country led me to seek out stories from my own family. It’s not that these stories were kept from me; my mother, for example, had always been open about having had an abortion. But even as a 39-year-old who had been writing about gender, power, and abortion for more than a decade at that point, I’d never pursued the why or how.

I was startled by the sheer variety of abortion experiences revealed by just a couple of questions: My married grandmother had conceived accidentally and hadn’t had the money for a child during the Depression. Her daughter, my aunt, unable to get the abortion she’d needed as a teen in the early ’60s, had given birth to my cousin. That same aunt had two more children and four subsequent abortions, she told me, because she wasn’t good at using birth control; one was administered with a knitting needle, and another was performed by Robert Spencer, the Pennsylvania doctor who had provided illegal abortion care starting in the 1920s. Another aunt couldn’t afford to continue her accidental pregnancy because she already had two children and........

© Daily Intelligencer

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