Our Nation's Closet
Many years ago, I accompanied my friend to a clinic where she, like millions of other women, had an abortion. I remember the unusual silence that enveloped us on the drive to and from the clinic, the piped in waiting room music, and the warmth of our hug before the nurse led her away. While we remain friends, she and I have talked about that experience only once - when she granted me permission to write this missive.
Whether we admit it or not, abortion is commonplace. By age 45, half of American women will have an unintended pregnancy, and one in three will have an abortion. Think of all of the women between the ages of 15 and 45 that you encounter on a daily basis. Think of your friends, relatives, and coworkers. Think of the barista who serves you coffee, or the cashier at your local store. Then imagine that one third of them have had or will have an abortion.
While abortion should be a private and personal issue, it has become a public and polarizing one. Many refer to abortion in the third person, as if it happens to others. Policymakers banter about this issue with dogma and ideology, not from personal experience. To my knowledge, Texas State Senator Wendy Davis and California Congresswoman Jackie Speier are the only elected officials who have publicly shared their story of terminating a pregnancy.
Many women who share their stories are often branded with a modern-day scarlet letter, destined to be cloaked in guilt, sin, judgment and what-ifs. In truth, each person has her set of circumstances to consider, and her own way of coping with the experience. One woman wrote -
"It [abortion] is supposed to make us a bad person. But I must say, I never felt that. I used to sit and try and figure out how old the child would be, trying to make myself feel guilty. But I never could! I think the person who said: 'Honey, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament' was right. Speaking for myself, I knew it was the first time I had taken responsibility for my own life. I wasn't going to let things happen to me. I was going to direct my life, and therefore it felt positive. But still, I didn't tell anyone. Because I knew that out there it wasn't [positive].
Like this writer, millions of women lock their experience deep in the closets of their memory. But as a gay man, I know that locking away such stories can be more damaging to the spirit and psyche as coming out with our stories.
"We, both women and men, who have personally experienced abortion need to tell our stories if we are ever going to build a compassionate society," Gloria Steinem said at a recent lecture I attended. She spoke of the courage of LGBT folks who risked their personal relationships, careers, possible imprisonment, and even their lives to come out and share their stories. "But they came out by the thousands," Ms. Steinem said, "shining the light on sexual orientation and identity for all the world to see."
Ms. Steinem continued by saying that, thanks in large part to these courageous people, sexual orientation is no longer an abstract concept wrapped up in dogma, but something that touches the fabric of our families and our nation. Nowadays, an ordinary American can claim to have a LGBT friend, relative or coworker. In a matter of a generation, LGBT characters are considered ordinary folks on TV shows. Gay-straight alliances are commonplace in schools across the country. And same sex marriage is the of the law of the land.
As I reflected on Ms. Steinem's words, I thought about the women closest to me - my sisters, cousins, nieces, coworkers, and dear friends. I imagined half of them having an unintended pregnancy and considering, if only for a moment, whether having that baby was right for her. If they needed support, were they able to seek it out? Did they, and do they, feel safe enough to call on me for support?
My reflected on my own tangential experience with my friend and the shadow of secrecy that prevented me from sharing my story for decades. I wondered what conditions would need to be in place for women to feel safe enough share their experiences. While I cannot change the conditions of our nation, I can promise to the women I cherish that I will do whatever I can to create the conditions for you to know that I will be your friend, ally, and confidante, no questions asked.
Consider making a similar pledge to your loved ones. You may help millions of women come out with their stories, shine light in our nation's closet, and ensure that women will receive the support, service, and care that they need when facing such a personal and important decision.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. Think about a secret that you are holding. What conditions must exist to share that secret with your loved ones? In public?
2. How would you respond if a loved one confided that she was pregnant and needed your support in considering her options?
3. What recommendations do you have in moving toward consensus in the national debate on reproductive rights?
Some facts on abortion from the Guttmacher Institute -
For more comprehensive data, please refer to this report.