Right to Choose

Wendy Davis and the 'Good Abortion' Myth

In her memoir, the Texas politico reveals she had two abortions for medical reasons. A brave thing to talk about—and one that also fits into a problematic ‘good v. bad’ abortion narrative.

09.10.14 9:45 AM ET

It's unsurprising that a politician with the sheer mental prowess and physical strength—let alone the cajones—to launch a 13-hour filibuster would be brave enough to do one of the most controversial things a woman can still do: talk about her abortion. 

In her memoir, Forgetting to be Afraid, Texas State Senator and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis reveals that she had two abortions—one of them to terminate an ectopic pregnancy—a life-threatening condition in which the fertilized egg lodges in the fallopian tube. The egg cannot grow to term, and the condition often leads to fatal blood loss for the mother—yet, as Davis writes, it's "technically considered an abortion" in Texas.

To be nationally ridiculed as “Abortion Barbie” and then to reveal in the middle of a tightly-contested election that you've had an abortion is nothing short of a big effing deal. That is especially true when that election is in Texas, a state that hasn't had a Democrat in the governor's mansion in nearly 20 years. (Not to mention that both of the state's current senators are Republican and 25 of the 36 districts have Republican representatives.) Oh, and Texas is also home to the movement to boycott Girl Scout cookies for allegedly promoting pro-abortion agendas and individuals (like Davis).

Davis was incredibly brave to share her personal story about abortion. There are no two ways about it. But her abortion narrative—the language, the justification, the post-procedure emotions—is one that is already relatively acceptable to many Americans, even ones who are on the fence about abortion. A poll sponsored by none other than the National Right to Life Committee showed that all but 11 percent of Americans thought abortions were permissible when it came to cases where the mother's life was at stake.

Both of Davis' abortions dealt with severe medical factors. In the ectopic pregnancy, the fetus wasn't going to survive and Davis’s life was clearly at risk if the pregnancy proceeded (in fact, terminating an ectopic pregnancy isn't considered an abortion in most medical circles). In recalling her other abortion, Davis describes being told her daughter would likely live in a “permanent vegetative state,” if she even managed to survive the pregnancy. Davis received “second and third and fourth opinions” and went through “tortured decision making.” It wasn't until she could feel her fetus' “little body tremble violently,” that she decided to have an abortion “to spare...the further pain and suffering that would surely follow if we decided otherwise.”

Davis then describes the all-consuming grief and loss she felt after her second abortion. Davis writes that she felt “an indescribable blackness.... a heavy wave that crushed me, that made me wonder if I would ever surface.” She recalls it as “time of great sorrow for our family,” and describes how she saves mementos of the daughter she lost in a wooden memory box, a box that she looks at every anniversary of her abortion. “It was important to all of us to memorialize her, to recognize that she was,” writes Davis. “That she was loved, is still loved, and will always be loved by us.”

Davis makes it abundantly clear she wanted to carry this baby to term. It is deeply moving, so much so that you have to be pretty heartless not to be touched by this wrenching account. Even staunch pro-lifers may find something sympathetic in Davis' abortion account because she shows that she thinks of her baby not merely as a fetus but as a child to be remembered and loved forever. Davis goes out of her way to stress how incredibly difficult it was her to choose to abort a pregnancy for a child she desperately wanted. It is framed, rightly so, as a painful act done in the service of being as humane and respectful as possible.

When female politicians like Davis describe their abortions, they generally fit this narrative: a tortured, loving mother acting out of almost pure medical necessity. After Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) revealed on the House floor that she’d had an abortion, she made it abundantly clear that it was due to the fact the fetus “could not survive.” Her candor was a purposeful rebuke to Republican accusations that abortion is “a procedure that is either welcomed or done cavalierly, or done without any thought,” she said. Her speech was powerful—and it also conveyed the attitude that abortion wasn't a real choice for her. In fact, following her speech, Speier released a press statement to dispel any accusations that she wanted to have an abortion: “Today some news reports are implying that I wanted my pregnancy to end, but that is simply not true. I lost my baby.”

It is this kind of abortion narrative that is easiest for people to digest, and there are many cases like this. They are as emotionally-wrought and heartbreaking as Davis describes. But there are also many reasons for having abortions that generate far more judgment and stigma.

In her 2011 book, How to be a Woman, author Caitlin Moran writes about “good” abortions vs. “bad” abortions. “Good”abortions are the ones for a “raped teenager” or “a mother whose life is endangered,” and “these women get away with barely any stigmatization.” Then, there are “bad” abortions, the “worst” being “repeated abortions, late-term abortions, abortions after IVF, and—worst of all—mothers who have abortions.” Moran fell into the later category when she decided to have an abortion after already having two daughters, and she didn't hesitate to emphasize how clear and simple the choice was for her:

I'm not being flippant when I say it took me longer to decide what countertops to have in the kitchen then whether I was prepared to spend the rest of my life being responsible for a further human being, because I knew that do it again—to commit my life to another person —might very possibly stretch my abilities, and conception of who I am, and who I want to be, and what I need and need to do —to a breaking point.

Moran is also honest about a momentary “panic attack” as she walks in for her abortion, but knows “This is just fear. Tell it to stop.” Moran goes into the rare account of vivid physical details about the procedure (she describes it “like breaking the yolk of an egg with a chopstick”). These details about the actual abortion are completely absent from Davis' narrative and the other more sympathetic abortion stories. Moran admits the procedure is physically painful, but her bigger concern is “waiting for my prescribed grief and guilt to come” afterward. “It never arrives,” she writes, and she hopes that more women realize abortions “can be an action with only good consequences.”

Moran's tale is one of a growing number of real-life and fictional accounts of women who never question their decision to have an abortion and feel no guilt, remorse, or loss after having one. In the recent film Obvious Child, the protagonist schedules her abortion without wavering for a second. She neither feels guilty about the procedure, nor for the drunken unprotected sex that caused the pregnancy. This summer, when she was running for Lieutenant Governor of Nevada, State Rep. Lucy Flores described having an abortion at age 16 because she simply wasn’t ready to be a mother. (In Flores’s case, her age, poverty and many siblings may have added a level of general “acceptability” to her abortion narrative.) And fiilmmaker Emily Letts not only documented her abortion, she actively chose to receive only local anesthesia, as opposed to being completely sedated, because she said that is the option women fear most.  She wanted to use her abortion to combat the anxiety and stigma surrounding the procedure. “I could have taken the pill, but I wanted to do the one that women were most afraid of,” she told Cosmo. “I wanted to show it wasn't scary—and that there is such a thing as a positive abortion story.”

Nearly 30 percent of American women will have an abortion by age 45. And for many of them, medical reasons will have nothing to do with their decision. For a woman to reveal she has had an abortion because she wanted one, because she couldn't emotionally sacrifice for another child, because she was remiss in her use of contraception, and, further, to declare she has only felt happiness towards her decision is truly groundbreaking. Davis' abortion narrative has helped diminish the social stigma surrounding abortion. But until the “bad” abortion stories are just as acceptable, pro-choice advocates have a long way to go.