Planned Parenthood recently released research indicating that the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” do not really resonate with most people. That has left many supporters of abortion rights asking what should we use if not the word “choice”? I welcome this conversation as, too often, the term “choice” has been used as a euphemism for abortion because of the stigma and shame that have built up around the issue.
As we approach the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that recognized the constitutional right to abortion, I urge people who care about this issue not to shy away from the word “abortion” itself. We should resist the urge to hide behind allusions to “women’s health,” “choice,” and “Roe” when we’re really talking about abortion only. While abortion absolutely should be set within a greater context of women’s health, it should not be buried by it.
Following a year in which female legislators were silenced and sanctioned for daring to say the word “vagina” in a debate about onerous abortion restrictions, when politicians attempted to justify denying abortion to rape survivors, and when too many other assaults on abortion rights occurred to list here, it is imperative that we tell our stories and explain why the right to abortion is fundamental to achieving women’s equality and providing families with the opportunity to thrive.
My great-grandmother was a first-generation American and the mother of three small children. When she and her husband were faced with the prospect of another child, she took drastic measures to end that pregnancy—an illegal, self-induced abortion that cost her her life, left her husband a widower, and left her children without a mother.
Her daughter, my grandmother, was a prototypical 50s housewife and a woman of amazing talents. I do not know whether she and my grandfather used contraception, which was banned by many states at the time, but I do know that she chose to limit her family size by having an abortion after she had her two daughters. But because she was more affluent than her mother had been, she was able to obtain an abortion safely, if surreptitiously and illegally, from a licensed physician in a hospital setting.
My aunt and mother both went to college and earned graduate degrees. They have worked outside the home in professional careers that improved people’s lives in the fields of education, social work, and philanthropy. With the help of contraception, and in one instance an illegal and traumatizing but ultimately safe abortion, they had their children when they were ready, willing, and able.
I have been fortunate not to need abortion services thus far in my life. But when I was pregnant with my son I was comforted to know that should I encounter any complications, any decisions would be left to me and my husband and any care I needed would be covered by my health insurance.
However, for far too many women in this country today, their pregnancy options are not much better than those of my great-grandmother. Poor women enrolled in Medicaid, women in the military, federal employees, women in prison and in detention centers, and many more are denied abortion coverage except under the most limited circumstances.
Those who are unable to pay for that care out of pocket must find a way to scrape together the money, must carry to term even when they do not want to, or must try to end the pregnancy any way they can.
It is unacceptable that 40 years after Roe, some women in America face circumstances that are not so different from those my great-grandmother faced a century ago. We should not be ashamed to talk about abortion or apologetic for defending our rights. We should be outraged that we still need to do so.
The women in my family who had abortions were not sinners, criminals, or victims. They were morally competent agents making valid and complex decisions, seeking options that they thought would improve their lives and those of the children they already had or hoped to one day have. The same goes for the one in three women who have abortions today.
Abortion is a difficult and challenging subject but it is a critical piece of the story of women’s advancement and it should not be overlooked or censored. We cannot fight for a right that we cannot name.