A couple years back, conservative columnist George Will wrote a column that caught him some well-deserved flack. In it, he argued that being a rape victim was a “coveted status” on college campuses, one that “confers privileges.” At the time, I thought it was the stupidest thing I’d ever read, and I wrote as much. In what crazy world would a person want to have endured sexual abuse? How utterly warped would a person have to be to view trauma as aspirational?
Guess I have my answer.
On her podcast “Women of the Hour” last week, Lena Dunham informed her audience that while she’s never had an abortion personally, she wishes she had so she could do her part to reduce stigma around the issue. The story goes that when she was asked to share her abortion story, she didn’t have an abortion story to share, which she found, somehow, stigmatizing to women who had them. “Now I can say that I still haven’t had an abortion, but I wish I had,” she said, for some reason.
I understand Dunham’s point that normalizing abortion is important for women who believe access to the procedure is important. I could not disagree more that the person who needs to do the normalizing is Lena Dunham.
Conservative outlets love to bash Dunham at every opportunity. In many cases, their dogpiling is unwarranted. In this case, it’s not. Treating abortion like a leisurely activity that Lena Dunham can personally help normalize represents a cartoonish version of clueless urban liberalism we’d be well-served to rid ourselves of. Dunham’s comments are free red meat for the sort of troll who believes pro-choice feminists spend their days praying to their lord and savior Margaret Sanger that they’ll get accidentally impregnated so they can have one of those abortions the gals at the nail salon can’t stop gabbing about. It’s not compassionate; it’s bizarre, a more obnoxious version of telling a person who has had their appendix removed that you, too, wish you could have your appendix taken out.
Abortion is a medical procedure. Like most medical procedures, it is unpleasant, time-consuming, and costly. There’s blood involved, and doctors prodding your vagina, and cramping, and waiting room muzak infused with the smell of anxiety hormones and hospital sanitizer.
For many women, there’s also a moral component to abortion. The Catholic Church considers abortion a mortal sin, one that completely severs one’s relationship with God. Other faiths are similarly hardline on terminating a pregnancy. Even non-religious women choosing to have an abortion often have to brave crowds of protesters calling them murderers while walking to the clinic doors. It’s a difficult decision for all women, and, while some have the procedure without any emotional baggage, many women feel conflicted about terminating a pregnancy. Dunham’s flippant attitude is insulting to women who have actually gone through it.
Unlike other medical procedures, the Supreme Court has ruled that the constitution protects women’s access to abortion. In Roe, the justices established a right to elective abortion to the point of fetal viability, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, they established that states can regulate access but cannot place an “undue burden” on women seeking to terminate their pregnancies, and in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, they ruled that states cannot attempt to regulate abortion providers out of existence when those regulations show no clear benefit to the health of women.
Despite this, women’s access to abortion, especially in rural areas of red states, has never been more tenuous. The website Rewire tracks all the ways that anti-choice lawmakers have attempted to weasel around Supreme Court decisions with bans and regulations (Ohio’s brand new 20-week ban or Texas’s mandatory burial for fetal remains, for example), and perusing their comprehensive database is a frightening way to spend five minutes, or an afternoon. The only thing standing between women in many states and a complete lack of access is the court system. And our days of being able to rely on those court protections, thanks to the incoming Trump-Pence administration, are likely numbered.
So it’s more important than ever for women who are advocates of choice to be careful with how our side of the argument is represented. The truth—that abortion is a deeply personal decision between a woman and her doctor, that it’s one of the most safe and common medical procedures, and that it’s necessary to protect the health of women and their families—is what we need to keep repeating to our friends, neighbors, and elected officials. What we don’t need are actresses with messiah complexes issuing ignorant and irresponsible comments about wishing they’d had one of their own, suggesting that having an abortion is (to borrow from George Will) a coveted status that confers with it certain privileges.
Women don’t need Lena Dunham to “normalize” abortion by having one. The only thing comments like Dunham’s serve to normalize is that tucked away in urban centers live a tribe of feminist caricatures, 30-year-old millennial feminists that have the empathy and self-awareness of petulant teens.