Recently I wrote a report for Feminists for Nonviolent Choices about coerced abortion—that is, about pregnant individuals being pressured, bullied, harassed, or threatened into having abortions they may or may not want. I wrote about several different types of coercion, including emotional manipulation, withholding support (i.e. “Get an abortion or you can’t live here/Get an abortion or I won’t help pay for school/Get an abortion or you’ll lose your scholarship”), and even threatened or actual violence. I was shocked to find that murder is one of the leading causes of death for pregnant women, and read about case after case of a pregnant woman refusing her boyfriend’s demand to get an abortion and subsequently being attacked and/or killed by him.
Imagine yourself in one of these women’s situations. You’re unexpectedly pregnant, and instead of surrounding you with love and support, your parents instantly tell you to either abort or move out. Your partner tells you to abort because he absolutely refuses to pay child support. The people in your life start saying terrible, hurtful things like, “You’re being selfish and irresponsible if you have this baby” or “This baby will ruin both of our lives, do you really want that?” or “Everyone will know you’re a slut if you don’t get rid of it” or “What makes you think you could be a good parent anyway?” And faced with all this opposition, you realize you can’t go it alone. And then you find yourself making an appointment at an abortion clinic, but you don’t feel like you’re exercising your reproductive rights as a twenty-first century empowered woman. You feel like you had no choice.
That’s a terrible situation, isn’t it? Most compassionate, empathetic people would really feel for a woman in such a predicament and want to help her, am I right? I really thought, as I researched this topic, that this would be an issue that both pro-lifers and pro-choicers could unite on. Nobody, I thought, wants to see women bullied and threatened into abortions. Everybody would support measures that seek to protect women from coercion. Right?
But I was surprised to find that there are some in the pro-choice movement (though not all, I’m sure) perfectly willing to leave these women out in the cold. Some pro-choicers try to deny that the problem of coerced abortion even exists1, and while I’ll admit that the jury is still out on the exact numbers and percentages (there seems to be a disheartening lack of research in this area), it’s undeniably pretty hard to listen to the personal testimonies of women who faced this horrible situation and then tell them that their problems aren’t actually real. And that’s when I was astonished to discover some pretty blatant hypocrisy coming from some pro-choicers.
Now, to be clear here, I have always been firmly against demonizing the pro-choice movement. I call them by their preferred label (instead of “pro-abortion”, for instance) and I am willing to believe that most people in the pro-choice movement are truly doing what they think is right and best to help women. I have many good friends who are pro-choice, and they are all sincere, decent people whose moral compasses happen to point in a slightly different direction than mine on the controversial issue of abortion.
So I’m not writing this blog post to paint the entire pro-choice movement as hypocritical, or even to say most of its members are. But in the course of doing research for my report, I definitely encountered some pretty stark hypocrisy from some pro-choicers in their reactions to women who were coerced into abortions. And the parallels were just so obvious that I had to point them out.
Feminists (both pro-life and pro-choice) are often speaking out against the insidious problem of victim-blaming. Whenever a news story breaks about a woman being raped or assaulted, there will always be people ready to pounce on her with questions, accusations, and judgments: Why was she out that late at night? Why was she drinking so much? Was she flirting with him? Why would she invite him up to her room if she didn’t want sex? Maybe she’s just having “post-hookup regret.” How could it be rape if she didn’t fight back?
All of these questions, of course, imply that it was the woman’s own fault she got assaulted. The poor, hapless man who was only responding to her “signals” of sexual readiness should not be blamed. She should own her own decisions and stop whining, they say.
Here’s the kicker though: Pro-choicers know that victim-blaming is disgusting and bullshit in instances of rape or assault, so why are some of them willing to victim-blame women who suffered a coerced abortion, sometimes by asking the exact same questions?
I encountered pro-choicers responding to discussions about coerced abortion by suggesting that women who were coerced need to take responsibility for their own actions. Everyone faces pressures in life, these pro-choicers argued, but ultimately a woman’s decision to abort is her own and she can’t blame anyone else for it. They expressed anger at women who provide testimony of their coerced abortions in front of lawmakers. Just because you regretted your abortion, they said, doesn’t mean you should make things harder for the rest of us to get one (although it’s still unclear to me how laws against coerced abortion would make truly voluntary abortions unobtainable).
For example, here’s the opening paragraphs of a supposedly objective article from 2012 about coerced-abortion laws:
On a Friday morning in September 2005, 22-year-old Brittany Wilson sat in a Planned Parenthood clinic a mile away from her home in Sioux Falls, S.D., and bawled her eyes out.
Ten days before, she had called the clinic to schedule an abortion. Three days before her appointment, she had called back to listen to some state-mandated information about the risks of abortion and her legal rights. And moments before, she had driven to the clinic alone and paid $447. But she was crying, she would later say, because she did not want this abortion.
The Planned Parenthood staffer whose job it was to make sure this abortion was voluntary and informed noticed Brittany’s distress and asked her if she had considered adoption. Brittany said she did not “want to do that.”
Through the staffer, the doctor told Brittany she didn’t have to have the abortion that day. Brittany said, “I’m alright,” and went out to lunch.
Later that day, a doctor vacuumed out her 7-week-old embryo.
In the months and years that followed, Brittany would say in federal court that her boyfriend had forced her to have an abortion she didn’t want. She blamed Planned Parenthood for letting it happen…In her testimony – given during a deposition under oath and later in a handwritten declaration – Brittany asserted that Planned Parenthood had not given her enough information to help her make an informed decision.2
Did you catch the subtle whiff of victim-blaming? The author seems to question whether Brittany was really coerced. She went through all the multi-steps necessary to get an abortion, hmm? She ate lunch, hmm? Suspicious! “She would later say” she didn’t want it and she was coerced. She blamed Planned Parenthood, she swore under oath for years...maybe she’s lying. Maybe she’s just having post-abortion regret. How could she have been “forced” if she wasn’t literally dragged into the clinic, kicking and screaming? Hmmmm?
Brittany ought to take responsibility for her own choices, the author seems to imply, and not blame poor Planned Parenthood for misinterpreting her signals that she truly did want an abortion (such as “bawling her eyes out”, apparently). Brittany’s testimony was used in support of laws requiring abortion clinics to screen for coercion and providing women who had been coerced with legal recourse. Did she secretly have an evil, misogynistic agenda?!
The parallels with victim-blaming of rape victims are almost painfully obvious. The author questions the authenticity of Brittany’s assertions that she was forced and provides just enough “evidence” to sow seeds of doubt, similarly to when rape apologists say “But I was at that party, and I saw her flirting with him all night…hmm…”
I am sure this author would not dream of victim-blaming a rape survivor. So why do the same to Brittany? Because undermining her story is politically advantageous to you? Because you would rather question Brittany than question the practices of an abortion clinic that allowed a clearly distressed woman to undergo a potentially traumatizing procedure?
I interviewed pro-life advocate Albany Rose during my research, and she was very frank with me about her own coerced abortion: at age 16, her father and stepmother threatened to evict her if she did not abort. Said Rose, “I fought to keep my child. I lost. I fought to give my child up for adoption. I lost.”
Rose expressed that she has since receive backlash from both sides of the abortion debate: from pro-lifers who condemn her for aborting, and from pro-choicers who are angry that she claims she was coerced and has since become a voice for life. To these pro-choicers, women who had abortions against their will and won’t shut up about it are a very inconvenient truth.
What’s most frustrating to me about this whole thing is that I care very deeply about finding common ground with those in the pro-choice movement. Especially when it comes to my fellow feminists, I find there is so, so much we agree on and can fight against together. But it helps no one, absolutely no one, to be hypocritical and victim-blaming and to deny that problems even exist.
I want to help other women like Brittany be empowered to continue their lives and their pregnancies without coercion. I want to reduce all the reasons women seek abortions: lack of emotional support, financial stress, inadequate housing, inadequate support from employers, lack of access to birth control, a slut-shaming and condemning community… And I believe that can only be achieved if we work together. To my pro-choice readers, try to call out such victim-blaming when you hear it and point out that sweeping victims of coerced abortion under the rug hurts your efforts. To my pro-life readers, remember to always have compassion for post-abortive women, whether or not she was coerced—your anger will not help her.
And to any women reading this who want to speak out about your own abortions, please check out groups like Operation Outcry and Silent No More. The pro-choicers who continue to claim that coerced abortion is not a problem would love to hear from you.
Disclaimer: I am aware that not all individuals who become pregnant or seek abortions identify as women. I only refer to women in this post because my report was based on studies and surveys which were not transgender-inclusive. I would love for all individuals—“ladies and gentlemen and variations thereof,” to quote Doctor Who—to be fully supported in their pregnancies and lives.