The internet has been buzzing recently surrounding Lena Dunham’s podcast “Women of the Hour.” To the shock and ire of people across the political spectrum, Dunham boldly confessed: “I still haven’t had an abortion, but I wish I had.” While this statement is assuredly ignorant and insensitive in its own right, I would argue that a more grievous statement is spoken about ten minutes later in the podcast. Dunham introduces guest speakers Liz Watson and her mother, who recount stories of their own abortions. After introducing herself, Liz begins the conversation by stating, “we’re here to have a casual conversation about abortion.” I had to pause the podcast for a moment after hearing this. A casual conversation about abortion? Political leanings aside, abortion is anything but casual.
However, as I listened on in the podcast, this statement seemed to be a way of defining
terms. The hour-long discussion consistently circled back to one word: stigma. According to
Dunham (and fellow abortion advocates), there is a societal stigma surrounding abortion, one we should do our best to abolish. The logical alternative to the stigma is precisely the attitude Watson predicates in her opening statement: abortion is casual. It is a part of our lives as women and as people. It is not inherently wrong; it should not give us pause; it does not demand any moral or intellectual contemplation; it simply is. Thus, for those like Dunham who vehemently advocate for abortion, the antonym for “stigmatized” is “casual.”
Dunham is not the first to fight for the normalization of abortion. Online journalism
targeting young women dogmatically preaches feminism and pro-choice as being synonymous. Sites such as Lenny Letter, Slate and Bustle lead the charge in embedding abortion in popular culture. In July of 2015, Bustle published an article praising those in the public eye who are “normalizing abortion.” (1) Among them was Cecile Richards, who has been a dominant voice advocating for normalizing abortion, stating that because “abortion is a reality of women’s lives,” we must remove the stigma and provide increasing access. (2)
The 2014 film Obvious Child (mentioned by Dunham on the podcast) was a cinematic attempt to portray “casual” abortion. The film tells the story of Donna, a comedian who has a one night stand after being dumped by her boyfriend. The one night stand results in a pregnancy, which Donna in turn aborts, with the full support of her mother and the man with whom she conceived the child. The film was lauded as an “abortion comedy,” a groundbreaking effort to portray abortion as a necessary and uncomplicated part of women’s lives. (3) The failure of Obvious Child in the box office is indicative of how sadly misguided director Gillian Robespierre’s perception of abortion is. Statistically, women getting abortions are usually in dire circumstances -- they are women in poverty, women in abusive relationships, women abandoned by their partners. (4) Furthermore, a 2010 study reveals the pervasive influence of abusive partners in the reproductive lives of women. The study tells of women being threatened with physical harm and even death after asserting a desire to not abort. (5)
Ironically, the women least likely to choose abortion are the women whom the abortion
industry most ardently desires to put on display – women like Liz Watson and Donna from Obvious Child. It is not women with such overwhelming power, privilege and readily accessible resources who typically have abortions, despite pop culture portrayals. Abortion is not a casual option for most women. It is often agonizing, conflicting, and coerced, whether by a person or a lack of other options. Even when factors such as marital status, socioeconomic standing, and potential threat of abuse do not influence a woman’s decision to choose abortion, studies indicate that the effects of abortion are far-reaching. One study in the British Journal of Psychology found that women who have had abortions are 81% more likely to struggle with their mental health, with “nearly 10% of the incidence of mental health problems was shown to be attributable to abortion.” (6)
Interestingly, Dunham seems to acknowledge this fact. In a statement she issued apologizing for her insensitive comments on her podcast, she stated: “I would never intentionally trivialize the emotional and physical challenges of terminating a pregnancy.” Therein lies the intellectual inconsistency of pro-choice feminism: its proponents cannot seem to determine whether they believe that abortion is a necessary evil or a badge of honor. Ultimately, despite all of the efforts to make abortion a casual part of our lives, the normalization of abortion is not a feminist victory -- it is a humanitarian defeat.