Let’s Talk About My Abortion (and Yours)

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And as the extreme and often violent anti-abortion movement in this country began to build steam, it also began to feel riskier to speak up. By the mid 2000s, the idea of a high-profile actress appearing on the cover of People to discuss her choice as Ms. MacGraw had 20 years earlier seemed preposterous. “Celebrities today regularly reveal the details of their drug addictions, sexual obsessions, marital infidelities,” the journalist Susan Dominus observed in 2005 in Glamour, “but no celebrity in recent memory has admitted to ending a pregnancy.” To be clear, women in the United States were still getting abortions; nearly one in four of us will have had one by age 45. They just weren’t talking about it.

Over the past few years, the attacks on reproductive rights have come fast and furious — 51 clinics closed nationally just between 2011 and 2014; in about 90 percent of American counties there are no abortion clinics; and the reduced access has hit poor communities and women of color especially hard. As a result, activism around abortion rights has risen, and I’ve watched in admiration as well-known women (from the entertainers Chelsea Handler and Vanessa Williams to Representative Jackie Speier) have spoken about their own experiences, while groups like We Testify and Shout Your Abortion, co-founded by the writer Lindy West, have collected stories online. But silence is still the rule, and I observed it: When I spoke at pro-choice events, I told only the story of an older female relative of mine who’d risked her life seeking an illegal abortion decades ago. It was true — but it wasn’t the whole truth.

And that day on Twitter, I began to feel like a coward.

This silence, after all, has a price: First, it renders the women who make this choice anonymous and lets those who would deny us our freedom do so without looking us in the eye. There are so many would-be deniers today: Iowa has passed a law that outlaws most abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually about six weeks into a pregnancy, making it virtually impossible for most women to have one; politicians and pundits — from President Trump on the campaign trail to the columnist Kevin Williamson — now like to bat around the idea of punishment for those of us who have made this choice. (“I’ve got a soft spot for hanging,” Mr. Williamson said, chillingly.)

But would it be quite so easy to demonize this common experience if it were clear that the women who have gone through it include kindergarten teachers, clergywomen, Republicans, C.E.O.s, the woman who served your coffee this morning, who cleans your house, who signs your paycheck, who patrols your neighborhood? As the activist Renee Bracey Sherman, who runs the We Testify site, put it: “Everyone loves someone who has had an abortion. And if you think you don’t, they just haven’t shared their story with you yet.”

Silence also allows menacing myths about abortion to thrive. Most Americans believe the procedure to be less common than it is, and more dangerous. No wonder: According to one study, on television 5 percent of all female characters who choose abortion die — a figure that is 7,000 times the actual, very low real-life mortality rate. As for the popular perception that women regret their abortions, 95 percent of women who end their pregnancies say they believe they made the right decision. Oh, and the stereotype that women who get abortions are selfish or unmaternal? Well, the majority already have one child, studies show. But for a young woman faced with an unplanned pregnancy, those are terrifying misperceptions to contend with.

It’s time for those of us who know and have lived the truth to raise our hands and say no, this is the real story: Many of us have been here before you, and we are here for you, and we will not let your rights be rolled back. With that in mind, I recently told my own 15-year-old daughter about the choice I’d made. To my surprise, I cried as I described my life that year — the confusion, my mother’s illness — and though she was just a kid, not much younger than I had been then, she wiped my tears. I told her that I felt immense gratitude for the life I have been able to build, for the two children I’ve been able to care and provide for, for the marriage I could choose freely, for the dreams I was able to pursue. And all of it, I told her, was made possible by my right to decide when I was ready to be a mother.

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