A Portrait of Abortion

Twenty-six stories of abortion told in first person. Across state lines, across the past four decades, and across generations. From the woman who procured an illegal and unsafe abortion in the late 1960s to the more recent women who passed through protesters to assert their legal right to choose, these stories—the cover article of New York Magazine—provide a portrait of abortion in America.

If you don’t want to read them all, I suggest choosing five at random. As the editors note at the beginning of these accounts:

Lawsuits have been waged and courts have adjudicated, and still we seem no closer to consensus on when, where, how, and if a woman should be able to terminate a pregnancy. Even in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court was qualified in its judgment: An abortion was a personal decision only in the first trimester; in the second, states could intervene on behalf of the woman’s health; once the fetus was considered “viable,” a state could set whatever limitations it saw fit. . . .

But for all the regulations and protests, despite “safe, legal, and rare” and “abortion is murder,” abortion is part of our everyday experience. Nearly half of all pregnancies are unintended; about half of those—1.2 million—will end in abortion each year.

And yet abortion is something we tend to be more comfortable discussing as an abstraction; the feelings it provokes are too complicated to face in all their particularities. Which is perhaps why, even in doggedly liberal parts of the country, very few people talk openly about the experience, leaving the reality of abortion, and the emotions that accompany it, a silent witness in our political discourse. Even now, four decades after Roe, some of the women we spoke with would talk only if we didn’t print their real names.

I’m curious to know what you conclude in reading some or all of these accounts. Here’s what stood out to me:

  1. Abortion is lonely. I was struck by the number of women who included a comment about the coldness of the doctors and nurses at clinics and the angry shouts of protesters outside. Neither the pro-life or pro-choice individuals portrayed in most of these stories offer comfort or care. (Now, presumably stories exist of women who did find comfort or care when facing an unexpected pregnancy and decided to continue the pregnancy—those stories don’t appear here. The New York Times took a look at women who were denied abortions a few months ago. A similar series that included women who made an array of choices—abortion, adoption, and keeping the baby, would be equally interesting and perhaps more representative of the landscape of unintended pregnancies in America.)
  2. Abortion is sad. Some of the women here express no regret and firm convictions about their abortions, and this is particularly true in the case of rape. But the majority express ambivalence, regret, and deep sorrow over what they talk about as the loss of their babies. One in three women under the age of 45 in this country has had or will have at least one abortion, and if this article reflects the general population of women who have had abortions, many of them still experience shame, brokenness, and longing when they think about the choice they made.
  3. Abortion is common. I’ll write it again. One in three women, many of them already mothers. 1.2 million abortions. We are not talking about the margins of society but about the center.

Next week, I will be featuring an interview with Bob Fu, a human rights activist from China, on the topic of forced abortion in China. I asked him to comment upon the social effect of forced abortion and to consider how the perception of children and family changes collectively as a result of the one-child policy. In America, we can consider the question from a different angle. What effect does it have on us as a culture when millions of women have had the sad, lonely, common experience of abortion? What are the collective consequences of these very personal and individual decisions? And what are we doing to change this story?


Browse Our Archives