Janet Harris is the president of Upstream Analysis, a news and social-media analysis firm. She was previously the communications director of Emily’s List, a political action committee supporting Democratic pro-choice women running for office.
Planned Parenthood calls abortion “a difficult decision” in many of its consent forms and fact sheets. When NARAL launched a film on the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade in 2013, the president of the pro-choice organization called abortion “a difficult decision” women and couples face.
Lawmakers use the adjective, too. “It was a difficult, difficult decision, but it was the right one,” Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores said last month in defending her choice to have an abortion at age 16. In 2005, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton described the decision to have an abortion as “one of the most fundamental, difficult and soul-searching decisions a woman and a family can make” and “often the most difficult [decision] that a woman will ever make.”
However, when the pro-choice community frames abortion as a difficult decision, it implies that women need help deciding, which opens the door to paternalistic and demeaning “informed consent” laws. It also stigmatizes abortion and the women who need it.
Often, abortion isn’t a difficult decision. In my case, it sure wasn’t.
When I was 18, my boyfriend, whom I was with for more than a year, frequently pressured me into having sex. At the time, I lacked the maturity and experience to exert more control over the situation. For more than 10 weeks, I progressed from obliviousness about my pregnancy to denial to wishful thinking: Maybe if I ignore that I missed two periods, that pesky little fact will go away.
Once I faced reality, though, having an abortion was an obvious decision, not a difficult one. The question wasn’t “Should I or shouldn’t I?” but “How quickly can I get this over with?”
This was in the mid-1980s, when abortion was about women having control not just over their bodies but over their destinies. An unwanted pregnancy would have derailed my future, making it difficult for me to finish college and have the independent, productive life that I’d envisioned.
For many, the same ramifications hold true today. A Census Bureau study released in July found that women who have their first child out of wedlock get less education and are more likely to be unemployed and single — even many years later — compared with other women.
Today, when advocates on both sides of the debate talk about the decision to have an abortion, they preface their statements with adjectives such as “difficult,” “hard” or “reluctant.” For anti-abortion conservatives, the reason for using such language is clear: Abortion is murder, they contend, but characterizing a woman who has one as a murderer is a bit, well, harsh. A more charitable view is to assume that she must have struggled with making this immoral choice. Pro-choice advocates use the “difficult decision” formulation for a similar reason, so as not to demonize women. It also permits pro-choice candidates to look less dogmatic.
But there’s a more pernicious result when pro-choice advocates use such language: It is a tacit acknowledgment that terminating a pregnancy is a moral issue requiring an ethical debate. To say that deciding to have an abortion is a “hard choice” implies a debate about whether the fetus should live, thereby endowing it with a status of being. It puts the focus on the fetus rather than the woman. As a result, the question “What kind of future would the woman have as a result of an unwanted pregnancy?” gets sacrificed. By implying that terminating a pregnancy is a moral issue, pro-choice advocates forfeit control of the discussion to anti-choice conservatives.
Contrary to numerous movies and “very special” television episodes portraying abortion as an agonizing, complex decision (“Obvious Child” notwithstanding), for many it is a simple choice and often the only practical option. A 2012 study published in the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health found that the vast majority of women seeking an abortion — 87 percent — had high confidence in their decisions. This level of conviction contrasts with the notion that millions of women vacillate over whether to have an abortion.
The circumstances matter, of course. Planned or wanted pregnancies involving fetal anomalies, or in which the health of the mother is in question, may require heart-wrenching decisions. But these situations are quite rare. A Guttmacher Institute survey of women in the United States seeking abortions found that 3 percent said the main reason was a fetal health problem, and 4 percent cited a problem with their own health. The percentage of women seeking an abortion because they were victims of rape or incest was less than 1.5 percent.
The far more common situation, accounting for 51 percent of all pregnancies among American women, is an unintended pregnancy, either mistimed (31 percent) or unwanted (20 percent). A 2008 study found that 40 percent of unintended pregnancies, excluding miscarriages, ended in abortion. It is in these cases that the portrayal of hand-wringing and soul-searching is more likely to be at odds with the day-to-day reality.
Another survey suggested that “once women suspect pregnancy, most of them who seek an abortion act fairly quickly.” In fact, most women — even those who obtained abortions within the first six weeks of pregnancy — would have preferred to have their abortions earlier than they did. The most common reason for delaying was difficulty in making the arrangements, which is connected to having difficulties obtaining money for the procedure. Just 10 percent of women who would have preferred to have had their abortions earlier said the delay was due to religious or moral concerns.
Abortion rights groups are struggling to expand their message from “pro-choice” — which they say no longer resonates with voters as it once did — to more broadly encompass women’s health and economic concerns. The movement needs such recalibration precisely because it was drawn into a moral debate about the fetus’s hypothetical future rather than the woman’s immediate and tangible future. Once these groups locked themselves into a discussion of “choice,” terminating a pregnancy became an option rather than a necessity. Pro-choice groups would be a lot stronger, more effective and more in sync with the women they represent if they backed away from the defensive “difficult decision” posture.
Getting an abortion is not something any woman wants to go through. An unplanned pregnancy is highly stressful, and for many it is humiliating evidence of a failure in judgment. Getting an abortion is expensive — not as costly as carrying a baby to term or raising a child, but expensive enough that half of all patients need help paying for it. And in many places, getting a safe and legal abortion can be more difficult because of parental-consent laws, distance to an abortion provider or a gantlet of hostile protesters outside the clinic doors.
Of all these difficulties, deciding whether to get an abortion is often the least of them. The situation may be difficult, but the decision is usually straightforward.
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