A Manhattan woman is currently embroiled in a high-profile custody battle with her ex-husband, a wealthy bank executive. The case is making headlines because a New York judge decided to consider her decision to terminate a pregnancy as potential evidence that she’s not fit to care for her two young children.
38-year-old Lisa Mehos had an abortion nearly a year after she divorced her husband, 59-year-old Manuel John Mehos. In an interview with Salon, Mehos explained that her ex-husband found out about it because his lawyers subpoenaed her medical records to use as evidence in the custody case. Now, they’re arguing that it’s proof of her dishonesty and emotional instability.
The lawyer representing Mehos’ ex-husband, Eleanor Alter, suggests that the abortion “calls her credibility into question” because she is a Catholic. Alter also says it undermines Mehos’ claim that her tumultuous relationship with her ex-husband is actually what has caused her stress, since having sex out of wedlock and deciding to end a pregnancy are also “traumatic” experiences. “She’s traumatized by the abortion I presume, or worse, if she wasn’t traumatized by it,” Alter noted.
Mehos told Salon that she was “completely shocked” that the judge agreed to allow this evidence to be used in the case. “The court jumped at the chance to use the stigma of abortion to openly scorn, interrogate, and question my ability to be a worthy parent,” she noted.
Mehos’ lawyer, Emily Jane Goodman, wants the judge to recuse herself. “This might go over well in Texas or Mississippi, but not here,” Goodman said last month. “I think the very idea of the potential of using, against a woman in a custody case, the fact that she may have had an abortion sets women’s rights and the rights of choice back in a way that I can’t imagine this court would want to be associated.”
The fact that abortion is considered to be “evidence” is unfortunately nothing new. Due to the lingering societal stigma that surrounds the medical procedure, the language that we use to talk about abortion is almost always negative. It’s rare for female public figures to acknowledge that they have ended a pregnancy — and when they do, the media typically describes them as “admitting” they had an abortion, automatically construing it as an admission of guilt or wrongdoing. The shame-based approach to this aspect of reproductive health care has ensured that most women don’t feel comfortable talking about it at all. It’s not considered to be appropriate for polite company.
It’s perhaps no wonder that women who have had abortions don’t feel safe enough to acknowledge it. Sadly, the risks can be even greater than losing a custody fight. This past April, a state lawmaker in Nevada received death threats after talking openly about having an abortion.
In reality, abortion is much more common than most Americans may realize. One in three U.S. women has had an abortion by the time she is 45 years old. And contrary to preconceived notions about the “trauma” of ending a pregnancy, research has consistently found that it’s not actually an inherently emotionally damaging experience. Women report that having an abortion was the right decision for them. And when women who have abortions do have negative emotions associated with the procedure, that’s often a result of the societal stigma that surrounds it — they worry about other people finding out, or they worry that it makes them a bad person.