This past weekend, Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis made national news for revealing her personal experience with abortion in an upcoming memoir. While it’s a move that’s largely being praised, the current headlines also bring up bigger questions about the spokespeople we choose to broach the subject of abortion.
Davis’ forthcoming book details her decision to end two pregnancies in the 1990s, before she was involved in politics, for medical reasons. The first — which the candidate has spoken publicly about once before, during her infamous filibuster against an anti-abortion bill last summer — involved an ectopic pregnancy in which a fetus had implanted in her Fallopian tubes. Those pregnancies are not viable. Two years later, Davis had a second abortion after she discovered her fetus had a severe brain abnormality and likely would not survive; if the pregnancy did make it to full term, the unborn child would be in a permanent vegetative stage.
“We knew that the most loving thing that we could do for our daughter was to say goodbye,” Davis explained in an interview with Good Morning America.
Davis’ disclosure has sparked an outpouring of support from the reproductive rights community, which has increasingly encouraged women to share their personal stories about abortion in order to help shift societal attitudes toward the procedure. “We are grateful to her for sharing her story and shining a light on a subject that is too often hidden in the shadows of shame and stigma,” Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards said in a statement.
It’s certainly never easy to disclose so much personal information to the general public — especially when it comes to talking about having an abortion, a personal revelation that can lead to death threats. But it’s important to remember that Davis’ abortion story is a relatively safe one. She had “good” abortions, so to speak.
“Good” abortions are the types of procedures that are more palatable to the American public because they don’t involve situations in which critics could paint a woman as being selfish. They’re abortions that are typically compelled by reasons that most Americans see as non-negotiable: in cases when women’s health is at risk, in cases when the fetus has fatal abnormalities, and in cases when the woman became pregnant as a result of rape or incest. They always require some type of justification, some “proof” that the abortion was truly the right moral choice.
“Abortion stigma is the shared understanding that abortion is morally wrong and/or socially unacceptable. The fact that there is dichotomy between ‘acceptable’ reasons for having an abortion and more ‘unacceptable’ reasons is because of abortion stigma, plain and simple,” Steph Herold, the deputy director of an organization called Sea Change, which works to combat abortion stigma, told ThinkProgress via email.
So far, the public figures who have been open about their abortion stories fall into the more “acceptable” categories. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), who spoke out about her abortion on the House floor in 2011, terminated her pregnancy after discovering that her fetus was not viable. She took care to emphasize that she did not want to have an abortion. “Today some news reports are implying that I wanted my pregnancy to end, but that is simply not true. I lost my baby,” Speier said in a statement released immediately after her disclosure.
Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores (D), who had an abortion at 16 years old after observing her older siblings becoming teen parents, also had a relatively “good” abortion. Although Flores does maintain that she just wasn’t ready to be a parent and doesn’t regret her decision — somewhat of a departure from the typical script — she still has a sympathetic enough reason for ending her pregnancy. She may have gotten a different reception if she had chosen not to have a child at a more socially acceptable age to become a mother, like 25 or 30 years old.
It would be truly radical for an elected official to talk openly about choosing to end a pregnancy simply because it’s her right to do so. But that’s not really how we’re allowed to talk about abortion. The public discourse on the subject still requires women like Davis, Speier, and Flores to use language about how it was an incredibly “difficult decision.” And the pro-choice community still mostly relies on spokespeople who have the most heartbreaking stories about sexual assault or fetal abnormalities.
“In a way, the ability to ‘come out’ about a stigmatized experience like abortion is also about respectability politics and privilege,” Herold said in reference to Wendy Davis’ recent disclosure. “I’m sure that was very painful for her, and I’m grateful that she shared it. I’m also sure as we speak some people are talking about how her abortion is okay because it was for a ‘good reason’… Coming out doesn’t solve all problems.”
While emphasizing “good” abortions makes sense as a political strategy, it doesn’t necessarily align with most women’s experiences. According to a survey conducted by the Guttmacher Instutute, about one percent of the women who have abortions are rape victims. Just seven percent cite health issues with themselves or their fetus. Meanwhile, 73 percent of women included in Guttmacher’s survey said they had an abortion because they couldn’t afford a baby at that time. And 74 percent said they didn’t want to continue the pregnancy because “having a baby would dramatically change my life” by disrupting their employment, education, or ability to care for their other children.
Do those women need to justify their decision to have an abortion? Are they selfish compared to the women who choose to end non-viable pregnancies? Could they talk about their experiences and still get elected to office?
Regardless of the answers to those questions, those women reflect the reality of why Americans are seeking out this particular medical procedure — and, as feminist writer Jessica Valenti argued last year, they’re the ones who suffer when our public rhetoric dictates who’s “allowed” to have an abortion.
“We cannot create a hierarchy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ abortions. Or of ‘deserving’ women. One in three American women will have an abortion, and the circumstances behind that pregnancy is none of our business — and it certainly should have no bearing on whether or not women can afford to access care,” Valenti wrote in December, during a national debate over a proposed abortion restriction that largely hinged on whether it had an exception for rape victims. “If we want to battle the stigma around abortion, we cannot separate it out from women’s general healthcare — or suggest, even implicitly, that some people are more deserving of abortion care than others.”
It’s brave of Davis to speak openly about her past abortions. But not all abortions are difficult decisions or painful regrets — and the women who feel that way face even bigger barriers to speaking up. “Until we can create a culture in which any reason for abortion is a legitimate reason, ‘coming out’ will be fraught,” Herold said.