Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN) publicly opposes abortion and has repeatedly run for office as a pro-life candidate. Last week, he was one of 242 House members to vote for a proposed 20-week abortion ban that has become one of the top priorities for the current GOP-controlled Congress.
An anti-abortion Republican casting a vote in favor of an abortion restriction is not typically newsworthy. However, DesJarlais’ positions on the subject are particularly controversial, thanks to evidence that emerged in 2012 that revealed he has advocated for at least three legal abortions in his personal life.
Three years ago, transcripts related to the congressman’s divorce trial showed that DesJarlais supported his ex-wife’s decision to legally end two pregnancies. He also had several extramarital affairs, and once pressured a 24-year-old woman to have an abortion after she told him she was pregnant with his child. “You told me you’d have an abortion, and now we’re getting too far along without one,” DesJarlais told the woman in a recorded phone conversation. “If we need to go to Atlanta, or whatever, to get this solved and get it over with so we can get on with our lives, then let’s do it.”
DesJarlais’ recent vote inspired a fresh round of headlines about the apparent disconnect between his anti-choice political stance and his support for legal abortion in his personal life. According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the congressman’s office declined to answer questions about whether either of his ex-wife’s abortions occurred after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The divide between DesJarlais’ public persona and private actions fits into a larger dynamic that’s been informally dubbed “the only moral abortion is my abortion” — which speaks to the fact that, when confronted with pregnancy decisions in their own lives, people who identify as pro-life sometimes end up choosing abortion anyway.
On an anecdotal level, there are plenty of personal stories about people who, after spending their lives publicly opposing abortion, find themselves in a clinic to terminate their own unwanted pregnancy. One researcher who studies the pro-life movement says that an interview subject once told him: “Most pro-life women oppose abortion with four exceptions: rape, incest, the life of the mother, and me.”
That’s perhaps due to the fact that being confronted with pregnancy decisions on an individual level is very different than engaging in more abstract conversations about politics and legality. “I had always said — always ‘known’ — that if I ever had an unplanned pregnancy I would have to keep it,” one woman who had an abortion after previously identifying as pro-life wrote in xoJane. “It turns out that I didn’t really know anything about what I would do if I got pregnant.”
Researchers and pollsters are well aware of this dynamic. Polls that ask Americans whether abortion should be legal typically find that the country is sharply divided on the issue, whereas polls that approach the issue from a more personal standpoint — and ask Americans under which circumstances women should be denied an abortion — tend to return higher levels of support for access to the procedure. Personal experience with abortion has been proven to shift views in favor of legality.
Nonetheless, the people who oppose abortion may not realize that some individuals in their circles are having abortions. Recent research has found that anti-abortion Americans underestimate the number of people they know who have ended a pregnancy, largely because women choose to keep that decision a secret from others who might pass judgment on it.
When it comes to DesJarlais specifically, his office continues to maintain that he has a “100 percent pro-life voting record” and has “always advocated for pro-life values.” He narrowly won re-election in 2014 despite the controversy over his potentially contradictory stance on abortion.