Owning Up to Abortion
July 22, 2004
By BARBARA EHRENREICH
Abortion is legal - it's just not supposed to be mentioned
or acknowledged as an acceptable option. An article in The
Times on Sunday, "Television's Most Persistent Taboo,"
reported that a Viacom-owned channel is refusing to run the
episodes of a soap opera in which the teenage heroine
chooses to abort. Even "Six Feet Under," which is fearless
in its treatment of sexual diversity, burdens abortion with
terrible guilt. Where are those "liberal media" when you
You can blame a lot of folks, from media bigwigs to
bishops, if we lose our reproductive rights, but it's the
women who shrink from acknowledging their own abortions who
really irk me. Increasingly, for example, the possibility
of abortion is built right into the process of prenatal
care. Testing for fetal defects can now detect over 450
conditions, many potentially fatal or debilitating. Doctors
may advise the screening tests, insurance companies often
pay for them, and many couples (no hard numbers exist) are
deciding to abort their imperfect fetuses.
The trouble is, not all of the women who are exercising
their right to choose in these cases are willing to admit
that that's what they are doing. Kate Hoffman, for example,
who aborted a fetus with Down syndrome, was quoted in The
Times on June 20 as saying: "I don't look at it as though I
had an abortion, even though that is technically what it
is. There's a difference. I wanted this baby."
Or go to the Web site for A Heartbreaking Choice, a group
that provides support for women whose fetuses are deemed
defective, and you find "Mom" complaining of having to have
her abortion in an ordinary abortion clinic: "I resented
the fact that I had to be there with all these girls that
did not want their babies."
Kate and Mom: You've been through a hellish experience, but
unless I'm missing something, you didn't want your babies
either. A baby, yes, but not the particular baby you
happened to be carrying.
The prejudice is widespread that a termination for medical
reasons is somehow on a higher moral plane than a
run-of-the-mill abortion. In a 1999 survey of Floridians,
for example, 82 percent supported legal abortion in the
case of birth defects, compared with about 40 percent in
situations where the woman simply could not afford to raise
But what makes it morally more congenial to kill a
particular "defective" fetus than to kill whatever fetus
happens to come along, on an equal opportunity basis?
Medically informed "terminations" are already catching heat
from disability rights groups, and, indeed, some of the
conditions for which people are currently choosing
abortion, like deafness or dwarfism, seem a little sketchy
to me. I'll still defend the right to choose abortion in
these cases, even if it isn't the choice I'd make for
It would be unfair, though, to pick on the women who are in
denial about aborting "defective" fetuses. At least 30 million
American women have had abortions since the
procedure was legalized, mostly for the kind of reasons
that anti-abortion people dismiss as "convenience" - a
number that amounts to about 40 percent of American women.
Yet in a 2003 survey conducted by a pro-choice group, only
30 percent of women were unambivalently pro-choice,
suggesting that there may be an appalling number of women
who are willing to deny others the right that they once
freely exercised themselves.
Honesty begins at home, so I should acknowledge that I had
two abortions during my all-too-fertile years. You can call
me a bad woman, but not a bad mother. I was a dollar-a-word
freelancer and my husband a warehouse worker, so it was all
we could do to support the existing children at a grubby
lower-middle-class level. And when it comes to my children
- the actual extrauterine ones, that is - I was, and
remain, a lioness.
Choice can be easy, as it was in my case, or truly
agonizing. But assuming the fetal position is not an
appropriate response. Sartre called this "bad faith,"
meaning something worse than duplicity: a fundamental
denial of freedom and the responsibility that it entails.
Time to take your thumbs out of your mouths, ladies, and
speak up for your rights. The freedoms that we exercise but
do not acknowledge are easily taken away.
Thomas L. Friedman is on leave until October, writing a