‘Abortion Regret’ Shows the Long History of a Favorite Anti-Choice Talking Point

Abortion Regret lays out a history of criminalization as a process that includes sowing stigma, creating systems of surveillance, manipulating or compiling new data, and establishing who gets to be a worthy victim.

[Photo: A woman sits on the couch with a book on her lap titled
Despite the “new” of its title, the book details the very long history of abortion regret and explores its current popularity among those who strive to prove abortion harms women. Praeger

Abortion rights supporters tout relief as the signature emotion that most abortion seekers experience after their procedures. Anti-choicers have their own frequently publicized post-abortion feeling: regret.

As the recent book Abortion Regret: The New Attack on Reproductive Freedom by scholars Shoshanna Erlich and Alesha Doan argues, emotions don’t occur in a vacuum. As individual and in-the-moment as emotions appear, their meanings—and how they are expressed—are socially and politically constructed, sometimes in complex ways and sometimes in simplistic binaries that say “men punch walls when they get angry” and “women cry.”

Despite the “new” of its title, the book details the very long history of abortion regret and explores its current popularity among those who strive to prove abortion harms women. And regret has been having a moment for a while now: Anti-choice regret framing seeped into the legal reasoning of the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court case Gonzales v. Carhart, and “protecting” women from their own reproductive decisions is a foundational value and focus of Americans United for Life, among other anti-choice organizations.

While Erlich and Doan convey few revelations about abortion’s criminalization, they provide a relatively concise and useful overview. Their rehashing of well-trod abortion history serves to remind readers of several important facts: that abortion was not always politicized as it is today, that criminalization is a process, and that what can be criminalized can also be decriminalized with a swing of the legal pendulum. They also raise questions about whether abortion opponents or supporters adequately represent the full, complex range of responses to obtaining care.

Here’s the history in a nutshell. Male physicians successfully lobbied for the criminalization of abortion in the mid- to late-1800s, predicting catastrophe for those who had one. Take this 1871 report from the American Medical Association Committee on Criminal Abortion: Abortion-seekers should expect to experience “old age like a withered tree, stripped of its foliage with the stain of blood upon her soul.” Death would ensue “without the hand of affection to smooth her pillow.” Nature would not be kind to women who shirked God’s supposed will, their obligation to marry, and their anatomy’s mandate to procreate. While abortion remained largely unlegislated for much of U.S. history up to that point, white medical men of the mid-century believed putting reproduction in the hands of women—viewed as weak, ignorant, wicked, or ruled by their wandering uteruses—jeopardized physicians’ profession, their masculinity, their race, and the whole order of the cosmos. Never mind the fact that medical knowledge about pregnancy during this time was imprecise at best.

Reading doctors’ melodramatic and misogynistic proclamations about 19th-century women, the origins of today’s most extreme anti-abortion rhetoric are patently clear. In their drive to control women, the doctors did not hesitate to call women murderers and position themselves as the keepers of morals and medical knowledge. Erlich and Doan pepper their text with quotes that well illustrate the connections between that centuries-old woman-hating doctor talk and contemporary messaging.

I should, though, mention a discordant note in their text. While the authors try to maintain scholarly neutrality—and to acknowledge that some women, however few, do feel regret—they do occasionally refer to “abortion-minded” women. The anti-choice term fairly leaps off the page because it presupposes that there is a particular kind of woman who considers abortion and another class of woman who wouldn’t dare.

Another discordant note was more difficult to ignore. The writers fall into a common trap of abortion-related literature: a near-total lack of racial analysis. They do little to complicate the anti-abortion narrative that abortion regret is colorblind. It’s a shame to show such care in synthesizing abortion history only to virtually ignore the contemporary racialized narratives that anti-abortion forces lob at Black Americans in particular: To wit, if you’re Black, your abortion is contributing to a white supremacist conspiracy to either keep the Black population small or to eradicate it altogether. Then, there’s the stigma that targets Asian-Americans who are presumed to be participating in sex-selective abortions that they will mourn later. These narratives, especially the Black genocide version, have such traction that they deserve far more attention than the tentative, stingy page devoted to it in Abortion Regret.

Abortion Regret lays out a history of criminalization as a process that includes sowing stigma, creating systems of surveillance, manipulating or compiling new data, and establishing who gets to be a worthy victim. This all happens, and will continue to happen, before new laws and punishments are enacted. But the authors also make clear that abortion opponents change their language and strategies over time—another important lesson for reproductive rights supporters, who often reduce anti-abortion individuals to an undifferentiated mass.

Erlich and Doan point out that after decades of male invective against women who abort and their collaborators—though we should note that prosecutions of those women were relatively rare in the illegal era—that some figures, such as John Willke of the National Right to Life Committee, urged less vilification of women and more victimization narratives. The “abortion-minded” woman could be saved from herself.

With this shift, the writers turn to David Reardon, perhaps the chief architect of abortion regret, and crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs). And here’s where they make the strongest direct case for their argument that abortion opponents have crafted a problematic narrative that universalizes some patients’ abortion regrets to restrict autonomy across the board. Reardon—whose PhD came from an unaccredited school with only correspondence classes—and his Elliott Institute have collected what he says are thousands of abortion regret stories. These testimonies seek to counter major medical association statements refuting “post-abortion” syndrome; peer-reviewed research findings that abortion doesn’t cause trauma; and patients’ narratives that abortion, far from hurting them, was necessary for their health, lives, and freedom.

Yes, there’s data to that effect. In 2015, researchers at the University of California San Francisco released research that surveyed more than 600 women who had abortions at 30 clinics nationwide. Ninety-five percent of them said choosing abortion was right for them. A tiny portion—the 5 percent—experienced negative emotions, including regret. And if we admit that women are complex beings and are serious about dismantling nonbinary thinking, many experience multiple emotions about their abortions and those feelings may change over time.

The question is: How to consider regret narratives, including but not limited to those collected for blatantly political purposes? When confronted with discredited anti-choice rhetoric about abortion-induced trauma, advocates can invoke rigorous science, the 95 percent, and the unwritten law that majorities matter. That bit of movement-darling data is now used so often that it functions as a standalone argument. But data doesn’t sway people already married to their version of truth, movement orthodoxy, or ideas of how women should be in the world.

Staffed largely by volunteer women who opted out of the formal workforce, CPCs—which frequently provide biased information or don’t offer medical care by trained and licensed staff—are key locations for reinforcing ideas of gender roles. As Karissa Haugeberg has pointed out in her book Women Against Abortion, it’s objectively true that CPCs developed as the “uniquely woman-centered sector of the antiabortion movement.” Just as pro-choice advocates share abortion regret stories to bust stigma and build a bolder movement, CPCs can function as women-led narrative assembly lines where abortion stories are manufactured and used as movement data points and rallying cries. Erlich and Doan echo Haugeberg in saying these centers provide some women a space to be seen and heard. But the voices heard the most are those of the founders, counselors, and volunteers rather than the clients.

There’s an important distinction to be made between feminist spaces and women-led spaces—which in this case, subscribe to maternalist politics, myths of abortion harm, and notions that abortion constitutes female victimization at hands of corrupt men. But Erlich and Doan complicate this either-or approach, saying that CPCs jump between outright rejection of feminism and embrace of some of its tenets, including that women—not the ”abortion-minded” men with whom they conceive—must be in control of their bodies and able to decide when they want to parent.

CPCs really demand a full-length book treatment for what they tell us about women’s leadership, building a successful movement business model (though it’s unclear whether CPCs are profitable, they’ve multiplied like rabbits across the nation), and how they’ve made room for regret. In doing so, CPCs and their workers embrace a “hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner” approach that acknowledges that some women do experience regret. They provide a “home” for women who respond negatively or ambivalently to their abortions, and that’s a space they can’t easily find in the pro-choice movement.

What would happen if the pro-choice movement included some stories that don’t align with the “American Dream” abortion narrative (“I was able to go to college/graduate/get a good job due to my abortion”)? Counterintuitive as it may sound, being more accepting of regret could win pro-choicers more followers in people who believe that abortion should remain legal, but nevertheless have some reservations about it. Abortion advocates can be just as dogmatic as their opponents. Potential supporters might see advocates as abortion cheerleaders, whose evidence-based but ideological activism may seem hard to distinguish from anti extremism. As Erlich and Doan state in this choice bit: While the pro-choice movement has worked to reframe the regret narrative, it has also, “by claiming that women feel relief rather than regret after an abortion …  likewise can be said to have composed a unidimensional script to encapsulate the experience of all women.”

Feminism demands a meaningful commitment to telling the full reality of women’s lives. Stigma informs much of regret, but that doesn’t mean it’s less valid or painful. Having a more complex spectrum of abortion stories and acknowledging the politically inconvenient emotions of that 5 percent may better reflect the somewhat nuanced positions of U.S. folks (including voters) about abortion—perhaps allowing the pro-choice movement to expand its base. Maybe it’s time to make room for regret.