The emotional response I had following my abortion nearly twenty years ago has been complicated. I felt relief. Immediately and for years after I terminated the unwanted pregnancy, I felt no regrets. Today, I feel no regret and have only positive feelings when I think back on my decision.
But for a brief moment three years ago, I felt differently.
In my mid-thirties, when my husband and I first started trying to conceive, I was told that scarring from my abortion might make staying pregnant impossible. And so—like a minority of women and for only a brief period of my life—I felt regret, remorse, and shame.
Last month, a study published in Social Science & Medicine confirmed what most of us who have had abortions already suspected: that an overwhelming number of women who terminate a pregnancy feel no regrets. The study analyzed 667 women’s emotions about their decisions to have abortions, following them from a week after to five years post-procedure, and found that an overwhelming number of women who had abortions felt “high levels of decision rightness and relief.”
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This research flies in the face of a long history of anti-abortion rhetoric employed by advocates seeking to “protect” women from their own reproductive decisions. Anti-choice organizations and activists claim that abortion is inherently stressful and causes emergent negative emotions, including sadness, guilt, rage, shame, and regret. They characterize the safe, simple, and common procedure as universally traumatizing by amplifying the voices of women whose personal testimony confirms their bias. It is a well-documented strategy by the anti-choice movement to use select narratives to push legislation that forces people who seek abortions to endure mandatory waiting periods and biased counseling, ultimately seeking to ban the procedure completely.
As somebody who has, for at least a moment, regretted my abortion, I can empathize with the feelings of shame and regret amplified by the anti-choice movement. But what, if anything, do these feelings matter?
Today, it’s clear to me that getting an abortion was a sensible decision: I was 22 years old, a senior in college, interning for free during the day at a nonprofit for disadvantaged girls, and working nights as an exotic dancer. I didn’t tell my boyfriend at the time that I was dancing, and I sure as hell didn’t tell him I was sleeping with Jay, an unemployed musician I’d met through my day job. Jay and I didn’t use condoms, and I wasn’t on the pill. My last month in New York City, I missed my period. Three weeks late, I took a pregnancy test in Jay’s cruddy bathroom that came back negative, and I felt an enormous sense of relief. But two weeks later, I still hadn’t gotten my period, and a second test came back positive.
Not for one minute did I consider anything other than termination. I wasn’t ready to become a mother, and I didn’t consider the rapidly dividing clump of cells in my uterus to be a “life.” Even so, I felt many of the negative emotions an anti-choicer would claim a woman in my situation would feel: I thought getting pregnant was a punishment—for what, exactly, I didn’t know. Deep down, I feared I was a “bad” person.
In retrospect, it’s clear I was in a type of psychological distress common to people with what researchers call “concealable stigmatized identities.” According to one 2014 study, individuals who are socially devalued and negatively stereotyped for attributes that can be hidden from others (for example: drug users, people with mental illness, victims of domestic violence, as well as people who’ve had abortions) often internalize society’s negative stereotypes. Internalized stigma, along with discrimination both experienced and anticipated, can have a damaging effect on a person’s psychological wellbeing, the researchers said. Receiving a positive reaction, like support, upon disclosing the stigmatized identity to someone can have the opposite effect.
Even though I knew for certain getting an abortion was the right decision, a large part of me felt tremendously guilty.
These negative feelings reemerged around fifteen years later, when I went to have my IUD removed so that my husband and I could start a family. The typically simple procedure was complicated by the fact that the IUD had become embedded in scar tissue on my cervix. When the painful extraction was over, the doctor speculated that the scarring had been caused by the earlier abortion, and that it could make it difficult if not impossible to maintain a pregnancy. Naked but for a paper gown, I looked down at my lap and imagined my uterus with the complexion of Freddy Krueger. I felt embarrassed and ashamed, dirty and wrong. (As it turned out, I didn’t have any troubles carrying a fetus to term; I got pregnant right away.)
Today, now a mother of two, I am completely at peace with the decisions I’ve made in regards to my sexual and reproductive health. But who knows how I’d feel had I not gotten my desired outcome.
People have abortions for different, at times complicated, reasons. Our feelings towards the procedure, and our reactions afterward, are equally complex. The anti-choice movement cherry-picks personal narratives that corroborate their position on the issue. By solely propping up these stories of abortion regret as representative of everybody’s experiences, they attempt to further stigmatize the procedure, influencing people’s reactions and emotions toward their own abortions. (We see the same strategies employed by anti-sex work organizations who lean heavily on the testimony of women willing to share heartbreaking accounts of their sex work experiences as a way of justifying the criminalization of consensual sex work.)
People who have had abortions deserve political platforms and spaces to share their stories. At the same time, when it comes to bodily autonomy and the right to access safe abortions, personal emotions alone—which are influenced by so many factors, including stigma—shouldn’t dictate public policy. People are going to have abortions whether they are legal or not. When it’s legal, it’s safer and more accessible for everyone, especially those for whom the choice is difficult.
To be sure, feelings matter. But no more than facts.