Abortion rights proponents and opponents

Abortion-rights activists and antiabortion protesters outside the Supreme Court in Washington in January during demonstrations that coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion. (Associated Press / January 25, 2013)

Who has had an abortion? In an intriguing cover story, New York Magazine decided to answer that question with the names, faces and accounts of 26 women from varied backgrounds who have had the procedure.

As New York Magazine points out, about 1.2 million unplanned pregnancies are ended by abortion each year. According to the Guttmacher Institute — a research institute that supports reproductive rights — 3 in 10 American women will have abortions by the time they are 45. Abortion is legal and pervasive and, still, many women are reluctant to talk about their own personal experiences. The magazine hoped to destigmatize talking about abortion by having women do just that. But abortion remains a deeply embattled right. As one woman who had an abortion in Colorado in 2004 told the magazine, “When we got to the clinic, an escort met us at the car and asked if we wanted a bulletproof vest.”

This isn’t the first attempt by a publication to have women talk publicly about their abortions in an effort to stand up unapologetically for the right to have control over their bodies. Ms. Magazine, in its debut issue in 1972 — a year before Roe vs. Wade made abortion legal in this country — famously and daringly had 53 women sign a statement declaring they had had abortions. They included singer Judy Collins, writers Susan Sontag and Barbara Tuchman, Ms. Magazine founder Gloria Steinem and tennis champion Billie Jean King. Ms. Magazine reprised that petition in 2006, publishing 1016 names, including actresses Amy Brenneman and Kathy Najimy.

I have always greatly admired the women who were willing to talk about having an abortion — a simple medical procedure but one that comes on the heels of a combustible mix of love or lust and sex and hopes and fears and raging pregnancy hormones. And one that some people would vilify them for.

Does the conversation make a difference to the cause of reproductive rights? There is plenty of debate online and off about whether women publicly saying they have had abortions will eventually make people realize how common this procedure is and how often it is used by upstanding women and girls — their neighbors, friends, classmates, coworkers, bosses, etc. — and therefore dispel some stereotypical image of a selfish baby killer.

In a way, this should parallel what has, indeed, happened with the acceptance of gay rights. As more and more people realized how many friends, family members and coworkers they had who were gay, they more and more supported their entitlement to the same rights as anyone else. But two things have helped the gay rights movement: It’s now scientifically accepted that people are born gay, and being gay is no longer classified as some kind of pathology.

Abortion is, of course, a choice. And there is a contingent of people who consider it murder. It’s unlikely those deeply opposed to abortion will ever be persuaded otherwise. A nun could write a story saying she had an abortion and feels fine about it and it wouldn’t convince an entrenched antiabortion advocate otherwise.

But I do think publicly talking about personal stories of having an abortion makes a difference for the vast numbers of people who are not impassioned advocates on either side of this issue. These are the people who often say they support abortion rights in general but have personal misgivings or don’t quite understand why so many people get abortions. These are the people perhaps not bothered by various restrictions passed in different states, the people who don’t see why it’s onerous that an abortion doctor be compelled to have hospital admitting privileges or a woman has to go through a waiting period.

I think these are the people who might be moved to be more supportive of reproductive rights, especially during so many state challenges, when they realize how many women they know and like and respect have had abortions.

Also, people need to move beyond the sensibility that a woman should have an abortion only for some harrowing reason — she’s carrying a fetus with a severe disability or she was raped or she is poor and cannot afford another child. Sometimes, a woman has an abortion simply because she doesn’t want to have a child. Period. And that is her right. The more women talk about that and assert that right, the more people may oppose attempts to cripple those rights.

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