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Shouting My Abortion
On today of all days, I write for the first time publicly about a decision I've never regretted for a moment, and that any pregnant person is morally entitled to make.
The news hit me this morning with a sense of profound grief. Roe and Casey have been overturned. Abortion is no longer a constitutionally protected right in America. It will soon cease to be legal in many states. (Thirteen have “trigger laws,” having been lying in wait for this decision. More are expected to follow.)
I knew it was coming, of course—the opinion that was leaked this May is virtually unchanged. But knowing doesn’t always mean feeling it until it is reality.
So it feels like the right time to say this loudly and unambiguously and for the first time (in the spirit of “shout your abortion”): I have had an abortion. I never regretted it for a second. It enabled me to write a book that defended women against these kinds of bodily onslaughts, and misogyny in general.
It was 2015. I was happily married (as I still am), gainfully employed as a professor at Cornell (ditto), and I accidentally got pregnant. I did not want to be. These things happen.
And what happened next was wonderfully simple. I made an appointment at my local Planned Parenthood. After an initial consult during which they confirmed my pregnancy, I scheduled the abortion. I was about eight weeks pregnant (well past the point at which so-called heartbeat laws ban abortion) and so was given the option of taking an abortifacient or having a minor surgical procedure. I like to get things over with quickly, and I dislike blood. So I opted for the latter.
The procedure was quick, simple, and almost painless. I was treated respectfully throughout. My husband held my hand during it. The doctor asked me about my job, I think to distract me from any discomfort. I explained to her that I was a moral philosopher, writing a book about misogyny—which I define as any social system that polices, controls, and punishes girls and women who do not conform to patriarchal expectations. Such as wanting and having children, and giving our bodies over to the forces of nature that medical science has, for many decades, left us no longer at the mercy of.
And the control women may now enjoy over our own fertility is enraging to many people. As I argued in the book that would eventually be published in late 2017—changing my life and launching my writing career—abortion became controversial in the early 1970s, prior to Roe, not because of concerns about the life of the embryo or the fetus. As the legal scholars Linda Greenhouse and Reva Siegel write:
“The objection to abortion rights was not that abortion was murder, but that abortion rights… validated a breakdown of traditional roles that required men to be prepared to kill and die in war and women to save themselves for marriage and devote themselves to motherhood.”
In other words, abortion was originally controversial in this country because it was perceived as a threat to the nuclear family, and women’s hallowed, oppressed role within it. We are supposed to be not human beings but rather human givers—lending support, care, nurture, deference, and even a sense of humanity to men and the children who we will be increasingly forced to bear for them, despite our own wishes.
This is a deeply unjust system. And abortion rights cut fundamentally against it. They are a force for feminist, and other forms of social, justice.
On the day of this decision, we will rightly hear a lot about the lives that will, ironically, be lost because of it. Girls, women, and other pregnant people—non-binary folks and trans men included—stand to lose not only our autonomy but our health, even our lives, because of the Supreme Court’s terrible, retrograde, and misogynistic decision.
But it’s also worth remembering, and saying it loudly: abortion is in any case your right. You are morally entitled to an abortion simply because you do not want, or do not now want, a child.
The philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous thought experiment helps to bring this out. You are kidnapped by the Society of Music Lovers, who hook your kidneys up to those of a gravely ill violinist, as an alternative to dialysis. (There are no machines available and yours is the only compatible blood type.) He will need to use your body in this fashion for about nine months, or he will die. Are you obligated to remain hooked up to him in this way? No. Notwithstanding his right to life, as an adult human being, he is not entitled to the use of your body. And if he—again, as an adult human being—isn’t, then nobody is.
True, says Thomson, it might be “very nice” of you, “a great kindness,” to allow your body to be used in this way, contrary to your wishes. And this is where Thomson’s thought experiment, powerful and important though it is, falls slightly flat for me. An embryo or a fetus is not an adult human being. They have no interest in being brought into existence; they have no interests whatsoever. Despite the deliberately manipulative anti-abortion propaganda to the contrary, a fetus has no consciousness or sentience—construed as a rudimentary capacity to feel pain—until around the third trimester.
I suspect that the tendency to envisage a fetus and even an embryo otherwise is an exercise in projection. After all, they are a conveniently blank canvas upon whom misogynistic people—men and women included—may project the sense that women like me have abandoned our roles, duties, even our biological function. We are neglecting the vulnerable beings who depend on us—in reality, the men who have been historically accustomed to leaning down on and exploiting us for care labor. The developing fetus is an especially convenient proxy for such resentments because they have no political agenda or interests which actually demand advocacy.
And so, as I hold my sleeping two year-old daughter in my arms—I did, after all, have a child, when the time was right for me—I yearn for a future in which these truths will be freely acknowledged. And I will fight like hell to raise her in a country that once again sanctions them legally.