Does It Matter Why Women Have Abortions?

Does It Matter Why Women Have Abortions?

Does It Matter Why Women Have Abortions?

Yes, it does. Let’s talk about the context in which women seek abortion care—not to sort the deserving from the unworthy but to create better public policy for all.


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The Guttmacher Institute today released a nationally representative study, the first of its kind, finding that most women seeking abortions had experienced at least one “disruptive event” in the year prior to their abortion. Such “social shocks,” as study author Ann Moore called them, include moving multiple times, being unemployed, separating from a partner, falling behind on rent or a mortgage or having a partner incarcerated, among others. Physical or sexual abuse is another kind of “disruptive event,” one that seven percent of women obtaining abortions reported. “Women with abusive partners are substantially over-represented among abortion patients,” the study concluded. Perhaps surprising to some, more than half of the women surveyed reported using a contraceptive method in the month before they become pregnant.

The study comes as a needed reality check after Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin’s ridiculous remarks about the likelihood of pregnancy after “legitimate rape.” As this and other studies suggest, rape and sexual coercion play a role in a significant number of pregnancies. The link found in the Guttmacher study between intimate partner violence and unintended pregnancy in particular calls out for further examination, said Moore. “There are direct ways that violent partners, and nonviolent partners, can interfere with a women’s ability to prevent unintended pregnancy. There’s also a relation between the instability that comes with being in a violent relationship.” Two years ago, Lynn Harris reported on a crop of studies that identified a phenomenon researchers called “reproductive coercion” among teens in abusive relationships, “in which abusive partners subject young women already at risk of violence to the additional health risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.” Birth control sabotage also showed up in the Guttmacher study released today, with six respondents of forty-nine saying their partners had undermined their efforts to prevent pregnancy, for example by tampering with contraceptives. Researcher Elizabeth Miller has called for more study into whether “pregnancy ambivalence”—the term researchers use to describe sexually active women who don’t want to get pregnant but aren’t trying to prevent it—is really “male-partner influence on women’s reproductive health and autonomy.”

Akin’s comments have provoked a number of thoughtful responses about how often women are obligated to justify their rapes, abortions and other personal, private life events. Whether a rape victim appears “legitimate” can often determine whether the rape is prosecuted, and whether the jury convicts the defendant. Whether a woman seeking an abortion is doing so for a “legitimate” reason—her health is in danger, or the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest—can determine whether she can legally or practically access the abortion at all.

Drawing attention to women who experience reproductive coercion or seek an abortion as a result of a rape might, on the surface, suggest that we’re trying to find an “excuse” for an abortion—a “legitimate” reason—that, might, just might, placate conservatives. As Maya Dusenbery wrote on Feministing, “You don’t know anything about other people’s lives. The point is to show that we can’t categorize abortions into these different types, because every single woman’s reason for getting an abortion is absolutely unique” (emphasis in the original).

Hearing about other people’s abortions requires in us a deep humility about what we can know about others’ life circumstances and how and why they make the choices they do. We can’t categorize abortions, and we shouldn’t. But our ability, as progressives, to push for policies that respond to the realities and complexities of women’s lives would be enriched if we all understood more about what other factors are going on in women’s lives when they are pregnant and aren’t sure they want to be (or are certain they don’t want to be).

The purpose of talking about the specific situations in a woman’s life is not to pit the women who deserve abortions against unworthy ones. No one is entitled to turn a personal opinion about when a private medical procedure is ethical and when it isn’t into a law that interferes with a decision made between a provider and patient. For many women, an abortion is exactly what they need, and all they need. But for many others, it’s a sign that they lack the necessary sexuality education, access to birth control or safety at home that would enable them to prevent pregnancy. Even more pernicious is the reality that abortion can be a sign of an abusive partner who won’t use the birth control a woman knows very well about.

“For women who have a great deal of insecurity in their lives, abortion is not a magic bullet, but it helps them manage everything else they have going on,” says Moore. “All the social turbulence sets the stage on which she winds up being exposed to an unintended pregnancy.”

There’s a danger that seeking to understand more about the circumstances of women’s abortion choices reiterates the same power dynamic we’re fighting against: that a broader public is entitled to know why a woman is getting an abortion, find out all about her life, and make up their minds about her decision. And I’m not convinced that even if they do understand the real and complex reasons behind a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy, anti-choicers will see how heartless and fantasy-based their belief system is. But those of us who support women’s autonomy, in all circumstances, can’t let our commitment to non-judgment interfere with getting a fuller picture on the lives of women who have sought abortions. As anyone who has been to an abortion speakout knows, there’s a lot to learn.

“The hopeful impact of this study is to help make clear the complex social circumstances that women are experiencing at the time that they are choosing to terminate a pregnancy,” says Moore. “It helps fill out the life stories of the challenges women are facing. These are not easy experiences that we were measuring. We hope it will help raise awareness about often turbulent lives that women are having to juggle at the same time that they’re facing unintended pregnancy.”

For more of The Nation’s coverage on Todd Akin’s comments, read Ilyse Hogue’s The Danger of Laughing at Todd Akin.

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