Feminist author and blogger Jessica Valenti, known for (among other things) advocating free abortions on demand and without apology, recently wrote an apology for her own abortion. Yet, she couldn't even use the word. Instead, Valenti's essay poignantly describes the dire medical circumstances surrounding her unplanned pregnancy, her adoring love for the toddler she already has, the loss of her hope to provide her daughter with a sister, and the traditions she has cultivated around the family table to pass on to her child, such as Sunday sauce.
So it is here, it seems—at the family table—that abortion has finally arrived in its collective meaning for all of us. The semiotics of abortion in American culture has evolved, and with it the images that give its meaning power: from the dark, dirty alley; to the clean, well-lighted clinic; and now, to the warm glow of the family dining room.
Nearly every table set for the family gathering at Thanksgiving this year will have a missing place, if not two or more, since one in three women in America now has an abortion by age 45; the majority of these self-identify as Christian. Even in the church, abortion is no longer something that affects "other" people; it affects us all. The volume of abortions has grown so astronomically high today that it's virtually impossible not to be intimately acquainted with someone who has had one, explains Olivia Gans Turner, director of American Victims of Abortion. It's statistically unlikely that our own families have been untouched by abortion. Abortion hits home for all of us.
Still, it too often goes unacknowledged, even unknown, in our own families. "We're not going to discuss it over pumpkin pie," she said. Yet trusted loved ones should be those most welcoming to women (and men) needing to share an abortion experience. Turner founded her outreach after going through acute distress following her own abortion as a college student. My friend Debbie, who had an abortion at 22 when she was homeless, jobless, and penniless, says her healing didn't begin until she was able to "surrender the secret in a safe place."
In a recent New York Magazine article, "My Abortion," 26 women surrendered to millions of readers the moving stories of their abortions. Abortion, according to the introduction to their stories, "is something we tend to be more comfortable discussing as an abstraction; the feelings it provokes are too complicated to face in all their particularities." It's an issue yet to be resolved "in our consciences."
The women profiled represent diverse ages, socio-economic backgrounds, circumstances, and feelings. Even so, an overwhelming sense of grim despair emerges from each stark recollection. Not one of the women celebrates exercising her right to abortion as one celebrates exercising one's right to worship or vote or marry.
Nicole, 19, begins her story with her dread that the aborted baby's due date is coming up. She didn't want the abortion but rather wanted to show her boyfriend she "loved him enough to do it for him." Janet, 48, had an abortion at 18 after being drugged and raped. She says, "The staff was very matter-of-fact, no kindness. A nurse said, 'It looks like it was a girl.'" Abby, 28, had a second abortion by pill. "When I went home, I got up to pee, and this gray golf-ball thing came out. I thought, So I just flush the toilet?"
Lauren, 34, wonders after miscarrying another pregnancy following her abortion, "Am I praying the price for what I did? I believe in a God who wouldn't punish that way. But when you don't want a gift you're given, will the universe offer up that gift again?" Heather, 32, is married and has had two abortions and says that if her family knew, her relationship with them "would be gone." Alex, 24, has had two abortions. "It does affect you," she says. "Sometimes you regret and sometimes you feel good. You think, The baby would be a year old now." The article ends with these haunting words.
After decades of legal abortion on demand, our collective denial of its devastation is finally starting to break "at every level," Turner told me in a recent interview. Particularly, she added, stories like these indicate a "gradually dawning collective consciousness that all of our lives have been changed by abortion."
This is why stories like these shared by Valenti and in New York are so significant. Even Slate, describing the New York Magazine story as harrowing, acknowledges, "It helps no one when women feel that their feelings about their own personal experiences with abortion and contraception are somehow 'not okay.'"
Indeed, to pretend these abortions haven't taken place—the likely scenario at the family gatherings—stifles the ability of women, and men, to receive the blessing of comfort by mourning. Whether these unexpressed emotions are of guilt, shame, grief, or relief, or a combination of all these, the ability to name them helps drain them of their power.
We who are pro-life must realize and remember that "I told you so" is not the loving response to those in mourning over their abortions. Even more important than mourning for the lost lives of those missing from the table is mourning with those in mourning who are seated there with us: our sisters, our daughters, our cousins, friends. There is no other place than at God's abundant table to turn mourning into joy.
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