Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The fallacy of exceptionalism

Feminist Professor, one of the bloggers in our short blogroll to the right, has been blogging her abortion experience, and she has a post-procedure post today that got me in a writing mood.

She writes that she recently was discussing the question, do women who "just plain old get pregnant from having unprotected sex and end up aborting made it harder to defend the pro-choice position, as opposed to say the 'worthy' women who either through no fault of their own (rape/incest) or in grave medical peril (their own or that of the fetus) end up electing abortion"? Her answer in a nutshell, and mine, is that this shouldn't be relevant.

You could say that this is the sort of thing that people might ask when they are just theorizing abortion, casually chatting abortion, strategizing advocating abortion [rights] -- but not when they are having an abortion of their own. And you'd be right sometimes, but also wrong sometimes.

A commenter on that post wrote: If any reason is valid, are all valid. Normally when girls I counsel want to be the exception to their own "I don't believe in abortion" rule, they're not there because of rape, incest, or health.

And it's true. You'd think that a person might stop drawing lines around Good Abortions and Bad Abortions when she is there, in her own shoes, having an abortion. Sometimes she does. Other times she doesn't. Maybe she wants a way for her abortion to be good, without having to admit that she was wrong about Abortion the concept -- Abortion the Republican vote, or Abortion the thing that trashy girls do.

I can't count the times I've heard "I don't even believe in abortion but...". What does that even mean??, I want to say. (I also want to say "this isn't like do you believe in angels or do you believe in aliens! Abortion is a fact." But I don't, because that is not what she thinks she means. But she sort of reveals what she means without meaning to: do you believe in the existence of abortions had by decent women. Other than yourself.)

What I do say is "Yeah, it can be hard to know exactly how you'll feel about a situation until you're actually in it...". And, as I trail off, what I hope they take from that is both sympathy and a nudge to have some sympathy for others. Is that mean?

One of my favorites: "I don't believe in using abortion as birth control" -- often spoken from a seat in the counseling room at the clinic. Again, what does that mean? You don't think abortion should be used to prevent childbirth? Because that's what it does, you know. Yes yes, I know: really she means she doesn't think abortion should be used frivolously. Oh I see. Because there's nothing more frivolous than using birth control! When you feel your Good Girl status slipping away because you are choosing abortion, make sure to divert attention onto the Bad Girls who are not you, the girls who use birth control -- some of them every day.

Another: "Do I have to sit with all of them?" Ugh. Yes, you do. Them are women just like you, except some may be less judgmental. Sit yourself down in the waiting room and stop stressing that their abortion stain might rub off on you. You're having one of your own anyway!

Once we had a woman ask if she could come in through the back door. Like a VIP, I guess. Don't worry, every woman in this clinic is Very Important to me. You don't need a special entrance for that.

Another, sadder thing: a woman told me that she had always given her mom a hard time over an ancient abortion. "I could have had a brother," she would reproach. She got a pile of stickers reading "abortion stops a beating heart" and put them everywhere. Now she is twenty and pregnant, too young and too poor to have a child, and scared. She has believed all of the lies about her future fertility and mental health, told them to her mother, is invested in them, and now she doesn't want them to be true but doesn't want to have been a liar either. And she feels really guilty. I can tell you the facts about infertility or depression, but I can't undo the judgment you passed on your mother and all "women who have abortions."

These are all of the things I don't say, because it is not up to me how quickly a woman processes what is happening to her, or the fact that this very common thing that she thinks "nobody does" is happening to her own unique self. She is joining the crowd -- she will be one out of three -- but maybe right now she cannot see that as okay.


  1. I believe in Muppets.

    Good post, placenta sandwich. Not much for a non-abortioneer to add besides that.

  2. I think people who rev their engines should be ashamed of themselves, same with people who sit idle in a running car.
    I also believe in fairies. And world peace!

  3. thank you. I've often contemplated where my loyalties lie--with any individual woman vs. the movement as a whole. I've gotten really good at saying, I need to sleep tonight, too...when all else fails.

  4. ""Do I have to sit with all of them?" Ugh. Yes, you do. Them are women just like you, except some may be less judgmental."

    Ha! This line is fabulous. And the post is very true and sad. It's tough for me to just sit with those women who are not yet accepting that they've joined the crowd--or for some women, that they're back in for a second or third time. But trying to rush someone through that thought process never did anyone any good.

  5. Is it wrong for me to say that this feels a little culture shocky? It's clear who the "Do I have to sit with all of them" women think they are, but who are they?

    They must be referencing some kind of "big other" that makes them feel more comfortable saying crazy things like they don't "use abortion as birth control." How can clinicians make them feel like they don't need to be so embarrassed? Why do they say these things to abortioneers in the first place? Who exactly are the women distancing themselves from?

    Maybe in a way this is all related to the purpose of this satisfyingly informative blog.

  6. I believe women variably express a desire to prevent pregnancy with methods other than abortion due to cultural norms and overall distaste or puzzlement with the surgical or medication procedures.

    Shame is a comfortable feeling for women living in patriarchy to express, no?

  7. well, elisabeth, good point. i know that the words i hear as disdainful and aloof might be coming from a place of shame or fear and their articulation is just taking a tortured path -- and why should she articulate for my benefit, anyway? another reason i try to refrain from pushing a woman toward the interpretations with which *i* feel comfortable. but i admit, it can be challenging.


This is not a debate forum -- there are hundreds of other sites for that. This is a safe space for abortion care providers and one that respects the full spectrum of reproductive choices; comments that are not in that spirit will either wind up in the spam filter or languish in the moderation queue.