Forced Abortion in America
Unsuitable for Motherhood? Women Face Social and Cultural Pressure to Abort
In this excerpt from her book Giving Sorrow Words: The Unspoken Pain of Abortion, journalist and women's rights advocate Melinda Tankard Reist discusses some of the social and cultural factors that can lead to abortion.
Abortion often takes place under conditions of reduced freedom.
Inequitable workplace treatment, struggles to receive appropriate support, class and cultural biases in family size, attitudes toward "older" women and toward disabled women and disabled unborn babies, along with the social subordination of women in general, all conspire to direct certain women in a certain direction.
If the conditions for continuing an unplanned pregnancy are not considered perfect when judged against socially accepted criteria, women often feel a sense of duty to abort.
Germaine Greer wrote in 1992:
[T]he fiction of the right to "choice" masked women's real vulnerability in the matter of reproduction. It is typical of the contradictions that break women’s hearts that when they availed themselves of their fragile right to abortion they often, even usually, went with grief and humiliation to carry out a painful duty that was presented to them as a privilege … Abortion is the last in a long line of non-choices …1
Greer elaborates on this in her book, The Whole Woman:
What women “won” was the "right" to undergo invasive procedures in order to terminate unwanted pregnancies, unwanted not just by them but by their parents, their sexual partners, the governments who would not support mothers, the employers who would not employ mothers, the landlords who would not accept tenants with children, the schools that would not accept students with children …
If the child is unwanted, whether by her or her partner or her parents, it will be her duty to undergo an invasive procedure and an emotional trauma and so sort the situation out.
The crowning insult is that this ordeal is represented to her as some kind of a privilege. Her sad and onerous duty is garbed in the rhetoric of a civil right. Where other people decide that a woman’s baby should not be born she will be pressured to carry out her duty to herself, to the fetus, to other people, to the health establishment, to the state by undergoing abortion.
Her autonomy is the least important consideration. In both cases she is confronted with other people who know better than she what she ought to do.2
Jael, from Victoria, highlights the structural issues which make women feel they have little choice other than abortion, in her account of her two terminations:
The financial strain in my life was too enormous to even consider having the baby … there is a grieving—I wished I had been given the "body" to bury—this would have made me sit down and think for myself, but I felt so railroaded by "the system"—the alternatives seemed worse, as anybody who is involved in the vicious cycle of homelessness, domestic violence, unemployment, low incomes, welfare and public housing, knows. My grief was more at being out of control of the situation—no woman would [abort] if there were suitable, decent alternatives.
Sherryn, a ward of the state at the time of her abortion in Queensland at the age of 13, had no say in what would be done to her, though she did not want the abortion: “I didn't understand how they could do that. Basically, what they’re saying is: 'We can murder your child because you’re a state ward.'" Sherryn suffered months in institutions after the abortion and engaged in self-mutilation. When pregnant a second time, she went on the run so as not to be forced to abort again.
Liz, from Tasmania, felt a sense of shame about a pregnancy in her forties, when the youngest of her three children was ten:
Seeing my distress, my doctor assumed that I didn’t want another child and reminded me I was middle-aged, as if I didn't know. I went for an ultrasound in order to discover whether there might be an abnormality that would give us a valid reason for terminating the pregnancy.
Instead of rejoicing with me in the signs of new life there was silence and my questions went unanswered under my doctor’s orders. The risks of being an older mother were well known to me … I pictured myself old and gray by the time this child was in high school. Even harder to bear was the remark by my husband that he felt he might be ridiculed by colleagues at work.
Looking back I needed encouragement and offers of help as I felt almost alone with an impossible decision. I cannot describe the torment of the following months and years.
My experience of a miscarriage some years before had been nothing compared to this overwhelming grief which engulfed my life after termination. A few years later when the older children left home I went through a period of deep mourning again. On every visit to the shops I was searching for my baby …
Laurel Guymer, a former abortion center nurse, left her job in a Melbourne business partly because of the pressures she saw being applied to women judged unsuitable for motherhood:3
Women who were poor, unemployed, too young, too old, working in the sex industry, not married, had no steady partner, or suffered any mental instability were reassured by the clinic staff and society that it was best they have an abortion.
It is clear that society fears a certain type of woman having a baby and I found that many of the doctors and nurses I met in the abortion center were not any different despite their supposed commitment to feminist principles.
Excerpted from the book Giving Sorrow Words: Women's Stories of Grief After Abortion, by Melinda Tankard Reist. This book is available from the Elliot Institute under our Acorn Books publishing imprint. For more information, visit www.unchoice.info or call 1-888-412-2676.
1. Germaine Greer, “The Feminine Mistake,” The Sydney Morning Herald, May 9, 1992, p. 39.
2. Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman (New York: Doubleday, 1999) 86, 90.
3. Guymer’s account of use of the abortion drug Misoprostol in a Melbourne clinic is told in M. Tankard Reist, “Misoprostol-Nurse Speaks Out on Dangers For Women,” FINRRAGE Journal, 13-1
7 (March 1998).
[Elliot Institute, 19June08]