Abortion: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Gloria Steinem. Photo: Tara Todras-Whitehill

Gloria Steinem. Photo: Tara Todras-Whitehill

Anyone who has followed the dramatic reversal of public opinion about same-sex marriage in particular and LGBTQ issues in general knows that a big part of that shift has been due to people coming out of the closet. Whadayaknow — these folks, nearly 2 percent of the U.S. population, were our sons, our daughters, our co-workers, our friends and acquaintances, often people we already loved, liked, or respected. It became a lot harder to hold on to old prejudices, didn’t it?

But coming out was not an option for those serving in the military. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was the U.S. military’s 1994 policy compromise to allow gays and lesbians to serve, so long as they stayed in the closet. When repealed in 2011, what adverse effects did our armed forces experience? A study one year later showed that military life went on as usual, national security was not compromised, and a new understanding and acceptance among soldiers and sailors ensued. The media became blissfully disinterested in the non-story.


When it comes to abortion, we’re not asking, and we’re not telling.


Noodling on this “familiarity breeds understanding” idea, I began thinking that the same might be true if those of us who have had abortions came out of the closet, too. Turns out, this idea is not my own brilliant insight, but has been around for years and is gaining traction: In 2005, Jennifer Baumgardner produced a film; in 2011, Congresswoman Jackie Speier told her story on the floor of the House of Representatives; the “1 in 3” website has published hundreds of personal abortion stories since 2011; Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis revealed her previous abortions in her 2014 autobiography; #ShoutYourAbortion appeared on Twitter in September 2015.

Mostly, though, we still live in the de facto “don’t ask, don’t tell” abortion world — yes, we know abortion happens for some women out there somewhere, but we avoid divulging the details of this reality of human reproductive life. Is abortion really too unpleasant or unfortunate or shameful or embarrassing to speak of in public? If 1 in 3 women (33 percent!) has had or will have an abortion, consider how many of your lifetime circle of female acquaintances would have had an abortion. Let’s do the math:

   3 women known = 1 had an abortion
30 women known = 10 had abortions
300 women known = 100 had abortions
3,000 women known = 1,000 had abortions

I know of only two other abortions among all the women I have ever known. Trust me — I have known more than six women in my long, corporate-gypsy life. See the problem? We’re not asking, and we’re not telling.

It’s been more than 50 years since I had an illegal abortion. Nobody had ever asked me about it until recently, when an anti-abortion protester confronted me on Pink Out Day. “Have you ever had one?” he asked. Without a second thought, I told him, “Yes, I had an abortion … Yes, I’d do it again … My two wonderful daughters are in my life because I did.” He departed proclaiming, “Blood is on your hands … You’re sick if you watched those videos and still support abortion.” Well, sir, sticks and stones …

Abortion access is necessary if women are to control their own lives, chart their own courses. Most people support leaving an abortion decision to the woman (especially for the 92 percent of abortions that occur in first trimester), but stigma is still a barrier. Are anti-abortion attacks in the public square the only basis for stigma, or are women complicit because they are buying into the shaming narrative or simply want to avoid confrontation? Are we our own worst enemy when we don’t provide compelling personal information to mostly male lawmakers and judges who constrain abortion based upon hearsay and false assumptions ( e.g., that most women regret their abortions), disregarding the complex situations women face in the real world?

But surely the responsibility to speak out shouldn’t fall solely on women’s shoulders. It takes two to tango, after all, so we need to hear from the fellows, as well, to cover the other half of the opportunity for awareness, understanding, and acceptance. What about male participants in pregnancies that end in abortion, men who support a partner’s decision and her right to make it? Where are their stories, their perspectives, their websites, their #ShoutYourAbortion tweets?

Sadly, many of men’s published abortion stories skew toward the powerless, male-victimization, entitled-fatherhood view, but I did find one positive, information-packed site dedicated to men. Many men care deeply about the women in their lives and support their abortion decisions, including Warren and Brian, who took the time to make their own “1 in 3” videos. And where is the analysis that shows that 1 in “X” number of men have caused a pregnancy that resulted in an abortion? It would have to be similar to women’s statistics, wouldn’t it?

For the two-thirds of men and women out there who have neither experienced an unintended pregnancy nor faced an abortion decision, you may have nothing to tell, but you can ask. Most important, children can ask their grandmoms, moms, and dads if they have ever chosen abortion before or after they themselves were born. At rallies, we could use more rebuttal T-shirts saying, “If my mom (or grandmom) had NOT had an abortion, I would NOT be here.” After all, every child is here because his or her mother made reproductive decisions for childbirth (always), childbirth then abortion (well-being and greater opportunity for existing children), and/or abortion then childbirth (delay parenthood until ready for lifelong responsibilities).

Let’s turn now to the powerful men and women who are strangely silent about their own abortion stories — our congressional representatives. Notice how they regularly tout their legislative expertise by broadcasting personal experiences of military service, childhood hardships overcome, family medical difficulties endured, life’s obstacles surmounted, etc. When it comes to debates and votes regarding abortion, though, where is that personal touch, that first-hand story about their own or their partner’s abortion? Debates are sprinkled instead with anonymous hypotheticals or cherry-picked stories from abortion opponents. Wouldn’t full disclosure of real-world experience make for more intelligent lawmaking? I suspect our lawmakers “don’t tell” because:

  1. Publicizing their abortion(s) gives unnecessary ammunition to vociferous, anti-abortion adversaries.
  2. They are hypocrites. “Do as I say, not as I do.” (See, for example, Tennessee Rep. Scott DesJarlais.)

So here’s my fantasy. An enterprising, investigative Washington journalist interviews all 43 Representatives who sit on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that interrogated our national president, Cecile Richards, on September 29, 2015. Our fantasy journalist will ask the following question:

Rep. ________: Have you ever had sex that resulted in a pregnancy that was terminated by your decision (females) or with no opposition from you (males)?

  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. I won’t tell

Statistics suggest that about 14 of the 43 committee members would truthfully respond “Yes.” Wagers, anyone?

3 thoughts on “Abortion: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

  1. You and I are probably close to the same age, so Yes, I know there are many of us out there. But I still don’t think it will help bridge the divide by admitting to an abortion (whether legal or illegal) in the hopes of removing the stigma. In fact I am more concerned that it will only make things worse. From the 60s through today, I try to not use the word “abortion” unless the conversation is specific to abortion. I wrote to many news stations many times when the words “pro-abortion” were used. Who is “pro” abortion? Nobody! What we are is Pro right-to-choose, Pro women’s access to health care, Pro Planned Parenthood funding for women’s health. We’re not Pro-abortion. I always felt that the crazy Christian Right were the ones who always wanted to make it about abortion. In fact, even today, when we watched the pounding of Cecile Richards by those barbarians on the House Committee, I was stunned at just how many times they used the word Abortion, not because they had to, but because each time they said that word, they said it with as much rage as possible -with an accompanying facial look of disgust – in an attempt to shout out to the public just how disdainful and reprehensible an act having an abortion is. Let’s remember that the gunning down of Dr Tiller and others was practically applauded by those hate-mongers on a national “faux” news show. Let’s not forget that as the ability to photoshop just about anything, tamper with videos, etc. is all used to thoroughly inflame to great effect. I really believe that we put ourselves and all women in danger, and at risk, from any vigilanti crusader who wants to do what they believe is their mission to accomplish. It still isn’t the time to self-Out. Thanks for listening.

    • Donna, I definitely see your points. Media should be mindful of how they frame the issue. I see myself as in favor of access to abortion, or abortion rights, as it’s a decision for each individual to make for themselves as they chart the course of their own lives.

      However, I do think there’s an argument to be made for “reclaiming” a word like “abortion,” which has been given an ugly connotation by its opponents. Letting opponents push us into using euphemisms or avoiding discussions about the issue perpetuates the stigma they have loaded it with. We need to talk about it as the common medical procedure that it is, one that affects people in pretty much every social network. The push for visibility can help put faces and stories to an issue that is rarely discussed with nuance.

      Not everyone who has had an abortion wants to self-out, and that is fine. People have different comfort levels when it comes to what they might see as private medical decisions. But I admire the people who are sharing their stories, so others can learn about the diversity of experiences. Some people have been raised to believe that anyone who has had an abortion is evil, or psychologically damaged — meeting people who defy these stereotypes can change minds.

      “Coming out” is one strategy among many that can be used to effect change. It’s not the only one, and not everyone has to choose it.

  2. Donna, thanks for taking the time to comment. My view (come on out, guys and gals, who have had abortions) and yours (too much danger/risk to come out) are reminiscent of the similar debate when the LBGTQ community made its big push for equality. Many had suffered unspeakable violence and death, so the dangers of adopting the “coming out” strategy were severe. But the strategy that prevailed was “Come Out,” and I think the results speak for themselves.

    Standing up to bullies is what this fight is about, and it’s crunch time. My decision to use my full name as a blogger and for my “1 in 3” website story is another tactic I use. Because I am confident that our position of leaving all reproductive choices up to the woman is right, I’ll take on all comers to debate the merits. Only cowards lash out with bombs, guns, or fists. For any readers who think threats are going to still my voice I say, “Oh yeah? Try me.” For readers in agreement with me, I quote Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher, “… don’t go wobbly on me.”

    Blue Skies,

    Anne Hopkins

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *