“Mom, did you ever have an abortion?” It’s a simple question. Karen Thurston’s sons, Kevin and Stephen, never asked. Why would they? What would possibly make them even think to ask?
On the flip side, why did Karen never speak to her sons about her teenage experiences with abortion care? Because, for decades, Karen heeded the advice of her father, who had arranged for her 1973 procedure when she was just 13: “You must never, ever, as long as you live, tell anyone you had an abortion, not even your husband when you are grown.”
In 2013, though, she did tell her sons, and now tells her story forcefully, publicly, and with great compassion to chip away at the stigma associated with abortion care.
Consider now Kevin’s and Stephen’s reactions:
Kevin: I first learned of my mom’s abortion story when I was 23 years old. My mom asked me if it would be possible for the two of us to fly to Pittsburgh and meet my older brother there for dinner. My brother and I could both tell that this wasn’t just a whimsical get-together; there was something she wanted to talk about. That’s when she shared her story. We could tell it really pained her. Not only was the story difficult to tell on its own, but she was clearly afraid of our reaction. Even after raising us our whole lives, after being closer to us than anyone we’d ever known, she didn’t know if she could trust us to understand, and I think that speaks to how cruel stigmatization is. It is so isolating for women who’ve made that choice that they do not even see allies in their families or the children they do go on to raise.
Stephen: I was in graduate school. My mom and brother came to visit for the weekend. We went to a Pittsburgh Pirates game and stayed in a hotel afterward. It was a fun day. But I knew something was heavy on my mom’s mind. She sat us down in the hotel room that evening and told us her story … I was 27 years old.
Kevin: My initial reaction was really kind of an afterthought. It was almost like an “OK, and?” kind of moment for me. I don’t think abortion was ever something I was freaked out about as a teenager or young adult, even before learning my mom’s story. Even though my mom must have been screaming inside to tell us why abortion was so important, my brother and I were not taught to view that issue with any special passion one way or the other, and I didn’t have any peers growing up who made issues with it either. I was vaguely aware of it as a kind of third-rail issue and I think a combination of nature and nurture led me to think it was just something other people need and it’s none of my business. Even when I went through a more philosophically conservative phase in college, reproductive freedom was never a variable in that equation. So as far as my reaction to the story, I was immediately and definitely on her team. I thought it should have been obvious that I would be. And that further shows how much stigma and isolation kind of marshal women into secrecy even when they really shouldn’t need to keep secrets.
Stephen: My initial reaction was anger given the circumstances under which my mom became pregnant, the way her parents handled the situation, and the anguish my mom had endured for so many years. I was angry at the adults who had mistreated and failed to protect my 13-year-old mother. Next, after my mom had unloaded all of her emotions and told us her story, I remember thinking, “That’s it?” As in, you thought we’d never talk to you again after you told us this? You thought we’d never want to see you again? We wanted to hug you immediately and make you feel better. We felt closer to you after you told us. We wished you had told us years and years ago so you didn’t have to carry all that grief and guilt. Over time, I realize how hard it would have been for her to tell us when we were younger. I wish she didn’t have to carry that weight for so long. But I’m glad she told us. And we couldn’t love her any more than we do today. Always have. Always will.
Kevin and Stephen — male voices in support of abortion care:
Kevin: My first action after learning about my mom’s story was to share it with women I knew, women I was 100 percent sure would be receptive and empathetic. And maybe they shared it with women they knew. I could just see how painful it was for my mom to feel like she never had an ally. Passing on just one story could give hope in that regard for someone else. It would be a little later that I told close male friends about it. A common thread in their reactions was just simple ignorance. I could tell that the story challenged some vague notion they had that abortion is bad. They didn’t think it was “evil” or “murder” per se, but it seemed clear they were surprised to hear about it because they assumed it was taboo and not something a male friend would talk to them about. I think they understood the gravity of it once they heard the depth at which it shaped myself and my family.
Stephen: In my first job as a physician assistant in an emergency department, I was often privileged to know the intimacies of random people’s lives, usually when they were at their lowest or most vulnerable points. When women come in with pregnancy complications, it’s a routine part of the visit to find out their complete birth history. How many kids do you have, how many pregnancies, are all children still alive, any spontaneous or elective abortions, so on and so forth. Usually when someone had undergone an elective abortion, they told me so in a sort of ashamed way. Head turned down. Low voice. I saw my mom in those women. Since knowing my mom’s story and coming to understand the circumstances she was forced to navigate as a child, I’ve been much more sensitive to the subject. On multiple occasions, I’ve told my patients that there is no judgment here. My mother underwent elective abortions before I was born, and if she hadn’t, I likely wouldn’t be here today. Usually that will turn a downward, somber gaze into a look of relief. Admittedly, I’m not protesting for reproductive rights every weekend. I’m not writing letters to Congress all the time. I’m not escorting at clinics once a month. I should probably do these things. But instead, what I’ve tried to do is make sure none of my patients ever feel judged or stigmatized. Because I know that’s how my mom has felt her entire life. If I can make someone not feel the way she has always felt, even for a few minutes in an emergency department exam room, then I feel like I’ve at least done something.
Kevin: Women are justified in keeping these stories away from men for many reasons, but a side effect is that many men are unchallenged to think critically about the issue even if they might eventually be sympathetic. I think that’s why men aren’t a major voice on the pro-choice side. However, anti-choice activists obviously have no issue recruiting men into their ranks, and pro-choice activists should look to out-organize them in every demographic — so, inevitably, men must become a force for the movement.
Stephen: I have not discussed abortion care with other men. It’s never come up. That probably speaks to the state of reproductive issues. Women are usually left with the consequences of an unwanted pregnancy. Men get to skate away as if nothing ever happened. The number of men and the number of women affected by abortions are, theoretically, exactly the same. It takes one of each to make a pregnancy. Yet the face of abortion is undoubtedly a woman’s. I don’t think that’s fair at all.
Kevin: My advice to other men isn’t anything that hasn’t already been said by others. Most of all we must provide emotional support; we must unconditionally trust and accept the need for choice and those who have made that choice. After that we can be active by sharing the stories we know, making sure close friends are educated and can pay our stories forward, and time permitting get involved with clinic escort groups working at the actual clinics. [Author’s note: Kevin served for several months as a clinic escort at Southwestern Women’s Surgery Center in Dallas.]
Similarly, and this is not easy for everyone, we must support this issue financially. We all know that money buys power in this country and one of the best ways to empower this movement is to financially support groups that are trained legally and politically to engage with the system that controls the issue. And that doesn’t just mean the biggest national organizations. Here in Texas, a small nonprofit called Jane’s Due Process laid the groundwork for Jane Doe’s successful battle against the Trump administration. Without them, it may never have reached the level of the ACLU. So funding local and state-level efforts can really make a major difference. Lastly, and I hope that things do not come to this, but if reproductive rights are rolled back nationally, we have to dig in and support, in all of the aforementioned ways, those same local organizations and grassroots networks to help move people physically to and from places that recognize the right to choose so that they can have a safe and legal abortion.
Stephen: I guess my suggestion would be to speak up. Myself included. If you were part of, or affected by, an abortion, then make your story known so we can de-stigmatize the issue.
Author’s Note: What do I hope to achieve by sharing this family story? I hope that men will send this article to their mothers and other women in their lives with a note attached, something like, “Mom, I just want you to know that I feel about you like Kevin and Stephen do about their mom. If you ever want to talk about abortion care, I’m ready.”