Williamsburg Writer Opens Dialogue on Tough Issues
Williamsburg writer and activist Jennifer Baumgardner likes to discuss things that others shy away from. Her last book, Look Both Ways (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007) addressed bisexuality. Her latest, Abortion & Life, came out in September of this year from Akashic Books. It attempts to deconstruct the stigma surrounding the abortion procedure, a stigma that leaves many women feeling bereft and ashamed—if simultaneously relieved and grateful—when they exercise their freedom of choice.
“Abortion is so easy to fight over and so hard to talk about,” says the thirty-eight-year-old North Dakota native. “I’m trying to create the talk space.”
A lifelong feminist, Baumgardner recalls reading her mother’s Ms. magazine when she was in grade school. Her first conversation about abortion occurred when she was ten and a family friend explained the meaning of a political button depicting a wire coat hanger with a red line running through it. No women should ever again be forced to shove a piece of metal into her uterus because she lacks access to legal abortion, the friend explained. While Baumgardner admits that it took years for her to fully understand the concept of reproductive justice, even as a child she knew that some pregnancies are neither wanted nor well-timed.
This belief was tested five years later when Baumgardner’s older sister, then sixteen, accidentally became pregnant. “We lived in a family with super supportive, pro-choice parents and my sister still felt she couldn’t tell them,” she remembers. “This nagged at me. The stigma for her was over being sexual. She saw sexuality as dirty.”
After borrowing $200 from a friend of a friend, Baumgardner’s sister had the abortion. Years later, when their parents learned what had transpired, “they were devastated and felt usurped and protective of me,” wondering why she had gone to her fifteen-year-old sibling and not to them.
The ensuing family drama raised new questions for Baumgardner, not about the efficacy of abortion, but about its separation from other medical procedures. She wondered why people spoke of gall bladder or root canal surgery, but not about ending a pregnancy, especially given the frequency of surgery. Research says that more than one-third of U.S. women have at least one abortion during their lifetimes—at a rate of more than one million a year—so she was baffled by the silence and sought to understand its causes. Had her friends and colleagues had abortions? What had the experience been like?
At the same time, Baumgardner began thinking about the pro-choice slogans she had heard since childhood: “My body, my life, my right to decide,” “Not the church, not the state, women will decide their fate,” or “It’s a fetus, not a baby.” She wondered whether these clichés were overly glib, ignoring concerns about life, parenthood, and coming of age that many in the non-activist community struggled with.
Her inquiry led her to another realization: a generational divide exists between those who remember the days of illegal abortion and those who do not. “Few women who have unplanned pregnancies today have personal experiences of a time when abortion was illegal or when being a single mother meant social doom,” she writes in Abortion & Life. “The days when a woman or girl had to be willing to pay any sum and endure any danger or humiliation are for the most part over.” Also, new technologies like sonograms and accounts of babies surviving birth at twenty-three weeks make ambivalence about both fetal life and abortion easier to understand.
“I think of pregnancy as life,” Baumgardner writes, “but this does not have to mean that abortion is murder.”
Indeed, Baumgardner understands that people often feel profound personal discomfort when faced with abortion, even when they support reproductive choice as a political right. She argues for honest talk with women considering abortion: about their concerns over the procedure, what the clinic experience is like, and the reprisals they fear will follow their decision. Real people, she says, have real concerns and real conflicts: how can you feel badly—or guilty or embarrassed—following something you chose? How can you feel positive about the choice to abort if you fear that others will judge you harshly for your decision? How can you want one child, but not another?
“Telling the truth about your own life to the people in your life is essential,” Baumgardner says. “What led me to where I am today is a disconnect between people’s personal lives and what they say publicly about abortion. When I interview pro-choice experts or leaders, they usually speak from a position of extreme authority, not a personal connection to women and families. That’s what we’re often missing in the debate, the notion that personal experiences and reactions are complex. It’s not just about politics. When you speak about real life you risk something, but it also opens up conversations.”
Those conversations, between friends and acquaintances and between clinicians and patients, form the crux of Baumgardner’s “personal is political” ethos. They are also part of a three-pronged project that she began in 2003 which culminated in the publication of Abortion & Life. Shortly before the huge 2004 March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C., Baumgardner created 500 t-shirts with a simple but bold message: “I Had An Abortion.” Although people on the Left, Right, and Center condemned the shirts, they sold out immediately. This was followed by a documentary film, released in 2005 and directed by Gillian Aldrich, also called I Had An Abortion. In the film, 10 women of diverse backgrounds talk about the circumstances that led them to end their pregnancies—both before and after Roe v. Wade.
Abortion & Life includes 16 oral histories—from 15 women and one man—further illuminating the panoply of emotional responses that reproductive options arouse. But the book does more than this by smashing stereotypes about who has abortions and why they have them. Like eighty-nine-year-old Florence Rice, who recalls going to a midwife for the abortion in the 1930s. “I did get an infection and ended up in Harlem Hospital,” she recalls. “The nurses were very nasty because they wanted to know who did it.”
Others, like writer Amy Richards, had post-Roe abortions. But despite being politically pro-choice, the experience brought up feelings of shame. “When I got pregnant and had an abortion, I felt dirty...All these stereotypes that I had fled throughout my life suddenly came to fruition. It was like, of course this would happen to me, because I’m not really a nice middle-class girl. I feared the stereotype of people who have abortions.”
Still others, like Spanish citizen Sebastiana Correa, felt relief that she had the option of abortion. “My first reaction was of happiness that I found out I was pregnant in a country where abortion is legal. In my Catholic country, abortion is illegal and immoral.”
The book also raises what is sure to be a contentious issue—that it is possible to be a feminist and be personally opposed to abortion. Baumgardner knows that many Second Wave activists will bristle at this idea but she is unfazed by the potential disagreement. After all, debating difficult issues is her stock and trade. Besides, she’s already moved on to her next project, a documentary film due out in Spring 2009 called I Was Raped, where women speak out about their personal experiences of sexual violation.
Abortion & Life, with photographs by Tara Todra-Whitehill, is available from Akashic Books, www.akashicbooks.com, $16.95.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader
Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer, and activist. She writes the monthly Stoking Fire column on rhrealitycheck.org, and also contributes to feministreview.org, ontheissuesmagazine.com, The Progressive and other progressive, feminist publications and blogs.