Fearless on Abortion

Naming names forces a confrontation. Whatever our moral and ethical issues are about abortion, it makes clear that the women who have abortions are not alien and apart.
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Amidst a growing media buzz, the "We Had Abortions" issue of Ms. Magazine will hit the newsstands next week. Listed by name will be over 1,000 of the 5000 women who reportedly have signed Ms.'s petition acknowledging that they've had abortions. The rest of the names will appear on Ms.'s website.

Kudos to Ms. I spent several years being about a similar business. I wrote a book, The Choices We Made: 25 Women and Men Speak Out About Abortion. It not only named names (mostly famous ones), but also recounted the intimate details of each person's abortion experience. The book came out in 1991, on the heels of two U.S. Supreme Court decisions restricting a woman's access to abortion, and two pro-choice D.C. demonstrations that attracted a total of nearly one million people.

Gloria Steinem pitched the idea for the book, to be focused on well-known personalities, to Random House, which took me on as the author. I had no idea what celebrities would agree to be in such a book, but it was my job to find them. So I wrote a letter, the oddest letter I've ever written, saying, You don't know me, and I don't know whether you've ever had an abortion, but if you have, would you like to talk to me about it?

To my great surprise, out of a deep commitment to keeping abortion legal and despite the risks of what others would think, people agreed. I talked with Fatal Attraction star Anne Archer, who wept as she recounted her steps into a ramshackle building in Mexico for an illegal abortion. I heard actress and singer Polly Bergen's harrowing story of the kitchen-table abortion that cost her her fertility, and retired marine Jim Friedl's devastating recollection of his 27-year-old mother's death at home from an overdose of a drug she had taken to abort.

I spoke with Reverend Christine Grimbol at her Long Island, New York, church about the legal abortion she had as a lonely young woman, while her eight-year-old son slipped love notes under the door. And I met with actress Kathy Najimy, who grew up Catholic and had a legal abortion. "When you do something like that," she said in her show Parallel Lives, "you do it because for you it is your only choice. The sad thing is you really want to be able to feel bad about it without feeling wrong."

For months, I fielded calls from all manner of celebrities as they considered my request. One day I picked up the phone and a woman said: "Hold the line for Katherine Hepburn." I promptly dropped the receiver, retrieved it, and was immediately chastised by Hepburn. She said in her croaky voice that "This is a ri-dic-ulous idea for a book." She said it flew in the face of the very principle of choice, that the decision to have or not have a child must be a private one. I told her the book was Gloria Steinem's idea.

Of course, I didn't agree with Hepburn. I agreed with Gloria, who wrote in the foreword to The Choices We Made: "From the prisoners whose stories started the storming of the Bastille and the French Revolution to the 'speaking bitterness' groups of China, from the church 'testifying' that started the Civil Rights movement to the consciousness-raising that began this most recent wave of feminism, populist truth-telling has been the heart and soul of movements and revolutions all over the world."

In the 15 years since my book was originally published, the battle over abortion has turned deadly, with doctors murdered and workers lying wounded at their desks. Along with the violence has come vilification. In a premonition of what was to come, a young actress who had had a legal abortion told me why she decided she couldn't be in my book. "There's real sympathy for women who had illegal abortions," she said. "They're the martyrs. I feel like a criminal."

Judie Brown, American Life League president, sees women who have had abortions in just that way. On her website, she wrote: "When I saw the Ms. Magazine invitation to join the new 'We had Abortions' petition campaign, the evil practically jumped right off the page."

Naming names forces a confrontation. It flies in the face of the cross-cultural inability to integrate the virgin and the whore, the spiritual, nurturing woman with the passionate, sexual one. Whatever our moral and ethical issues are about abortion--and there are many--it makes clear that the women who have abortions are not alien and apart. They are, as they have always been, our mothers, our grandmothers, and our great-grandmothers. The women in my book had collectively mothered fifty-two biological, adopted, and step-sons and daughters; they had twenty-eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Of her reason for participating in my book, actress Anne Archer said, "It is only through the personal stories of women who have had abortions that we will come to understand what the human experience is." With 26 million women having abortions each year in countries where it is legal, and 20 million in countries where it is restricted or illegal (and where over 70,000 women will die), we still don't have any idea what that human experience really is.

The more women who bravely step forward to tell us, the closer we are likely to get.

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