President Obama plans to bring together pro- and anti-choice advocates by focusing on what we can do to reduce the need for abortion. Two stories this week illustrate the need for that, and why some people remain blind to it.
Over the course of the past week, Lisa Belkin's "Motherlode" blog on the New York Times has featured the story of "Emmie," who, at 22, found herself single, pregnant, on her way into a competitive graduate program that would leave her little opportunity for motherhood. She asked Belkin's readers for advice.
Do I really want to have a baby at 22? Do I really want to have this guy's child? Can I finish my master's and raise a newborn? Can I do it alone? Will I be happy?
I know that mothers come in all shapes, sizes and ages. I would like to ask you and your readers for their input. I don't know what I'm up against. Maybe a good mother knows when it's time to terminate, for her sake and for her child's.
Belkin's readers responded, mostly politely, with advice that Emmie took to heart.
It's nice to hear other people's experiences and ideas, especially when the world feels so incredibly small. The one thing that has helped is to just listen to other people. It doesn't matter what their advice is, whether or not I would have agreed with them a week ago, I just want to hear other people's ideas. I'm also really glad that I'm getting advice from complete strangers. I've realized that getting advice for your parents or relatives carries a certain weight that doesn't always feel so helpful.
Yesterday, Emmie updated the world with her decision. Having visited an adoption agency, Emmie decided that she couldn't let go of a child she carried to term. In talking with her parents, she realized they didn't particularly want her to give up her academic and professional dreams for a grandchild — and having talked to the school, she realized it would mean exactly that. While commenters suggested she look to her friends for assistance, she realized they'd backed away; when commenters suggested she look to the government, she realized that she wasn't poor enough to qualify for any assistance. The only person who stood by her, despite longing for her to abort the pregnancy, was her lover. Emmie wrote:
Once I came to the decision to terminate the pregnancy, so much of the guilt and sadness I'd been feeling melted away. I felt happy for the first time since finding out and I feel like my family is supportive of my decision. I'm focusing on the child I'll have in a few years from now with someone I feel safe with and supported by. The life of that child will be infinitely better than this one and, sometimes, I wonder if such a miserable, lonely woman could even have a healthy child.
Emmie's tale of inadequate social services, partners who don't want the responsibility, parents who think she'd be better off without it and a lack of financial wherewithal and support systems for a child isn't an uncommon story — even if the graduate school part of the scenario does leave the tale with just a whiff of class privilege. It's these factors — particularly the economic ones — that statistics show drive a lot of women to consider and choose abortion. For this reason, many people expect that Obama's thus-far-secret legislative package on abortion reduction will contain provisions designed to mitigate these factors for women that wish to keep their children but don't see how.
On the other side is Brazen Careerist's Penelope Trunk, who is so burdened by class privilege and her own two economically-driven abortions that she seems blind to why all women can't just chose to carry their own unwanted pregnancies to term. Of her first abortion, she writes:
The first one was when I was twenty-seven. I was playing professional beach volleyball.
This isn't exactly, as a friend of mine put it, working at McDonald's for minimum wage and trying to make ends meet. It's also rather reminiscent of Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh, who won the gold medal in beach volleyball last year and announced her 16 and a half week old pregnancy about 16 and a half weeks later (it was a boy).
Trunk discovered her pregnancy at 14 weeks and faced incredible pressure from her mother and friends to terminate the pregnancy for the sake of her career. She faces down the end of her first trimester in a Planned Parenthood clinic.
When I went back, I had a panic attack. I was on the table, in a hospital gown, screaming.
The nurse asked me if I was a religious Christian.
The boyfriend asked me if I was aware that my abortion would be basically illegal in seven more days.
I couldn't stop screaming. I was too scared. I felt absolutely sick that I was going to kill a baby. And, now that I know more about being a mother, I understand that hormones had already kicked in to make me want to keep the baby. We left. No abortion.
She doesn't sound like anyone who ought to be having an abortion. But after repeated social pressure, she caved and had her then-second-trimester abortion.
I went to sleep with a baby and woke up without one. Groggy. Unsure about everything. Everything in the whole world.
People think abortion is such an easy choice–they say, "Don't use abortion as birth control." Any woman who has had one will tell you how that is such crazy talk. Because an abortion is terrible. You never stop thinking about the baby you killed. You never stop thinking about the guy you were with when you killed the baby you made with him. You never stop wondering.
But rather than listen to her own feelings about her pregnancy, her situation or what she apparently actually believed about abortion (that it's killing babies), she proceeded to have a second one.
I hated that I put myself in the position of either losing all that or killing a baby.
I didn't tell anyone I was pregnant. I knew what they'd say.
So I completely checked out emotionally. I scheduled the abortion like I was on autopilot. I told my boyfriend at the last minute and told him not to come with me.
He said forget it. He's coming with me.
I remember staring at the wall. Telling myself to stop thinking of anything.
The doctor asked me, "Do you understand what's going to happen?"
I said yes. That's all I remember.
Trunk says now that she "bought into" the idea that being childless was the only way to have a career, so she had two abortions, neither of which she apparently wanted or thought was a good idea.
It now probably doesn't surprise you that Trunk doesn't think others ought to have abortions.
But also, here I am with two kids. So I know a bit about having kids and a career. And I want to tell you something: You don't need to get an abortion to have a big career.
Uh, right. I'm sure having to quit a graduate program she can't go back to will nonetheless leave Emmie completely financially stable and fulfilled. I'm sure the woman who can barely make ends meet on her own will have no problem having a "career" — let alone a steady job — and having a baby on her own. And I'm sure Trunk herself, despite laying her two abortions on the altar of her career, would nonetheless have the life she has now if she'd carried those pregnancies to term.
Trunk goes on:
It doesn't matter whether you have kids now or later, because they will always make your career more difficult. There is no time in your life when you are so stable in your work that kids won't create an earthquake underneath that confidence.
It's nice that Trunk lives in a world in which the biggest impact of an unwanted pregnancy (and child) would assert itself in her confidence about her ability to have a career. In the world in which many of the rest of us live — single and married — a child has pretty significant economic, job, career and social impacts beyond our self-confidence. Studies show that mothers always make less (and are less likely to be hired) than childless women and men. Parental leave laws in this country still suck, leaving many parents — including single women — without much in the way of paid leave, if they get any at all. There are nearly 9 million uninsured children in this country, and the number of uninsured young adults continues to rise every year. There are dozens and dozens of good economic and social reasons that women choose to terminate pregnancies that have nothing to do with expanding their "careers" — which is something not everyone in this country has the privilege to be able to aspire to. Too many women are too often just trying to scrape by, and an unwanted pregnancy (or child) is just going to add additional strain that it's entirely possible they can't handle. That's the whole purpose of the Obama Administration's purported focus on reducing the economic consequences of child-bearing, not to help women better shape their lucrative careers.