Why I Won't Come Out About My Abortion

My abortion is no one's business. My abortion is something that should be between me and my doctor, and going public with the details in an attempt to destigmatize choice could ruin my career. So why would I ever "come out" about it?

Let's get the ironic part out of the way first: I'm a visible pro-choice advocate and public figure, and when I was in my twenties, I had an abortion, which I am not going to talk about. Now would be the time to point that in talking about how I'm not going to talk about my abortion, I'm actually drawing more attention to the fact that I terminated a pregnancy — which would be a fair point if this was going to be a philosophical piece about pregnancy termination. What's at issue here isn't the fact that I had an abortion; what's at issue is women's privacy, and their right to choose to keep things to themselves without betraying feminism and women everywhere.

I've been thinking about privacy quite a bit since Anderson Cooper came out of the closet after years of pressure from groups who accused him of doing gay the wrong way. Sure, naysayers were probably right that Cooper's a handsome, glamorous celebrity that could help inspire others to come out without shame. But, the guy's got his own life to live. His personal life shouldn't be beholden to opinion polls. No one's should. Which is why I wonder if the stories behind projects like the newest I Had An Abortion initiative sometimes do more harm than good.

Public pressure to reveal extremely private information, especially if advocates think that information could promote a social good, comes from a well-intentioned place. Just as pro-gay rights folks who nudged Cooper out of the closet thought they were doing a good thing (even though it might not have seemed as fantastic from Cooper's perspective), so too are women's health advocates who aggressively promote "coming out" about abortion think they're increasing visibility and acceptance of the procedure, when they're really placing the onus on women to sacrifice themselves, their careers, their families, or their safety on the altar of ideology, especially if the woman is the wrong kind of woman or having an abortion for the wrong sort of reasons. Wearing a tee-shirt that reads "I had an abortion" might remind the average Joe Abstinence Only Education that all kinds of women have abortions and they're not all irresponsible sluts trying to erase their mistakes by taking the easy way out, and that they don't all look like Courtney Love during the nineties. But coming out pressure from women's groups places many women in an awkward position: do what's being asked of you for the greater good, and all of the risk falls on your shoulders, while all of the reward goes to the movement. That's hardly incentive to come forward. Remaining silent is an act of self-preservation.

But that uncomfortable fact hasn't stopped advocates from encouraging women to surrender their privacy in the name of preserving the privacy of others. In 2008, author and activist Jennifer Baumbardner launched a different I Had An Abortion project, an attempt to give men and women "space [...] to speak honestly about their lives and their abortion experiences." The project culminated with a film called Speak Out: I Had An Abortion, because, per the film's website, "Every major advance in reproductive freedom was preceded by women telling the truth about their lives." Women interested in participating in the project could purchase tee shirts that bore the project's name. Ostensibly, wearing it in public would "get people talking." Another project, called "I'm Not Sorry," invited women to share stories about how they don't regret their decisions to end their pregnancies. It's not as confrontational as Baumgardner's project, but it does allow women to submit stories with their names.

If you're a woman who has had an abortion, writing a story about it and releasing it into the ether of the internet is a pretty trendy thing to do in the year 2012. Abortion stories have popped up in everything from the New York Times to the Texas Observer to one woman who took pictures of her abortion and then posted them on the internet. Liberal congressional candidate Darcy Burner encouraged attendees at a recent progressive convention to stand up if they'd had an abortion, telling a keynote crowd, "If you are a woman in this room, and statistically this is true for about one third of the women in this room — if you're a woman in this room who has had an abortion and is willing to come out about it, PLEASE STAND UP." She then asked the rest of the room to stand with the women who were admitting publicly that they'd had an abortion. To keep all of these abortion confessions straight, the newest project called I Had An Abortion aims to aggregate stories of women and their abortions and draw conclusions about who shares their story, who doesn't, and why.

Come out, they say. But that refrain sounds a lot like a campaign from the other side of the ideological divide, a campaign that aims to shame and even harm women who admit they've terminated pregnancies. In the UK, a computer hacker upset with his sister's decision to terminate a pregnancy stole 1,000 abortion records from a clinic's database and threatened to release them. Protesters outside of abortion clinics learn the names of health care workers, learn their addresses, shout down volunteer patient escorts by name. One anonymous traveling abortion provider had her mother's name and address released by a pro-life website. I'm assuming it wasn't so people knew where to send flowers to an old lady who lived alone.

Have we gotten to a point where both sides of the abortion debate want the same thing from women who have had abortions? Do women in the public eye have a choice between telling the public ourselves, or waiting for someone else to do it for us? That hardly seems like a choice at all.

It's no mystery why abortion is a much more morally charged debate than, say, breast implants or SUV driving or even buying dogs from a breeder rather than adopting a used dog from the animal shelter where they film emotionally manipulative Sarah McLaughlin ASPCA commercials. There's an unbelievable amount of misleading information out there. The real anti-abortion hardliners believe that a woman opting out of pregnancy is literally the same thing as taking the life of another human being, and the pro-choice side believes that restricting abortion is the same thing as forcing women to be pregnant. Like livestock. If they approach the subject at all, TV shows and movies depict abortion as a horrible tragedy that ruins lives rather than an outpatient procedure that has saved women's futures, careers, livelihoods. I'd guess that most of the devoted pro-life figures holding up big bloody pictures of fetuses have chosen to ignore the fact that most abortions look nothing like that. Most abortions take place so early in pregnancy that they look a lot more like a blood clot and a lot less like a tortured baby doll. Theoretically, talking about abortion facts rather than abortion myths should help dispel some of these misperceptions. I just don't think that accuracy should come at the expense of privacy.

I don't want to talk about my abortion in polite company, or impolite company, or any company at all, really, just as I don't want to talk about having hemorrhoids or the consistency of my menstrual flow. I'd really like it if what goes on between a woman's navel and knees was truly her own business. Like Anderson Cooper once did, millions of American women live every day with a secret. I live with a secret. And like Cooper, my choice to share that secret should be mine and mine alone.