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Opinion: Hard Right 

Poli Psy

Published June 22, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

A minor seeking an abortion must show "she understands that some women have experienced severe remorse and regret" following the procedure. So wrote newly confirmed Federal Appeals Court Justice Priscilla Owen. It was 2000, and Owen was on the Texas Supreme Court hearing its first case under the state's Parental Notification Act. To be excused from telling her parents -- who might beat her black and blue -- the law required a pregnant teen to demonstrate she was "sufficiently mature and well-informed" to decide on her own.

The justices stiffened the statute. "Well-informed" now means knowledgeable about the alternatives to abortion and its risks. But Owen wanted more: The girl must also be aware of the religious arguments against abortion. And she must contemplate grief.

The opinion reveals more than Owen's zeal to save a fetus at any cost -- including overstepping the law. It enshrines particular emotions as the only legitimate ones a woman might feel when ending a pregnancy.

If she really wanted to inform teens about the emotions around abortion, the judge might hand out DVDs of "Speak Out: I Had an Abortion," a new film by Gillian Aldrich and Jennifer Baumgardner. In it, 11 women tell their stories. A couple express regret. Most express many other things.

In 1938, Florence Rice, a laundress and single mother, was too poor to raise two children. Even when an illegal procedure landed her in Harlem Hospital, Florence resisted demands that she squeal on the abortionist. Now tiny and aged, she remains firm: "I have no regrets."

In 1953, Sally Aldrich got pregnant the first time she had sex. The abortionist groped her, and she felt "vile." She tossed the diaphragm when her fiance found her insufficiently "spontaneous." Got pregnant again, found another abortionist. Sally was summoned before a grand jury. Like the doctor, she was called a criminal. She told her interrogators the doctor was a hero.

In 1971, two years before Roe v. Wade, Florida undergrad Marion Banzhaf was as desperate as her foremothers, but rather than vile, she felt riled. She and her dorm-mates circulated a petition for legalization -- and collected $350 for her legal abortion in New York. Afterwards, Marion says, she skipped down the street, singing.

In 1992, Robin Ringleka-Kottke, a Catholic with a cheerleading scholarship, telephoned a Christian "crisis pregnancy center." The counselors promised to shelter her and find her baby a home. But when they learned the father was black, their hearts turned. "I should have been so angry," says the tearful Robin, but she was ashamed -- and bereft of all options but one. Waking in the recovery room, she felt "immensely relieved." But for six silent years, "that seed of shame ... thrived."

In 2003, A'yen Tran became pregnant by her abusive boyfriend. She procured an at-home abortion drug, but it wasn't until she was writhing in bed alone that she called her feminist mom. A'Yen is enraged that abortion opponents are "trying to ... manufacture ... guilt." Yet even in her pro-choice circle, she cannot talk about her own abortion.

These personal stories tell a historical one: The terrors of the pre-Roe era turned, fleetingly, to empowerment and joy in the feminist '70s. Three decades later, abortion is again cloaked in shame and silence. Even among proponents, this hard-won right is considered a sad, if necessary, evil. Activist Marge Ripper calls it "the awfulization of abortion."

The youngest women in the film are torn by ambivalence. None wants a baby, yet almost all are indecisive about abortion. "Ambivalence is a function of legality," observes Gloria Steinem. When she ended a pregnancy in 1957, desperation required resolve.

Perhaps ambivalence is the wages of choice. You walk one road. What if the other was better? But women make difficult choices all the time. Why should abortion be harder?

This ambivalence may be the greatest triumph of the anti-abortion movement. Sanctifying the fetus while demonizing women's freedom as "selfishness," it shifts moral sympathy from the woman to the potential baby. But the strategy is emotional: to unbalance the loss-gain equation of choosing. The loss is idealized: a perfect child, healthy, loved, provided-for. The gain is humbly real: life without pregnancy, with its rewards but also its disappointments. Even women who don't share conservative values -- who don't believe nonmarital sex is sinful or abortion murder -- can be induced to mourn the life they are not creating.

Still, choosing isn't abstract; rarely are consequences unambiguous. Leave a bad marriage, become a single parent. Win the just war, lose lives. Feminist Ann Snitow says, "It's the existential condition" -- until now, the masculine condition. By defeating the tyranny of the body, she adds, "abortion makes women existential actors," like men. Abortion makes women equal. It makes them free: responsible for their own actions.

This is not just a burden, though. It is empowering. And therein lies the strength of the pro-choice movement.

At 44, mother of two, Annie Finch got pregnant. She and her husband felt another child would be catastrophic for their family, yet Annie wept for the unborn baby. Seizing existential freedom, Annie realized her power: to give or "to not give" life. Then she chose life -- her existing family's and her own.

"Abortion is a real test for a woman's self-respect," says Annie. "It is to say, my life is worth this sacrifice."

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About The Author

Judith Levine

Judith Levine

Judith Levine is the author of four books, including Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping and Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex. She was also the author of "Poli Psy," a column that appeared in Seven Days from 2005-2016.


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