The Abortion Stories We Tell

Do we need to be more radically honest?

Maggie Doherty

Protestors at an abortion rally in San Francisco in 2013. Photo: Steenaire via Flickr

I don’t talk much about my abortions. When I had my first, I was relatively young, and I did not tell my mother. When I had my second, I was older, and for a while, I did not tell my partner. I told only friends, on an as-needed basis: the one who went with me to the clinic, the one who subbed my class. I didn’t “shout my abortion” or post about it on social media or write a personal essay. My favorite literary magazine was selling tote bags that read “I Had an Abortion,” but I didn’t purchase one.

Over the past few months, though, I’ve felt like I should be talking about them—like so many other people have been. Beginning last winter, when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case that has overturned Roe v. Wade, first-person abortion stories proliferated in the public sphere. I found them in newspapers, in magazines, in comments sections, on Twitter. They took the form of op-eds, anonymously authored vignettes, and moving personal essays. I read them compulsively and cried.

As moved as I was by many of these stories, I also could not help noticing something distinctive about them: they were almost never about someone who simply chose to have an abortion. Seemingly every story published in a newspaper or magazine was narrated by a maximally sympathetic figure—a survivor of incest, a mother of two—who became pregnant under difficult circumstances. In many of these stories, the abortion was granted or prescribed by a person in a position of authority.

While it’s never been easier to talk about abortion, abortion rights are still being eroded across the country.

I knew that there were as many kinds of abortion stories as there were people who got abortions; more than 600,000 legal abortions were reported in the United States in 2019. But one narrative seemed to dominate—a narrative that carefully portrayed an abortion patient as virtuous and relatable, and that proved that the patient had very important reasons for undergoing an abortion. Very few of the stories I read suggested that abortion is a right people should be free to exercise, whatever the circumstances.

More people are speaking out about their own experiences because legal access to abortion is in serious jeopardy. As restrictive bills move through state legislatures and conservative judges multiply on the federal courts, we tell our stories again and again, hoping that they will fall on sympathetic ears—and help secure the right to abortion. But while it’s never been easier to talk about abortion, abortion rights are still being eroded across the country. This paradox should make us ask: What are abortion stories for? And might we need to tell them in a different way?

People have been talking about their abortions for as long as people have been terminating pregnancies (i.e., forever). But the abortion story—as a public narrative told for political reasons—is only about fifty years old. We can date its emergence in the United States to 1969, the year the radical feminist group Redstockings organized an abortion “speak-out”—a public event where women spoke about their own abortions to a crowd of assembled strangers at a church in Washington Square.

Redstockings was part of the women’s liberation movement—sometimes called “second-wave feminism”—a crusade for sexual freedom and gender equality that erupted in the United States in the late 1960s. Feminists agitated for equality under the law, a fairer division of housework, and equal pay for equal work outside the home. They also tackled the topic of abortion, which was not yet legal at the federal level. But laws governing the procedure were liberalizing at the state level: by the end of the ’60s, seventeen states had legalized abortion under certain conditions, such as to save the life of the mother or to spare a victim of rape or incest from carrying a pregnancy to term. In New York and several other states, a woman could obtain an abortion because of physical or mental health conditions—a so-called “therapeutic abortion.”

But feminists, including the radical members of Redstockings, weren’t satisfied. Because abortion could be legal but still inaccessible, the result was that many women—especially poor women and women of color—were still resorting to illegal or self-induced abortion, sometimes with disastrous results: in 1972, the year before Roe, 39 women in the United States died from illegal abortions. Some feminists began pursuing change through legal channels. Others, such as the women associated with the Jane collective in Chicago, secretly connected women with abortion providers and eventually learned how to perform abortions themselves.

Redstockings, a group committed to direct action, took a different tack: in February 1969, they disrupted hearings on New York State’s abortion laws. A committee of “experts”—fourteen men and a nun—had been tasked with deciding whether the state should further liberalize its abortion laws. The debate, though, was telling: one judge suggested that women be allowed to have abortions once they had had four children—or, as he put it, had “paid their debt to society.” The members of Redstockings—college-educated women, some with backgrounds in the civil rights movement—believed that they didn’t owe any such debt and that women were, as they put it, “the true experts” on their own bodies and lives.

And so on the evening of March 21, 1969, they convened at the Washington Square Methodist Church to speak about abortion in public for the first time. Redstockings had been founded by, among others, the feminist writers Shulamith Firestone and Ellen Willis—women and thinkers who believed that narrative could galvanize change.

When abortion stories are crafted for maximum appeal, we can only assume that the right to an abortion depends on popular approval.

Twelve women, going only by their first names, took the stage to share their experiences obtaining both legal and illegal abortions with a crowd of several hundred people. The audience, a mix of men and women, included abortion activist and provider Nathan Rappaport and journalists Susan Brownmiller and Gloria Steinem, both of whom would go on to become prominent feminist activists. Conscious of the historical significance of their event, Redstockings recorded the audio for posterity.

Though the speakers were not especially diverse—most were young white women—they offered a variety of stories. The first speaker had gotten pregnant in college and hadn’t told anyone, not even her male partner. The second had become pregnant at seventeen; she had never been told about birth control. One woman underwent an abortion without anesthesia, then was chased out of the building by an impatient doctor while she was still recovering. Another paid $900 to a doctor who had “pictures of crucifixes” in their operating room. One of the women was a single mother; she felt as nervous talking about having a child without a husband as she did talking about her abortion.

The women were funny, brusque, and utterly unapologetic. They cracked jokes about bad boyfriends (“He told me something like, ‘Don’t worry, when I come the second time, it washes away the sperm’”). In thick New York accents, they scorned “liberal paternalism” and dismissed a man from the audience who asked a question about men’s rights. They didn’t pay lip service to the opposition or make nice with the anti-abortion listeners in the audience. They had one goal, repeated over the course of the evening: when it came to their bodies, they wanted “ultimate control.” Brownmiller, covering the event for The Village Voice, wrote that the evening was marked by “the politics of confrontation and catharsis.”

Listening to these tapes some fifty years later, I’m struck by the speakers’ collective refusal to explain themselves or to justify their decisions. Other than making an occasional allusion to a child “you can’t take care of,” most elided the reasons why they terminated their pregnancies. Instead, they presented abortion as rational, normal. (One woman expressed frustration that obtaining a therapeutic abortion involved “having to pretend that you’re insane” even though abortion is “the sanest thing you can do.”) As one speaker put it quite simply: “I have no need to have a child I don’t want.”

The cultural context of the late 1960s—marked by open, entrenched misogyny on the one hand and feminist militancy and optimism on the other—helps explain the form the abortion story took in 1969 at the Redstockings event. In telling their abortion stories in public, the participants weren’t trying to court allies in the legislature or win the approval of sympathetic listeners. They were confronting the public and demanding their rights. They were sharing stories to name what they would no longer abide.

In the years following
the Redstockings event, speaking out about abortion became a popular tactic. In 1971, 343 French women, including Simone de Beauvoir and Catherine Deneuve, signed the “Manifesto of the 343,” declaring that they had sought to obtain illegal abortions. The following year, 53 prominent American women—including Nora Ephron, Billie Jean King, and Susan Sontag—signed a similar document, an open letter entitled “We Have Had Abortions,” which was published in Ms. magazine. Combined with legal efforts, these speak-outs worked: abortion became a constitutional right in 1973, after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of “Jane Roe” in Roe v. Wade. The ruling, grounded in the idea that the Constitution protected a right to privacy—even if this right wasn’t explicitly stated—held that a person could terminate a pregnancy before the point of viability and after that point, if the pregnancy posed a danger to that person’s health.

But the victory was short-lived. The New Right, a political movement that coalesced in the 1970s, made opposition to legal abortion a central plank of its political program—one part of a broader anti-feminist backlash. In 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court ruled that states could impose restrictions on abortion access as long as patients didn’t face an “undue burden.” GOP-controlled states quickly learned that Republican judges would consider almost any abortion restriction acceptable.

To create a more just world, we may have to start telling different stories about abortions.

A slew of restrictions followed, and clinics across the American South and Midwest closed. Operation Rescue, a coalition of anti-choice groups that has blockaded abortion clinics, has had a chilling effect on both patients and providers; so too did the violent attacks on two Boston-area abortion clinics in 1994. The Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, continues to prohibit the use of Medicaid funds for abortion. The upshot, for many Americans, was that abortion, though nominally legal, became as inaccessible in many parts of the country as it had in the days before Roe—and arguably even more stigmatized.

In the midst of these developments, both the Democratic Party (supposedly pro-choice) and mainstream reproductive rights organizations, such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America, assumed a defensive posture. Rather than championing the radical feminist slogan “free abortion on demand,” Democratic Party politicians endorsed abortions as long as they were “safe, legal, and rare,” a motto coined by presidential candidate Bill Clinton in 1992. (Hillary Clinton would repeat the phrase during her own presidential run in 2008.) In the 1990s, a dystopian pro-choice ad campaign, co-sponsored by NARAL, warned of a potential return to back-alley abortions and emphasized women’s vulnerability—but declined to champion abortions as such.

Not even two decades after feminists celebrated the Roe ruling, abortion was already seen as fraught, shameful, and politically dangerous. This cultural context gave rise to a new kind of abortion story: a sympathetic, quasi-apologetic one, radically different from those told at the ’69 speak-out. In 1985, actress Ali MacGraw told the story of her illegal abortion, in excruciating detail, to a reporter for People. “There is nothing casual about” abortion, she said. “It’s a horrific decision to make.” (Her story made the magazine’s cover, under the headline: “Abortion: No Easy Answers.”) In 1991, Random House published The Choices We Made, an anthology of twenty-five abortion stories, including one by actress Whoopi Goldberg, who had self-induced an abortion with a coat hanger at the age of fourteen. According to the Publishers Weekly review, the collection emphasized the “pain, emotional trauma and stigma” of getting an abortion.

Many of the abortion stories published today in print and online continue this narrative tradition. Contemporary abortion stories tend to underscore traumatic circumstances and make vivid physical pain. A woman who had an abortion at 32 weeks, due to a combination of fetal and maternal health problems, describes the experience in detail: enduring genetic tests, a $10,000 shot to stop the fetus’s heart (it hurt “a little bit worse than an amnio”), and a “blindingly painful” labor to deliver the dead fetus. Another woman, writing about a “life-threatening staph infection” she developed during pregnancy that necessitated an abortion, recounts how she awoke “from surgery in a strange hell, spiking a fever of 105 degrees and shaking uncontrollably.” It’s clear that the narrators of these stories are already suffering. How could anyone deny them the right to abortion, these stories ask, and thereby demand that they suffer more?

The contemporary abortion story seems to have two main aims: to evoke the reader’s sympathy and to justify the patient’s decision to get an abortion. (There are certainly exceptions to this trend.) It is often narrated by someone who slots neatly into traditional gender norms. “I'm not some defiant firebrand hipster feminist trying to be ironic or edgy by asking for an abortion,” writes one such author. “I'm a wife, and I am a mother of two children. And until I asked for this abortion, I had planned my family ‘right.’” The narrator, who is almost unfailingly a responsible user of birth control, usually presents the decision to get an abortion as a difficult one. “It was excruciating,” wrote Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, of her decision to abort an unplanned pregnancy, after she’d had a dangerous birth with her “miracle” first child. (She described the abortion itself as “heartbreaking.”) Another narrator, faced with the choice of terminating a wanted pregnancy that had developed abnormally, recalled facing “wrenching questions” about when to terminate. Narrators often emphasize that, in getting an abortion, they were following the best medical advice. They don’t quite disclaim responsibility, but they suggest that the decision to terminate was mostly out of their hands.

In some ways, these sympathetic abortion stories are valuable. They educate an uninformed public about the realities of reproductive life. They point to injustices in the healthcare system and in the welfare state, and they show that hardship is unevenly distributed. Queer and trans people are more likely to encounter obstacles than straight people, and those who are Black and poor will suffer more than those who are white and rich. As reportage, they illustrate the suffering that accompanies so many attempts to access reproductive care.

But as a political tactic, they are doomed to fail. Again and again, anti-choice politicians, activists, and judges prove that they neither understand the strain of an unwanted pregnancy (recall Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s suggestion that safe haven laws should eliminate the need for abortion) nor care about preventing suffering.

Even if such stories could persuade the staunchest anti-choice activist, they would still be politically and ethically flawed. Sympathetic abortion stories implicitly suggest that abortion is only warranted for certain patients, that is, the good ones. By underscoring a patient’s virtues—their vulnerability, their caution, their maternal instinct—these stories imply that abortions are acceptable if they’re provided to deserving patients. And just who is deserving, we might ask? Those whom the majority of readers find sympathetic and appealing: good mothers, suffering victims, poor and frightened girls.

As a narrator and writer, I want to be sympathetic. But as a political actor and a feminist, I want to be fearless and uncompromising.

Sympathetic abortion stories place the abortion patient in the position of the supplicant, with the narrator pleading their case to the reader. Whereas speakers at the Redstockings event were defiant and remorseless, today’s narrators are conflicted and conciliatory; unlike their predecessors, they present abortion as a welcome privilege, rather than an incontrovertible moral right. When abortion stories are crafted for maximum appeal, we can only assume that the right to an abortion depends on popular approval.

In recent years, it has become popular to say that legal access to abortion is uncontroversial. This is true—up to a point. According to polls, 60% to 70% of Americans oppose overturning Roe, and a majority support abortions in the first trimester. A majority also support restrictions to abortion access, such as only allowing second-trimester abortions if the pregnancy threatens the parent’s health. Katha Pollitt has referred to this contradictory majority as “the muddled middle.” It is this audience, it seems, that sympathetic abortion stories aim to reach.

But abortion—and the world it helps create—is controversial. The unrestricted right to abortion suggests a world in which gender roles are not enforced by the state and religious beliefs are not grounds for lawmaking. In such a world, families can take many different forms, and caregivers, often women, might be able to participate more fully in the public sphere. This kind of world won’t appeal to everyone immediately; it might poll badly today. But freedom and equality cannot be sacrificed on the altar of popular opinion. To create a more just world, we may have to start telling different stories about abortions—stories that might not move readers to tears but succeed on different terms.

When I first started
writing this essay, I was tempted to tell my abortion story using one of the common scripts. It would be an elegant piece of writing, as I imagined it, self-aware but nonetheless showing me in a good light. I indulged in a little fantasy in which such an essay earned me compassionate emails and friendly retweets. I would speak out against injustice and, conveniently enough, would be rewarded for doing so.

I thought I would focus on the first time I got pregnant—a first abortion is inherently more sympathetic than a second—and I would highlight my precarious position. I was a student at the time, making less than minimum wage. (I’d probably leave out the fact that I was a graduate student in English—does a more indulgent field of study exist?) I would note that my boyfriend—older, ambitious—lived in another city and that he couldn’t be bothered to come to town for my visit to the clinic: it was a Tuesday, and he was teaching, and surely I understood?

If I wanted to make myself seem responsible, I would include an interlude about contraception. It had been difficult for me to find a birth control method that worked. Hormonal birth control was out due to my struggles with depression and anxiety, and at the time, gynecologists wouldn’t insert IUDs into women who had not yet had children. My boyfriend resisted condoms, a contraceptive method that was both relatively cheap and easily available. I eventually had myself fitted for a diaphragm—a generally reliable barrier method. But one, it turned out, that could fail.

I might write about how hard it was—even with health insurance, even in a state without many restrictions—to obtain timely and adequate care. I would make sure to highlight the scariest moments—an anomaly in my bloodwork, a late-night trip to the ER—and underscore my vulnerability. If I wanted to move the reader, I would probably make good use of the pathetic fallacy, describing the cold, wet spring; the slush; the bare limbs of trees.

I could end my story neatly: my abortion allowed me to form the family I have now. I would explain that my abortion was not a decision against children or parenting but a decision that allowed me to parent when I was best able to do so. I probably wouldn’t say directly that I was paying my “debt” to society, as the judge had urged women to do in 1969, but I’d imply the point all the same.

To present myself this way, however, I would have to suppress some complicating details. I couldn’t reveal my own enduring horror of pregnancy, how much I hated feeling my body change. I would have to pass over all the ways I was a bad partner to my boyfriend. And I would have to remain silent about my second abortion, the story of which, as you may have already guessed, shows me to be less responsible—and therefore less sympathetic—than a deserving abortion patient should be.

As a narrator and writer, I want to be sympathetic. But as a political actor and a feminist, I want to be fearless and uncompromising. I want to read detailed narratives about people who needed abortions to escape impossible circumstances or to prevent needless suffering—but I also want to read stories about people who choose abortion freely and easily, simply because it was their right to do so.

There is another way to tell the story of my first abortion. It is a story that also covers my second abortion, which took place under very different circumstances. Here’s how it goes:

Unintentionally, my partner and I conceived a pregnancy in my body. Because I did not want to be pregnant and because I did not want to carry a pregnancy to term, I terminated the pregnancy, voluntarily and without ambivalence.

This story, if we can even call it a story, is not a moving one. It is not detailed, or evocative, or horrifying, or compelling. It probably violates every rule of the creative writing workshop. But it’s the version of the story that best communicates my understanding of what abortion is and means. It suggests that the principle of bodily autonomy applies to everyone, regardless of their circumstances; that no one should be forced to carry a pregnancy to term; that people are ends, not means.

Originally published:
June 24, 2022


Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”
Merve Emre


Renaissance Women

A new book celebrates—and sells short—Shakespeare’s sisters
Catherine Nicholson

Fady Joudah

The poet on how the war in Gaza changed his work
Aria Aber

You Might Also Like


Metafiction and #MeToo

A new way to write trauma
Maggie Doherty

The Wild, Sublime Body

Learning how to be human
Melissa Febos


Sign up for The Yale Review newsletter and keep up with news, events, and more.