Gloria Steinem speaks, and as much as possible, I listen. That’s because Steinem does not mince words, and in one five minute video clip of a speech at the 2009 Rashbaum Ceremony, she puts words to the feeling I’ve had for more than three years, “No matter how hard I tried to feel guilty… I couldn’t.” She’s talking about her abortion in the 1950’s, before the procedure was legal, before she found feminism, before she became who we all know her to be today. She only felt, she said, “free” and that all was “at peace within the universe.”
By saying she “felt at peace with the universe,” Steinem is talking neither about terminating a pregnancy nor being a mother at that point in time. She’s talking about the rightness of her universe being found in her ability to make her own choice, take responsibility for her own life, and beginning to know herself as a human and woman. She says in this video clip that women and men should have the ability to make their own choices about their bodies, “from the skin in,” and she’s right. When she felt at peace is when she was able to do just that.
So when anti-abortion voices, media outlets, bloggers, and so forth contend that “abortion hurts women” or that “post-abortion mental trauma is real,” it’s nothing more than their adjusted campaign to strip women of their (already eroded and not complete) right to make their own decisions about their own bodies.
Susan Faludi, author of the well known book Backlash, suggests that movements against women’s advancement in areas such as reproductive rights have not been overt in suggesting women should lose autonomy; rather, the “backlash” movements reinvent themselves to appear “pro-woman” or akin to “woman’s empowerment.” When we see anti-choice groups say they are “pro-women,” it’s not that they really think they’re “pro-woman,” they just know that type of language is endearing to masses of people and deceptive in a very non-aggressive way. When something is cloaked in “positive” rhetoric, it must be positive, right? Well, that’s what anti-choice proponents want you to think.
Aside from the vast medicalization of women’s bodies in the past few decades, which lead in part to the “diagnosis” of “mental illness” after a woman has an abortion (which studies have completely dis-proven, by the way), anti-choice groups have increased their “pro-woman” rhetoric, re-framing their cause to look like they care about women in a number of new ways. They want to “help” women make the “most informed choice” by forcing them to have ultrasounds and look at the screen before having an abortion. They force women to go through a waiting period before an abortion in order to ensure women “make the best choice.” They picket on corners outside clinics to “persuade” women from making “wrong choices.”
But here’s the best example: anti-choice proponents say abortion causes guilt so intense a woman’s life after abortion is rife with suffering and depression, thus, outlawing abortion is necessary because they “care” so much about women. The problem here is that overwhelmingly, when researchers, doctors, counselors and the like actually ask women about their feelings post-abortion, the most common response is relief.
Just as Gloria Steinem says in the video above, she felt no guilt, only a sense of rightness in the universe. Asking women what they feel and respecting their choices is actually caring about women, not cloaking discrimination in words that sound pro-woman.
What causes the guilt is not a private medical procedure, rather social forces that tell women over and over again that making decisions about their own bodies is wrong. Anti-abortion proponents capitalize and exploit this guilt, making offensive and inaccurate claims like abortion is “murder,” that abortion isn’t “normal,” even though 1 in 3 US women has had an abortion by the time she’s 45, and the legal medical procedure has been around for thousands of years and has only recently (last 100 years) been controversial.
Faludi wrote Backlash in the post-70’s era; the 80’s and 90’s are the subject of her thesis. Yet, today the backlash can be seen in the countless attempts in state and federal governmental bodies across the nation to de-fund abortion providers, place harsh restrictions on access, and spread misinformation to the media and constituents. Swaddled in “pro-woman” rhetoric anti-abortion proponents continue to get vast amounts of air-time locally and nationally to spread their misinformation and lies about the “guilt” that abortion inflicts on women. Of course, no one asks women, “how do you feel?” Anti-abortion folks project the theme and set the tone of the debate, forcing people to internalize the lies and misinformation as fact, and thus, succeeding in demonizing abortion.
But what about the facts? If one were to actually ask the public, the majority of adult respondents to a 2011 Time poll have said they either agree that women should have the right to terminate an early pregnancy or mostly agree (45% and 19% respectively). A 2011 Gallup poll shows that adults agree that women should be able to terminate a pregnancy and abortion should be sometimes legal. The same poll found the majority of respondents considered themselves pro choice by 49% percent. And CNN 2011 poll found that 65% (a vast majority) think that funding for abortion should continue.
Gloria Steinem never felt guilty, instead she felt rightness in the universe. This is incredibly powerful not only because Gloria said it, but because it shows the necessity for women to have the ability to make their own reproductive choices. The amount of Backlash-themed pro-woman language cloaking the sinister aims of anti-abortion proponents is disturbing and has in many ways worked to erode the rights Faludi, Steinem and many others worked to secure.
Asking women how they feel about abortion, knowing women disproportionately don’t feel guilty after the procedure, and listening to a woman’s experience are all crucial in continuing to wade our way as activists, patients, pro-choicers, and women through our time’s backlash.