Wading in Uncomfortable Waters: Abortion and the Politics of Experience


By Taja Lindley

First published at Feministe.

Forty years after abortion became legal in the United States we are still wading in waters that run deep.

Arguably, abortion runs as deep in our modern human history as pregnancy does. Our ancestors had ways of terminating pregnancies long before the U.S. Supreme Court existed. And while we commemorate and celebrate the 40th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, we know that it does not mark an anniversary of the beginning of this family planning method. Abortion has been, and will continue to be, part of a wide array of methods that we use to control our bodies and fertility, regardless of its legality.

In today’s binary political system, however, abortion has become oversimplified. Although fraught with social, economic, cultural, and political meaning, abortion has been reduced to a singular and isolated issue in the political arena. And yet, just below the surface of political silencing, those of us whose experiences with abortion do not fit neatly into didactic sound-bites and talking points for pundits and policymakers in their public debates about our bodies, the waters of human experience still run deep.

As a full-spectrum doula, I work with people across the spectrum of pregnancy, from abortion to birth, which can include stillbirth inductions and people who are considering adoption. I hold hands, wipe tears, massage shoulders, fetch snacks, calm nerves, make small talk, comfort, inform, listen, and remind folks to breathe.

Some patients hold their breath—sometimes because the decision to have an abortion is made reluctantly. Their circumstances can feel coercive: a lost job, limited income, negotiating rent and bills with potential expenses of a baby, or having parents who refuse to support their young daughter’s pregnancy because it sets a “bad example” for their other children. Others hold their breath waiting for a change in their heart or mind that may never come, deciding finally, despite the discomfort, that an abortion is what they want to do, or what they feel they should do.

Want, desire, and “choice” become murky concepts in a tangled web of social and economic inequality.

Some patients talk in circles:

I’m not one of those women who get an abortion.

 I’m different than the other patients—I never planned to be here.

 I’m not a statistic.

These examples show how women talk their way out of (or into) their internalization of public shaming and blaming, as if a certain kind of woman gets an abortion and other women do not. This circular thinking is another byproduct of the oversimplified binary of mainstream abortion politics, represented in policy and the media. But what gets lost in the respectability politics of abortion is how common an abortion procedure is: nearly 1 in 3 women have one in their lifetime.

Don’t get me wrong; there are people who are crystal clear that they don’t ever want to have children, or they don’t want a particular person to father their child, or they’re simply not ready for parenthood. But as a full-spectrum doula who has worked with patients who are primarily low-income women and women of color, I can’t help but notice that all too often the experiences of many women reside in the murky waters that become silenced, erased, or forgotten in mainstream abortion politics.

My patients (and friends) also have stories of resilience, healing, and reclamation that reside in the depth of the silences, the stories we don’t usually hear:

Some women talk about their desires to be a good mother, a conversation topic that helps them get through their abortion procedure. We talk about their plans for parenthood in the future, or they laugh, telling funny and endearing stories about the children they have already. (Not surprising considering most women who have abortions have children already.)

Some women keep a picture of their sonogram before the abortion on their spiritual altar.

Some women choose to take an abortion pill at home where they can create a ritual and say prayers with friends and family in preparation for their abortion process.

Some cry or grieve; others navigate journeys of guilt and forgiveness, with or without regret.

To place the lived experiences of abortion (including the forgotten stories and the stories that make us uncomfortable) in the center of abortion rights activism post-Roe is to break from binary politics that inaccurately articulate our experiences and consequently do little for our reproductive freedom. We can see this shift happening as Planned Parenthood begins to re-orient the language they use, moving away from “pro-choice,” and toward something more like “pro-voice.”

Centralizing the politics of experience makes room for more nuanced and accurate language and movement building. It also helps us connect the dots between abortion and other inequalities, broadening our work and vision for abortion rights and reproductive justice.

Our experiences with our bodies and pregnancy can be more than managing mainstream abortion politics and negotiating our survival. We can create and actively move towards a vision for reproductive freedom where we thrive and exercise autonomy over our bodies in ways that respond to our visions and desires, rather than to circumstances rooted in inequality.

Taja Lindley is a performing and visual artist, full-spectrum doula, and founder of Colored Girls Hustle. You can follow her on twitter.


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