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Michelle Shelfer’s parents encouraged her at a young age to explore her sexuality. When the Berkeley, Calif., native became pregnant at 24, she thought little of her appointment at an abortion business: “It was like getting a filling in my teeth.” She breezed through a brief meeting with a counselor.
But the procedure was unexpectedly painful, and no one made eye contact with her. A half hour later, a nurse led her out a back entrance. Shelfer shuffled to her car, surprised by a flood of tears and the “shame and secrecy” she felt. In the clinic’s parking lot she noticed a flattened and rusted quarter-size metal object on the ground. Shelfer pocketed a button depicting a mother bird hovering over her baby and read: “He careth for you.”
In the months following her abortion, Shelfer expected relief and a happy going-forward. Instead, she felt she had made a big mistake. Over the past decade some abortion proponents have acknowledged that aborting women should mourn the choice they felt they had to make—but in 2014 some women who have had abortions decided that they should work to toughen up women like Shelfer.
The result: In YouTube videos, fashion magazine pages, social media campaigns, and newly launched websites, seemingly unfazed women are talking unapologetically about their abortions—and they are enlisting others to do the same. They seek to reframe abortion decisions from difficult, private, and guilt-laden to normal, painless, morally right, and socially good. Three examples:
• Last May, Emily Letts, 26, posted a short, peppy video of her abortion that quickly went viral. In the video, the New Jersey abortion counselor smiles and holds hands with nurses during the procedure. Afterward she says, “I don’t feel sad. I feel in awe of the fact that I can make a baby. I can make a life.” And snuff it out.
• In August, Leyla Josephine shared a now-viral video of her slam poem “I Think She Was a She.” She imagines her aborted child “would’ve looked exactly like me,” with full cheeks, hazel eyes, and thick brown hair. And yet, she defends the killing: “I would have died for that right like she died for mine. I’m sorry, but you came at the wrong time. I am not ashamed. … When I become a mother, it will be when I choose.”
• In October, Hanna Rosin, 44, wrote “Abortion Is Great” for Slate. In it she writes of aborting women who had already borne children, as she had: “I never felt like I had done something awful. The truth is, I hardly thought about it after I did it.”
Hollywood has done its part to normalize abortion. Recent prime-time shows such as Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, and Grey’s Anatomy have all had abortion plotlines. Grey’s character Dr. Cristina Yang went through with an abortion despite her husband’s reluctance. She told a friend, “I don’t want a kid. I don’t want to make jam. I don’t want to carpool. I really, really, really don’t want to be a mother.”
‘If you’re part of a church with 100 people and half are women, it’s very likely that a number of those women have had abortions.’ —Alex Ronan
Last year’s movie Obvious Child depicted a happily-ever-after abortion story: A 20-something comedian finds herself jobless and pregnant after a drunken one-night stand but gets an abortion and a guy on Valentine’s Day.
Meanwhile, newly launched social campaigns like “1 in 3,” “The Abortion Diary Podcast,” and “Not Alone” are eliciting unregretful abortion stories from the general public. They feature variations of titles like “It’s actually very normal” and “Almost every woman I know has had an abortion.”
Feminist writer Katha Pollitt captures this new mood in her book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, which lauds abortion as a social good rather than a necessary evil. In it she blames America’s pro-life movement for abortion’s “awfulization” and the subsequent growing number of state-level restrictions. She laments, “Why can’t a woman just say, This wasn’t the right time for me?”
Despite the push to force abortion guilt and pain into the closet, the reality continues to burst out even in testimonials meant to normalize abortion.
April D. from Vancouver told her abortion story on the pro-abortion website Not Alone—run by abortion counselor Emily Letts. April wrote three weeks after her abortion: “A part of me died,” she said, describing vivid nightmares. “I see this baby and it’s crying and it’s mine and it needs to be … comforted.” Heather J. from Florida wrote on the same website: “I have had a total of 5 now, and sometimes I do wonder ‘what if.’”
I telephoned Hanna Rosin to ask whether she truly was fine about her abortion, and she expressed more ambivalence than she had in her Slate story: “I had to take ownership of a shadow, an existing spirit that stayed with me.”
Alex Ronan ran into that ambivalence when she volunteered as an abortion doula (a woman who supports another woman during an abortion)—at a large Manhattan hospital. Ronan, an ardent supporter of legal abortion, wrote, “Many pro-choice doulas, doctors, and nonprofits are unwilling to acknowledge how difficult and painful many women find abortion.”
Ronan documented her experiences on The Cut website. On her first day as a volunteer, she met a mother—whose two children were bouncing in the waiting room—undergoing the first part of a two-day, late-term abortion. While doctors were inserting laminaria, seaweed sticks that dilate the cervix, the operation went wrong and the woman began losing blood. Doctors went into emergency mode. They administered anesthesia, and a resident yelled “pull” as he tried to remove the baby.
Ronan wrote, “The body does not want to let it go.” She saw “a doll-size arm, fist curled” amid “bloody gunk” in the bucket and wrote, “It feels like I shouldn’t look, but I can’t turn away.” She left readers with a sobering image: The mother lost both her baby and her uterus.
The church should be the place for women to come out of the closet and admit their abortions, knowing that Christ’s salvation is big enough to cover the guilt and shame. But too often it is not.
Five months after Shelfer’s first abortion, she was pregnant and sitting in the waiting room of another abortion clinic “because I couldn’t see any other option.” As she waited for the doctor, who was late, she thought about her pregnancy, her boyfriend, her future, the praying ladies she walked past outside, and the button she still carried. In a moment, she called out to God, not even sure who He was. Then she stood up and left.
The baby Shelfer almost aborted was a boy: He is now a Yale-educated lawyer, husband, and father of three. Shelfer’s boyfriend met God separately in his car during her waiting room delay. He proposed to her as they drove away from the clinic. The Sebastopol, Calif., couple has been married for 32 years.
For years Shelfer, now 58, struggled with an intense desire to conceal her abortion from fellow Christians: “I was not able to forgive myself. … It’s so much easier to stuff it away, to not talk about it, not think about it.” As Shelfer came to know the forgiveness of Jesus, she felt compelled to share her story, extend friendship, and offer workshops to post-abortive women.
One in three women will have had an abortion by the age of 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Ronan says, “If you’re part of a church with 100 people and half are women, it’s very likely that a number of those women have had abortions.” Campaigns such as Silent No More and the Catholic church’s Project Rachel offer hotlines and help to post-abortive women.
But when Shelfer speaks at different congregations, the room nearly always stiffens: “You get the feeling that nobody really wants to hear. It touches too many raw nerves.” She speculates that talking about abortion stirs up feelings of guilt and pain.
Shelfer counsels expectant mothers at the Marin (Calif.) Pregnancy Center, which receives few calls each week from post-abortive women, and many of those appointments turn into no-shows. When a woman actually keeps an appointment, the counseling “is a very delicate work, done with fine needles and tweezers, not sledge hammers and pickaxes.”