Stories About Abortion Matter

In the Netflix show Sex Education, one of the characters has an abortion. Since the show takes place in England, the young woman didn’t have to deal with many of the pitfalls the United States has put in place to harass women. There was no waiting period, no requirement for parental permission, no desperate search for a nearby clinic, no fee and minimal protest. The procedure itself was portrayed as relatively simple but the show didn’t shy away from the complex emotions that can accompany the experience. I was grateful for that. Women respond very differently to their circumstances and experiences. Why should abortion be any different?

That’s the kicker for those of us across the pond. We’ve turned abortion into such a highly contentious issue that women who’ve had abortions practically have been forced to be silent about it. Who can blame them? The general willingness of abortion foes to resort to violence (ranging from online harassment and stalking to verbal altercations and murder) makes it a safety issue. But what this silence means is that the general public knows very little about abortion. Some even believe that abortion is rare instead of being one of the most common medical procedures women undergo. Many have no idea what an abortion entails or how women experience it.

Not me though. As a family psychologist, I’m on the front lines, hearing first-hand from women themselves. I’ve been there when women agonized over what to do and when they expressed relief that it was over. I’ve heard from women who have had both an abortion and an adoption, mentioning that of the two, adoption was worse. I’ve listened to women who suffered through late-term abortions of pregnancies that were incredibly wanted and talked with others who had an abortion early and just shrugged it off. Each story was unique but what they all had in common was the secrecy surrounding the procedure. Every single woman was desperate to find someone non-judgmental who would listen.

While I’ve always been an advocate for women’s productive freedom, it wasn’t until I hit my doctoral internship that I gave a lot of thought to the impact of abortion on the women who’ve had one. I’d kept up with the headlines and read about clinic blockades and the brave volunteers who fought for women’s rights but knew little of the intimate details. All that changed during my year-long internship at a student counseling center.

It was there that I was shocked to discover just how common abortion is. Many of my patients talked about their abortions, some casually, others with pain. I found it interesting that none of them presented having an abortion as their main reason for seeking counseling. It was always peripheral even though their stories were not. The young women spoke about being scared they’d be kicked out of their house if pregnant, how having a child would make living their dreams difficult and, frequently, how having a child on their own without family, partner or financial support seemed impossible. When I mentioned the large number of young women who were discussing their abortions during my group and individual supervision, two staff members told me about their abortions. It kind of felt like I was in the middle of an epidemic of abortions. But it shouldn’t have.

One in four women in the United States will have an abortion by the time she’s 45 years old. If you do the math, that’s a lot of women. I think about this statistic whenever someone’s spouting off their anti-abortion nonsense and claiming they don’t know any women who’ve had an abortion. I always want to reply, “That you’re aware of.” Chances are they know a lot. And this matters. It’s a lot easier to hate and make false assumptions about people you don’t know. It’s very different when you’ve heard the anguished narratives and challenging circumstances of women who’ve chosen abortion. You know, like the stories I hear.

I saw so many young women who’d had abortions during my internship that one of my supervisors suggested that I run a support group for them. I reluctantly declined to do so for several reasons. The primary

Netflix Sex Education

reason was for their safety and mine. One of my fellow interns was running a support group for black female graduate students. Flyers for this group all over campus had been torn down, trashed and destroyed. If that relatively innocuous group was being targeted, what chance did a group dealing with abortion have of being left alone? I didn’t want to put my patients through such an ordeal nor did I want to deal with it myself.

The other reason I declined was because I was uncertain of how supportive the young women would be to each other. American society has done such a great job of vilifying abortion that even some women who’ve had an abortion look down upon others who made the same choice. I’ve heard more than one woman claim that her abortion was necessary while the other trashy women in the waiting room of the clinic were just stupid or lacking in morality. If I had the option today to run an abortion support group, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Back then, I was a beginning counselor and didn’t know how I’d manage the conflict. I didn’t realize then that providing education about abortion would have to be a vital part of the process.

Accurate information can go such a long way. For decades, those of us in the United States have been exposed to such dangerous misinformation, exaggerations and flat out lies about abortion that many have no idea of what is true or what a society without legal abortion would look like. It’s not a pretty picture. All we have to do is ask women in other countries who are sitting in prison for “suspicious” miscarriages (El Savador: Ecuador) or talk with women who risked both their lives and a long prison sentence to have an abortion (most of Africa; Rwanda). Or you could ask a woman who needed an abortion prior to Roe v. Wade what it was like.

That’s what happened in one of my Psychology of Women classes. One of the groups decided to talk about abortion and one member – an older returning student – shared her story. She was nearing the end of a wanted pregnancy when the fetus died in utero. Because abortion was illegal, her doctors refused to do an abortion or even kickstart early labor because it would be viewed as too similar to an abortion. She suffered for weeks carrying around a dead fetus until the men in charge of her physical health determined it was time to help. Even though she was telling her story 30 years later, she still sobbed her way through the presentation. Little did she know but it was the emotional impact of her story combined with the facts about abortion presented in class that made a big difference in the perceptions of the other students. I heard from many of them how they changed their minds about abortion that semester. Facts matter. Stories do too.

That’s why the story line about abortion in Sex Education was so wonderful. They needed to cover the topic because abortion is an integral part of women’s sexual health but I kept waiting for them to put a positive or negative spin on it. They didn’t. The experience was presented straightforwardly, respectfully, even somewhat routinely. And that’s exactly the way it should be. Abortion is a common medical procedure. England appears to understand this but somehow the United States doesn’t. So, until such time as we can trust women to know what’s in their best interests, until we allow doctors to do their jobs without input from politicians, and until it’s safe for women to share their experiences about abortion, then we must rely on stories like these to show us the way it should be.

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