In the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about the language we use to talk about abortion. There is a lot of focus on when an abortion is “acceptable” (life of the mother is threatened, rape, incest), when a fetus may or may not feel pain, and when life begins. This highly polarized language is extremely problematic as it implies that the choice to terminate a pregnancy can be boiled down to an overly simplified belief structure. This denies and distorts the experience of women making the choice to terminate a pregnancy and sends the message to those who have undergone an abortion that there are narrowly defined ways they are supposed to feel about it. The reality is, of course it’s not that simple.  

In my clinical practice, I’ve seen numerous women who have terminated pregnancies. Sometimes these women come to therapy to work through the decision to have an abortion or to process their feelings following one. Often, their history of abortion is not a part of the therapy at all. Their reasons for terminating a pregnancy are as varied as their reactions. Some are sad and grieving, some feel guilt, some feel empowered, and some have little reaction. Some are parents, some have no children but want to someday, and some have made the choice not to have kids. For some the decision to terminate was agonizing and for some it was relatively simple. This is what choice really looks like.

The polarization and politicization of the issue totally misses the experience of women. When we litigate the minutia of when life begins or when it is “acceptable” to terminate a pregnancy, we are not tuned in to the experiences of women. This can lead women to feel as though they are not allowed to express the totality of their emotions surrounding their choice, which can significantly interfere with their ability to process and integrate the experience. For example, I’ve had several clients express guilt for feeling that their elective termination was a relatively simple experience that did not evoke significant emotional distress. I’ve also had clients who have found it difficult to express the grief and sadness that emerged following an abortion because they felt they were not supposed to have those reactions.

We need to make space for the woman who has had an abortion and felt confident in her choice but who also felt grief. We need to make space for the woman who views her choice to terminate her pregnancy as an expression of power and autonomy. We need to acknowledge the woman who felt differently in how she related to an unwanted pregnancy versus how connected she felt to her fetus in a wanted one. We need to make space for the woman who felt regret. This is what choice really looks like.

To that end, I love organizations like Shout Your Abortion, which encourages women to share their abortion stories to normalize the experience and give voice to the infinite number of reasons for and reactions to terminating a pregnancy. I also encourage my clients to seek the support of an abortion doula who can provide emotional, physical, and informational support during and after an abortion. In the DC area, we have an awesome volunteer-run organization called the DC Doulas for Choice Collective which offers a range of supportive services.  Telling your story or working with a supportive non-judgmental peer are just some of the many ways to demystify abortion, combat internalized stigma, and provide helpful avenues to work through whatever emotions arise. Ultimately, we need to change the conversation and shift the language around choice to reflect the reality of what choice looks and feels like, and to fully honor and support all women’s experiences.