Should Women Who Have Had an Abortion Feel Guilty About It?


The (non-graphic) video above follows a woman named Emily Letts having an early-term abortion (according to Letts, she was only a few weeks pregnant when she had the procedure). The video was produced for the Abortion Care Network's "Abortion Stigma Busting Competition."

Writing in Cosmopolitan, Letts, who works as a counselor at a birth-control and abortion clinice, says

I know there are women who feel great remorse. I have seen the tears. Grieving is an important part of a woman's process, but what I really wanted to address in my video is guilt.

Our society breeds this guilt. We inhale it from all directions. Even women who come to the clinic completely solid in their decision to have an abortion say they feel guilty for not feeling guilty. Even though they know 110 percent that this is the best decision for them, they pressure themselves to feel bad about it.

I didn't feel bad. I do feel a little irresponsible and embarrassed about not using birth control. I mean, Emily, wake up! What are you doing? I was going against the advice I give to patients all the time. So I had them put an IUD in after the abortion. I was able to learn and move forward. And I am grateful that I can share my story and inspire other women to stop the guilt.

Read more.

According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, there were slightly more than 1 million abortions performed in the U.S. in 2012, and virtually all of them (89 percent to 92 percent, depending on the source) were done at 12 weeks of gestation or earlier. Abortion rates are trending down, mostly due to an increase in the use of and effectiveness of birth control.

Letts' video is certainly provocative and it likely generates the broadly ambivalent feelings that abortion itself inspires in Americans. For all the political discussions about abortion, few voters (18 percent, according to Gallup) say that candidates must share their views on abortion to win their vote. About equal percentages (in the mid-40s) call themselves "pro-choice" and "pro-life." While there is widespread agreement that later-term abortions should be banned except in cases involving the life of the woman, there is very strong agreement that abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy, with 61 percent saying yes and 31 percent saying no. Those percentages essentially flip when it comes to the second trimester. For all the stats above and more, see Gallup.

It seems to me that there is wisdom in that split reaction. We understand that a fetus at, say, 10 weeks is very different than one at 20 or 30 weeks. While strict opponents of abortion talk about life beginning at the moment of conception (exactly what that means is often difficult to define precisely) and strict proponents of abortion say that anything goes until delivery, most of us follow a less stark, less Manichean line.

That sliding approval scale

 also comports with the levels of grief that mothers and fathers feel in real life: We grieve a baby that dies hours after birth in a very different way than we do a miscarriage that happens at eight weeks, 20 weeks, or even later in a pregnancy.

While I find something vaguely unseemly in Letts' presentation (she's an actress by trade and there's a lurking sense of exhibitionism in it all), I think she is right not to feel guilty about her abortion. While the exact definition of personhood will always ultimately be somewhat arbitrary and socially constructed, she certainly didn't commit infanticide. Rather, she exercised control over her body.

For people interested in a truly enaging social history of abortion, I highly recommend Marvin Olasky's Abortion Rites. A strong social conservative and opponent of abortion, Olasky nevertheless provides a comprehensive and meticulous examination of the changing status and practice of abortion in American culture from the colonial period through the early 1990s, when the book was published. Independent of your position on abortion, you will walk away with a much-richer and, I suspect, a much greater understanding for the complexity of the issue.

Last year, Reason hosted a powerful discussion about libertarian perspectives on abortion with Ronald Bailey, Mollie Hemingway, and Katherine Mangu-Ward. Watch it now:

More links and resources here.