Ordinary and Exceptional Abortion Stories

“What about those of us who aren’t victims? What about those who simply happened to find ourselves pregnant? Abortion doesn’t have to be motivated by trauma.”

Elly Lonon, The Washington Post, May 27, 2019

We are hearing more traumatic abortion stories as more states ban abortion: people who survived rape or incest, had a lethal or life-limiting fetal anomaly in an highly desired pregnancy, or who faced life-threatening situations themselves if they chose to continue their pregnancy. Several stories have circulated about children as young as 10 years old who have needed abortion care. These exceptional stories represent a minority of abortions; while they are important, focusing on them can also be harmful.

On the other hand, cases of “Ordinary Abortion” (a term coined by Katie Watson, author of Scarlet A: the ethics, law and politics of ordinary abortion) include abortion for the more common reasons/circumstances: poorly timed or unwanted pregnancies, financial instability, no desire for children or completed childbearing, relationship problems, etc. These ordinary abortions vastly outnumber these rare, traumatic circumstances like rape, incest, threats to health or life of the pregnant person, and fetal anomaly.

Exceptional cases are important because:

  • Everyone’s story is important
  • To many who are anti-abortion, exceptional cases can illustrate the cruelty, impracticality, and ultimately undesirability of abortion bans and other restrictions. They help illustrate why abortion should ‘at least sometimes’ be allowed.

Focusing on these exceptional cases can be harmful because:

  • This focus contributes to the erasure of the many people who have ordinary abortions who need and deserve support.
  • It centers people who appear to be victims; abortion stories are also about affirmative, empowering choices.
  • It implies that exceptional abortions are more justified than ordinary abortions, and stigmatizes ordinary abortions as less justified. The justification for any abortion boils down to bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom.

The bottom line: The reason for someone’s abortion should not justify their decision–a person’s bodily autonomy justifies their choice to either continue a pregnancy or to end it. When we dilute this concept or make exceptions, we create a slippery slope toward forced birth and even forced abortion.

The reason for an abortion does not play any role in justifying the abortion–bodily autonomy of the pregnant person is the ethical justification for either choice they make.

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