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.

Go Deeper…

  • The Problem With ‘Justifying’ Abortion Care

    Huffington Post | Alanna Vagianos | June 13, 2022

    A cogent and fascinating summary of the ethical (and advocacy) difficulties that justifying someone’s abortion can create. This interview with Drs. Katrina Kimport and Monica McLemore on the subject of their recent scientific journal article reviews how problematic it is to set up a hierarchy of abortions that are better than others, such as when they occur in pregnancies complicated by rape or fetal anomalies. When we evaluate or judge the reasons for someone’s abortion, we are actually assuming that we can judge and control another person’s body. It is better–rhetorically and certainly ethically–to focus on the autonomy of the pregnant person in all decisions.

  • My Abortion at 11 Wasn’t a Choice. It Was My Life.

    New York Times | Nicole Walker | August 18, 2022

    This author tells the story of her abortion when she was 10 years old. She argues that exceptional abortions matter too, because every pregnancy–and every abortion–“changes life trajectories.”

  • I had an abortion. It’s none of your business why.

    Washington Post | Elly Lonon | May 27, 2019

    As the title suggests, this author argues that the reason for their abortion is irrelevant to the their right to make that decision. When we use exceptional abortion circumstances as arguments for why abortion is necessary, we de-legitimize other reasons for abortions as ‘less worthy.’ As Elly Lonon says, “When we pander to find circumstances under which abortion becomes palatable, we dilute the simple message that body autonomy should be a right regardless of gender.”

  • Does it matter why women have abortions?

    The Nation | Emily Douglas | August 21, 2012

    This opinion article takes a broad view and answers yes– reasons for abortion matter not because we should judge who is worthy of an abortion, but because they help us understand how best to help. People seeking abortion may just need an abortion; some are facing a host of other social stressors (including abusive and/or coercive partners), and understanding their lives is the first step to providing better support.

  • Abortion Doesn’t Have to Be an Either-Or Conversation

    Scientific American | Amy Alspaugh, Linda S. Franck, Renée Mehra, Daniel Suárez-Baquero, Nikki Lanshaw, Toni Bond, Monica R. McLemore | December 8, 2021

    This opinion article by a group of reproductive health providers and ethicists argues that just as almost nobody is entirely pro-life or pro-choice, complexities abound in abortion care and we must learn to hold two opposites. The reasons people have abortions matter because, in a reproductive justice framework, we can hold both the opposites of insisting that abortion is a human right and that we must improve health care and parenting resources for everyone who wishes to parent.

  • New 14-Country Study Highlights Reasons Women Obtain Abortions

    Guttmacher Institute | Guttmacher Institute | July 11, 2017

    The folks at the Guttmacher Institute have compiled data systematically from around the world citing that the primary reasons people make the decision to have an abortion are socioeconomic concerns or the desire to limit childbearing. Consistent with prior research, they found that people often cited more than one reason for choosing abortion, underscoring the intersectional nature of reproductive decision-making.
    This resource is a press release about the a scholarly article; the original scholarly article is also available.

  • Understanding why women seek abortions in the US

    BMC Women’s Health | M Antonia Biggs, Heather Gould, Diana Greene Foster | July 5, 2013

    This study, one of the many publications from the Turnaway Study, shows that the most common reasons for abortion were financial (40%), timing (36%), partner related reasons (31%), and the need to focus on other children (29%). Most women (64%) reported more than one reason for seeking abortion.

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