In a recent New York Times opinion piece called “My Mother’s Abortion,” Beth Matusoff Merfish tells of her experience sitting with her mother in the gallery of the Texas State Senate while Democratic senator Wendy Davis filibustered the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.
In 1972 as a college student, Merfish’s mother crossed state lines to find a place to have a legal abortion. She went on to build a career as an abortion rights activist. Merfish writes to applaud her mother’s actions and to encourage other women to put a face on abortion by coming forward with their abortion experiences.
Just a few days after Merfish sat in that senate gallery with her mother, “yell[ing] in indignation” as Republicans sought to end the filibuster and bring the bill to a vote, I sat quietly in a conference room at the Dallas-Fort Worth Hyatt Regency with my mother. She was about to share the details of her abortion experience to an audience at the National Right to Life Convention.
Like Merfish’s mother, my mother had her abortion in 1972. She was living in New York City for the summer and was preparing to begin her junior year at Harvard when she became pregnant. Abortion was already legal in New York, and advertisements promoting the new right seemed to be everywhere. Abortion looked like a straightforward solution to her problem–a way to turn back the clock.
“At age 20,” my mother said, “I had no inkling of the mental and emotional darkness I was about to enter. I couldn’t have grasped the immense psychological toll abortion would take for years into the future–unrelenting tears, guilt, shame, and depression.” While taking full responsibility for her decision to have an abortion, my mother believes she was led to what she calls her “tragic, irreversible decision” by a series of lies and distortions: distortions about fetal development, doublespeak about choice and rights, and glorification of “planned” and “wanted” children.
As my mother told the audience that day, she did not begin to heal until she understood the reality and victimhood of her aborted child. She realized that whatever hardship the baby might have caused her, it could not compare to the pain she was suffering in the wake of abortion. As long as she rationalized her choice with the notion that having a baby would have ruined her life, her secret grief festered. But one bright afternoon at her kitchen table, a moment of realization came full force. There was no moral basis for her abortion. Her so-called choice had ended the life of an innocent human being who was her own child. When she embraced these difficult truths, she was finally able to acknowledge her grief, find the peace she longed for, and begin the healing process.
Much like Merfish, I spent years actively involved with the abortion issue without realizing the toll that abortion had taken on my own family and life. When I was young, my parents ran a pro-life organization that lobbied the Southern Baptist Convention to take a pro-life stance. Our message was clear: Every unborn child is an innately valuable human person bearing the image of God. But worried that confessing her own mistakes might have the perverse effect of making me more likely to repeat them, my mother waited to tell me until I was in my early 20s. I did not know as a young child stuffing envelopes with pro-life literature or distributing pro-life voting guides before an election day that among the millions of lives lost to abortion was my own half-sibling. And I did not know on the days my mother would lie in bed crying for hours that she was grieving for her aborted child.
Stories like my mother’s are rarely spoken out loud. The pain and guilt of abortion are too deep. And, sometimes, those willing to speak do not find others willing to listen. Many people seem to assume that most women reflect positively on their choice and that they have experienced little emotional, psychological, or physical repercussions–and some of those people are reluctant to consider stories that challenge that view. Surely every woman’s experience is unique, and some women may feel they have suffered no ill effects from their abortions. But research on women who have had abortions suggests that my mother’s experience is not uncommon. Women who lose a child to abortion, many of whom do not progress through a normal grief process that would usually accompany a pregnancy loss, are at higher risk for everything from depression, to substance abuse, to suicide. Indeed research has shown that the experience of some women following abortion is a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
People in the pro-choice movement want women considering abortion to believe that the most difficult part of their choice will be the step through the door of the abortion clinic. For women like my mother, far more difficult was the step out the door–and every step after that for the next 20 years.
Even as the stories of post-abortive women and their pain remain hidden, any association between abortion and pain of any sort is unacceptable even to mention in pro-choice circles. As my mother pointed out in her address, the actual title of the legislation that was the subject of Ms. Davis’s storied filibuster was hardly ever spoken by its opponents or the press. Merfish’s article is a case in point. She rails against the bill for restricting the rights of women but never mentions the bill’s name–the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act–or stated purpose: to limit abortions performed during the later stages of pregnancy when the child could suffer physical pain during the procedure that ends its life.
While the research on precisely when unborn children begin to feel pain continues to be debated in the abortion community, and tensions are running high, the least a piece like Merfish’s could do is engage with the bill on its own terms. Until all people, on all sides of the debate, can acknowledge the pain of abortion–be it the pain of the mother or of the child–we will be a nation full of people who don’t fully know themselves.
And now to the point on which Ms. Merfish and I agree. It is the women of our mothers’ generation–those who have lived for decades in the aftermath of an abortion decision–who have the power to shape Americans’ beliefs about abortion. They have the power to bring the truth of their experiences into the light. We owe it to them, to ourselves, and to our unborn children to listen to all of these stories.