Why Do We Find Abortion Confidence Uncomfortable?

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1 IN 3 U.S. WOMEN will have an abortion in her lifetime, and will be overwhelmingly confident in her choice. According to a study released last month, 95% of women who have abortions believe they’ve made the right decisions in choosing to terminate their pregnancies. Conducted by the University of California, San Francisco, this project follows a smaller Guttmacher Institute study in 2012 — on which two of the UCSF researchers also worked — and reaches the same conclusion.

This kind of information should be a cause to celebrate. In a world where corporations make astounding amounts of money by tearing down women’s confidence in their marketing campaigns, this study proves that U.S. women are educated and empowered enough to make the right decisions for themselves and their families by a staggering majority.

Yet instead of focusing on this positive news for women, media outlets centered on a video released by the anti-choice Center for American Progress, which had been manipulatively edited to show Planned Parenthood’s Deborah Nucatola appearing to admit to selling fetal organs on the black market. Despite the fact that the clip has been soundly debunked — as has every other undercover video made by anti-choice groups — it continues to generate conversation while discussion of women’s satisfaction with their decisions is swept under the rug.

This all bears asking:

Why Are We Uncomfortable about Women’s Abortion Confidence?

When people imagine a woman having an abortion, they most likely imagine something like this:

  1. A tearful, reluctant decision to terminate the pregnancy
  2. The abortion — which may or may not be presented as dangerous, despite abortions being among the safest and common medical procedures
  3. A period of mourning, after which she will generally feel better about her choice

This abortion narrative does not represent reality for the women whose decisions to terminate are not difficult.

To make matters worse, media representations of abortion are, at their most positive, bittersweet. There is an unspoken rule that women must mourn and feel a respectable amount of guilt regarding their abortions in order to be likable and sympathetic. In reality, the majority of women feel varying degrees of elation after their termination procedures, so the portrayal of abortion as emotionally devastating does not align with the experiences of most women.

A variety of factors contribute to women’s feelings about their abortions, including educational and employment circumstances, partner involvement, and community support. Conflating negative post-abortion emotions with wrongness ignores the nature of women’s hormonal fluctuations, which can cause the same feelings of sadness and anger during menstrual cycles, pregnancies, miscarriages, and post-natal periods. Just because a woman seems sad after her abortion doesn’t mean she’s sad about having had the procedure itself, or that she feels guilty and regrets her decision. It’s important that women who experience sadness following their abortion know that their feelings are valid; otherwise, they might not feel comfortable discussing their abortions because of the expectation that they should feel conflicted about them in some way. That can only contribute to the culture of silence that already surrounds abortion.

As Penny Wilson* at Mamamia points out, even staunchly pro-choice women are not comfortable discussing personal abortion experiences openly. We can hash out abortion in the abstract, and many of us can even relay the details of termination procedures, but when it comes to us — to our friends, family members, and selves — we stop talking. Statistics say I know several dozen women who have had abortions; I’ve “met” fewer than ten.

While studies like the one conducted by UCSF help to break the culture of silence, public opinion maintains a largely negative, but occasionally bittersweet, perspective on the impact of abortion. This pervasive image of the procedure is shaped by social fragments — including media, marketing, and myths — that combine to create a toxic culture in which a woman who has any real confidence must be optimistic to an almost saccharine degree. We talk about a “confidence gap” existing between the sexes, but, as Jessica Valenti points out, a woman’s lack of confidence “is not a personal defect as much as it is a reflection of a culture that gives women no reason to feel self-assured.

It’s a vicious cycle, in which mainstream society destroys women’s confidence, tells them to have more confidence, and silences them when they dare to do so. This is why statistics like those in the UCSF study are so provocative. We’re unnerved by women who are comfortable in their own skins; when 95% of them are, we’re downright shocked and appalled, particularly when their confidence is attached to a contentious and oft-misrepresented issue.

Unfortunately, there is no way to fix this problem overnight. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to help. If you want to increase public confidence in women, start by respecting women’s narratives. Listen to their stories and trust their accounts of their experiences. And if you disagree with anyone’s decisions, just repeat these words from Amy Poehler to yourself: “Good for you, not for me.”

*Not her real name.

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