Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Abortion & Life: Jennifer Baumgardner

Written by Emily Westerweller
So, with this being an election year, we have been and are going to continue to hear arguments on many topics that affect us as female voters. One of the topics often brought up in elections—past, present, and no doubt future—is the sometimes heated and very personal topic of abortion. And abortion is personal; it is more than just an argument between politicians. In her new book, Abortion & Life, Jennifer Baumgardner illuminates this. She does not glorify abortion, but rather celebrates a woman’s right to choose. She reminds us of a time when abortion was illegal, helps us imagine what it would be like if pro-lifers got their way, and enables us to understand how history changed when Roe won Roe v. Wade.
So, with this being an election year, we have been and are going to continue to hear arguments on many topics that affect us as female voters. One of the topics often brought up in elections—past, present, and no doubt future—is the sometimes heated and very personal topic of abortion. And abortion is personal; it is more than just an argument between politicians. In her new book, Abortion & Life, Jennifer Baumgardner illuminates this. She does not glorify abortion, but rather celebrates a woman’s right to choose. She reminds us of a time when abortion was illegal, helps us imagine what it would be like if pro-lifers got their way, and enables us to understand how history changed when Roe won Roe v. Wade.

While Abortion & Life includes a great deal of thought-provoking material—a time line of abortion history in the United States and questions such as, can you be a feminist and be pro-life?—the personal stories are the most profound. Some of the procedures the women go through to get abortions are painful—think: infections, getting arrested and having to testify against the doctor who preformed the abortion, taking pills to miscarry, etc.—and some of the details are heartbreaking. One woman’s religious family, for example, disowns her after her abortion. The stories, however, are not written in a way that makes you feel sorry for these women; instead, you feel their sense of relief and empowerment.

The women mentioned in this book are, for the most part, unmarried, in bad relationships (although, there is a couple who broke up just before her abortion and then got back together years later; his side of the story is the sole male perspective in the book), or already have children they are struggling to support. Some have little education about resources for birth control, or cannot financially afford a child, and some would have to give up their own dreams to support another human being.

Loretta Ross, for example, is a young mother living in Texas in 1969—a time when abortion is illegal there. She is against going to Mexico for an “underground abortion,” and her decision to keep her child causes her to loose her scholarship to Radcliffe. She finds herself pregnant again, after her mother refuses to provide a signature that will allow her access to birth control. She decides to have an abortion, which is legal in Washington DC (where she goes to school). The saline procedure, however, is different from contemporary methods. A long needle is inserted into Ross to abort the fetus and forces her body into labor. “The abortion was painful. It was scary. It is by no means a decision anybody makes lightly,” she says.

And then we have Gloria Steinem, who says, in regards to her abortion, “And you know, to this day, I would raise flags on all public buildings to celebrate the chance I had to make that decision.” Steinem gets her abortion in the 1950s when she is living in London. She has just broken up with her fiancé (the father) and is working as a waitress while waiting for the visa that will allow her to follow through on a fellowship to India. In order to get a legal abortion, she has to prove that it is imperative for either her mental or physical health. (She manages to find a doctor who treats creative types.) The recovery from her procedure is only a couple of days, she says, and leaves her “with such a feeling of lightness and freedom and gratitude.” Her story makes you wonder what women’s rights would be like if she had not been able to get that abortion.

In addition to the powerful text, the book’s photographs, taken by photographer Tara Todras-Whitehill, are extremely moving. Throughout the book, they show women telling their stories in plain T-shirts that say, in boldface type, “I had an abortion” (which is also the title of Baumgardner’s film). Musician Ani DiFranco is moving in her picture with her arms out, and in writer Barbara Ehrenreich’s photo, she has her hand on her chin and her arms folded. Both wear a T-shirt that says, “I had an abortion.”

While Baumgardner decided to keep her child when she was unmarried and pregnant, the fact that she could make the choice was what furthered her appreciation for a woman’s right to an abortion. According to Baumgardner, “I want every woman who has an abortion to be as free as possible from the guilt and shame about her life experiences. At the same time, I also want to honor the truth of abortion for most women—these are diverse experiences, but often loaded with pain and stress, both internally and externally.” As an administration that is highly against abortion and limits the public’s education about it leaves office, we have to wonder what is next for our rights as women.

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