Sorry, Not Sorry: Why I Won’t Apologize for My Abortion


The critics are unanimous: Women apologize too much.

We seem to be sorry for every goddamn thing, even when we’re not in the wrong. Growing up feminine means learning to say sorry for speaking in a meeting, going to work, taking up physical space, you name it.

Think piece after think piece exhorts us to “stop apologizing,” “don’t be sorry,” and own our decisions and our lives. Lean in! There’s even a Chrome plugin you can download to scour Gmail drafts for “undermining” apologetic language.

Even in this brave new “I’m not sorry” world, though, there’s one topic where apologies are still expected: Abortion.

Even “pro-choice” Democrats use rhetoric that tells us abortion is bad and regrettable and tragic and should be avoided when possible. Hillary Clinton, who pro-choice liberals claim is the last and only hope for reproductive rights, famously used a speech on the 2005 anniversary of Roe v. Wade to argue that abortion is a  “sad, even tragic choice.”

In a 2008 debate she doubled down, agreeing with an audience member that the abortion rate should be zero. She characterized the decision as one between “a young woman, her family, her physician and pastor” and emphasized that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare, and by rare I mean rare.” Clinton’s 2016 campaign website downplays the issue, mentioning abortion only once (in a statement that Clinton would “stand up to Republican attempts to defund Planned Parenthood”). She has also stated that she would support banning late-term abortions “so long as the health and life of the mother is protected.”

This is our brave defender?

The truth is, the right wing has been incredibly successful in changing the terms of the abortion debate. Not only have they managed to get the mainstream media and politicians to use slanted and inaccurate terms like “partial-birth abortion” and “pro-life,” they’ve actually managed to get the public to forget that those terms are recent inventions. (The first use of “partial-birth abortion” cited in the Oxford English Dictionary dates back to just 1995; William Safire dates “pro-life” to 1976.)

Through terrorism and through propaganda, they’ve made us forget. In an important article in Jacobin, Jenny Brown and Erin Mahoney point out that the ground has shifted radically:

“Abortion is health care,” is the cry today, and it’s weak. Compare this to the rallying cry of feminists who won us abortion rights in the first place: “Repeal all abortion laws.”

Forty-three years after Roe v. Wade, you can have an abortion in the United States– if you aren’t too far along, and you don’t live prohibitively far from your state’s only clinic, and you can afford to pay for it without the help of your insurance company, and you can take a sick day, and no one shows up with a gun or a bomb to stop you.

But you’re not allowed to be happy about it.

Witness the way abortion is treated on TV and in popular film: sympathetic characters almost never choose (or even advocate) abortion. If they do, their plans are usually foiled in some way. (Netflix’s brilliant Jessica Jones was a rare and welcome exception to this norm.)

As for real life– well, have an abortion if you must, but shut the hell up about it, or you can expect death threats, rape threats, and worse.

Ask Amelia Bonow. She started the Twitter hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion, along with Lindy West,  in 2014 to fight the stigma of abortion. It went viral, garnering tens of thousands of tweets that told abortion stories with joy and gratitude. A few weeks later, Bonow was forced to go into hiding after her home address was published by a conservative website so utterly repellent that I won’t give it the satisfaction of naming it.

But here’s the thing about abortion: sometimes it’s sad, yes, but sometimes it is totally freaking wonderful. Sometimes it will save your life or your future or your well-being. Sometimes abortion pulls you off the tracks while a huge freight train is hurtling toward you. And it’s okay to be happy about that.

I worked at a clinic in Pittsburgh for several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I counseled hundreds of patients–of all ages, races, classes, and backgrounds–about their decisions. I answered their questions and often provided them with the basic sex education they’d never been given in school. I held their hands in the procedure room and told them honestly that I thought they were brave. Their emotions were complex and ranged widely– but, without exception, they were glad to have the option to be there.

I wrote about my own abortion in 2014, four years after I crossed the bridge to New Jersey, where the laws are a little less punitive. I had a four-month-old daughter who was breastfeeding. I was sad. I was relieved. I was happy. I’m still happy.

You know what I didn’t include in that article? I didn’t tell readers whether I was married. I didn’t mention what kind of birth control I was using or how exactly I got pregnant. Those details would probably have made my account even more sympathetic–but I left them out, because none of that should matter. I needed an abortion; I got one. But, as one exasperated man put it on Facebook: “How can I judge you if I don’t know that?”

Indeed, random stranger, how can you?

Here in the US, whether you want an abortion, birth control, prenatal care, maternity leave, or just to have the cops refrain from shooting your children, your reproductive rights are under attack. The Republicans are trying to stop you from accessing the support and care you need, passing laws that make it impossible for clinics to operate and encouraging antiabortion terrorism. The Democrats are offering halfhearted apologies and treating abortion like a four-letter word. And too many of those on the left who do rally out loud for abortion rights do so in ways that put white, middle-class, cisgender women first, without acknowledging that the fight for  reproductive justice is a lot bigger and broader than legal abortion.

We need to create room to celebrate abortion.

That’s right: celebrate.

I can’t tell you how many of my brilliant, accomplished friends were able to go to school and pursue their careers because they had access to an abortion when they were younger. I can’t tell you how many moms I know whose families have better lives because they have the number of children they want to have. I am thrilled for them.

Most of us celebrate when the people in our lives choose to have a child– as well we should: it’s a scary, life-altering decision, and that love and support makes an enormous difference to new parents’ ability to care for their children.

Imagine if we extended that celebration and love and support to all new parents–and yes, that includes teenagers and people on welfare and undocumented immigrants and all those whose pregnancies and families are treated with shame and condescension instead of joy.

Imagine if we replaced shame, guilt, and stigma with affirmation– if we acknowledge that even a pregnant person has plans and dreams and bodily autonomy. Choosing not to have a child is also a scary, life-altering decision. Imagine how much better it could be if those of us who choose it could count on the love and support of those around us.

Imagine if doctors could choose to provide abortion as a part of routine reproductive care without fearing for their lives.

Imagine if we stopped treating abortion as an unfortunate necessity and starting treating it like a normal part of the life cycle.

Imagine if we stopped drawing arbitrary lines between miscarriage and abortion and addressed all pregnancy-related health problems with compassionate, affordable medical care.

Imagine if you were allowed to feel joy and sadness, to mourn a loss and celebrate a future–without being told to shut up or lie about it– whatever the outcome of your pregnancy.