Why Chelsea Handler’s ‘Playboy’ Essay About Her Two Abortions Is So Important

In the wake of Monday’s glorious victory for abortion rights handed down by the Supreme Court, striking down unnecessary regulations implemented by anti-choice lawmakers to block access to abortion clinics, comedian Chelsea Handler shared her own experiences with abortion in a personal essay for Playboy. At 16, Handler had not one, but two abortions at a Planned Parenthood clinic, and guess what? She isn’t sorry or regretful, nor should she be for making a healthy, responsible decision about her body. Handler’s essay is so incredibly important because piece-by-piece, it dismantles just about every cultural myth about abortion in existence.

The story of Handler’s first abortion begins after she sets a familiar scene of teen angst: at 16, she had a difficult relationship with her parents, rebels with careless unprotected sex with her then-boyfriend, and gets pregnant. She explained what happened next:

“[T]he idea that I would have a child and raise it by myself at that age, when I couldn’t even find my way home at night, was ridiculous. My parents recognized that, so they acted like parents for one of the very first times in my life and took me to Planned Parenthood. I felt parented, ironically, while I was getting an abortion. And when it was over, I was relieved in every possible way.”

It’s certainly worth noting that Handler’s parents were receptive and considerate about what was best for their daughter and her future. There’s no shortage of puritanical parentals in this world who might have responded to her situation a lot differently.

Handler continued (with emphasis added by me):

“I didn’t have just one abortion; I had two in the same year, impregnated by the same guy. I didn’t have the money the second time. I had to scrape together the $230 to pay Planned Parenthood, but it was a safe abortion. Getting unintentionally pregnant more than once is irresponsible, but it’s still necessary to make a thoughtful decision. We all make mistakes all the time. I happened to fuck up twice at the age of 16. I’m grateful that I came to my senses and was able to get an abortion legally without risking my health or bankrupting myself or my family. I’m 41 now. I don’t ever look back and think, God, I wish I’d had that baby.”

Handler acknowledged that getting one abortion, let alone two, is hardly an ideal situation, but for all the “should have,” “could have,” and “would have’s” that I don’t doubt were thrown her way, she made a thoughtful decision. When a mistake is made in any sphere of life, all you can do is make a thoughtful decision and move forward.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that while Handler admits to not using contraception, most women who have abortions report using at least some form of birth control. According to the Orlando Women’s Center, more than 54 percent of women who have abortions report using some form of contraceptive when they conceived, as there’s no contraceptive that’s 100 percent effective.

Another major takeaway: for all the shame and sexist criticism that’s been directed at Handler for her recklessness as a teenager, where is the shame and criticism for the man that impregnated her twice? Why is it so shameful that Handler had two abortions, but not that her boyfriend didn’t learn how to use a condom? How is it that in society we force women to assume total responsibility when we place all the blame for sexual mishaps on them, but then proceed to infantilize and strip them of their agency when it comes to making decisions about their bodies?

This list of mind boggling questions about gendered double standards and reproductive rights could go on quite literally for days. But the thing to remember is that ultimately, conception is just an aspect of female nature, and it’s infuriating that in the 21st century women are still being shamed, blamed, and stigmatized for features of their biology that they have limited control over. Comedienne Laurie Kilmartin tweeted on Tuesday: “I’m waiting for the guy who got Chelsea Handler pregnant twice to be trashed by the Internet. … Men, it’s your choice until your sperm jumps into her vagina, then it’s her choice. She can’t abort anything until you make her pregnant.” Really, no one should be shamed for this, but the fact that no one cares about the then-boyfriend’s role highlights the way women receive all the backlash when it comes to unplanned pregnancy and abortion.

About 25 years later, Handler has made it clear she doesn’t regret her decision because it was the best one for society, the unborn child who would have been raised by a mentally unprepared child, and, most importantly, for herself. One study found 99 percent of women who have had abortion(s) feel they made the right choice, and Handler’s story reinforces that statistic.

chelsea handler abortion
CREDIT: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Common rhetoric in the anti-choice movement casts women who have abortions as selfish and considerate only of their best interests. But as Handler proceeds to point out, in a world with such a sizable population, which includes too many people in the United States and around the globe who are starving or in poverty, not bringing another human being into this world to experience neglect and suffering is frankly the most unselfish choice possible. (On the other hand, it would be pretty freaking selfish to impose a costly, detrimental ideology on others just to satisfy one’s sense of moral superiority.) 

Handler wrote:

“We have 7.3 billion people on this planet. Anybody who carefully decides not to become a parent — let alone a bad parent, which is what I would have become — should be applauded for making a smart and sustainable decision.”

While Handler acknowledged how “infuriating” it is “to hear politicians make bogus promises about overturning [Roe v. Wade] that has protected us for more than 40 years,” she still offered a gracious outlook on the state of abortion in America: “Like millions of women, I can live my life without an unplanned child born out of an unhealthy relationship because of Roe v. Wade,” she wrote.

Abortion has experienced no shortage of ups and downs in the Supreme Court over the past few decades. But since 1973, Roe has maintained that when situations involving unwanted pregnancies arise, women are actually the human beings deserving of autonomy, as opposed to unborn fetuses.

Alas, Handler concluded her essay on a daring note: “I’d love for somebody to try to tell me what to do with my body. I dare them.”

She has since responded on Twitter to critics who accused her of boasting about her abortions as if she were proud of having them (frankly, what with all of the legal and cultural obstacles around having one, maybe there is some pride to be had), pointing out there’s no shame in telling the truth.

I doubt that hers was an easy story to tell, and Handler deserves nothing but applause for her honesty and for trouncing all kinds of cultural myths about abortion.