A Slow Burn

by Tamuira Reid

A past abortion experience, whether it took place one month ago or decades ago, can be at the root of a range of issues — low self-esteem, relationship problems, disenfranchised grief a slow burn. It doesn’t affect you until later on. [Many] women have had an abortion, but you think you’re alone. You don’t feel you get to grieve it. … It’s a gut-level thing, a tender place. Many have never told a soul. People do not have the same kind of support and validation [to grieve a loss] when they’re disenfranchised, and that is a huge part of abortion grief. The emotional aftermath is so impacted by spiritual, political and ethical values and beliefs. That will really color how they process it and how much they’re able to reach out and get support.” (Abortion Trauma, Psychiatric Times)

When news of the US Supreme Court’s ruling on Dobbs hit New York City, I grabbed my son from school and headed to Washington Square Park, where I would find thousands of other women with a horrible new reality to process. Standing shoulder to shoulder, hoisting our I Am Not Your Handmaid and Bans Off Our Bodies! signs into the sky above us, we chanted and cried, hugged and held.

The SCOTUS ruling wasn’t surprising, as many of us had anticipated such an outcome. But the collective shock we felt that late afternoon – across the city, across the country, across the globe – was palpable. American women had just been sent back to a time where bodily autonomy and privacy isn’t a given.

 Justice Alito’s final draft opinion was foreshadowed by both a leak of his previous draft, and by a relentless, combative line of questioning during the oral arguments in the case; arguments that hinged on vague, unsubstantiated claims of mental health implications for woman post-abortion, namely post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. To abandon stare decisis, SCOTUS couldn’t weaponize a religious, moral, or ideological argument in the same way they could a scientific or medical one.

Pro-life activists have been relentless in their insistence that all women who have abortions will regret them. That they will live out the rest of their days in a hellscape of emotional suffering and spiritual agony. And the pro-choice side has historically shielded itself from these claims by steering the conversation away from the emotional and focusing on the political.

And therein lies the hypocrisy: we fight against abuse, against power and control over our bodies and our lives while ignoring the fact that this same culture of power, control, and abuse is alive within the pro-choice base.

Abortion stories have always been reliably polarizing; either shrouded in guilt and shame, and wanting a “do-over”, or proudly ‘owning’ your abortions, reclaiming them, even feeling empowered by them. But there’s a space in the middle that doesn’t get talked about. It’s the space where I’ve existed for the better part of five years.

We live in a society that both talks about abortion and doesn’t talk about it. Legislation. Data. Statistics. This is our language. We’re a country that favors debate over conversation. Persuasion over intimacy.

What these numbers, these facts, these calculations miss is the women who have made the choice to exercise their choice – and who are silently hurting.

Some women, myself included, feel they shouldn’t talk about their experience if it wasn’t empowering, if they don’t somehow blame a man, an institution, a literal or theoretical oppressor. And especially not if the stories involve any guilt, ambiguity, or big, complicated emotions that linger, stick around a while, move-in.

Women still feel the need to rationalize their decision, especially to other women. To justify it, to minimize it. But at the end of the day, it is what it is: a choice we made.

We make these decisions for our own futures, for the children we already have at home, for our tired bodies that whisper no more. We make these decisions out of fear, both practical & impractical, a bolded question mark when we close our eyes at night. We make these decisions because no one else is qualified to make them, because we will come to know them and their weight like we know our own. We will make these decisions because we will have to, and some of us will make them again.

“AMH minimalists argue that [abortion-related trauma] is most likely due to pre-existing mental health issues. In other words, they argue that a higher percentage of aborting women were ‘already emotionally broken’ to begin with. This argument is indistinguishable from the centuries-old accusation of personal defects applied to “hysterics,” “malingerers,” “cowards” and others who exhibit traumatic reactions. This blame-their-weakness argument is just a corollary to the assertion that higher quality, more emotionally stable people simply do not break under such circumstances.” (Abortion and Mental Health, NIH)

I had an abortion. And then I existed in a place that was neither here nor there. Floating, untethered, and increasingly alone.

I’ve come to know dismissal as a very strategic form of silencing. To tell me my grief, my trauma, my depression is not because of my abortion but because of …well, anything else outside of it, is to tell me the right is more important than the woman’s experience of that right. And if the experience runs counter to the acceptable level on the pain scale – if it climbs too far up from the baseline – then it must be a fabricated, exaggerated narrative from an already broken person. When I am told this, I am being told that my sisters-in-arms are fair-weather friends. There is nothing more oppressive than being stigmatized by the very women who are meant to have your back. And there’s nothing more misogynistic than to silence women, to threaten disenfranchisement because what they feel, and how they are feeling it is wrong.

Any movement that uses women as political pawns has misogyny at its root. In fighting the patriarchy, pro-abortion activists become complicit in the oppression of women who don’t tow the line. If you are a good soldier, you will keep a lid on that shit, keep it to yourself. So I did. For way too long. Because I didn’t want to be a scab. I was afraid to cross the line.

Would I make the same decision if I had it to do over again? Yes. Has my opinion on a woman’s right to choose changed? No.

Yet, nothing good will come from trying to bury our pain somewhere deep in our bodies and minds. Eventually, we all run out of space. If I had gotten help instead of feeling like a traitor to the cause, I most likely would be much further along in my healing. I probably wouldn’t have spent the first two years wanting to die and the last three years peeling back layer after layer of armor to reach the root cause of my trouble with life. And my son wouldn’t have had a zombie mom stand-in instead of the real thing.

As feminists, we cannot say our bodies, our choice if we continue to police the ways in which we talk about our abortion. There is nothing pro-woman about failing to support each other not only in access, but in aftermath, in the moving beyond. We can have complicated, and yes, painful abortion experiences and still be pro-choice. We can support other women not only in their right to choose, but in their right to have their grief recognized instead of delegitimized. We can fight like we always have and still show-up for those caught in a slow burn.