“Challenge the stigma around abortion,” the speaker urged from the small, makeshift stage. “These fucking politicians keep these laws in place because there is a stigma, a stigma around abortion.” She paused, letting her words soak in. “Abortion,” she continued, “is a beautiful health care event; it’s nothing like what protests make it look like.” The twenty-somethings clapped, and the older women nodded in approval, having long ago traded youthful exuberance for steady persistence in their fight for abortion rights.
I had just slipped in, standing in the back corner of an unused storefront, deep in Bushwick, a Brooklyn neighborhood full of that idealistic pessimism that pervades today’s disenchanted youth. I’d ventured out on the birthday of Roe v. Wade, intrigued by an event entitled Shout Your Abortion, billed as a night for women to share and celebrate their abortion stories. I’d come to watch, to listen, but most of all, to understand. My lack of black ripped jeans, shaggy hair, and shoulder-blade tattoos only highlighted the deeper ideological differences that existed between me and everyone else in the room.
I didn’t fit in, but that’s what I wanted. I’m concerned for the ever-increasing fragmentation of our society. We’ve splintered into various groups with differing presuppositions, which results in radically dissimilar lives. We then entrench our lives into like-minded groups, using clothes, hair, and lifestyle as coils of barbed-wire to keep the other side at a distance. We no longer find community in physical places, but rather in lifestyle enclaves, using first the car, and now the internet, to ensure that we only have to interact with like-minded individuals. Hunkered down, everyone then lobs grenades across the battlefield, letting editorials, blogposts, and videos explode in the other side’s camp. Each group raises money to build new weapons to better score direct hits on their enemy’s ideology.
I’m sick of that society. I’m sick of it’s brokenness and impotence, unable to do anything but create more division and more scar tissue. It’s a system that deals in manipulation, demonizing the other to capitalize on the innate power of fear. Fear that divides. Fear that blames. Fear that causes every group to traffic in stereotypes and secondhand accounts of how the other side wants to destroy everything that we cherish.
I’m not suggesting that we give up truth, but rather that we rethink this “fight” for it. Is it effective? Is it helpful? Has anything positive come of it? Last year I read an author who spurred me to think in a new light of how I interact on social issues. He suggested that people make decisions on sticky social issues not on the basis of facts and logic, but because of a direct personal experience. So, if you ever want to see someone change their stance on a controversial topic, don’t bombard them with a rationalistic diatribe, but rather find a way to get down to the story of their personal encounter with that issue. Conversations and arguments will only bounce off a person unless you first comprehend the way that an issue has personally affected their life.
All of this took me to Bushwick, seeking to understand why these women had decided to have an abortion. I wanted to hear their stories and their reasons for making this choice, a choice that forever altered the lives of both parties involved. One-by-one the women came to the stage to share. The circumstances for the pregnancies varied; some were abandoned, some were abused, some were assaulted. But all felt alone and afraid, powerless in their pregnancy and in the impending idea of supporting a child.
I listened as the women shared tremendous hurts. A woman told of the intense guilt that she felt for aborting her rape-induced pregnancy. “I felt as if I was becoming the very monster who did this to me in the first place,” she told the audience. “I prayed to some faceless god to make me not a woman, to make me anything else.” Many began their stories by saying that they didn’t like abortion, and never wanted to have one, but that given their circumstances they didn’t feel like they had had any other choice. One woman summarized this theme, saying, “I believe in life at conception, but I needed dominion over my body.” Her boyfriend showed no interest in their baby, leaving her unsure of what to do. Every woman, without fail, felt damaged and isolated, rejected by their child’s father, while hiding their situation from their friends and families for fear of being shamed and rejected.
I began to understand that for these women abortion was not about a baby, but was instead an avenue to empowerment. It helped them regain the dignity and self-value that had been robbed from them by the fathers of their children. One woman said, “I needed to end my pregnancy because I was able to be an arbiter over life and death.” They felt victimized and powerless, lured into a social game set up by men (women receive sustained attention from men only if they are sexually active), only to be cast off by the same men when the circumstances of their relationships changed (pregnancy). A woman shared how her choice to have an abortion salvaged her life after her boyfriend left, allowing her to complete school and later attract the sort of respectable husband who never would’ve married a single mom. The handout they provided summarized this empowerment theme, stating that abortion is “crucial to having any semblance of gender equality in our country.”
I realized towards the end of the night that almost every story told had one common theme: an irresponsible man that put a pregnant woman in a compromised position. Many of the women believed in the sanctity of their baby’s life, and even knew before their abortion of the impending hurt and depression that would follow. But they went ahead with their abortions because of the destruction that a man had caused in their lives. Abortion was the way they coped with the abuse or abandonment of their relationship.
As I reflected on the train home, it dawned on me: abortion isn’t a problem because women love having abortions. Rather a majority of abortions seem to happen because men put women in horrendous situations, whether through assault, abuse, or absenteeism. Abortion, at its heart, is a power issue. Abortion disproportionately affects the powerless; the women who have the most abortions are either college students, minorities, poor, or a combination of all three. Blaming women for abortions might be easy, but it treats the problem topically, rather than at its genesis.
Abortion’s root cause isn’t primarily women, it’s men. Babies are aborted when men abuse their physical and emotional power. Women are an easy target for blame, since they are the ones that walk into the abortion clinic. But I don’t think the answer to the abortion crisis is to harp on women. The key response, instead, is to confront men, and to raise up the boys of our country into a different type of man. Into men who love women gently, care for them sacrificially, and are willing to commit to life-long relationships. We need to go upstream of a woman walking into an abortion clinic and inject ourselves into the lives of these future fathers, teaching and mentoring these malleable young lives, renewing how we as men collectively treat women in our society.
I’m not suggesting this will be easy or comfortable, but it’ll be worth it. It will require us as men to leave our comfortable lifestyles surrounded by other solid men, and enter into the offices, construction sites, fraternities, sports teams, and many other areas of life that are filled with men who, out of their own hurt, hurt others. It will require us to be open, to show weakness, and to allow renewal and healing to come to the pain and insecurities that cause men to treat women poorly. Imagine a society where abortion fades away because women don’t need it to fight back against the compromised situations that men have placed them in. It’s seems impossible, but that’s the kind of society that I want to be a part of; one where we leave our grenade-tossing culture wars behind, and find healing and peace in the middle, together.