Seven women shared narratives of their abortion experience(s) in which social disapproval, including stigma, personal beliefs, and expectations of “appropriate” emotions, emerged as the feature of their experience that most contributed to their negative feelings. For Melinda (twenty-nine, white), social disapproval took the form of judgment from friends. Making the decision to have an abortion was unproblematic for Melinda. Upon learning she was pregnant, her reaction was immediate: “So I felt like I wasn't, I just wasn't ready. I was not ready.” Melinda's birth control had failed her, she was not in a stable relationship, and she had plans to return to school; it was not the right time for her to have a child. Her emotional difficulty came after she had the abortion, when she was confronted by what she characterized as “archaic and old-fashioned” responses from her friends. Specifically, they criticized her decision to have an abortion and pressured her to feel badly about her choice, despite Melinda's confidence that the abortion was the best choice for her. As she explained, people told her:
you're supposed to feel totally ashamed and you're supposed to feel alone and you're supposed to feel like you murdered someone and you're supposed to punish yourself. And I was just like not prepared for that. I don't feel that that is true for myself. I don't have the experience that I murdered anything but I do feel like I'm supposed to feel that way.
Melinda's friends' comments evidence the existence of feeling rules (Hochschild 1979) around the experience of abortion, rules she refused to follow. Their comments aimed to enforce these feeling rules and made her feel alone in a way the actual abortion had not. The abortion, Melinda explained, had cost her several friendships. She found this shocking because she thought she and her friends shared similar values. At the time of the interview, Melinda was having trouble processing the reactions she received and found them “damaging” and “hurtful.”
Katia (twenty-five, half-Peruvian, half-English) battled the beliefs about abortion she had been raised with in the weeks after her abortion. Katia grew up Catholic and was taught that abortion was a mortal sin, although she did not subscribe to that idea at the time of the interview. Nonetheless, the strength of that belief was so powerful that Katia considered having a child “the easy way out” because “I wouldn't have to hide it [an abortion] or feel, like, ashamed or whatever.” But Katia's feeling that she did not want the pregnancy was stronger than her worry of feeling shame: “it was a little bit more like just kind of crisis, kind of just wanting to not be pregnant.” Believing she could not be a good mother, Katia chose to experience the stigma of abortion rather than bring a child she could not adequately care for into the world.
The social expectation that abortion is an emotionally complicated and sinful action is so powerful that it caused Tamara (thirty-five, white) to rethink her own lack of regret, which she implicitly defined as a wish after the fact not to have had the abortion. Attentive to assumptions about how women feel after abortion—i.e., the feeling rules—Tamara reflexively questioned whether she, indeed, did regret her choice. She explained,
But I really don't regret the abortion at all. And like I said, it was kind of like: wait, but I'm supposed to feel really terrible about this. Like maybe I should dig for this a little bit further. You know, I'm a poet at heart and so I kind of want to kind of tap into that, you know, deep vein of regret but it's just not there. So I kind of regret not regretting.
Because Tamara did not feel regret about her abortion, she worried about sharing her experience with others for fear that they would negatively judge her. This secrecy, in turn, made it difficult for Tamara to process the whole experience. Like the women discussed above, the decision to have an abortion and the procedure itself were not emotionally difficult for Tamara. However, in all of these cases, the responses and anticipated responses these women received from family and friends made the abortion experience emotionally difficult.
Loss of RomanticRelationship
For three respondents, the abortion was associated with a strong sense of loss—but the loss these women primarily mourned was the loss of their romantic relationship, not their pregnancy. For instance, Lana (twenty-eight, Asian) was in a serious relationship when she found herself unintentionally pregnant a few months prior to her interview. Although he had his own apartment, Lana's boyfriend spent nearly all of his time at her apartment, with her. Lana knew they faced many obstacles, not the least of which was her boyfriend's strict orthodox religion, but she believed they could work things out—she had already investigated the process of converting to Judaism. These obstacles seemingly became insurmountable for her boyfriend when Lana told him she was pregnant: he abandoned her.
Lana continued to call, text, and e-mail him for weeks, her messages growing increasingly desperate. After seeing him every day and spending most of her time with him, Lana was devastated when she could not get a response from him. Eventually, she received an e-mail from her boyfriend's brother on her boyfriend's behalf saying that she should communicate with him—the brother—from now on. Lana took this to mean that “the father didn't even want anything to do with me” and that the best decision would be for her to have an abortion. Even then, she expressed hope that her boyfriend would come back, but soon she couldn't deny that their relationship was over:
I was so stupid. I couldn't even see any logical reason for what had happened. I just denied it. I was like, “He didn't leave me. He's going to come back. Maybe he'll come back.” I thought there was hope he might come back. But he really abandoned me, and I knew it when he just didn't answer my e-mails at all.
Lana spoke at length of the emotional wounding her boyfriend's abandonment caused her:
I still had a lot of emotions. I still, I mean, I still love the father. I loved him a lot. And I was very confused when he left me. It was a huge problem. I'm still, you know, to this day, I'm, I can't even say that I'm angry…I can say I just don't have any, I don't have any feelings. I don't hate him. I still care about him; I'll say that. So it's just like I'm very confused…this experience has changed me.
The dramatic end to an intimate relationship she thought of as very serious was emotionally extremely difficult for Lana.
Importantly, Lana's abortion experience was inextricably tied to her relationship loss. She resented having to make the decision to have the abortion entirely on her own, given the closeness of their prior relationship. Lana explained that she knew “it [the abortion] was really the right thing to do,” yet she struggled to come to terms with the loss of her relationship to the father of the pregnancy. Alone and cut-off from her boyfriend's community, Lana sought help by posting her story on an online bulletin board and calling after-abortion talklines. In the end, Lana said of her overall experience, “it was probably the worst time of my life that I've been through.” Broadly, Lana experienced loss associated with her abortion, but closer examination of her experience reveals her loss to be more specifically a romantic relationship loss than fetal loss.
Allison (twenty-nine, white) had a similar experience of romantic relationship loss associated with her abortion. She was twenty-eight when she learned she was pregnant. In the four years she and her boyfriend had been together, Allison reported that they had only failed to use birth control once: the time that led to this pregnancy. At a gut level, Allison knew she did not want to have a child: “When I found out I was pregnant, I was crying; I didn't want to be pregnant…I didn't want a kid.” Moreover, at a practical level, she knew they could not support a child financially. Allison explained,
no one would take care of a child in my family. I couldn't afford daycare. I could barely afford to take care of myself. He [my boyfriend] was working on and off, not a steady job, so there was just no way.
Her boyfriend seemed similarly uninterested in raising a child, so Allison decided to have an abortion.
It turned out, however, that Allison and her boyfriend were not on the same page. As Allison explained it, “he broke down, like he couldn't handle it [the unplanned pregnancy and need for an abortion], like it was just overwhelming.” Despite a promise to accompany her to the clinic, Allison's boyfriend failed to show up. Their relationship fell apart soon after, although he has occasionally called her in the time since about getting back together. This was a very difficult loss for Allison, especially as they had spent most of their time together and she had few other friends. Nearly a year and a half after the abortion, she was still trying to sort out her experience and move forward, but she emphasized that the source of her sadness “is not the abortion itself, it's the loss of my relationship.” Articulating the broader theme of abortion-related difficulty because of social disapproval or romantic relationship loss, Allison said, “I don't think abortion can be emotionally harmful. I think the people in a woman's life who are not supportive of her can be emotionally harmful.”
EmotionalConflict: Head versus Heart
The final group of abortions that were emotionally difficult experiences for respondents are best described as instances where women were torn between what they thought they should do about a pregnancy and what they felt they should do. Most commonly, these eight women saw abortion as the logical choice in their current circumstances, but some significant part of them also wanted to continue the pregnancy.3 This emotional conflict was experienced by women of different ages and races, in different kinds of relationships, and with and without children. As Table 1 shows, there are no clear demographic patterns across these women.
Table 1. Demographics of WomenWhoExperiencedEmotionalConflict
|Name||Age||Race||Number of children||Relationship status||Time since abortion||Number of abortions|
|Alicia||27||African American||1||Casual||5 days||1|
|Brandy||21||African American||0||Boyfriend||1 year||1|
|Michelle||39||White||1||Recent boyfriend||6 months||2|
Julie (forty, white) was in a stable relationship with her husband of sixteen years when she had her abortion. Together, she and her husband had three children, but it had been difficult for them to start a family when they were in their late twenties. Julie underwent in vitro fertilization to conceive her first children, twins, and she and her husband were overjoyed to find that Julie was pregnant again, this time without assistance, two years later. Both pregnancies were hard on Julie, however, who has struggled with depression and migraines. She suffered extreme post-partum depression and was hospitalized for depression following the birth of her third child. She never anticipated being pregnant again at age forty, and recognized the challenge another pregnancy and birth would be for her ability to care for her three kids.
Two additional factors made a current pregnancy problematic for Julie. First, she had been taking a powerful drug to treat her depression that she worried would have negative effects on fetal development. Moreover, the drug successfully treated her depression and she was afraid that going off the drug would mean the return of debilitating depression. A similar thought process governed her thoughts about managing the migraines she regularly suffered from. Second, she and her husband had only recently emerged from a difficult patch in their marriage and Julie feared that an unplanned child could put them back on shaky ground. Summing up her concerns, Julie explained, “I was scared of birth defects and scared of my emotional state and my ability to make it through the pregnancy with my migraines and also taking care of my three kids.”
After her experience with infertility, however, Julie simultaneously felt that her pregnancy was a miracle and she emotionally attached to this pregnancy. Julie drew on a language of the head and the heart to describe the crossroads where she found herself:
[I was] just feeling really like my head was telling me that the wise decision was to have an abortion but then my heart was just wanting to hold onto this baby and, you know, just not, you know, just feeling like it was some kind of hopeful opportunity.
She confessed that “I would have the feeling when I was by myself and thinking about it that I definitely wanted to keep it.” But when she began to think through the situation with others, including her husband, having another child did not make sense; “[those conversations] just made it seem like it wasn't really the best decision, you know, to keep the baby.” Making the decision to have the abortion was wrenching for Julie and she took nearly five weeks to make up her mind. Even then, she felt conflicted, describing a vivid dream with a baby the night before her scheduled abortion. Julie had her abortion just a few days before being interviewed and the conflict she felt was still strong.
Women not in stable relationships, too, experienced emotional conflict over the decision to have an abortion. Alicia (twenty-seven, African American) became pregnant from a casual relationship with a co-worker who had a longtime girlfriend Alicia knew about. In fact, Alicia and her co-worker slept together only twice. The first time, he insisted on wearing a condom; the second, he slipped the condom off before they had sex, without Alicia's knowledge. This man was not a desirable partner in raising a child, in Alicia's eyes, and she had no illusions of his help. But her irritation at his behavior did not extend to the pregnancy itself—when she found out she was pregnant, she felt excited. She had a four-year-old daughter and hoped to give her daughter a sibling before too long. This seemed the perfect opportunity: “I called it my miracle baby.”
At the time she weighed her choice, Alicia was a college graduate, upwardly mobile in her new job, with the weight of her mother's high expectations on her. Already a single mother, Alicia felt the stigma of unwed motherhood heavily. She took her decision to keep or terminate the pregnancy seriously, assiduously keeping both options open:
I was preparing—like just so I could make a sound decision—I mean, somebody might call it weird but I was actually preparing for an abortion but I was also preparing as if I was having a baby. So I would, I would—I made [prenatal] appointments and stuff like that with the doctor to actually go see and make sure the health of the baby was fine, and I was smoking and I stopped smoking. So I was, I was really, a small part of me, and it was a small part of me but it was a part of me that wanted to have this baby. Like, I really wanted to have a baby.
Simultaneously, the co-worker began to insinuate that the pregnancy was not his and accused Alicia of being sexually promiscuous. A woman, presumably his girlfriend, came to their workplace and harassed Alicia. Alicia anticipated that this harassment would only increase if she carried the pregnancy to term. She interpreted these events, combined with her worries about raising the child on her own, to mean that abortion was her best choice: “all this negative stuff surrounding my pregnancy that just made me be like, ‘I can't do this.’”
Alicia had her abortion five days prior to her interview. In the intervening time, she experienced many negative emotions. Alone, without family, friends, or a partner to confide in, Alicia was awash in sadness. Still, she tried to focus on the long term and recognize that abortion was the right choice—she did not regret her decision to have an abortion. She explained, “there's so much I still have to get accomplished, and kids, they kind of slow that down. And I'm too much of a career-minded person. Like, I'm not a soccer mom. I'm a very career-focused mom.” The conflict Alicia felt between her head and her heart was ongoing and even her assurance that the abortion was the best decision did not make that emotional conflict subside.
Cristina's story, too, highlights how complicated women's experience of an unintended pregnancy can be. Cristina (twenty-nine, Latina) became pregnant after a rape by a stranger. Fearful that she would not love that child as much as her three existing children, she had an abortion. With her strong Catholic upbringing, however, she had some moral conflict about her decision. On top of that, she wondered whether the emotional circumstances of the pregnancy's conception really would have mattered; she noted that she dislikes the father of her three children, her ex-husband, but loves the children themselves. Capturing the complex and simultaneous back-and-forth of her thinking about the abortion, Cristina said,
I know that I did make the best decision at the time. I know that in my head. In my mind, I know that that was the right decision. In my heart, I'm not sure that I did the right thing, you know? I don't think that I did in my heart because it's just, you know, I would've had one more person to love and one more person to love me. And at the same turn, you know, at the same time, I know that it was the right decision.
Cristina's certainty two years after the abortion that it was the right decision did not assuage the feelings “in her heart” and that conflict produced significant emotional difficulties for her.
While this was the first abortion for Julie, Alicia, and Cristina, it was Michelle's (thirty-nine, white) second. In marked contrast to her current experience, she had no second thoughts about her first abortion at age twenty. Comparing the two experiences, Michelle focused on her attachment to the pregnancies:
[In the first pregnancy,] I wasn't having any maternal instincts. And I wasn't feeling any attachments. With this [second] one, I definitely was.
Practical considerations about the refusal of her boyfriend of several months to accept parenting responsibilities and the prospect of raising the child alone persuaded her to have an abortion. Michelle experienced a profound sense of loss and waves of grief following her abortion. She began drinking more frequently than before. She called into work sick to have time to be by herself. The depression she experienced was paralyzing: “I would just stay in bed. I just didn't want to. I couldn't function. I just didn't want to do much of anything.” Michelle saw her depression over her abortion as directly tied to the attachment she formed to that pregnancy,
And I did have an attachment. And I was, I think the reason why I had that severe reaction and depression and everything was because I think I actually was bonded and I feel horrible now about it.
Michelle's narrative identifies her attachment to the pregnancy as a significant factor making her emotional experience of the two abortions so different.
Women without children, like Brandy (twenty-one, African American), also felt a disconnect between what they knew rationally—that abortion was the right choice for them—and their emotional attachment to the pregnancy. When Brandy first found out she was pregnant, at age twenty, she was excited, but she felt too young and financially insecure to be a parent:
The reality is that I can't take care of a child. I'm not even living on my own. I'm still living at home with my parents. My job right now, my income is not that much. I'll be struggling. I'll be a single mom because I know that my ex won't be there.
Brandy sat down with her mother and “we went over the positives and negatives, more negatives than positives and that's how that went.” But her emotional attachment persisted. She explained, “I just felt like it was unreal, like this can't be happening, I'm actually pregnant and there's actually a baby inside me. It's actually a living life inside me.” Although Brandy felt the circumstances were not right for her to have a child, she was nonetheless emotionally connected to that potential child. That attachment made the experience of abortion difficult for her.
Unlike Cristina above, Brandy was not convinced she made the right decision a year after the abortion. While Cristina was conflicted but ultimately believed she had made the right choice for her, Brandy said she would make a different decision now if she could:
I think about that all the time. If I could go back and change it, I wouldn't have had the abortion. I would've kept my baby, I would've kept it. No matter if the father was there or not, no matter if I was going to be a single mom struggling, I would've not had the abortion.
In many ways, Brandy holds thoughts of what might have been, even as she recognizes other wrinkles would likely have emerged if she had continued herpregnancy:
I mean, you know, it could be that possibly that I could've gotten depressed from post-partum depression or something, but I don't think that. I think that I would've been happier, more that I had a child and I could've see[n] the child smile and laughing and taking his first steps and talking. I think I would be much more happier now.
More than any of the other women in this category—and in the sample overall—Brandy describes a feeling that could be labeled regret, as used in the parlance of the political claims-making about abortion regret: she wishes she could go back in time and make a different decision.
It is important to note that while Brandy's emotional conflict yielded a feeling of regret, of wishing she had made a different decision, other women in this category experienced emotional conflict but did not express a wish to undo the abortion (although several wished they had not gotten pregnant in the first place or that some other aspect of their experience was different). Alicia, for example, was not sure she would make a different decision if given the opportunity. And women like Cristina were sure they would make the same decision to have an abortion, but that knowledge did not lessen the difficulty of that choice.
Compounding the conflict they felt, the women in this category uniformly also experienced or anticipated social disapproval and some experienced the double loss of their pregnancy and their romantic relationship. Although these women's negative emotional experiences most clearly were due to the conflict between their rational evaluation that abortion was their best choice and their emotional attachment to the pregnancy, social disapproval and relationship loss were compounding factors in their narratives. In contrast, the narratives of women introduced in earlier categories were not compounded by emotional conflict. This suggests that although the head/heart conflict is described here as something experienced internally, at an individual level, relationships and social support also matter significantly.