As you may have heard, HBO Girls actress Jemima Kirke recently made a public statement about her past abortion. In a solemn video published by the Center for Reproductive Rights as a part of their “Draw the Line” campaign, Kirke explains that when she was in college, she got pregnant with her boyfriend, scrounged up money to afford an abortion, but was unable to afford the anesthesia. Sounds like a painful experience. But that’s not all that Kirke found painful. “I still see shame and embarrassment around terminating pregnancies,” she said. “So I have always been open about my stories, especially with other women.”
Kirke, who is now thirty, married, and mother of two daughters, says that she is motivated to speak out by the hope that, if women talk openly about it now, the cultural conversation will resolve the issue by the time her daughters are grown. She hopes that putting a human face on stories like hers will keep people from misunderstanding how normal abortion is and from limiting women’s access to it.
By and large, I would say it’s a good thing Kirke is talking about her abortion publicly—but not for the reasons she thinks.
Putting a Human Face on Abortion
Kirke means well, but the abortion debate is one where putting a “human face” on the issue, far from solving things, is exactly what perpetuates the crux of the debate—that is, the question about whether the human face of the baby counts. I don’t know anyone serious on the pro-life side who denies the “humanness” of the woman; it’s just a question about whether she has the right to decide if the girl or boy growing inside her deserves to live. That the woman facing an unplanned pregnancy is deserving of respect and gentleness is an unquestionable reality.
Kirke’s hope that the issue will just talk itself away is naive. The abortion debate continues to divide our country, and the opposition continues to draw record numbers for its march on Washington every year. In large part, that’s because the issue was forced into American law without a cultural conversation. Overnight, thanks to the votes of a few judges, the concept of a right to abortion went from a radical view to the law of the land. Not only was abortion not voted for by the people, it wasn’t voted for by their representatives in government. Perhaps if it had been legislated into law, as it was in Britain, we wouldn’t still be in such culture shock. Instead, in America, abortion was shoehorned into the books with a court ruling that literally invented a right that has no basis in the Constitution. In terms of America’s cultural conversation, no one saw this coming.
Still, better late than never, right? Kirke has brought up an important topic for many Americans. So let’s talk about it.
Abortion, Rape, and Stigma
Jemima Kirke is a lovely woman. She’s like a cross between Fiona Apple and Botticelli’s Venus walking out of a Waterhouse painting. I do not know Kirke personally, but she seems, in some ways, like a kindred spirit. She went to Rhode Island School of Design while I went to Providence College, just across town. Our time in Providence probably overlapped, since we’re only a year apart in age. While edgy and independent, she also carries an approachable, friendly vibe. She seems like someone I easily could have crossed paths with on Thayer Street or shared a clove cigarette with a decade ago.
So, woman to woman, here are my thoughts toward a conversation about abortion. What I’m about to say may seem intense, but Kirke is a gutsy woman herself, so I trust she’d understand I’m just being frank and honest about my opinion, not trying to shame her.
My view is this: I'm against abortion for the same reason I'm against rape: I believe it shouldn’t be lawful for me to do whatever I want with another person's body—whether they’re conscious of it or not.
Comparing abortion to rape may seem strange, especially given that rape is often brought up as a way to make abortion seem more compassionate. “Why should a rape victim have to carry her rapist’s child?” the argument goes. But for me, the wrongness of rape actually highlights the wrongness of abortion—and vice versa.
As undeniable as it is that the body of a fetus is inside a woman's body, it is equally undeniable to me that his or her body is a separate body from the mother's. When I was pregnant and could feel the baby kick and move around inside of me, it wasn’t one of my organs moving around; it was another person—and an active one at that. I remember one of those pregnant-epiphany days when I realized that not only do I feel him, but he feels me. I feel his pokes, but he feels something different—the confines of my womb, the bopping of my walk, my hand when I’d nudge him back through my belly.
Similarly, I realized, if for some reason my little baby experienced some pain unrelated to my health, he would feel it, not me—despite the fact that he's inside my body. Yes, I know the science is already in about the two separate heartbeats and brains and everything else that proves a fetus is a separate human body from my own—but somehow, when I realized his body feels everything completely separate from mine? Mind. Blown.
Now I can’t see it any other way. I can’t do whatever I want to someone else's body.
Abortion and rape are both highly charged issues, and they are often surrounded with great division and judgment. Recently, I’ve been hearing the same message about both rape and abortion: “the only way to reduce stigma is to talk about it more openly.” For rape, this message and movement go back for decades; many of us will recognize the phrase “take back the night” as the longstanding cry of those seeking to remove the cultural stigma attached to sexual assault.
The “let’s talk more openly about abortion” conversation is only just starting. For a long time, Planned Parenthood failed to popularize their “I had an abortion” T-shirts, perhaps because they tried to force the conversation a bit too early. But Planned Parenthood's CEO Cecile Richards is still at it, as she recently wrote in Time Magazine, “We need to talk—really talk—about abortion. American has an urgent need for authentic public dialogue on abortion.”
Scripts and Censorship in the Abortion Conversation
Since the abortion conversation has such high political (and, for Planned Parenthood, financial) stakes, interested parties often try to supply the script for women. Rarely do we hear women just talking about their own experiences with abortion, on their own, away from the confines imposed by an interested party. We need more of those real, unscripted, uncensored conversations.
Conversations like the one that unexpectedly came up over a recent dinner I had with girlfriends, when one shared how she feels hurt that her father looks down on her for having had an abortion in her teens, especially given that her mother “made me do it,” and her father was absent. “Where were you for all of this?” she exclaimed with a pained look, as if speaking to her dad.
Or conversations like the one I had years ago with a male friend who broke down when the song “Brick” by Ben Folds Five came on the radio—a song that unearthed the deeply buried pain of the time when, despite his reservations about abortion, he escorted his then-girlfriend to the clinic to abort their child before she later broke up with him.
Both of these conversations were about abortions that took place over a decade before; still, for both, the emotions expressed were demonstrably fresh. The events may have taken place years ago, but there were clearly unresolved feelings that could use some airing out.
If there's anything these conversations taught me, it’s that we should stop sugar-coating the abortion issue with films such as last year’s Obvious Child (the screening I attended was sponsored, not coincidentally, by the aggressively pro-abortion National Organization for Women). And we should stop the bandwagon campaigns forcing women to accept a narrow party line in order to start a conversation on the subject.
Is this possible today? Is it possible for women like Jemima Kirke to talk about their abortions without wearing Planned Parenthood T-shirts? The “Draw the Line” website, where Kirke’s video appears does not bode well for open discourse. The site gives tips on what to say, asking loaded questions such as, “What message would you like to tell politicians who attack reproductive freedom?” while noting that they will “review your submission for inclusion on our site.”
A Pro-Woman Message
Still, Kirke’s video message says something important. She suggests part of her reason for talking about abortion publicly is that she wants women to know they are not alone. They went through a hard experience, but they’re not alone, and they can speak up. The Center for Reproductive Rights, like many other organizations and activists, immediately jumps to championing unrestricted abortion rights as the way to help women. Instead, I’d like to pause for a second before rushing into the political catfights.
Underlying Kirke’s remarks is a pro-woman message that’s hard to argue with—abortion is hard, and you’re not alone. Maybe you even had a traumatic experience tied up with your abortion. Maybe you felt pressured or had few other options. Maybe it’s still on your mind after many years, and you have no one you feel comfortable talking with about it. There are countless reasons women might be silent about abortion, but such silence is rarely a healthy path. You don’t have to make a public statement, as Kirke did; you could talk confidentially to a therapist or a support group about it. You could tell a trusted friend. If we really are pro-women, and if we really want a cultural conversation with women on abortion, we owe it to these women to say loudly, “You are not alone, and you deserve healing.”
Do I need to support abortion rights to say that? No, as I cannot in good conscience support abortion when I know that it harms both women and children. Maybe that makes me someone abortion-supporters would prefer to shut out of the conversation. No doubt my views would not be published on the “Draw the Line” website. But if Kirke, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and others calling for a cultural conversation about abortion are genuine in their intentions, then they’re going to have to answer some tough questions, namely: Are you ready to hear women’s voices who disagree that abortion was a good choice? Or are you telling those women to remain silent?
Mary Rose Somarriba is executive editor and culture editor of Verily Magazine.