The Tragedy Of Abortion Rhetoric by Fran Varian

I came to abortion work in a rather circuitous way. It was not expected after seven years of strict Catholic schooling and twenty-one Thanksgivings full of staunchly conservative, pro-life family debates. By the time I arrived in Seattle in 1998, a newly graduated college-educated feminist, I had left all of the conservative Catholicism behind me, but I still did not anticipate that abortion work would become my passion.
I was living in a house with three other newly graduated feminists and we were all looking for work at the same time. My housemate learned of an open position in a local abortion clinic and after much thought decided it wasn’t the work for her. The interview fell to me by default.
One moment I was a “I’m pro-choice but I don’t think I would ever have an abortion,” feminist, and the next I was counseling women who were terminating their pregnancies. My clinic was special. It was one of the three free-standing facilities in the country at the time that routinely performed abortions well into the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy. Yes, we performed the much talked about, often loathed (even in liberal circles) late-term abortion.
Talking about abortion makes people uncomfortable. Even if you theoretically believe in a woman’s right to chose whether or not she will continue a pregnancy, you probably don’t want to know the details of how that pregnancy will be ended. And, chances are if you’re one of the millions upon millions of women who have had an abortion (or two or three) you still don’t want to know all of the details.
I know all of the details. I’ve seen thousands of abortions. And, watching the last Presidential debate on Wednesday night I was reminded yet again that we will have no real freedom over the domain of our own bodies until we untangle the rhetorical nonsense both sides of the debate throw up rather than discuss the real issues.
Partial-birth abortion is an ugly misnomer which obscures the difficulties surrounding the decision to terminate a pregnancy past 12-14 weeks. It implies a horrific and gruesome scenario in which a woman labors to deliver a viable baby who is somehow then executed. This is not only untrue, it’s illegal and unethical and you would be hard pressed to find an ob-gyn or abortionist in this country who would do it.
Do late term abortions often end perfectly viable pregnancies? Of course they do. Early abortions end viable pregnancies too, as do miscarriages. But when I hear Senator Obama talk about the “tragedy” of abortion, much to the agreement of Senator McCain, my skin crawls. We all agree, say the politicians, that the best solution to this problem is to have fewer abortions, period.
I don’t agree with them. I think the only solution is for all of us to become very serious about creating a world where the children who already exist have a decent chance at growing up healthy and in control of their own destiny.
A year ago I wrote a piece for Hip Mama about a twelve year-old boy from Maryland named Deamonte Driver who died because his family couldn’t find a dentist willing to accept Medicaid to extract his abscessed tooth.
As you read this there are approximately 83,000 children in the foster care system in the state of California alone.
In my very short life I have worked with children whose parents locked them in closets for days. I have pulled a young girl out of a crack house where she sat patiently waiting for her mother to get high in the back room. I have counseled hundreds upon hundreds of children and young women who were pregnant because their fathers, brothers, ministers, uncles, boyfriends, some stranger, or a group of strangers raped them.
It is said of Hemmingway that he preferred simple, unadorned language because after witnessing the horrors of war words like “horror” had no meaning anymore.
I am very certain that neither candidate for President is qualified to speak about the tragedy of abortion. Neither one of them.
Many of the women I had the honor of talking to before they had their abortion told me they would prefer not to terminate their pregnancies but they simply could not afford to bring a child into this world. They wanted their pregnancy, they loved their pregnancy, but they could not in good conscience ask their child to suffer the same poverty they were suffering.
Women who terminate in their second trimester often do so because they are uninsured or their employer-sponsored insurance plans exclude contraceptive and abortion benefits. They can’t raise the money for a first trimester abortion, which often means they have to desperately scurry to borrow money for more expensive second-trimester procedures.
Some women simply have no idea they are pregnant until they are well into their second trimester. We receive ridiculously mixed messages about our sexuality. We are taught that it is our responsibility to be attractive and sexy, then we fight legislation to teach sex education in the public schools. How many adult women do you know at this very moment who can’t give you an accurate, concise explanation of how her own reproductive system works?
Many women don’t receive crucial genetic testing results until their second trimester. I vividly remember holding the hand of a lovely biologist who learned at 18 weeks that her fetus would not survive the rest of her pregnancy. She was given the “choice” of terminating at that point or waiting to deliver her dead baby several weeks later.
Determining the morality of a stranger’s actions is pretty easy when you don’t know the facts. And when it comes to abortion we never want to know the facts. The facts make us squeamish. The facts point us to the truth that while we profess to hold “life” in the highest esteem we do precious little as a culture to ensure the most basic quality of life for our most vulnerable.
I don’t dislike people who are opposed to abortion. Abortion is a very personal decision which, in my vast experience, is best left to the woman who has to harbor that pregnancy and spend the rest of her life dealing with it’s consequences. While many abortion opponents speak of the physical dangers women face when aborting, the truth is that having a first trimester abortion in this country is significantly safer for a woman than carrying that pregnancy to term. And of course, once you decide to carry that pregnancy you have to find a way to pay for it. My very good friend just gave birth to perfect, gorgeous, and much wanted twin baby girls. The hospital bill for her delivery alone was $80,000.
People who want to get pregnant and people who want to be parents face these obstacles, often joyfully. And I support them wholeheartedly. Forcing a woman who does not want to be pregnant or parent to continue her pregnancy amounts to nothing more than another, government sanctioned, act of violence against her and against her fetus.
I dislike rhetoric and sound bites about abortion offered up by people who don’t know what they’re talking about, and that includes every single politician I’ve ever heard speak on the subject.
Deamonte Driver’s death is an American tragedy.
The crashing, tumbling, increasingly corrupt health care system which benefits the CEO’s of insurance companies and their lobbyists at the expense of the rest of us is an American tragedy.
The fact that a blonde, blue-eyed baby is exponentially more likely to be adopted than a six year-old child of color is an American tragedy. The fact that children with disabilities of any age or ethnicity are lost in the system is an American tragedy.
We need to change the public agenda. We need to talk about quality of life for all of our children.
Abortion is a decision that women from every socio-economic group and every kind of religious and moral background has to face at some point in her life. It is a reality that we do not like to think about. It is a birth control method we don’t speak of in polite conversation. There is evidence of women aborting from the dawn of time and it isn’t likely to go away any time soon, because as long as women fear for their ability to feed their children and keep them safe they will question bringing them into the world.
If our politicians are serious about lowering the number of abortions in this country it would be in their best interest to stop wasting money bombing other women’s children around the world. If we truly wish to cultivate a culture of life in this country we need to put our money where our rhetoric is. We need a viable universal health care plan from Senators McCain and Obama. We need financial assistance for single mothers and struggling families instead of Wall Street millionaires. We need to recognize the beauty of all kinds of family structures and stop preventing perfectly loving people from adopting and fostering children because they are single, gay, or otherwise non-nuclear.
I have watched the abortions you don’t want to think about. I have also watched beautiful, brilliant living children subjected to unspeakable horrors that I wish I didn’t have to think about. I’ve seen politicians and ministers and good respectable people question the morality of women who have chosen abortion over failing a child they would have loved dearly.
I haven’t seen any politician reaching out to Deamonte Driver’s mother and apologizing to her for her son’s death. I don’t see them dedicating substantial amounts of money toward the future well-being of the children already in existence. I don’t see us take accountability for the fact that as a nation we fail our children and their families, not to mention the children of the world and their families every single day.
That makes me squeamish. That is immoral. That is a tragedy.
Frances Varian is a writer and a performance artist who lives in Durham, North Carolina with her partner and an assortment of poorly behaved animals. Her work has been published in: Without A Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class, It's So You:35 Women Write About Personal Expression Through Fashion and Style, Lodestar Quarterly, and She has featured at the Seattle Poetry Festival, The Bumbershoot Arts Festival, The San Francisco Queer Arts Festivals and many dive bars and cafes up and down the West Coast.


punkmama's picture
Submitted by punkmama on

thanks for writing it and putting it out there.
i have similar experiences that i have shared here on hipmama, here and here and here . wow, it seems all i talked about was abortion for awhile there...
but my experiences were so similar and raised so many of the thoughts and feelings and issues as the ones that you voiced that i had to comment, and share those links if you had any desire to read or just know that your story really touched me.
i left the clinic, mostly because the pay was so low. i am working with drug using teenagers now, which is a passion and a calling all of its own...but i will never lose my passion for the work i did at that old and esteemed clinic, or stop asking the questions, because they need to be asked.

At work, you think of the children you have left at home. At home, you think of the work you've left unfinished. Such a struggle is unleashed within yourself. Your heart is rent.
- Golda Meir

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Enelesn's picture
Submitted by Enelesn on

Well said and very important for people to read and understand.
Such a hard topic for people to look at without judgement.

mamakats's picture
Submitted by mamakats on

Thanks for putting this up, though abortion is not 'the issue' of this election cycle, it is alarmingly on the periphery in a frightening way. As a former clinic defender and abortion rights activist writer myself, I am appreciative of the efforts to bring a more nuanced perspective to the topic of "women's health" (in air quotes for McCain effect)...

Sonya SmithWong sagely said, "dig down deep and light a Mary candle before you go!"

Sonya SmithWong sagely said, "dig down deep and light a Mary candle before you go!"

sunflower's picture
Submitted by sunflower on

I particularly like this part, "People who want to get pregnant and people who want to be parents face these obstacles, often joyfully. And I support them wholeheartedly. Forcing a woman who does not want to be pregnant or parent to continue her pregnancy amounts to nothing more than another, government sanctioned, act of violence against her and against her fetus."

I hate it when women are conditioned to think one women's fertility somehow affects another woman. When someone who is having fertility problems says "And I know this person who had multiple abortions!" as if forcing another woman to carry a pregnancy to term would somehow make the pain of her infertility easier to handle.

We can be compassionate for all sides of this unfortunate and unfair situation we find ourselves in.

Sunflower the unflower

Mom's Tinfoil Hat
Foodie loves Picky

Sunflower the unflower

Mom's Tinfoil Hat
Foodie loves Picky

mary_ellen_pleasant's picture

not to discount what she has written about...or her personal experience of working in an abortion clinic...

but would like to know whether the writer has had PERSONAL experience with having an abortion and what her personal thoughts about her experience are in relation to the unresolved and problematic societal issue.

I believe that too many people on both sides of the issue weigh in with tons of rhetoric...mixing and matching issues to make their particular case without really ever having had personal experience with terminating a pregnancy.

holding the hand of the woman with the vacuum mechanism hooked up to her vagina will never begin to tell the story of the woman whose hand is being held.

So...i am curious....

(there is more i could say to critique this writing...flaws in her argument....but i will wait as not to make assumptions.)

Fran Varian's picture

Dear Mary Ellen,

I have never been pregnant. It is a bit trickier for me as I don't sleep with people who have sperm, and the few times I did in my younger days I lucked out with the condoms we used.

So no. I have never had to terminate a pregnancy. I have re-read my essay carefully to see if there is any place where I imply that my experience as an abortion clinic counselor, surgical assistant, study coordinator and well-woman clinic assistant is the same thing as having an abortion. Can you point me toward where you are seeing me say this at all: "holding the hand of the woman with the vacuum mechanism hooked up to her vagina will never begin to tell the story of the woman whose hand is being held."

Unfortunately, while more than half of the women in this country will have at least one abortion in her lifetime very few women ever talk about their abortion experience.

My point in writing this essay was to convey the message that no politician or *any* person should misuse this very private experience which is different for every woman solely to advance their political agenda.

My other purpose was to dispel ugly lies about what constitutes late term abortions, who has them and why.

Of the many jobs I held in those clinics hand holder was the one I valued the most. And while I can not - and do not - and have not - pretended to know what your abortion experience was like I have been honored to bear witness to thousands of different women and their stories - and I do believe I know a bit about which I write.

Believe it or not I once even held the hand of a pro-life protester. She looked me in the eye and said "I hate you. I will teach my daughters to hate you. And I have to have this abortion." So I held her hand Mary Ellen - and not in a disconnected, bored, checked out way.... I held her hand with as much compassion and love as I could muster that day. I didn't have to be on the table to understand that it was hard for her to be.

I welcome your critique but I am curious about how any flaws in my argument might be related to what has or has not been harbored in my uterus in the past? Are you saying women who have not yet had an abortion have no reason to formulate opinions on the subject? I hope not. I haven't been pregnant in my life but that doesn't mean I won't ever be. And after last Sunday's brutal murder of, perhaps, the best and most dedicated abortionist in this country my opportunity to do so (should I ever need to) has been severely narrowed.

In my experience I met women who were perfectly fine with their decision to abort. I met women who desperately did not want to abort but had to because of financial pressure or familial pressure or custody issues. I saw women who were sad but determined they were making the right decision for themselves. I saw many, many different women with many different relationships to their pregnancies and their abortion decisions.

But you are right. I have not laid on that particular table (if you read my bio you will see that I am no stranger to being a patient and the inadequacies of our health care system, so I do understand that no one can understand unless they've "been there".)

I have to say, I think it would make more sense, and a much bigger impact, if you were to write your own abortion story. Tell the world what abortion is through your eyes - whether it was negative or positive or both..... tell your story. Talk to your friends about their abortions, because they have had them. Talk to the women in your family, because they have had them. Write an essay for Hip Mama, because women who read this site have had abortions.

I have never had to make the decision you had to make - but I have also had my life seriously threatened on more than one occasion to protect your right to make that decision.

I am happy to put my name and my face out there because I believe with my whole heart that this very complicated issue deserves to be discussed by compassionate people who know what they are talking about. But I'd be more than happy to pass this torch to women who have had abortions to relay their own experience. And if this essay inspires just one woman to do that - even to prove me wrong - then I will consider this a great success. :)

Much luck to you and thank you for taking the time to read the piece and respond.

-Fran Varian

We never touch people so lightly we do not leave a trace.

-Peggy Tabor Millin

sunflower's picture
Submitted by sunflower on

Women have told their stories. Overwhelmingly, they are relieved to not be forced to carry a pregnancy to term, and in other countries, they die by the thousands preventing those unwanted pregnancies.

Speaking as a woman who has been on all sides of abortion: raised pro-life, had an abortion, been there to support women who have gotten them by holding their hands or counseling them, and now as a health care practioner-to-be who has been trained how to do them, I think her article was well written.

Sunflower the unflower

Mom's Tinfoil Hat
Foodie loves Picky

handsup's picture
Submitted by handsup on

     I realize I may be going out on a limb here, but I admit, with out reservation that I'm pro-life. I think that pro-life means far more than being anti-abortion.  I'm not the person who will stand outside the clinic holding signs, chanting or screaming.  I understand that for most women it is not an easy decision and that making an already difficult time more difficult is not going to serve anyone.  I think love and support would be more effective tools.  And if someone is determined to abort a pregnancy, for whatever reason, then by all means, let's give them the ability to go to a clean facility where they can recieve care from a licensed medical professional.  Bombing a clinic or killing a doctor is completely against the ethic one  claims to espouse if a person calls himself pro-life.      I'm not certain what the particular comments were back in October that ignited this response from Ms. Varian, but there are many points with which I agree: We need to have a viable universal health care system.  Agreed!       Social programs need to be updated to better serve those who need them.  Absolutely!       "If our politicians are serious about lowering the number of abortions in this country then it would be in their best interest to stop wasting money bombing other women's children around the world. . . we need to put our money where our rhetoric is."  Hallelujah!    That being said-- and again, I don't know what the specific comments where that ignited this response-- I agree that abortion is a tragedy and that there should be fewer of them. . .by creating a society where fewer people feel the need to seek them.     Finally, while I understand that the bent of this article is about the politics surrounding abortion, and I understand that Ms. Varian was listing some of the heart-wrenching reasons women chose that option, I do think that as long as we are discussing abortion we should be discussing alternatives.  I know that adoption is a difficult thing for a birth parent to decide on but it seems for women who chose "abortion over failing a child they would have loved dearly," adoption is a wise and loving alternative.  Also, what about preventative measures.  What about not just handing our young people condoms, but also telling them-- boys and girls alike-- that it is okay to say "no"  That what ever message society and the media give them, it really is in their best interest to wait.  We have public service announcements that tell parents of the importance of talking to their kids about drugs and alcohol-- that they will listen even if you don't think they will.  Why not talk to them about sex, too.  It has just as much potential to alter their lives as drugs.     Anyway, those are just my thoughts. -- Peace!      


sebsmom's picture
Submitted by sebsmom on

Politically you're pro choice - or seem to be - because you state above that you believe abortion should be among the personal choices available to a woman who finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy and that women who decide they want an abortion should have access to have the procedure done in a way that is safe, legal and supportive.
I think part of the problem is that since the anti-abortion side has dubbed themselves "pro-life" they have created this misinformation that pro-choice means actively PRO-abortion.
I don't agree that abortion is a tragedy in the way you describe and I see what Madame Filth is alluding to in the dangerousness of describing it as such but I understand where you are coming from and I don't see how anyone - on either side of the debate - can argue that decreasing the NEED for abortion while passionately advocating for the continued and expanded AVAILABILITY of the procedure, is a good thing. I wouldn't call abortion a tragedy but I have a lot of friends who have had one (or more) - and I know that even those who didn't, as far as I know, see it as a traumatic or tragic event certainly would never have chosen to go through it if it could have been prevented. Abortion is often a blessing for a lot of women but SOMETIMES it is a tragedy - like when a woman chooses to abort a child that she really wants to have but knows she can't afford. The availability of abortion in that case is kind of like the saving grace though faced with the tragedy that is the healthcare/childcare/welfare system in this country.
Madame Filth - I see where you are coming from but I've got to respectfully disagree. Part of the problem with the whole struggle is people on the pro-choice side alienating those like handsup who are essentially on our side in terms of what the laws should be. It's almost irrelevant what anyone's moral position is if they support full accessible and legal reproductive rights including the right to opt for an abortion and to have that done in a safe and legal way. Come on.. we can't stand there and badger people and say "That's not enough. You have to admit that there is no moral problem with abortion or fuck you - you're as much my enemy as people on the picket lines outside of the clinics." That's too extreme.
Handsup - I hope that when you're asked your pro-life/pro-choice status that you please put yourself in the pro-choice camp. I think it is very important for people like you who morally disagree with abortion, but who absolutely agree that it is a personal choice and SHOULD be available legally to any woman who wants or needs one for WHATEVER reason to stand up and say so. To be unapologetically pro-choice and to let some maybe likeminded people that you can think it's wrong and still stand behind maintaining the legal RIGHT for any woman to have an abortion if that is her choice.