A few years ago, while traveling in the oriente area of Ecuador, near the Amazon river, I listened to our local guide speak about abortion. He showed our group a plant growing near the trail and said that women from this area have used the plant for centuries to terminate pregnancies.
The nonchalance of his tone surprised me. So I asked him, “What do people around here think of that?” but he didn’t seem to know how to answer the question. I told him about the stigma towards abortion in the United States. He simply said it wasn’t an issue here.
Traveling has often brought moments that challenged my assumptions, but I remember this one clearly because it challenged such a huge one: that abortion doesn’t have to be associated with shame. Recently, the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion on Twitter has given a voice to women arguing the same point. More than 70,000 people have tweeted it, sharing stories of how their abortions ultimately affected their lives in a positive way, and how they look back on their decision as one of empowerment, instead of embarrassment. After the house recently voted to defund Planned Parenthood, Seattle-based activist Amelia Bonow created the hashtag to share on social media her “inexpressible level of gratitude” for the organization and the services it provided her.
The movement resonates with me. Growing up Catholic and in a conservative part of Florida, stigma around abortion felt universal and unquestionable. My environment often painted an image of abortion as something done by a small, minority of careless, sexually promiscuous women who felt a lifetime of shame and regret after making their decision. There was little nuance to that narrative as it was told to me growing up, and little room to question it. Even though politically, many members of my family and community were pro-choice, personally choice was still unacceptable. There was no decisions to be made. A good woman “dealt with consequences.”
By the time I went to Ecuador, I had heard numbers that proved the narratives from my childhood were somewhat false. Abortion was actually far more common in our society than I had been told: according to the Guttmacher Institute around 1 in 3 women will have an abortion in their lifetime. Religious women are not excluded from these numbers: more than 70% of women who had abortions reported having a religious affiliation. Almost a third of these women were Catholic, as I was. Even more surprising to me was that six in 10 American women had abortions after already having a child. Many of these women may have also used birth control at the time of their pregnancy. A study in the New York Times showed how after ten years of sexual activity and “typical use” of the birth control pill, 61 out of 100 of women will get pregnant anyway.
Learning these statistics, overtime my opinions on the issue had become far more liberal than my upbringing. And yet that Ecuadorian guide still challenged me. Though I had grown to accept abortion politically and personally in many ways, he was still one of the few people I had ever heard speak about abortion not only without any trace of shame, but also with a subtle insinuation that it was even somewhat natural.
As I learned later, our guide’s description of abortion in this part of Ecuador was common in many places. For centuries, women around the world have used a variety of natural herbs to take control of their reproductive cycles: to regulate menstruation, to use as a natural contraceptive and often, to terminate unwanted pregnancies. In South Asia and Southeast Asia, some women used unripe papaya. In China, some women used Dong quai. Some Native Americans used blue cohosh.
In the past, taking these herbs during the first weeks of pregnancy did not even necessarily constitute an “abortion.” In a Jezebel article about natural abortifacients, author Stassa Edwards said that in the Roman era, the idea of when pregnancy actually began was far broader than what we may commonly argue today. She writes:
“The determination of pregnancy was left to the woman, who would not have been considered pregnant until she actually declared herself so. Such determination almost always came after the quickening (when a woman actually feels fetal movement), which can occur anywhere between 14 and 20 weeks into a pregnancy. It’s worth remembering then that until the nineteenth century, the use of abortifacients prior to the quickening would not have been considered abortion (at least in the same way we define abortion). Throughout the first trimester, women were generally free to take herbs intended to end a pregnancy….The law seemed content with the ambiguity of “life” and when it began within the womb.”
Stigma around the practice arrived later, and intensified when the Catholic Church began associating midwives giving women natural abortifacients with witchcraft. Historian John Riddle wrote in his book “Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West”, “In the suppression of witchcraft, three separate and distinct things—witchcraft, midwifery, and birth control—were joined.”
Reading this history made the shame and guilt surrounding abortion seem a lot more fabricated, or at least far less of a “given” than I had previously believed. Historically, it now seemed like a long-held practice, shared by women who for one reason or another, needed control of their bodies.
Of course, not all women experience abortion this way. For many, it still is the devastating decision that I was raised to believe all women experience. But it also seems faulty to disregard the history of the practice throughout the world, and not consider that throughout time, women have made many choices around pregnancy without the same response we currently experience in the States.
And yet, the recent backlash against Planned Parenthood shows how the pro-choice movement rarely can acknowledge this. Instead of arguing that abortion guilt is by no means a universal experience, pro-choice activists often feel cornered into arguing a far more limited point: abortion is an agonizing decision made necessary only under extreme circumstances. Doing so, activists in the movement — as a recent op-ed from the New York Times claimed — “leave out a large majority of women seeking abortions, who had sex willingly, made a decision to end the pregnancy and faced no special threatening medical conditions.”
As writer Elizabeth Moore wrote in a recent op-ed “It is often tempting to defend abortion by citing extreme cases; rape, incest, and life-threatening pregnancies are frequently used examples. However, this only serves to imply that women who engaged in consensual sex and simply weren’t ready to become mothers are somehow less deserving of their legal right to choose…In order to achieve progress, supporters must be able to defend all abortions instead of defending some by rejecting others.”
If a movement truly was “pro-choice”, shouldn’t there be no hierarchy as to which choice is more morally “right”? Can a movement truly be “pro-choice” and then later insinuate that a choice based on health is “better” than a choice made based on family planning, or a choice made with agony is “better” than a choice made peacefully with few regrets? The number of women who fall under that category is also far greater than our country often acknowledges: a recent study published in the journal PLOS found that more than 95 percent of women who had abortions felt it was the right decision.
In forming my opinions, I’m grateful my travel experiences in Ecuador and elsewhere have given me the opportunity to view the practice through the different lenses of history, culture, and facts. Though my opinions about abortion continue to change, and there is no way to know how I would actually feel if ever having to go through the decision myself, it feels important to remember that however a woman feels has probably been felt by a long history of women in similar circumstances, and can’t be castigated as “wrong.”