“I think abortion is so controversial because it’s been separated from people’s lives,” says author and third wave feminist, Jennifer Baumgardner. “We talk about it as an ‘issue’— instead of something that happens to us personally or to our sisters, friends, mothers, grandmothers.”
Jennifer Baumgardner reads Tuesday, July 29, 7:30pm at Magers and Quinn Books, 3038 Hennepin Avenue in uptown Minneapolis. Hear an interview with Jennifer Baumgardner on Catalyst, archived at http://www.kfai.org
Baumgardner, 38, a Fargo, ND native and writer for Ms. magazine, is most known for Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future (2000), co-authored with Amy Richard. With her new book Abortion and Life (Akashic Books, $16.95), Baumgardner excavates one of 1960s-70s second wave feminism’s greatest strengths: the undeniable power of women simply telling the truth about our lives. Researching the book, Baumgardner was often surprised by who had had an abortion, from a friend’s conservative mother to a grandmother.
This deceptively simple and moving book has 15 women and one man tell how they faced unplanned pregnancies and chose abortion. Actual names are used with black and white portraits by Tara Todras-Whitehill. All wear a black t-shirt with white letters that echo the title of the film Baumgardner co-created with Gilliam Aldrich: “I had an abortion.”
“People don’t know how common abortion is. How many people I met who are pro-choice who thought they didn’t know anyone who had had an abortion!” Baumgardner relates that her assistant believed that. Then, the assistant’s mother revealed she’d had an abortion five years earlier.
One in three women experience abortion : 92% in pregnancy’s first 12 weeks, 50% in the first eight weeks.
These stories have incredible range from the decades before abortion was legalized in 1973 to young women in the 1990s. An African-American woman, Florence Rice, was a 17-year-old single mother in 1930s Harlem, easily able to find an understanding mid-wife—but, was “treated nasty” by nurses when she became infected. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem had a mid-1950s abortion done by a London doctor, who demanded two promises: to never reveal his name and to “do what you want with your life.” Denise Oswald and George Monos, give a complicated double-perspective of a couple going through an abortion. A Brazilian exchange student returns to college after a visit home— reuniting with her boyfriend—to discover she’s pregnant. Women realize that they or their partner is too unstable for parenthood. Lesbian women struggling with identity find themselves pregnant.
Anti-abortion rhetoric assumes female irresponsibility about contraceptives, but Baumgardner reveals that many women get pregnant due to contraceptive failure.
“Generic birth control pills have only 80% of the hormones of name-brand pills—primarily given to poor women. I find it shocking and disturbing. Once again, making a woman feel it’s her fault—even when you’re being responsible,” Baumgardner states emphatically. ”Another issue is that poor women have higher obesity rates and need higher hormones, so the generic pill is even LESS effective! Pro-choice and pro-life people could find some common ground by taking this on.”
Baugardner puts abortion into historical context and unearths the fight to legalize contraceptives and abortion. She doesn’t shy away from controversy, taking on second-term abortion, science making it possible for babies to survive at earlier points in pregnancy, women having multiple abortions, and the contradictory feelings some women have after abortion. A wonderful resource guide is included.
This important, deeply necessary book opens up the reality-based conversations missing from debates about abortion, sex education, and women’s sexuality in a culture that veers between pornographic objectification and puritanical repression.
Baumgardner quotes singer-songwriter Ani Di Franco from her abortion story. ““Our bodies are animal and beautiful.” Strongly pro-choice and mother to a three-year-old son, Baumgardner says she thinks it’s time for what she calls “reproductive justice”.
“Our bodies are sometimes stronger than birth control, “ Baumgardner says. “We’ll always need abortion to be available.”
Baumgardner creates critical space for honesty about women’s complex lives: women with dreams that an unplanned pregnancy would deny, women with hopes to be good mothers while knowing they’re not yet ready.
Abortion and Life breaks the silence of unacknowledged emotions: relief and regret, liberation and loss, revealing that women can feel all of them after an abortion. I had an abortion and I felt all those feelings.
Lydia Howell is a Minneapolis journalist writing newspapers and on-line journals, winner of the 2007 Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism for her reporting on homelessness. She produces and hosts “Catalyst: politics & culture,” Fridays, 11 a.m. on KFAI Radio.