Hilary Plum: Abortion is Thinking. Thinking is Banned.

Nan Goldin, Amanda crying on my bed, Berlin, 1992. Source: nytimes.com 

When Roe fell, I felt what lots of people felt. My feelings were common.

I felt that the lives of everyone I knew had been made possible, in the forms we know as ourselves, by access to reproductive healthcare. Everyone, most especially women and trans and nonbinary people. The job I have—the shape and status and income and independence of my working life—was barely available to those of my mother’s generation and unheard of to my grandmother’s. This is all so obvious it’s almost embarrassing to state, but apparently these days we must. Contraception and abortion are perfectly material. But the profound ways that access to them shapes us—the structures of our relationships and workplaces and society and politics, the nature of our opportunities, our ideas of who we are—aren’t easy to quantify, or even to think.

We won’t go back, as the pro-choice rallying cry says. Sometimes, for no clear reason in the middle of any day, this phrases surges up in me, a futile refusal.

Back into systems and structures—a world—unthinkably more constrained, less free. Back, of course, is already here, in stories of women imprisoned for miscarriages (it’s been happening), or pregnant and bleeding on the floor of a jail, or going into sepsis while they wait to see what the law says. Recent years of cultural conversation have spotlighted the word systemic—which helps describe the situation outlined above: how access to reproductive healthcare alters and expands the pathways through which our lives flow—yet these conversations have not developed, I fear, enough language beyond that word. How do we understand the forces that precede us and shape us, the field in which our limited agency takes form? In the wake of international protests after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd, we saw a powerful new upsurge of energy, a new critique of the systemic: to recognize that systemic racism is and is everywhere; to start to talk, in every realm, about dismantling it… Yet often discussions and initiatives refocused immediately on the individual and the personal. Nothing could be easier in America, where individualism is deeply systemic. We lack language for systems, for thinking the collective. How can we build the language, the conversations, the collective power we need?

Abortion provides, I think, a model. An occasion. The thinking that takes place around an abortion defines our agency, intimately and specifically, against the pressures and oppressions of the systemic. Here we think our responsibility, our connection to others, the capacities and limits of ourselves, what we want, what we owe, what’s possible, by the light of this one struck match, a decision, throwing our small freedom into sharp relief. Abortion exemplifies an everyday mode of thinking that is essential to democratic living. No wonder they have to ban it.

In the first autumn of the pandemic, I walked around my neighborhood listening to an audiobook, through old headphones that fit badly in my pierced ears. This was in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, a pleasant residential inner-ring suburb of what is often called America’s poorest big city. Yards were flush with signs stating Black Lives Matter and opposing Donald Trump, who was about to win the state of Ohio for a second time.

The audiobook was a massive beautiful sociological study of 1,000 American women who’d sought abortions up to or beyond the threshold of the gestational limit. This was never one limit, but many, varying by clinic, by state. (And not to falsely assume that everyone seeking abortion care is a woman—the pregnant people enrolled in this study all identified as women.) These women had either received the abortion they’d wanted or been turned away; the book is titled The Turnaway Study. Interviews conducted over five years tracked what happened with that pregnancy and/or child, with the next pregnancy, with school and jobs, finances, plans for the future, relationships and partnerships, other children in the family, her health (two women in the study later died in childbirth), health insurance (one woman who learned she was pregnant five months in, too late, was consoled by the fact that she could now, because pregnant, get Medicaid and get her teeth fixed, which would help her finally get a good job). The study was covered widely in the news, in US congressional hearings, since it disproved persistent fears about abortion. There’s little regret afterward and no adverse effects on mental or physical health: “95% of women consistently felt abortion was the right decision for them over the course of the study.” Chapters discussing the study’s findings are interspersed with long personal narratives, monologues shaped from in-depth interviews conducted over years.

Listening to an audiobook is a dreamy, insidious way to read. It’s less precise—you can’t go back and find that passage, nail down that fact. The book merges with your own life, suffuses it, with the familiar dishes you’re stacking in the cupboard, the wandering deer on your street who make surprising eye contact. Reading in print, you can stop and think along the way; if you’re listening, when you think, you miss something, and so your thoughts cross and obscure the text like shadows, and its thinking, steady in your ear, intertwines with your own. During my hours with The Turnaway Study I was struck by the correspondence between the social science the book offered and its stretches of personal narration. Not just on one point or another but overall. (This realization felt like mine, though of course it was the book’s.)

Overall, the reasons people gave for why they’d wanted an abortion—in their own language when attentively asked—anticipated what the study would prove, the realities for which it would provide evidence. People’s economic situation and outlook, relationships (perhaps most importantly with abusive partners), educational progress, plans, family dynamics, personal health: all tend to be affected by an unintended pregnancy in just the ways these women expected. The reasons they said they were choosing abortion aligned with the outcomes abortion is good at achieving. We know our own lives, expertly. We know the forces acting on us. What I’m saying is simple but the proof felt weighty.

Every day we are reasoning, intimately and soundly. These women were so reasonable. Science undertook years of work to confirm how right they were. This sort of reasoning is personal but comprehends the social and cultural and political and economic. This book about abortion was also about the success of everyday acts of thinking.

By everyday thinking I don’t mean common sense. That phrase describes a kind of intuitive practicality, warning against some dangers of intellectualism or expertise; it’s most often used negatively, to criticize someone for being silly or elitist. No, I mean something more like a mode of reasoning that’s common to people or everyday, nonprofessional analysis. How in our daily lives we think and weigh factors and make decisions; how we decide how we’re going to decide. This is a kitchen table mode, an informal ongoing practice, making sense of things and taking action, amid the limited power and limited choices we usually find ourselves with.

How we know, how we think, I would say how we choose, but for most major decisions I’ve made in my life—to get a divorce or not; to accept a job offer and move—I felt that I didn’t make a decision. I simply knew what I was going to do. Some realm of my own emotion and thought and knowledge had already chosen for me. In thinking my everyday life, I had already comprehended my options. I didn’t choose; I knew.

It seems bizarre to write in praise of thinking in 2022 America. Obviously thinking is not going well here. You can’t even laugh when the newest conspiracy theory, the newest iteration of bad info, surfaces. Scrolling the news, you might think: thinking-wise, this ship is going down.

But that’s in the realm of media. Abortion is something you think about lying awake in bed, getting yourself to work—if you’re lucky you talk with a friend or two, a lover or partner, your mom, a therapist or counselor, someone at your church, someone online. You talk to the staff at a clinic, doctors and nurses. You talk to the staff at a pregnancy crisis center. You may be given pamphlets with misinformation about the procedure, or hear a misleading speech a doctor is forced by the state to recite. Of course these conversations will influence you. How you grew up will influence you. You may not want to consider abortion at all, since it may violate a belief that’s dear to your sense of yourself. In all these cases, you are largely picturing this matrix of choices and outcomes in personal terms, in relation to your family, your immediate community, your idea of who you are, your values, maybe your faith and your relationship with God—not in relation to a distant imagined community, out there somewhere, judges or politicians or the stuff of the news. Your thinking does not of course take place in some unmediated realm, untouched by media. But I think the field of the decision-making of abortion is less-mediated: person by person it doesn’t happen on the battleground of culture war, the realm of presidential debates and political ads, it happens in the specific shape of someone’s life, her sense of what is real and what is possible for her. Can I afford to have another kid or would I risk not being able to support all of us and keep us in our home; what happens if I have a kid with this man, who I can’t trust; what happens to my plan to finish this degree, my plan to switch jobs or get promoted; will this relative help out with childcare, since otherwise I can’t afford it; can I have a safe pregnancy at my warehouse job; can I bear to go through another high-risk pregnancy; can I get and stay clean, will someone help me; am I a bad person, should I be punished for mistakes; what will happen to the time I spend caring for my ailing mom, my child with special needs…

Thinking about abortion—the kind of thinking that abortion asks for—is training in locating your agency amid profound systemic constraint. Abortion is a radical inflecion point: you may recognize exactly what power you do and don’t have, at exactly the crossroads where your life most intimately meets the lives of others.

In 2020 I was working on the draft of a novel about the end of abortion in states like Ohio. I thought the end would arrive like it was arriving: “death by a thousand cuts,” as the phrase goes. Volleys of tiny specific laws restricting access, often known as TRAP laws (Targeted Restriction of Abortion Providers), had successfully resulted in a steady decades-long decrease in the number and geographic distribution of abortion providers nationwide. Even before the end of Roe, most people in America already lived without ready access to abortion, since a clinic visit could require one or more days off work, maybe a multi-day waiting period, childcare, transportation (travel costs, including waiting periods, have been estimated to average about $1000), a lot of money (a medication abortion without insurance costs on average over $500), one or more purposefully humiliating interactions mandated by the state, a gestational limit you may have missed (especially easy in a country that lacks general access to affordable healthcare). If you weren’t in a city in a blue state, it was already not easy to get an abortion and getting distressingly harder. Many people who wanted one, and got as far as getting the funds and getting to the clinic were, as noted, turned away. I thought the right-wing would just keep winning with this strategy, narrowing access further and further, leaving just a couple shiny clinics in New York and LA. I thought a total victory over Roe might hurt them at the ballot box, since single-issue anti-abortion voters might get less motivated. Apparently the right-wing Supreme Court doesn’t answer to that strategy.

And so, one summer day, they won. I learned when a friend texted me: I’m so angry and I feel so powerless. I realized, feeling sick, what she must mean, and clicked open the news.

We need a dream-world in order to discover the features of the real world we think we inhabit, says Feyerabend, a quotation I wrote out on an index card and pinned up over various desks as a young woman writer, starting out. The novel I was writing in 2020 was narrated by a former receptionist at an abortion clinic and included a series of encounters with patients, vividly passing through—their specificity, each of us in our distinct irreplaceable dignity. Novels are good for exactly this. But after Roe fell, I found that the world didn’t even need this kind of fictional representation. News outlets brimmed over with the specificity and complexity of people’s lives, people recounting their fights with insurance, with protestors, the baby they wanted whose terminal abnormalities were revealed late in pregnancy, their secret affairs, the assaults they’d suffered, how young they were, how they thought of the kids they already had or would have, who had and had not helped them, what being a parent meant to them, the hypocrisies and compassion they’d known. These stories weren’t told by radicals or even leftists. One I remember was by an executive producer of America’s Most Wanted. Abortion is healthcare. It’s common. These stories were better than a novel. The real world was right there. People gathered their intimate questions and details and dreams and frustrations and everything they’d had to think about, in the regular tender desperate space of their own lives. They laid it all out.

I loved hearing these stories. My love was disproportionate, maybe it would take a novel to explain. “When people talk about abortion,” I said in conversation to a friend around this time, a friend who’d recently had an abortion, “they say the realest things. It is very hard to bullshit.” You can bullshit about abortion if you’re speaking in the abstract. To talk about a specific abortion gets pretty real. You didn’t get to choose some ideal outcome among ideal options. You had to choose right here, in the matrix of problems and oppressions and lack of parental leave and two-bedroom apartments and stacked-up bills and stubborn hopes in which you live.

And the choice is yours—meaning not just that it should belong to you, but that you are its meaning. The point of this choice is to determine what you think is right to do, right now, in exactly this situation in exactly your life.

America’s mythic rhetoric of freedom and opportunity always has to downplay its exclusionary, cruel and condescending nature. Poor people should drink less soda and eat less fast food, politicians say. Other Americans labor for years to demonstrate how food deserts work, who has access to what, how many jobs and hours people work, just how little a paycheck can cover, just how much tax dollars subsidize corn syrup, keeping bad food cheap. But the myth is strong. The myth needs there to be choice—that a better stronger person could rise above, bootstrap on out of the crush of the system, into the city on the hill. Otherwise we’re just powerless in an oligarchical, decaying empire. American identity is about the transcendent possibility of individual identity: that you could have one, your destiny, your brand, this is why we beat communism, you have the freedom to choose, the hustle to get out there and win. Every baby could be Steve Jobs. (Instead of someone who works at Apple’s factories—but that goes unsaid.)

But we know it’s not like that. That’s not real. In the small space of our own lives, we know that our choices are so constrained they barely qualify for that word. They flow from the situations we’re in, the backgrounds we came from, maybe a couple thoughtless decisions we made when we were young. If you have a problem at your job, you’re probably not that free to quit. If you want to end your marriage, you’ll have to go through every minute of that divorce, every dollar and fight. There isn’t another way. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia shaped the structures you move amid every day, you can’t just undo that, though you persist, beautifully you build lives here. These systems hum oppressively away in your ear, like an old bad audiobook, always telling you this is your fault. If you borrow a book on time management out of the library (an example from my own recent life), you may have to confront that the main constraint on your time is not your internet scrolling, but your chronic illness, which you can’t do anything about, other than periodically spend money and time trying to find a new treatment. This is it.

When we consider whether to have an abortion, we look at our lives and the lives of those we love, those we’re tied to, our situations. We decide based on what’s here and what we can envision here. We think about ourselves in a network of people we are responsible to, including the potential person inside us. We weigh our values and determine our own meanings. We may not feel free at all when we do this. We may feel the opposite of free—recognizing how not-free and not-infinite life is.

Abortion lies beyond myths about freedom and shows us a small true freedom. In the biggest ways, mostly you can’t choose. But in a few small real ways, that really still matter, you can. In moments like this, your own thinking is what matters.

The good news is that we’re good at this thinking, exactly when it counts. We know what to do with this freedom. Studies confirm.

The bad news is that this radical everyday capability—what we understand about freedom and opportunity, what we can do with it—is exactly what they don’t want us to have.