Like the darling buds of May, the migrating swallows of Capistrano, and the Saturday tweetstorms of Donald Trump, a Lena Dunham controversy is always on time. The inveterate internet agitator delivered another trademark micro-scandal late last year, not long after the election, precisely at a moment when feminists everywhere had become terrified of the tribulations promised by Trump’s impending presidency.
In December, Dunham posted an episode of her podcast, Women of the Hour, titled “Choice.” The episode discussed a range of women’s decisions about reproduction and childcare. True to form, Dunham ruined an otherwise well-meaning show with a comical note: she offered that although she’d never had an abortion, she wished she had. After all, Dunham asked with a laugh, how hard could it be?
Or at least that was how the internet chose to translate what she’d said. The truth—lost in the hot air of the Angry Twitter Steam Bath—was much more complicated.
Dunham’s podcast is aimed at a politically non-specific audience, but she is pro-choice, something she made clear when discussing the stigma around abortion during “Choice.” At one point, Dunham described her response to a young Texan woman’s request that she, Dunham, participate in a project that shared women’s personal abortion stories. As Dunham put it:
I sort of jumped. “I haven’t had an abortion,” I told her. I wanted to make it really clear to her that as much as I was going out and fighting for other women’s options, I myself had never had an abortion. And I realized then that even I was carrying within myself stigma around this issue. Even I, the woman who cares as much as anybody about a woman’s right to choose, felt it was important that people know I was unblemished in this department.
She went on to say that many members of her family, including her mother, and several close friends had had abortions:
I feel so proud of them for their bravery, for their self-knowledge, and it was a really important moment for me then to realize I had internalized some of what society was throwing at us and I had to put it in the garbage. Now I can say that I still haven’t had an abortion, but I wish I had.
That last sentence, showing Dunham engaging in a rare bit of self-reflection, was taken out of context, and, in the tradition of out-of-context sound bites everywhere, it became the source of all subsequent controversy. The commentariat dismissed Dunham as arrogant and naive. In The Daily Beast, Erin Gloria Ryan excoriated the celebrity, insisting that she had given anti-abortion activists too much ammunition:
Dunham’s comments are free red meat for the sort of troll who believes pro-choice feminists spend their days praying to their lord and savior Margaret Sanger that they’ll get accidentally impregnated so they can have one of those abortions the gals at the nail salon can’t stop gabbing about. It’s not compassionate; it’s bizarre, a more obnoxious version of telling a person who has had their appendix removed that you, too, wish you could have your appendix taken out.
Ryan’s comments were typical of many internet responses. One of us witnessed, for instance, a Facebook conversation among coastal, pro-choice feminists who disavowed Dunham specifically, and the left in general, for not approaching the issue of abortion with the appropriate solemnity. Abortion, you see, is a potentially devastating choice, one with the ability to shatter a woman for life, or at least to cause her a great deal of trauma. This is the crushing truth behind the abortion debate that pro-choicers supposedly refuse to acknowledge in their eagerness to cast abortion as nothing more hurtful than a stubbed toe.
Such conversations, raising the unseen ghosts of callous pro-choicers stomping on the traumatized bodies of women who had experienced abortion, happened all over the internet, and they all had at least one thing in common: participants were required to declare their own experiences of abortion and discuss the pain it should have caused. Those who had not had an abortion, like Dunham, or those who would not affirm the same trauma narrative, were admonished to be silent.
Songs of Experience
In these discussions, experience became a substitute for any and all political analysis. As we watched this rather formulaic argument take shape with mounting dismay, it became clear that the conversation around abortion had long since been ceded to the right and their narrative of victimhood, even by pro-choice left feminists. We also noticed that commenters who weighed in on the extended fallout from Dunham’s podcast, to a person, ignored the experience, retold in wrenching and gruesome detail, of podcast guest Mindy Swank, an erstwhile pro-lifer turned fierce pro-choice activist who had described her abortion on the episode.
If the experience of trauma is the only way we can justify the need for full abortion rights without apology, how can we develop a truly radical and liberatory politics around the issue?
Like so much of Dunham’s work, the podcast drew entirely on her insular Brooklyn community, with a brief segment from a recorded Planned Parenthood event. The celebrity is notorious for refusing to engage with the experiences of people she does not know—a group that emphatically includes non-white people, whom Dunham claims she could never represent adequately. Her guests included a woman with ten children and another who felt pressured by her community to justify her decision to feed formula to her baby. All were friends or family members of friends.
Swank, a former conservative Christian from Illinois, was an exception, but her segment had been culled from Rewire, a website devoted to reproductive health. When she was twenty weeks into her pregnancy, by which point her water had broken, Swank’s doctors confirmed that her baby had so many malformations it could never survive. Waiting to deliver the baby could cause a severe infection that risked her fertility and even her life, but her local hospital, the only one where she could afford an induction, adhered to Catholic health care restrictions and thus refused to perform the procedure until Swank was bleeding “enough”—at twenty-seven weeks. Swank was forced to hold a dying baby for three hours and eighteen minutes—a period she described in poignant detail—while he turned blue and struggled for breath. The experience turned her into a pro-choice activist.
This profound experience, relayed in a well-meaning and even comprehensive episode, got zero serious attention amid the Dunham kerfuffle. Fixating on a few words taken out of context allowed commenters to perform abortion politics as a kind of martyrdom refracted through the mystical lens of experience—but in this case, a very particular kind of experience, one that focused implicitly on the subject’s sense of guilt. Under the reigning terms of debate in abortion politics, there was little room for Swank’s torturous and visceral but also political experience.
The right, of course, diligently ignores the plight of women who undergo the horror of bodily risk in order to fulfill full-term pregnancies that involve dying babies with no chance of survival. But even purported pro-choicers inevitably buy into this tyranny of experience. A more considered response to Dunham would have acknowledged that, even if her words seemed insensitive, she had presented another person’s experience, one that was meaningful and relevant to the debate, in a way that mitigated her apparent callousness. Instead, Swank’s story, which powerfully lays bare the duplicity of the supposed “pro-life” movement, was quickly buried under mounds of misdirected, disingenuous ire. Swank’s experience, which she had forcefully politicized, simply did not count. Instead, commenters focused on those, like Dunham, whom they saw as failing to pay lip service to their preferred narratives about abortion.
The tyranny of experience in abortion rights discourse has potentially disastrous consequences. By definition, at least half the world will never directly experience the procedure, but this does not mean they cannot understand the need for it to be safe and legal.
Predictably, Dunham issued an apology—a routine, face-saving maneuver of hers—but then, bizarrely, she mischaracterized her own words: “I truly hope a distasteful joke on my part won’t diminish the amazing work of all the women who participated.” But Dunham had never actually joked about anything. Her apology was the natural outcome of decades of abortion rights activism deferring, with troubling docility, to the right’s efforts to mute any vigorous defense of abortion rights. The mischaracterization of Dunham’s words, even by Dunham herself, represented exactly what her liberal and progressive critics claimed she was doing wrong.
Dunham’s PR-approved damage-control backtracking, which saw her recasting her own words in the shape of the accusations she could have weathered or fought, reflects an anxiety about abortion that has long hampered effective left activism around the subject. Nearly every response to Dunham replicated the misrepresentation. Many reports and tweets assumed she made the comment in a condescending fashion, and then repeated some variation of the oft-made assertion, popularized by Hillary Rodham Clinton, that abortion is a “tragic” choice that needs to be “safe, legal, and rare.”
Cultivating this self-abnegating impulse to surrender to conservatives, even Planned Parenthood has established a policy of non-engagement; the leaders of the embattled women’s health service have asked their supporters to refrain from directly confronting the pro-life groups harassing women and their partners in front of the organization’s facilities. Pundits like Ryan seem beholden to comparable tactics. Rather than question the inhumanity of a country that would compel a woman to hold her dying baby for three hours and eighteen minutes, they elect instead to worry over the ways in which high-visibility, white pro-choice advocates express their support for the cause. And all of this conspicuously inward-looking anxiety is playing out, grotesquely, against the backdrop of a full-scale rollback of abortion rights for poor and often non-white women.
What does this collective decision to repackage, resell, and cynically advertise a particular mode of traumatic experience at the expense of others say about the present state of the abortion rights movement? What does it mean that the Dunham nontroversy came one month after Trump’s election and about one month before Trump reinstated a federal ban on funding for international health organizations that perform abortions? If the experience of trauma and its progressively instrumentalized narrative is the only way we can justify the need for full abortion rights without apology—our essential demand—how can we develop a truly radical and liberatory politics around the issue? If the specter of millions of women marching does not convince governments to scrap anti-women measures in the guise of “pro-life” policies, what has happened?
Personhood Is Political
We’re witnessing the quiet takeover of feminist politics by an individualist depiction of women’s experience. When women march as “women,” and not as feminists, they reinscribe themselves as subjects deserving of fundamental rights based only on their bodily integrity. We argue that for women to gain rights, they must first agitate as feminists, and for feminists to gain rights, they must move beyond demands for narratives about pain and experience—the only kind of stories that have any efficacy under neoliberal policy presumptions.
This argument by no means denies that abortion may cause pain and trauma. But in the ongoing war on abortion, the left has failed to translate the experience of being denied rights to abortion into political and economic terms that affect everyone—even the anti-abortionists to whom they’ve ceded their authority on the matter. In casting abortion as something that should cause guilt, the left has forfeited any way to demand rights as rights. Instead, it has tried to negotiate a paltry version of abortion rights based on an exclusive idea of abortion configured only through victims. And this bankrupt strategy means the left can only argue for abortion rights if the women who need those rights are victims—women like Bei Bei Shuai, a pregnant Chinese immigrant who attempted suicide and was subsequently charged with feticide when she miscarried.
In the tacit social contract underwriting such displays, all other women—and in particular those who weren’t traumatized—make lousy representatives of the need for abortion rights. By this logic, whether you oppose abortion rights or support them, you are granted entrance into the conversation if you can first claim to have had the experience; and even then, you can speak only if you echo a very particular narrative that involves your guilt at having had an abortion. In effect, the capitulatory left has served to create its own version of personhood around abortion: the woman is a victim, no matter where you stand.
Throughout the past four decades of the abortion wars, the question of personhood has been defined through the fetus. In view of the entrenched and damaging duopoly upheld by right-wing foes of abortion and wan neoliberal apologists for reproductive rights, there is a dire need to recalibrate the conversation—to inspire a better set of questions about the personhood of feminists. What if the conversation around abortion was based on feminist questions that challenged the diminution of abortion rights on economic and political grounds, not on the grounds of feeling and affect?
In light of how abortion has subtly come to be redefined not as a feminist issue but as a women’s issue, we are compelled to ask: Is the feminist a person? To pose this question at all is to reorient abortion rights as a set of fundamental economic and political matters. It is also to state that feminism itself is not just about women, or about who has or does not have a womb. We argue for a politics of feminism that goes beyond personhood, one that encompasses the lives and desires of all who search for a more just and egalitarian world. But first we must ask how we arrived at this dark climacteric in abortion politics.
The current administration has been cast as the ultimate villain in the fight for abortion rights. And while the Trump White House and its policies are deeply wretched, to frame the struggle this way elides the complex history of legal abortion in the United States, as well as the left’s complicity in its endangerment.
In abortion discourse, much rests upon the idea of personhood. In fact, in 2009, a pro-life group called Personhood USA formed to lobby the United States government to grant fetuses the same rights as people. Is the fetus a person? This simple but dramatic question has been the hinge upon which much of the abortion battle has rested, with lawmakers drafting legislation to ensure a decision either way. In the United States in particular, the idea of personhood has been the reason for legislated waiting periods and for restrictions on abortions after twenty-four weeks, when some have determined that the conglomeration of cells can feel pain. Of course, for hardline abortion opponents, “life begins at conception,” as every “pro-life” politician is bound to say.
The same position was nearly endorsed by Bill Clinton, who, in his memoirs, confessed his moral struggles with abortion, and famously announced his wish for the procedure to be “safe, legal, and rare.” Fifteen years later, his wife would repeat the sentiment, only to walk it back when it threatened her popularity with left women and influential donors. In the intervening years, the Clintons, who ran a co-presidency, had initiated welfare reform measures that required poor couples seeking abortion to receive marital counseling. This ultimately made it possible for conservative states to fund anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers” with money allocated to help the poor.
Recent abortion legislation has affected American women in different ways—often according to their race or class or relative privilege. For urban women of means, abortion remains accessible through private health care or at affordable nearby clinics. For poorer women, especially in rural areas and small towns—and particularly women of color and immigrants—abortion has become, in many cases, inaccessible and unaffordable. And, as in the case of Purvi Patel, an Indiana woman who faced charges of fetal homicide in 2015, it has even been criminalized.
Patel’s case was abandoned by Planned Parenthood, until she finally gained her freedom—the organization had, after all, endorsed the legislation that resulted in her arrest. This betrayal of the most vulnerable was possible because the landscape of abortion rights features a clear division between sympathetic and unsympathetic women. Countless women of means carry out successful abortions without being charged with feticide. Planned Parenthood, in endorsing legislation that criminalized women like Patel who needed affordable abortion access in a small town—not to mention its recent policy of nonconfrontation with the anti-abortion right—is in fact disengaging from the basic needs of a vast number of women, even as it asks for and gets additional funding from wealthy donors.
Within this sham discourse, which obsessively scripts “good” and “bad” women as deserving or undeserving persons, the issue for the mainstream abortion rights movement becomes one of finding the perfect pro-choice advocate who would embody an idealized personhood vis-a-vis abortion rights: a social progressive, certainly, but also a woman whose story is suffused with the right amount of gravitas and regret.
Cultivating a self-abnegating impulse to surrender to conservatives, even Planned Parenthood has established a policy of non-engagement.
Enter Kassi Underwood. Underwood’s recent book May Cause Love could and probably should have been titled Abortion: A Love Story. Billed by the author as the Eat, Pray, Love of abortion memoirs, May Cause Love follows Underwood’s multi-year struggle to recover from the abortion she got when she was nineteen. She also recounts her attempt to find the perfect partner. Title option #2: Abort, Pray, Marry.
Underwood is ostensibly a pro-choicer, someone who found her place as a Christian slightly later in life as she wrestled with guilt following her abortion. She claims she wrote the book because she couldn’t find any person or group to grant her the latitude to fully express her feelings about her abortion, which caused her an ungodly amount of pain and regret. She iterates the unfounded complaint echoed by so many who lambasted Dunham, that feminists (a term used broadly) and the pro-choice movement expect that women who experience abortion treat it as nothing more painful than a pedicure. (In fact, many anthologies and essay collections about abortion by pro-choice women—and there are plenty—painstakingly record a range of experiences, including, yes, for many, the sensation of it not being a big deal.) In the end, however, Underwood is most concerned with how to feel like a proper feminist despite her guilt about her abortion, her conventional desire to marry her high school sweetheart, and her conflicted pursuit of both a career and (eventual) motherhood on her own terms.
“Marriage and children? That’s not feminist,” Underwood’s inner voice tells her. Then the clouds part: “Being feminist doesn’t mean I disavow all that’s traditional and feminine. It means I’ve got an expanded range of possibilities.”
Underwood’s memoir is aimed at liberals who understand abortion through the lens of religion; it attempts to bridge the divide between the unapologetically pro-choice and those who might second-guess abortion rights. At times, she must contort her language to appeal to these demographics. She cannot, for instance, spell out the word “fuck,” writing it instead as “f*ck”—a strange tic for an author who cheerfully reveals how much she likes sex or, as she might refer to it, “f*cking.”
Despite its promise of a radical third way to bridge the divide between anti- and pro-choicers, May Cause Love may in fact cause readers to experience anger and resentment at its author’s manipulative attempt to construct a bildung around the experience of abortion. The book is part of a recent crop of confessional memoirs written by charming and winsome young women who follow episodes of embarrassment with various postures of guilt. On several occasions, much to our germophobic horror, Underwood debases herself by kneeling in public toilets, praying to her God to deliver an answer. In the well-worn tradition of white women acting as spiritual tourists—mined with great success by Elizabeth Gilbert—she travels to faraway and presumably expensive places to mentally and emotionally bury her fetus.
But what is the question to which she seeks an answer? Much like the case of “42”—the ostensible answer to everything and nothing in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s books—it’s the question that is more elusive.
Like an episode of Dunham’s hit HBO series Girls, Underwood’s book is surreptitiously a self-obsessed love story in search of a plot. Much of it is absorbed with the question of whether she should get back together with the man she refers to as “Will B.” (Say that out loud and the pun becomes obvious, particularly to Doris Day fans.) This winning lad is not actually the father of the fetus she chose to abort. That’s Noah, a drug-addled young man who eventually hooks up with another woman and gets her pregnant as well. That pregnancy, unlike Underwood’s, is taken to term, and the child is named Jade, the same name that Underwood had considered for the child she chose not to have. Bizarrely, Noah’s daughter Jade becomes, for Underwood, a replacement for her own child.
May Cause Love is a confused paean to regret. Over and over, Underwood insists that she could have had that child. This insistence reflects her privilege as a solidly middle-class white woman. It also acts as a testament to her own perceived failings; she feels that pregnancy and motherhood are rewards for those who have achieved what women of her station ought to have achieved—namely, a career and a stable home life, neither of which she is able to supply at present, although she knows with a guilty certainty that she should. True to the self-policing rhetoric of prevailing abortion politics, she questions the amount of regret she felt at the time of her abortion, deems it inadequate, and spends years (and presumably some of her book advance) pursuing a series of self-flagellating moral remedies meant to help her overcome her regrets. Much of the book is an account of Underwood trying out varieties of therapy aimed at helping women like her come to terms with guilt over their abortions. In effect, all of this is supposed to restore harmony and balance, to create the perfect Person Who Has Had an Abortion.
By going so far as to name and claim the unborn fetus Jade (she had a first trimester abortion, which technically involves an embryo), Underwood instantiates it as a human. Like the self-reforming Dunham, she fetishizes experience, and, in her case, it’s the experience of giving birth.
Guilt and Girls
But this finely reticulated song of guilt and experience opens onto a host of other, more urgent political questions. What would the personhood of the Woman Who Has Had an Abortion look like if abortion were free and on-demand and did not require such convoluted, epic journeys toward self-actualization? What if having an abortion did not require judgment? What if having an abortion was so widely accepted that neither guilt nor its absence were considered abnormal or even interesting? Instead, today, abortion rights are dictated according to the extent to which women can recover their purity through the elaboration of guilt. Underwood effectively rewrites her life history and reinscribes her chastity. Unsurprisingly, this purity narrative culminates in a marriage to her one true love.
In the current landscape of abortion rights, regrets have been weaponized as battering rams against women.
Underwood’s narrative is a popular one among liberal feminists—she first came to prominence because of a widely circulated New York Times “Modern Love” column, where she introduced the themes explored in the book. Dismayingly, her attitude toward abortion, as something that should be regretted even when its subjects don’t experience such regret in real time, is a pervasive one that serves to feed the dominant anti-choice narratives about abortion as an unseemly matter.
Cultural representations of abortion have, even in the last five years, become more conservative than those of the 1970s, with liberals and lefties vying amongst themselves to see who might be more apologetic. The issue became a hot topic on Girls, but even there its treatment shows the gradual erosion of the idea that abortion politics should be anything other than naively diplomatic. In Season 1 (2012), for example, Jessa (one of the Girls) decides to have an abortion, and so her friends clear their schedules to accompany her to a clinic. It turns out to be a false alarm. Later, in Season 4, Mimi-Rose, Hannah’s rival for Adam’s affections, tells Adam about her recent abortion matter-of-factly, which inspires Adam’s moral outrage over not being informed beforehand. Ultimately, any serious engagement with the idea of abortion on-demand is nullified by Adam’s idiocy.
“There were no tears, no big consultation conversation,” wrote MSNBC’s Ali Vitali of the episode. “Like the show in general, it was casual, weird and uncomfortable, but it was also refreshing.” For its part, Jezebel deemed the show’s treatment of abortion “very chill.” In solidarity with the broader media, these admiring write-ups took the Girls’ lack of moral and political debate about abortion—as well as its non-depiction—to be a sign of progress. It seems never to have occurred to these writers that Dunham might have instead hurled herself into the politics of abortion; nor did anyone ask whether she might have portrayed abortion as a nontraumatic fact of life.
Given its policy of light engagement, the show unsurprisingly took to the theme of pregnancy in its final season. Early on, Hannah gets knocked up by a rando and, after being told by a woman writer that pregnancy and the writer’s life are incompatible, to everyone’s surprise, decides to have a baby. In subsequent episodes, Hannah must remind herself and everyone who will listen, “I’m three months pregnant.” The implication is clear: the window of time in which she might be able to have an abortion is fast closing. Eventually, roommate Elijah confronts Hannah by saying she’ll make a terrible mother—an admonition that cements her resolve. She will have a baby, just as she will move to Bronxville to accept a faculty position in the Sarah Lawrence College writing department. The show concludes with Hannah’s son latching at her breast. It’s 2017, nearly fifty years after Roe v. Wade, and this is considered cutting-edge feminist dramedy? It’s more like popcorn politainment under a TV-president and a Gorsuch court.
Similarly, in the recently revived Gilmore Girls, released in 2016, the show concludes with Rory Gilmore’s announcement that she is pregnant. Unsurprisingly, critical responses to the show never discuss abortion. (The show’s creator has asserted that she thinks it’s a possibility, should the show return. But we assume this will be dictated entirely by the cultural climate around the topic should that happen.)
As the years go by, abortion rights activists increasingly adopt the language and tactics of the right. Instead of seeking ways to defend their own politics, pro-choice advocates now twist themselves into mirror versions of pro-lifers, with the comparatively slight difference that they believe abortion should remain legal. And more and more, even among pro-choicers, women are depicted as dithering about their choices. It’s as if watching young—white, middle-class—and supposedly feminist women agonize over the question of abortion is itself prime-time entertainment.
The Neutral Zone
So is non-white and/or non-guilt-ridden experience of abortion to be discounted entirely? Does it have no place in the discourse of abortion rights? To answer that, we return to Mindy Swank.
We write this to reclaim abortion as a feminist issue, and feminism as a set of issues that affects people regardless of gender.
What if the initial discussion around Dunham’s podcast had in fact focused on Swank’s explosive account? A young and attractive white woman, a Christian, unblemished by a lascivious sex life, already a mother of one—her story hit all the right notes. Centralizing Swank’s experience would have meant turning the right’s strategy on its head: “You want experience? Pain? Trauma? This is what happens when you deny women choice.” Instead, a crucial discursive opportunity was cast aside.
It’s not hard to see why this happened, given the prevailing terms of engagement on the abortion question. The emphasis on experience flattens issues like abortion into zones of feeling. When it comes to abortion, we focus on all the feelings women, we decide, must have about it, but we don’t contextualize the experience within the political and economic questions about feminism and women’s rights. But what if we focused on the experience of what it means for women like Swank and numerous others to be denied free access to an abortion?
If we must talk about experience, we should talk about what happened to women like Patel and Swank. Patel entered an emergency room bleeding, with her umbilical cord hanging from her vagina and her placenta needing to be surgically removed. Swank was forced to cradle a baby desperately trying to breathe and slowly turning blue as he lost oxygen. As she put it, “I wanted to choose death’s timing, not death itself.” Instead of being allowed to terminate an unsustainable pregnancy, she was forced to witness and undergo unnecessary suffering. Such horrific details—such experiences—should, surely, be recounted more often, if we’re to press the importance of full access to abortion for all.
Instead, we approach the question with a weirdly abstracted and disembodied mood of cultural guilt. This guilt, gathered from a growing pool of trauma and purity narratives, experienced by women whether they’ve had abortions or not, is translated into a political language of national remorse about the need for anyone to have an abortion in the first place. In this blighted landscape, where abortion is never a neutral act, we turn to the words of Dr. Willie Parker, a black OBGYN, abortion practitioner, and Christian. His new book, Life’s Work, squarely addresses the matter of regret:
Unlike the government patriarchs, I do not presume to be able to protect a woman from her own regret. Nor do I try to. Regret is the natural consequence of life, lived in maturity, full of mistakes. An adult is entitled to have regrets. What I can do is try, in the abortion clinics where I work, to create a safe haven where a woman’s decision-making is not unduly influenced by other people’s ideas about what’s right or wrong, or the regrets they think she ought to have. A woman’s regrets, if she has them, should be her own.
In the current landscape of abortion rights, regrets have been weaponized as battering rams against women, treating them not as political and economic agents but as sad creatures enslaved entirely by their emotions, in need of a patriarchy to save them from themselves. We write this to reclaim abortion as a feminist issue, and feminism as a set of issues that affects people regardless of gender. In this, we do exactly what neither the right nor the so-called progressives would have us do—namely, we imagine a future beyond the present moment, a future not saturated with guilt, one in which abortion is not debated and denied, not agonized over, but indeed, chattered about in nail salons as a natural and even boring part of life.