Abortion & Life

By Jennifer Baumgardner; Akashic Books, 2008, 250 pp.

Amy Hagstrom Miller, owner of four reproductive health centers in Texas, tells every patient she sees that 43 percent of U.S. women have at least one abortion before age 45. She does this, she says, "because people don’t see abortion as a normal part of women’s reproductive lives. Because of the protests against it, they think it’s outside the field of legitimate health care."

Jennifer Baumgardner’s latest book, Abortion & Life, seeks to underscore the message that legal abortion is safe, legitimate, and necessary. Part of a three-pronged project that began with the 2003 creation of several hundred I Had An Abortion T-shirts—a project that gleaned cheers and jeers from right, left, and center—and was followed by a 2005 documentary chronicling the abortion experiences of ten diverse women—also called I Had An Abortion—the book hopes to move the procedure into the open, ending the secrecy and shame that defines the experience. At the same time, it zooms in on the complexity of abortion to include many emotional responses, from grief to moral questioning to revulsion toward clinicians who seem abrasive, or simply inured to the trauma an unplanned or problem pregnancy can cause.

"I think of pregnancy as life," Baumgardner admits. At the same time, she continues, "this doesn’t have to mean that abortion is murder…. It’s true that some women experience their abortions as empowering—such as my friend whose procedure nearly 40 years ago meant that she could accept a Fulbright scholarship…. But for people with no money, chaotic relationships, tense marriages, too many kids already, drug and alcohol issues, or abusive partners, an abortion might be the right thing to do, yet ‘certainly also evidence of a life they wish they weren’t leading,’ as a friend trenchantly put it. Abortion might be a way of taking charge of your life, but for younger women, needing one can make you feel that you wouldn’t be in this predicament if you really did have control of your life."

Baumgardner’s own connection to the issue dates back to 1985, when she was 15 and her sister, then 16, needed $200 for a first trimester procedure. Opting to sidestep their pro-choice parents, Baumgardner writes that this was the first time she understood that she had the power to help someone in need.

Since then Baumgardner has used her power in multiple ways, making the personal political on topics ranging from reproductive justice to bisexuality. A frequent speaker on college campuses across the country, she prides herself on listening to her audiences and responding to the issues raised by this generation’s educated youth.

Her optimism is infectious, if sometimes misplaced. Take the notion of pro-life feminism, the topic of the book’s most factious chapter. For Baumgardner, the existence of people who claim this label represents both progress and promise. As she sees it, as long as those who pick up the pro-life banner support social services for low-income parents—including access to birth control, emergency contraception, and comprehensive sex education, and are outspoken in their condemnation of clinic violence and the harassment of patients and staff—common ground between pro- and anti-abortion activists is possible.

I’m less sanguine. Obviously, it would be great if anti-abortion activists became advocates for the poor and supported a broad, social justice agenda. Still, the idea that feminism’s tent should be wide enough to embrace those who advocate denying women the reproductive options they oppose sticks in my throat. For me, if feminism, or even the namby-pamby notion of choice, is to mean anything, then abortion has to be a bottom-line, non-negotiable issue.

To be clear, no one is suggesting that ending a pregnancy become a right of feminist passage. The bumper sticker that says, "Against Abortion? Don’t Have One," has it right, but efforts to tell women when and whether to have children are paternalistic and wrong. Baumgardner and I disagree. She would say it’s because of generational splits between young feminists and those who came of age in the 1960s or 70s, but I join the many women’s rights activists who call pro-life feminism oxymoronic, the antithesis of second wave feminism’s fight for women’s human rights. Yes, someone can be pro-life and still support individual women and a host of progressive causes, but that is not enough to make him or her a feminist. Sarah Palin’s naming herself a "feminist for life" insults the heroic foremothers upon whose backs she stands.

This is obviously a contentious issue, but it does not undercut the overall value of Abortion & Life. Indeed, the book is a compelling and often wise look at a thorny and divisive subject. It recognizes that the lion’s share of Americans want abortion to be safe, legal, and rare and works hard to break through misconceptions about who has abortions and why they have them. Sixteen oral histories—fifteen women and one man—whose lives have included pre- and-post Roe vs. Wade abortions, move the book from the theoretical to the intimate and go a long way in smashing the stigma that engulfs the procedure. The result is revelatory and sympathetic and is sure to sway all but the most doctrinaire anti-abortion activists.

Alongside photographs of each interviewee, Abortion & Life examines the lived experiences of those facing untenable pregnancies. What’s more, by showcasing emotional responses that traverse the path between bravado and angst, it powerfully elucidates the churning hearts and heads of the 1.3 million women who have abortions annually.


Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer and activist from Brooklyn, NY.