Yesterday, I was as part of a deliberately silent and minimalist counter-presence to a group of speakers publicly voicing their “regrets about abortion” with a sound system. As the sidewalks filled with university students filing in and out of their regularly scheduled classes, they were subjected at the maximum allowable volume under local bylaws to extremely biased personal narratives from pro-lifers who claim to have had abortions that left them feeling traumatized. For all I am able to determine, this is another relatively new strategy the pro-life movement has developed (i.e., since the mid-90s) to spread its message of misogynist, slut-shaming hatred and race-baiting. As is the case with other (significantly more common) relatively new pro-life strategies involving horrendously gorey placards featuring the alleged remains of aborted fetuses which are often portrayed in a partially dismembered state, the purpose of having several people reading these extremely graphic descriptions of their abortions (or their partner’s abortions) and their lives following the procedure is to antagonize and traumatize as many passersby as spontaneously as possible. These 40-decibel “regret” narratives are juxtaposed by plain placards that declare emotional statements like “Men regret lost fatherhood”, “I regret my abortion”, and “Women DO regret abortion”.
The deliberately antagonistic content filling the open ears of every passerby within at least a half a block triggers an adrenaline rush, just as the more commonly used graphic images are designed to. The statements featured on the accompanying non-graphic placards, which appeal as directly and spontaneously as possible to agitated onlookers for their immediate empathy, trigger a state of cognitive dissonance—just as the vaguely pro-choice language that captions the graphic placards does. Just as in demonstrations featuring grotesque graphics of alleged fetal remains, this state of cognitive dissonance is made critically urgent by the surge of adrenaline that has just begun mere moments before; and the express purpose pro-life demonstrators have there is therefore to get you talking and keep you talking while you struggle through this complex of emotions — all while trying to maintain common decorum. Many people who are subjected to this wall of sound and the deliberately methodical manipulation that accompanies it deal with it poorly. Understandably so. Even the volunteers who facilitate these demonstrations anticipate a violent response.
Several common themes emerge in the telling of these “regret” narratives that are important to place within historical context—assuming that any aspect of what is being told is objectively true, and not purely personal subjective truth. For the sake of simplicity, I am operating on the assumption that the women telling these stories are not merely spinning plagiarisms from other women generations before them (such as prior to 1969 in Canada), and that these are at the very least the personal subjective truths of women who have sought one or more abortions in their lifetime and experienced subsequent regret (or a later trauma which they then associated with the decision to undergo a therapeutic abortion). I am also operating on the assumption, again for the sake of simplicity, that the narratives offered by these women are in relation to abortions that were performed in Canada — and not somewhere in the “bible belt” of the United States or a developing country, where both medical standards and bioethical standards (both currently and historically) may very well differ to the point that no meaningful comparison can possibly be made.
That being said, none of the women who offer their stories about receiving a medically therapeutic abortion give any indication of geographic location or a date in which to keep an awareness of greater historical context in mind. Men who read their narratives out loud appear to be more inclined to approximate a date based on how old the hypothetical child would be today, while women who read theirs appear to be more inclined to declare their chronological age at the time of their experience. This is an important detail to take explicit note of, because men and women are socialized very differently, and so are subject to different societal expectations in relation to their age and reproductive capacities. This is a deliberately manipulative tactical decision, intentionally designed to trigger and pander for the empathy of passersby in specifically gendered ways—which are often operating unconsciously between people, as they constantly reinforce gender norms upon one another without intention or conscious effort.
Older women who speak of their experiences of abortion often describe inadequate measures on the part of physicians and support staff to provide informed consent, what to expect once the process of abortion begins, and/or adequate medical and emotional support following the completion of the abortion. As the women generally only give their chronological age at the time of the procedure, it is functionally impossible to determine whether these are the narratives of women who sought abortion during a time when it was still a criminal act for a physician to provide one (but during which time, for women of generous financial means, safe abortions were often still accessible); or if these abortions were provided during a time when women had to make their cases and beg for access to safe abortions before a panel of callously apathetic physicians — although the latter case is significantly more likely (sometime between 1969 and 1989 in Canada). Let’s assume for the sake of simplicity that it was about 25 years ago, while abortions were still being restricted by approval of a panel of doctors.
Now let me just interject at this point to explain something about hospitals: they are all operating within the confines of a finite number of dollars, which is circumscribed by the confines of the medical billing system, which in turn sets out the wages and salaries for every physician with operating room privileges at any given hospital. Hospitals, therefore, can only provide a finite number of working hours for elective surgery bookings, due to the constraints imposed by their resources—they can only staff so many anaesthesiologists, for instance, because they all have to be paid X amount of dollars per hour or year out of that finite amount of money in the budget. This in turn can (and often does) have a devastating impact on the quality of healthcare provided by different hospitals, which may vary wildly in Vancouver relative to Fredericton, and thus many healthcare services are only provided out of hospitals that can afford to provide them. For example, a woman seeking an abortion in any Maritime province today has to travel to another part of the country to access one if she is past an early critical point in her pregnancy; and the same applies to women seeking abortions in Northern BC, who have to travel to Vancouver for access.
From 1969 to 1989, it was most assuredly the case that a very minimal portion of the hospital budget was allotted for elective therapeutic abortion procedures, and that therefore the explicit purpose of the physician panels to which women had to beg and plead was to deny as many women as possible the access they needed to a safe abortion. Standards of care logically change in various medical specialities as more of the hospital budget is either relaxed or limited to accommodate or restrict access to the procedures provided by those different professions — 25 years ago, a much larger part of the hospital budget went to facilitating dentistry procedures than is currently allotted (if any is allotted at all, now that most dentists can use intravenous sedatives in-office instead of a hospital anaesthesiologist to facilitate the same procedures).
These details about the functioning of hospital budgets are always conspicuously missing from “regret” narratives of older women, who instead frequently expound upon a sense of physical isolation by—and alienation from—hospital staff and even the physical locations of the hospitals in which the procedures took place. Thus, in addition to relying upon a spontaneous empathic reflex from everyone upon whose ears these methodically chosen details fall upon, the narratives are also relying on a generalized ignorance of how hospital boards determine things like where in the hospital to put a given department — such as the one that provides medically therapeutic abortions, or even the ones that provides MRIs and CT scans, or the one that does amniocentesis for hundreds of happily expectant mothers every month. An effective counter-strategy will incorporate an attempt to propagate an understanding of how this context has changed over time (such as a brief sentiment on a flyer, or even a link to this blog post or someone else’s), such that the conditions and standards of care for abortions in hospitals 25 or more years ago would abjectly fail to meet the standards of today for the same procedures.
There were also fewer physicians who were willing to engage in the work of providing abortions for women in need before about two decades ago, because at the time, the pro-life movement was legally allowed and capable of mass-mobilizing and terrorizing physicians and their support staff; not only at hospitals and clinics where abortions were being provided, but also on the front lawns of their private residences. The few clinics and hospitals where doctors were providing this form of healthcare were the frequent sites of conflict, intimidation, threats, and violence. One physician who provides abortions in Vancouver has been subjected to two attempts on his life — the first a sniper shooting at him in his home residence, and the second a stabbing in the lobby of his clinic — and other Canadian physicians have had attempts made on their lives as well. Many incidents in Vancouver took place before the enactment of the Access to Abortion Services Act of 1995 in this province; which at last provided some safety for staff including doctors of Vancouver’s three abortion clinics, as well as patients of those clinics and community volunteers who were interfering with pro-lifers trying to prevent patients from getting inside the clinic. There has been an astronomically higher rate of sustained pro-life violence in the states over the past 30 years.
Younger women who provide their “regret” narratives have markedly less to condemn about the standards of medical care (including informed consent) and support they receive during and after the procedures they underwent, so they instead focus on sensationalizing select aspects of the treatment they received or how they perceived of their experiences at key times.
For example, they may provide unnecessary and irrelevant details of how the medications they received are used within other medical specialties, without giving any indication that they are aware (or not, as the case may be) that these alternative uses for the same medications often come with a completely different set of instructions and dosage for different medical purposes.
Or they will spend more time talking about the physical discomforts and psychological torments they experienced, relative to the focus by their older counterparts on apparent callousness of service providers, without any indication of whether or not they are aware that this is an often unavoidable side effect of the medical treatment they have received.
Or perhaps worst of all, they will focus a great deal of detail on their perceptions of how gruesome specific appliances such as surgical suction are, and their imaginary terror as a “baby” is torn “limb from limb” inside their body; without giving any indication as to whether or not the fetus could have even developed such sophisticated physiology by the time of their procedure—because most of the time, they don’t have any grounding at all in reality, for how a fetus develops in the womb, let alone how fast.
Once again, all of this is methodically calculated manipulation of human psychology. I could just as easily paint an equally horrific narrative with my words of what it was like to experience waking up from deep sleep and spontaneously vomiting from such acute pain caused by ovarian cysts, which at times left me unable to walk, literally crippled with pain while it felt as though my entire pelvic floor was about to drop out from between my legs. I could then pepper my narrative with all sorts of details about the anxiety and isolation I felt when, for instance, I was admitted to a hospital and dumped in a room where I could be ignored as I slipped in and out of consciousness for several hours. I could sprinkle in a little bit about the terror and apprehension I felt in various dealings with medical professionals, who were either so far emotionally removed from me that they couldn’t understand what I was enduring, or found ways to blame me for the pain I was experiencing. And then, in a dramatic twist, I could say that I endured this for ten solid years (which is actually true).
I could even describe how many times I had been homeless over that same time period, or how many times I tried but failed to talk to someone about it, or how I felt the first time I met someone of the same sex who had experienced what I was experiencing. If I had ever resorted to substance abuse, I could blame it on that too. I could even imply that my promiscuity (and sex work) was the way I decided to cope with the pain I was experiencing that I just couldn’t share with anyone else. And then I would have included several of the same details that regardless of gender and regardless of age demographic, all of the speakers expressed in common. And if I were to do all of that, I would be exploiting all of the same vulnerabilities of human psychology that these “regret” narratives depend on for maximal success—pandering for pity, empathy, rigid gender reinforcement, and automatic abandon of basic logic because everything is made more urgent and thus more emotionally antagonistic by all the blood and gore first.
But because men don’t have all the details to work in their favour that women do, they instead substitute a profound sense of betrayal, guilt, and anger that nearly anyone on the planet would find triggering. Who hasn’t been betrayed by someone who played an important role in their life? It bears mentioning, however, in the event it is ever forgotten amidst all of this emotional pleading and simultaneous antagonism, that every time a man of reproductive capacity ejaculates, he releases several hundred million gametes from his body. It seems almost as if pro-life men think that this fact entitles them to proportional representation in the monologues presented about their experiences of “lost” or “forgotten” fatherhood. Not that it matters of course, in the abortions they don’t know about, or even in spontaneous naturally occurring miscarriages they do know about — just the abortions they do know about. In other words, just the women whose bodies they feel entitled to dictate or control the functions of. And indeed, it seems as if most men think this way, whether they would have their partner seek an abortion or not. And thus, this paints everyone as a victim—the poor, troubled young woman who seeks an abortion and winds up becoming a promiscuous alcoholic high school drop-out immediately thereafter; the “child” forever “lost”, and the father “forgotten”. It’s all very cunning indeed.
I will close this post by pointing out several things that are conspicuously missing from the “pro-life” side of the conversation. First, the World Health Organization estimates that approximately 34,000 women in Canada entered septic obstetrics hospital wards every year with life-threatening complications from illegal abortions, until the year abortion was finally fully decriminalized (i.e., 1989). Of those 34,000 women, approximately 12,000 died in those wards every year. Over the 120 years that abortion was fully or partially criminalized in Canada, that’s over 4 million women who sought medical help after seeking an abortion with a coathanger or knitting needle, and just shy of 1.5 million women who lost their lives. These are only the women we know about because they were women who entered hospitals and whose struggles were recorded in medical documents.
But because abortion is decriminalized in Canada, the procedure has now been becoming safer for women seeking to terminate a pregnancy since 1989—or 25 years as of this year. That means 300,000 more women in Canada alone, alive today to talk about the compassion they receive from medical professionals through the often difficult decision to have an abortion, and through the procedure itself. Some may regret their decision. Some may even find it traumatic. Some men may feel betrayed by another person’s decision. These are all legitimate feelings and I genuinely feel compassion towards the women whose needs extend beyond the procedure, and towards the men and women who are in need of grief counselling. The four people who repeatedly narrated this difficult time of their life yesterday afternoon in such a maliciously manipulative framework are prominent examples of people who are so entrenched in their grief that they are beyond reach.
Yet there is also more help available now than there has ever been before in this country, and armed with that knowledge, any counter-presence can be more effective than it has ever been.