Why Won’t Parents Talk About Helping Their Daughters Get Abortions?
“Your daughter’s 14, huh?” asked the guy at the wedding reception. “I guess you’re heading for the Grandma Danger Zone.” I wasn’t offended exactly (it was a party, after all, and most of us were drunk and speaking freely), but I was a bit surprised by the casualness with which a relative stranger commented on my child’s theoretical sexual activity. Trying to move the conversation along, I chuckled politely and replied, “Well, if she did get pregnant now, I would help her get an abortion, so that won’t be an issue.”
There was a long silence as this man and the other people in the conversation looked at me in shock. He’d made a lighthearted comment about my daughter’s potential teen pregnancy, and I’d responded in kind with a lighthearted comment about my daughter’s legal right to exercise her reproductive agency. Why did his comment garner laughs and knowing glances while mine elicited a full-on record scratch? Mercifully, someone changed the subject, and I was left with knowing that I, and not this man, had said something terribly wrong.
ut why? This was Massachusetts. These were liberals who would likely describe themselves as pro-choice. Yet somehow, my taking the concept of abortion from the theoretical to the concrete had shocked their sensibilities. And this wasn’t an isolated incident. I soon realized that being the parent of teenage girls meant many such conversations about the potential for their “bad decisions” ending in an unwanted pregnancy. Friends with girls the same age joked about warning their daughters to “keep their legs together” or not to get “knocked up.” Every time I pointed out that becoming pregnant needn’t result in having a baby, the universal reaction was mouths agape.
Yes, America remains fundamentally conservative on abortion, with Roe v. Wade freshly imperiled by the Kavanaugh Supreme Court. Although, in a recent Gallup poll, support for abortion rights is evenly split—about 48 percent on each side—the number of those who support abortion drops to 29 percent when people are asked if they think it should be legal under any circumstances. Part of this could be due to misinformation about things like fetal development and late-stage abortion, which can override our logical understanding of pregnancy in favor of a more emotional response. But it also has to do with our cultural values around pregnancy and a woman’s responsibility toward it. Often, it takes some other moral issue overcoming one’s fundamental distaste for the act of abortion itself (e.g., rape, incest, or a serious health risk to the mother) for the average American to accept it as a viable option. Our laws and regulations increasingly reflect an assumption that abortion is (only sometimes) a necessary evil, rather than a morally neutral health care option. Even among the progressive, pro-choice left, abortion is often talked about as a last resort—a horrible, traumatic event that must be avoided at all costs. But that’s not how I talk about abortion with my daughters.
Yes, I tell them, there are lots of good reasons to avoid an unwanted pregnancy in the first place: the potential physical dangers of unprotected sex, the potential emotional complications involved. But none of those should affect our ability to support, without judgment, a woman’s right to choose. I remind them that they are lucky to live in a state with access to safe and legal abortions and that should they find themselves in the position to need to avail themselves of those resources, I will give them the support they need.
I wish that other progressive parents were having the same conversations, but based on my experience, I suspect they’re not. And I get it. It’s one thing to believe in a theoretical person’s right to end an unwanted pregnancy; it’s entirely another to consider your own child’s behavior and its consequences. Perhaps parents are worried a child’s unwanted pregnancy might reflect poorly on their own parenting, implying that their daughter has made the kinds of “bad choices” she’d been dutifully taught to avoid. And talking about your daughter getting pregnant feels almost abstract, a cultural trope akin to joking about “getting out the shotgun” to defend her against unsavory gentleman callers. It’s not real; it’s just something parents say to indicate a general anxiety with watching one’s children grow into sexual maturity. Talking about your daughter getting an abortion, on the other hand, isn’t some common cultural shorthand or reference; it’s a specific reference to a specific procedure performed upon your specific daughter. Suddenly these abstract conversations are brought uncomfortably into the realm of the real and the possible. What would you do, the other parents are implicitly asked by my response, if your daughter had a pregnancy that she and you agreed should not be carried to term? What would you actually do? I think it’s time to stop shying away from this very real question, and its very real answer, and align our parenting with our politics.
So long as people still find it acceptable to joke about my daughters getting pregnant, I’ll continue to respond in kind by reiterating my support of their right to choose. I hope more pro-choice parents start to do the same. You’ll likely be met with a similar barrage of awkward silences and shocked looks, but I truly believe that the more comfortable we are talking about abortion without squeamishness or moral judgment, the more normalized it will become, even among those who already claim to support it. And honestly, making people at weddings or a moms’ night out a little uncomfortable is the very least we can do to help challenge cultural assumptions about women’s sexuality and reproductive rights. It’s a small but significant way we can move the needle in the cultural and political conversation around the ethics of abortion—and a huge way we can signal to our own children that we will practice what we preach when it comes to their bodies.