An Abortion Story Both Radical and Ordinary

Friday, September 06, 2013

By Cynthia Greenlee 

This piece is published in collaboration with RH Reality Check and was originally published there.

For more than 20 years, the New York Times’ Vows column has shared newly hitched couples’ idiosyncratic paths to marriage. Vows has followed Wall Street wunderkinds down the aisle as well as a flame-throwing bride, a couple who admitted they fell in love while meeting at their children’s pre-K class (and while married to other people), and countless stories about partners whose first meetings did not foreshadow connubial bliss.

In a September 1 Vows column titled “Taking Their Very Sweet Time,” the paper profiled a couple who talked openly about their shared abortion experience. It’s an atypical abortion mention for the Times, where coverage is more likely to focus on state-level efforts to restrict the procedure. And, indeed, it would be rare in most newspapers, where formulaic wedding announcements often contain little more than references to wedding fashion and family trees.

At first glance, the wedding announcement of 32-year-old stay-at-home mom Faith Rein and 33-year-old Miami Heat basketball player Udonis Haslem fits the mold of many Vows columns: a meeting in college, stumbling blocks, and an extended courtship. Athletics helped them bond despite the differences in her suburban upbringing and Haslem’s hardscrabble Miami childhood; she ran track at the University of Florida, while Haslem was a Gators basketball standout.

But in the column written by Linda Marx, Rein and Haslem described the unplanned pregnancy that threatened to derail her junior year, his NBA draft plans, and their educations. Haslem was already a father and said that while “I am not a huge fan of abortion,” they had sports careers to think about and very little money to start a family together. Haslem’s support of Rein solidified their bond. Rein said, “I saw another side of him during that difficult time and fell deeply in love. He had a big heart and was the whole package.”

The announcement’s matter-of-fact tone and the couple’s understanding of their abortion as just one important event in their relationship makes the article remarkable, says Tracy Weitz, a public health professor and director of the University of California, San Francisco’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) research group and think tank.

“From my perspective, what is amazing about this story is that the abortion is not the beginning or end of the story—the way we usually tell abortion stories,” she said.

The usual abortion story often unfolds in this way, according to Weitz: “Here’s a woman in crisis. She doesn’t get the abortion or she does. Either way, her whole life trajectory is determined by this one event. Maybe she’s 21 weeks’ [pregnant] and there’s a fetal anomaly, and it’s a terrible situation. The story isn’t actually about the woman, it’s about the abortion.” The Vows article, by contrast “was really about the couple. Part of their story was about the abortion, part was about professional athletics, and part of it was about their class differences.” It reflected the totality of their lives and not just a single moment.

As extraordinary as the inclusion of abortion in a wedding announcement is, the Timesarticle is just one of many abortion stories to be publicized. For example, the Oakland, California-based group Exhale addresses the emotional well-being of men and women after abortion and sponsors abortion “storyteller” tours. Films like I Had an Abortion to initiatives such as the Abortion Conversation Project have all tried to open a broader, more constructive conversation about abortion in small, intimate groups or larger public venues.

The New York Times itself has weighed in on the public sharing abortion of stories. In June, its Room for Debate series offered different perspectives—from, among others, an artist who integrates her abortion experience into her performances and an Anglicans for Life representative—about whether or how women should share their abortion stories.

In a society where abortion is deeply stigmatized, sharing an abortion story is often a political act aimed to a specific objective, such as supporting insurance coverage for the procedure or advocating for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment. Advocates for sharing abortion stories suggest these conversations can debunk abortion myths, shift rancorous and impersonal debates that vilify abortion seekers, and ease abortion decision-making for women and men who may know little about the procedure and fear the responses of disapproving loved ones.

With most abortion polling asking whether abortion should remain legal and in what circumstances, there’s little research whether media stories about abortion or personal stories sway U.S. attitudes about abortion.

Yet the Vows announcement is a potent reminder of how common an experience abortion is for U.S. women. According to the Guttmacher Institute, one in three U.S. women will end a pregnancy in her lifetime.

It’s also a counterpoint to conventional wisdom that Black Americans (Haslem is Black and Rein biracial) are more likely to object to abortions than counterparts in other racial and ethnic groups. While anti-choice groups have stepped up efforts to position abortion as “Black genocide,” a 2012 Public Religion Research Institute poll found that some 67 percent of African Americans polled wanted abortion to be legal in all or most cases.

Anu Kumar, executive vice president at the global women’s health nonprofit Ipas and an abortion stigma researcher, said that the wedding announcement documents “the relationship of two highly accomplished and loving people,” but also reflects the experience of women facing an unintended pregnancy.

“Like many women, Faith got pregnant. She was fortunate enough to have the resources and to live in a place where she could have safe abortion care. He helped her through it, and they moved on. She wanted to have a career, and she went on to have a sports reporting career,” she said.

“Abortion is part of the reproductive life course, and it should be treated as something that happens. People make the best decisions they can at the time. She went on to have children and a marriage. He already had a child, he knew what it meant to be a parent, and he wanted to be a good parent. And so did she,” said Kumar. “People forget this about abortion, that many women who have abortions already have children and will have them in the future.”

But Weitz acknowledges that one wedding announcement does not signal the end of anti-choice sentiment or the beginning of more productive dialogue about one of the nation’s most contested legal, political, and social issues. Their honesty about their abortion may attract criticism and has already been covered by an anti-choice news outlet.

“This kind of inclusion helps to put abortion into the context of people’s lives, which is a vital first step to the United States finally starting a rational conversation about abortion,” said Weitz. “However, I don’t think we can say what effect it has on abortion stigma. Part of that will be determined by the response to this disclosure. If they receive a great deal of negative feedback, it may teach others not to take the risk. Only time can tell.”

Cynthia Greenlee is a participant in the Strong Families project Echoing Ida. She is a doctoral candidate in history at Duke University, a Southerner by birth and choice, and a reproductive rights advocate based in North Carolina. Follow her on Twitter at @CynthiaGreenlee.

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