Women's Abortions And IVF Experiences Are Closer Than You Might Think
Almost every time I’ve engaged in a debate about pro-choice and pro-life philosophies, defended Planned Parenthood, or shared my own abortion story, I’ve been inundated with judgmental reminders that there are many women who want to have children but can't — women who struggle with infertility. I’ve been asked how I could possibly end a pregnancy when so many women are struggling to achieve one, or if I thought of those women and their struggles when I called and scheduled my abortion. I've been called “selfish” and “insensitive” for choosing to end an unwanted pregnancy when so many cannot have a wanted one. I usually dismiss those disapproving questions and snide comments, pointing out that we're comparing apples and oranges — that women's experiences of their abortions have nothing to do with those of women who underwent IVF or dealt with other fertility issues. But eventually, I realized that my response — and overall viewpoint on the matter — was completely wrong.
I realized that women with fertility problems, undergoing numerous rounds of IVF in the hope that their body will respond and become pregnant, may actually feel much like women with unwanted pregnancies who choose to have an abortion. While the desired outcome is different, the mindsets of both of these women — who may have vastly different ideological beliefs, goals, or plans — could be almost identical as they grapple with these procedures.
Women seeking abortions and women seeking IVF both may know what it's like to feel as if you don’t have any control over your body. A woman who became unexpectedly pregnant may feel like her body betrayed her. Suddenly, she is at the mercy of bodily functions that she can't control, setting off on a journey she didn’t want to take.
Similarly, a woman who can't become pregnant may feel like her body has betrayed her. She may have been told that becoming pregnant and bringing life into the world is one of the defining characteristics of being a woman — and suddenly, as she realizes that she is having trouble conceiving, she finds herself suddenly at the mercy of bodily functions she can't control, and may feel that she is failing as a woman, by society's standards.
A woman who wants to terminate her unplanned pregnancy can regain control over her body, but it may come at a price — in many cases, the judgment of others. She will likely be made to feel shame for her decision to control her body and what grows inside of it, and may even be called a “murderer” and a “sinner.”
A woman who wants to become pregnant but cannot is capable of regaining control over her body, but it too may come at a price — in many cases, the judgment of others. People sometimes call IVF children “synthetic” or tell women they "cheated" their way into being pregnant; I've heard people accuse women who became pregnant as a result of IVF of being “meddlers,” messing with a plan that comes from a higher power.
The parallels go on and on — for instance, both women seeking to terminate pregnancies and women seeking IVF often wrestle with a financial burden, as many insurance companies cover neither abortion nor IVF treatments.
And none of this was made more apparent than when I asked both women who’ve had abortions and women who have been through multiple rounds of IVF to share their stories. While these women are all different ages, come from different backgrounds and have different goals concerning reproduction, their feelings about their experiences — both at the time and today — are hauntingly similar.
Brianna, 27, told me about her experiences dealing with judgment from medical professionals when she was tested to see if she would need IVF:
At the end of the [HSG] test, the OB performing it said, “I will look at the feed from this again to be sure, but I hope you have money for IVF.” I went to the bathroom to put my clothes back on and sobbed. I sobbed for the results I was given and the lack of compassion in his heartless bitch’s voice.
Her experience sounded remarkably similar to what happened to Diana, 29, when she sought to terminate a pregnancy:
The moment the doctor told me I was pregnant, I immediately told her I wanted an abortion. I knew I wasn’t ready to have a child. She looked at me with complete disdain, and said, “We don’t do that here. You’ll have to find a clinic somewhere else.” I started crying, not because I didn’t know what I wanted or had to do, but because I was already being judged for it. Even by a medical professional.
When I asked Lacy — now 32, but 28 at the time of her IVF treatments — how it felt to go through the process, her response reminded me of so many women who feel like they can't share their choice to have an abortion with close family members or friends:
My mom struggled with it because she felt I "gave up" too quickly and should have kept trying without medical intervention. But my doctor was kind but honest with the truth that it would never happen for me. It made it so I felt like I couldn't really talk to her about it while it was happening, and that was hard because we are close.
When I had my abortion at 22, there were many friends — most devoutly religious and adamantly pro-life — who I knew I couldn't share my decision with. When, over time, I eventually shared my abortion story with some of them, they too thought I "gave up too early" and that if I just saw my unwanted pregnancy through, I would be able to see that I could do what I knew in my heart I wasn't ready for.
Brianna's experience of knowing that IVF was the right thing to do — "It was all so much to take in but I was determined to have a baby and I never questioned IVF. I felt that if that is the route I had to take, I would. No second guessing." — also has many echoes in the experience of Tina, 33, who knew that getting an abortion was the right thing for her, too:
I told the woman, the nun, that I couldn’t have a baby. Not only because I wasn’t ready, but also because my brother had a rare, genetic, terminal disease growing up and if I carry it (they couldn’t test for it at the time) and I had a boy, he had a very strong chance of dying a very slow and painful death like I had witnessed with my brother. The nun told me to have an abortion.
When asked to describe her emotional state during her IVF treatments, which she began soon after she had her fallopian tubes removed, Brianna replied with this utterly heartbreaking statement about her own feelings:
You no longer feel like a woman. Your body can never function the way it was intended to do so, ever again. That just broke me for a long time. It still does sometimes. My scars on my stomach are an everyday reminder.
And when I found out I was pregnant all those years ago, I felt extremely similar. While it can be argued by some that a woman’s body is made to reproduce, unwanted pregnancy can make you feel like you’ve lost the ability to say when that reproduction can happen. I felt like my body had betrayed me, because every fiber of that very same body knew that I wasn’t ready — or able — to be a mother.
Abortion services and infertility treatments are, in so many ways, one and the same, even though they may seem like they're total opposites. They both aim to give women control of their bodies and how their bodies function. They’re both about empowering women to make their own reproductive decisions. They’re both completely necessary and they both shouldn’t be stigmatized; we should support women undergoing these procedures, to make sure that they don't feel that they're "broken," "less than," or "wrong" about making their choice, as so many people who oppose their choices may claim.
So now, when I’m asked if I think about the women struggling to get pregnant when I defend Planned Parenthood or share my own abortion story, I say yes. I do think about those women. I think about how scary it is to feel like you have no control over your body, and I think about how grateful I am that there are services that help those women take back that control.
* all names have been changed.