A Majority of People Who Have Abortions Are Already Mothers — Including Mine

I always thought people who had abortions were largely single and not ready to be parents, but I was way off.

A Majority of People Who Have Abortions Are Already Mothers — Including Mine
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As an only child, I spent most of my young life wishing for a sibling: to play with, to hang with on vacation, to share bunk beds with. But I never got one; instead, I would have to make do with my dog, Lance, whom I thought was an actual sibling until I was at least 4 years old.

Once, when visiting my mom for the weekend while in my early 30s, she told me about an abortion she'd had years earlier. It was her second. I already knew about the first one, the illegal abortion she'd had in the Dominican Republic in the late '60s when she was 19. I knew, too, about her taking a friend to see activist Bill Baird a year or so later in New York City to arrange for her to have an abortion. She told me about these early experiences when I was in college, getting deeper into feminism, and starting to go to women's rights marches. She wanted me to know she understood where I was coming from, that she believed these things were worth fighting for, too.

But, she explained to me later, she'd had this other abortion when she was in her early 40s marriedto my father,and they were already parents — I was around 10 years old at the time.When my mom, an elementary school teacher living in Long Island, New York, learned she was pregnant, she decided that even though she loved being a mom, she didn't want another child.

As a woman working full time in an NYC public school in Queens, she felt it would have been hard to take the time off (unbelievably, NYC public school teachers didn't get paid parental leave until 2018; when she had me, she took something called a grace period and borrowed sick days to take a mere eight weeks off). There were other considerations, too. She thought it would have been difficult to tend to the needs of a 10-year-old and a newborn at the same time. She and my father had also been going through a rough patch, and she didn't feel like it was a great time in their relationship to welcome a new baby.

In other words, it didn't fit into her life at that time, so she did what she needed to do. It wasn't an easy choice to make, of course, but she knew it was the right one for her. My dad was fully supportive of whichever choice she made — so supportive, in fact, that he never told her what he would have preferred himself.

Initially, I'll admit, I was a bit shocked. After all those years of wanting a sibling, there was a chance I could have had one this whole time! But that feeling faded pretty quickly and was soon replaced with admiration. I was extremely proud of my mom for choosing what was best for her and her family despite the fact that it was incrediblydifficult to do so. And I was happy that she'd had the choice, unlike the first time, when she'd had to go to great lengths to remedy a situation that could have ended much worse than it did (as it had for so many; and as it might for so many more if Roe v. Wade is overturned, as suggested in the Supreme Court's recent leaked draft opinion).

A Majority of People Who Have Abortions Are Already Mothers — Including Mine
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Aside from the shock that came from learning about an alternative life we might have had, I was also surprised to learn of, not just my mom, but a mom having an abortion. Sure, I knew it happened, but naively, I had thought thatmoms, particularly married ones, generally weren't the clientele; that it was largely women who were single and not yet ready to be parents at all who were most likely to terminate a pregnancy (à la Dirty Dancing, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, my mom's first experience, and the few friends I knew who'd told me about their experiences).

But, actually, a majority of the people who have abortions in the U.S. are already mothers. According to a Guttmacher Institute report that looked at data from 2014 (the latest available), 59% of abortion patients already have a child. This has been the case since at least 2004, up from 50% in 1989, when it was still a large percentage.

alison bates, nurse practitioner, planned parenthood abortion provider

"There are a lot of assumptions about abortion and the people that have abortions as younger people or unpartnered people. But the reality is, many of the patients that we see for abortion care are parents. It's a very common scenario."

— alison bates, nurse practitioner, planned parenthood abortion provider

Alison Bates, a nurse practitioner and abortion provider at Planned Parenthood in Maine, attests to this. "There are a lot of assumptions about abortion and the people that have abortions as younger people or unpartnered people. But the reality is, many of the patients that we see for abortion care are parents," she says. "It's a very common scenario."

There are so many reasons why mothers get abortions. Kellie Wicklund, owner and clinical director of the Maternal Wellness Center in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, who counsels patients on maternal health matters, including abortion decision making, puts the reasons in three categories: maternal health risks, fetal health risks, and social/cultural decisions.

A Guttmacher study conducted in 2004 shows that a quarter of the qualitative sample cited women's concerns for their own health or possible fetal health problems as reasons to end their pregnancy. According to the CDC, about 700 women die each year in the United States as a result of pregnancy or delivery complications, and research in JAMA Pediatrics shows that children born to women who were denied abortions are more likely to live in poverty.

For the latter, which is more ambiguous, Wicklund explains that many women who are older or who already have grown children might feel like they don't have it in them to start all over again. Often, it's a woman's career, finances, or a relationship that can't endure another child. For my mom, these were all relevant reasons.

Wicklund adds that her patients frequently say, "they don't want to do it unless they know they can do it well, and, being a mom already, they know what that requires."

Above all, there's one thing that almost all of these women have in common. As Bates puts it, "they want to be the best parent they can be to the children that they already have." She adds, "It can be a financial decision, it can be a medical decision, but it's often with the interests of the family they already have in mind."

If a majority of women seeking abortion care are mothers making choices in the best interest of their families — with firsthand knowledge of what their family needs and exactly what meeting those needs entails — then why is there such a stigma around it still?

Kellie Wicklund, psychotherapist, clinical director of the Maternal Wellness Center

It's like, 'You're already set up for it, what's one more?'... That's because people radically minimize how complex women's lives are."

— Kellie Wicklund, psychotherapist, clinical director of the Maternal Wellness Center

One reason, Wicklund explains, is that women are taught from a young age that they're supposed to have "all the babies," that they don't get to have their own life and dreams, that they have to be martyrs."It's like, 'You're already set up for it, what's one more?"' she says. "But that's because people radically minimize how complex women's lives are, and I think they just tell women they can do one more thing [on top of] the one million things they're already doing."

"Maternal instinct," she points out, is supposed to be the opposite of what abortion is, in the minds of detractors. But the irony is, as evidenced above, women are using precisely their maternal instincts when making these kinds of decisions.

So, how can we normalize mothers having abortions and minimize the stigma that comes with that decision? Bates suggests reducing the silence around it, which she thinks is really impactful in terms of visibility and helping people to understand the importance. "It is a cycle of shame and silence," she says, "so I think the more that we talk about it [is]…a step in the right direction, to break the molds that exist now."

For years, my mom has seen herself as a pioneer for being an early champion of abortion, for having one herself when it wasn't yet legal, for helping a friend who needed support — and I see her that way, too. But what impresses me even more is that my mom was one of the many women who made a decision in the best interest of her family even though it might have felt unpopular or lonely or shameful. I'm proud of her for being bold enough to have done it, and glad she felt like she could share her story with me.

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