Is ‘Choice’ Less Accepted for Mothers?

The subset of women in America who most frequently make use of abortion services, writes Lauren Sandler in Slate this week, are … mothers. In 2008, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 61 percent of women who terminated their pregnancies already had at least one child. And in the period since the economic woes of the recession started hitting families, the National Abortion Federation reported to Ms. Sandler, fully 72 percent of clients who came seeking abortion services were mothers.

Mothers seek abortions, most times, out of economic distress: they’re stretched to the limit and fear that one more baby will push them over the edge, making it impossible for them to properly care for any of their children. That’s a situation to which an increasingly large part of the population can easily relate.

Yet, Ms. Sandler argues, mothers never figure prominently in the stories of women’s struggles invoked by the campaigns both for and against abortion rights. Why is this? She smartly ticks off a few interesting reasons: anti-abortion activists have done a good job of painting women who seek abortions as bad girls. Abortion rights groups, looking to marshal the public’s limited stores of sympathy, have focused on the plight of pregnant teenagers and rape victims.

Most disturbing, however, is what Gloria Felt, the former president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told Ms. Sandler what post polling has revealed about the public’s attitudes toward women’s “choices”: not all mothers are equal. Those in anything less than desperate straits who nonetheless seek to terminate a pregnancy are generally not deemed worthy of empathetic concern.

“The less in control of a woman’s life she is, the more the public supports her right to make that choice [to have an abortion],” Ms. Felt told Ms. Sandler. “The more she is in control of her life, saying, ‘This is the life I choose,’ the less people support it.”

This fascinating insight cast some light for me on a phenomenon I’ve long puzzled over: the enduring, not well-acknowledged, insidious and quite endemic hostility toward well-educated professional women that exists in our culture. It’s a very real prejudice that flies in the face of our general espousal of support for women’s progress. It can come out in odd ways, as in a case I wrote about in Domestic Disturbances, the online column I wrote for The Times,  a few years back when a Montana prosecutor sought jail time for a professor who’d left her children in a mall — three small children in the care of two 12-year-olds — because, the prosecutor said then, “even individuals with major educations” need to be taught lessons in responsibility.

Many well-educated professional women wrote in after that piece saying that they too often witnessed or sensed that almost epidemic sort of hostility coming their way — or toward other women like them. None of us could quite puzzle out its source. I wonder now if it does, to some extent, boil down to matters of perceived “control.”

At a time when so many people, including increasing numbers of men, feel as if they have so very little control in their lives, a person who does (or is believed to) have choices — some modicum of control over her fate — is perhaps a prime target for resentment and vitriol. Which makes me wonder further: if “choice” is now perceived as the purview of the privileged few, the abortion rights movement may need to find itself a new slogan.


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