Personally speaking

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  September 24, 2008

This month, Akashic Books released Abortion and Life, in which Baumgardner and photographer Tara Todras-Whitehill translate the ideas (and some of the narratives) from I Had An Abortion into print. The book presents a trim history of abortion in the United States (skippable if you’re familiar with the hot-button milestones), followed by Baumgardner’s theoretical arguments, and then 15 women’s first-person abortion stories. Each narrative is accompanied by a photograph of that woman wearing the black “I had an abortion” T-shirt.

A’yen Tran, a 20-something woman, talks about the physical and emotional differences between her first abortion (physically unbearable, emotionally difficult) and her second (relatively painless, emotionally supported).

Barbara Ehrenreich, the author and activist, says: “My abortions were not morally or emotionally wrenching for me. I was just relieved each time I had the procedure.”

Gillian Aldrich, who co-produced the documentary with Baumgardner, and whose mother shares her own story in the book, recalls making the decision: “I thought: If there is a baby in here, it’s not staying... Neither of us was mature enough. We weren’t young, but we had a lot of growing up to do.”

Amy Richards (Baumgardner’s co-author on two previous feminist books), tells of her selective reduction, in which two of the triplets in her womb were aborted (the third would continue to term).

“Why are these stories so important?” Baumgardner asks. “Because a story is not a debate, it doesn’t have sides. Unlike an argument or a slogan, a story can be as complex as a woman’s life. Listening to women’s abortion stories today serves a dual purpose: It reflects the urgency of abortion rights, and if we are listening and if we are creative, it indicates places where the movement needs to go.”

And where’s that? Baumgardner, like most pro-choice activists, wants to lower the number of unplanned pregnancies that happen in the first place; increase sexual education; increase money and support for low-income women; and address larger societal problems linked to abortion, such as job loss, lack of health care, and misogyny. But more than anything else, Baumgardner and her book advocate for simple compassion and mindfulness.

The stories in Abortion and Life are unique, moving, and sometimes hard to read. Most of all, they illustrate how deeply personal each woman’s abortion experience is. By no means does the book exalt the decision to have an abortion — but it does treat those decisions head-on, in all their messy, unavoidable truths.

“Today, I’d say that talking honestly about abortion is a sign of the movement’s strength,” Baumgardner writes, “and it’s a feminist act.”

Deirdre Fulton can be reached at

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