The Multiple Abortion Question

A recent essay in The New York Times Magazine thoughtfully addressed the issue of multiple abortions. The writer recounted her emotions and actions following a second unplanned pregnancy, and the reasons that she chose to have an abortion again.

The comments on the Times’ site ranged from supportive to judgmental, which is no great surprise. It’s rare that a piece about abortion or reproductive choice or contraception will run in a mainstream publication without inciting a fair number of both pro- and anti-choice comments, and at least the Times commenters kept things reasonably civil. But what really jumped out at me were the comments that began, “I’m pro-choice, but…”, and listed the reader’s reasons why women shouldn’t have more than one abortion.

When I worked in direct service, my colleagues and I often encountered women that were having their second or third abortion. This bothered one colleague in particular, and while it never affected the help she provided, she confided in me that she personally couldn’t help but judge the women that had multiple terminations. Her unease reflected the greater reluctance felt by the leadership of our organization to address this topic, and that in turn reflected the general unease that many in the pro-choice movement feel about the whole issue.

I never understood the conflict. Shouldn’t being pro-choice mean supporting a woman’s right to make a choice, period? After all, I had no idea what the circumstances were that made a woman choose one abortion, much less a second or third. And it wasn’t my place to know these circumstances, because these women had agency over their own bodies. If they felt that abortion was the best choice for them, who was I to say otherwise? And in fact, wasn’t judging a woman for her personal choice getting pretty close to the anti-choice mentality, anyway?

The pro-choice movement does itself no favors in either ignoring the issue or qualifying it into insignificance. To effectively combat anti-choice attacks and laws, we must be able to talk about choice openly and honestly, and make it clear that no woman will be judged for her decision. All the hand wringing and caveats in the world won’t change the facts that sometimes contraception fails, and sometimes it’s just not the right time to have a child.

I’ve heard a lot of reasons for why women choose abortion – thousands of reasons, given by women in their teens all the way through their late 40s. But the story that has stayed with me the longest is also one of the first, a college student who became pregnant despite using birth control. After much thought and discussion with her boyfriend, family, and friends, she decided that having an abortion was the right choice for her.

Described in these vague terms, this college student sounds exactly like the stereotypical femi-monster of Fox News fever dreams, a Liberal East Coast Elitist hell-bent on slouching to Gomorrah (not that that’s a bad thing). But it’s the very common circumstances of her life that make me remember her so much. In fact, because she only shared the details of her pregnancy with a close group, like most women do, then for all you and I know, by now she could be your friend, your co-worker, your next-door neighbor. And in some sense, she is.

Should this woman have been denied an abortion? No. Nor should any woman that chooses abortion, even if it’s not her first time making that decision. Every woman deserves the right to make the best choice for her life, and to do so without judgment from the very people that purport to support that choice.

About Sarah:
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out


  1. George Richter says:

    Yeah, I’m only a guy, but there is something about this killing your child that turns me off. Women should realize that guys get really motivated and will try anything to get ‘what they want’. And wise women use that motivation to get a husband who will honor them and protect them and work to provide for them. Guys have a large vocabulary dealing with women who don’t know how to play the game but instead simply lay down on the job. And those words are not nice. But then, my grandfather said: ‘So soon ve get alt, und so late ve get schmrt!’

    • Wow – what patriarchal nonsense. Way to just say it like it is.

    • Hey! Don’t be so hard on yourself! You’re not “only a guy”. You’re also a sexist! An anti-choice, patriarchal sexist.

      Oh, and a troll. Go figure.

  2. I’m pro-choice, no buts.

    Great article. And thanks for raising this issue. It’s something that I think a lot of pro-choice women think, whether they internalise it or wear it on their sleeves, and it is something that needs to change.

    When I realised a few years ago that I had that internalised “but…”, I was really upset at myself. Now, I’d be more likely to judge someone over multiple fillings than multiple abortions.

  3. Thanks for this very interesting post! I heard many times things like that: “a woman who had multiple abortions is like a recidivist who was supposed to know what she was doing. And therefore she could not have mitigating circumstances.” Unfortunately, as long as the first condemnation remains, this issue about multiple abortions will persist…
    Concerning the first comment (from George), I just want to mention a story about a guy I know. He was not ready to be a father and his partner absolutely didn’t care about it: she lied about taking birth control and she became pregnant. The guy was completely destroyed and felt himself betrayed and totally powerless about his destiny… I am just trying to tell that all these issues are not only for women: this is about having respect for others and for their choices.

  4. Excellent post! And you’re right, a discussion we need to be having. I think it’s only human to have thoughts and judgments we don’t like or aren’t proud of. The important thing is what we do with them. Luckily we don’t have to share every thought that we have, and we’re capable of offering support even if our feelings haven’t caught up with our intentions.

  5. dan smith says:

    What has gone so terribly wrong that in today’s society that everyone seems to think they have ‘a right’ to anything and everything. What about the unborn baby’s ‘rights’ ?? I fail to see how feminism and abortion go hand in hand, isn’t feminism about self respect? In what way is ripping a chopping another human being out of your body respectful to the beauty that is the female body or to the other life it holds? Has the desire to obtain an equality with the male species go so far that feminists would deny what is their biological purpose (as is mens) – to create life? I think its terribly sad that women are so happy to take the choice of abortion and indeed support the ability to make this ‘choice’.

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