An Open Letter to Mary Ann Sorrentino Regarding Angie Jackson’s Decision to Tweet About Her Abortion
Your article criticizing Angie Jackson’s choice to speak publicly about having an abortion on Twitter, YouTube, and her blog was one of the more infuriating things I’ve read all week. And that’s saying something. You conclude your piece by saying that Jackson’s decision is “at its worst…self-serving, exhibitionist and selfish. At best, it has ‘bad judgment’ written all over it.” But after re-reading your argument many times, I’m with Amanda and Jos: I can’t for the life of me figure out how you got there without some seriously anti-choice, anti-feminist thinking.
The first strike against Jackson in your book seems to be that she was irresponsible for getting pregnant…because she didn’t get sterilized. “If her decision about ending her child-bearing is solid and responsible, one has to wonder why she didn’t just have a tubal ligation.” Really? One does? I don’t. I don’t think it’s any of my business what type of birth control method Jackson uses and why she chose it. But as long as we’re on the subject, she says she was using an IUD when she unexpectedly got pregnant. Coincidentally, I also use an IUD! And while I have no idea why Jackson chose hers, I know one of the things I was attracted to was the 99.9% effectiveness rate. The idea that you would question a woman’s “commitment” to preventing pregnancies because she opted for a long-term 99.9% effective method that, let me tell you, can be extremely painful to have inserted over a permanent 99.9% effective method that requires invasive surgery is just ridiculous.
But, more importantly, since when is the pro-choice movement in the business of prescribing contraceptive methods and deciding which women’s abortions are acceptable and which ones aren’t? She was using a goddamn IUD. But even if she was using a hope and a prayer, she gets to be supported in her decision to have an abortion by us. That’s the deal. Because all contraceptive methods can—and do—fail, and because it’s patronizing to assume you know more about a woman’s life and reproductive system than she does. Sure, we’d like all women to use the most effective form of birth control that works for them, but let’s leave paternalistic judgments and public shaming to the other side—they’ve really got it down at this point.
The second strike against Jackson simply seems to be that she is a blogger and is writing a book; she must be tweeting her abortion to “boost future book sales.” But you provide not one shred of evidence—and there seems to be no reason to believe—that’s the case. From the beginning, Jackson has consistently and clearly stated her motivation for speaking out: “I’m doing this to demystify abortion. I’m doing this so that other women know, ‘Hey, it’s not nearly as terrifying as I had myself worked up thinking it was.’ It’s just not that bad.” She mentioned her book in an interview to explain that talking publicly about her abortion seemed natural to her since she’s been writing about her experiences and tackling controversial subjects online for years.
Next, you present this as a generational problem; Jackson, being 27, takes her right to abortion for granted and therefore must treat it lightly. Women of your generation, who had no legal reproductive rights and saw first-hand the horrors of illegal abortions, “understand how precious the right to choose is” and “know things that Ms. Jackson clearly cannot fathom.” Sure, Jackson wasn’t forced to have a back-alley abortion and yes, that’s thanks to the hard-won victories of reproductive rights pioneers such as yourself. But, in fact, Ms. Jackson clearly does appreciate this legal right, or she wouldn’t have felt it was so important to speak publicly about it in the hopes of demystifying the experience for other women. She also seems well-versed in the history of the reproductive rights movement. In fact, by speaking out she’s simply continuing a long tradition of women telling their abortion stories in order to destigmatize and humanize the choice—from the 1969 Redstocking Abortion Speakout to consciousness-raising meetings to Ms. magazine’s “We Had Abortions” feature to documentaries like I Had An Abortion and websites like I’m Not Sorry. You seem to assume that because Jackson’s channels of communication are Twitter, YouTube, and Blogspot, she must be flippant about her right to abortion. It doesn’t and she isn’t; it just means it’s 2010.
And it appears Jackson might have a better grasp on the threats to abortion rights in 2010 than you do. You say that the right you and your peers were fighting so hard for was based on the right to “privacy” and imply that by sharing her decision with her 800 Twitter followers Jackson is somehow abusing that right. But since when has the right to privacy incurred an obligation to keep it secret? Nobody, least of all Jackson, is questioning the fact that her decision to get an abortion was and should be made privately—by her alone, in consultation with her family and doctor. (It’s not like she did an online poll of her Twitter followers to decide whether to continue the pregnancy for heaven’s sake.)
But it’s that second decision—the decision to speak publicly about her choice—that is at issue here and that is steeped in cultural forces that take it well beyond the right to privacy. The fact that most women who have abortions don’t talk about them—even with friends and family—is not just because it’s a private decision but also because abortion is still shrouded in stigma and shame. Obviously, not all women would want to tell the world about their abortion—just like not all women would want to tell the world about their pregnancy cravings, or their root canal surgery, or their mother’s death. And those women have the right to keep their abortion entirely to themselves because, of course, it’s nobody’s goddamn business. But when one-third of American women have an abortion in their lifetimes and yet just one of them tweeting about it provokes CNN appearances, death threats, and denouncements even from pro-choicers, that’s a pretty good clue something is up. Something like—oh, I don’t know—pervasive cultural messages that tell women abortion is something to be ashamed of and not something to be talked about. And in that context, the decision to speak publicly about it is not just within Jackon’s rights (as you begrudgingly admit)—it becomes a political act.
It’s frankly astounding to me that someone who has spent their life “on the front lines of the abortion debate” could write about Jackson’s choice without even once acknowledging this broader social context. Because that context matters. The fact that abortion is so stigmatized has real effects on the debate over reproductive rights today. It means that the anti-choice movement is able to step into the deafening silence and paint women who have abortions as irresponsible or confused or monstrous. It means that fewer and fewer young doctors are willing to provide abortions in their practices. It means that people my age are less pro-choice than previous generations because it’s easier to believe that women who get abortions aren’t the women they know and love.
Reasonable pro-choice people can disagree about the extent to which one public abortion story like Jackson’s will change this powerful stigma, but to not even acknowledge its existence and its damaging influence is more than “bad judgment” in my opinion. At best, your article demonstrates a lack of understanding about the state of abortion politics today. At worst, it reinforces the stigma around abortion by echoing anti-choice ideas about what kinds of women get abortions, who should be allowed to, and how they should feel about it.