In a previous post, I analysed the pro-choice slogan ‘Trust women’, and found that like most points of contention, this slogan masks the real disagreement between pro-life and pro-choice people – whether abortion is right or wrong. However, I do think pro-life people can learn from the sentiment behind the slogan in relation to abortion regret.
It is a simple fact that some women regret their abortions. It is also a fact that pro-choice advocates tend to sideline or even ignore this inconvenient truth. The pro-life community are right to offer an open space where these women can share their stories and grieve, and find some peace. They are also correct to raise this as a relevant issue in the broader context of abortion.
However, I believe that pro-life people should not use abortion regret as an argument against legal abortion, for a few reasons. The first is that as far as we know most women do not regret their abortions. No one knows for sure how often women regret their abortions and it’s impossible to find any unbiased estimates, but it’s safe to say at the very least that if the majority of women regretted their abortions, we’d hear about it. They would be sharing their stories and making their views known. We can’t claim that the fact that this is not happening is merely due to a biased media refusing to report their stories because even a biased media couldn’t ignore it if most women regretted their abortions and were willing to say so. We must therefore conclude that most – not all, but most – women do not.
Pro-life people often find it hard to accept the idea that most women don’t regret their abortion. In fact, I have met wonderful, dedicated, genuine pro-life activists who have told me that every single woman ends up regretting her abortion eventually. These people have always told me about a woman they met during the course of their activism who deeply regretted her abortion, and the encounter obviously had a profound impact on them. It’s almost impossible to witness the sheer heartache that intense regret over something like an abortion can have on a woman and not have it change the way you view the issue forever.
However, I believe these pro-life people are displaying a psychological phenomenon called ‘availability bias’. This is the phenomenon where you focus on the evidence available, and discount evidence that’s not available to you, which leads you to believe that the thing you can observe is more prevalent than it really is. You’re simply not going to hear from all the women who don’t regret their abortions, because why would they tell you about it? And so pro-life people think the women who regretted their abortions, whom they hear about, are very common, and they don’t realise that women who don’t regret their abortions are far more common, because they don’t hear about them.
Now, we could argue that more or most women do actually regret their abortions, but don’t realise that they do or else don’t admit they do, either to themselves or others. This is where things get very murky. If all we have to rely on is surveys and interviews with post-abortive women, the majority state that they felt some combination of positive emotions – relief, happiness, peace, empowerment. A minority express more negative emotions – sadness, guilt, despair. Many women express more than one feeling. (Again, none of these studies can be considered to be unbiased, so we can’t read too much into them.) However, any human will tell you that it’s possible to be confused or not fully understand your own feelings, and it’s even more possible to feel a lot more than you can articulate. For what it’s worth, I think that if most women subconsciously regretted their abortions, we’d still probably hear a lot more about it than we do. However, even if we allow for the possibility that many more women regret their abortions without realising it than women who regret their abortions and do realise it, this is still not a good argument for legal abortion. In fact, it mostly just reinforces the need for providing non-judgemental spaces and opportunities for women to really sort through their feelings, come to terms with them, acknowledge them and hopefully find some peace without those feelings becoming politicised. This is because for those women who have subconcious negative feelings towards their abortion, they may be reluctant to admit to those feelings because they are afraid that they would get pushback from the pro-choice community that validates their decision (even if they now regret that decision). Even more importantly, they may be afraid their experience will be ‘weaponised’ by pro-life people who want to make abortion illegal. It’s not a huge stretch to imagine that a woman would feel defensive about her past decision, even if she regrets it, because she doesn’t want to become a pawn for a movement she still may not support. Hard as it may be for a pro-life person to fathom, just because a woman regrets her abortion doesn’t mean she automatically thinks it should therefore be illegal. Which brings me to the final, and by far the most important, reason abortion regret should not be used by pro-life people as an argument against legal abortion:
The fact that someone might regret something is a terrible argument for making it illegal. It’s an argument for trying to convince someone to reconsider their choice, but it’s not an argument for banning that choice. I don’t know anyone who ever drunkenly texted their ex without later regretting it – but I don’t think drunk texting should be illegal. And most tax cheats don’t regret what they did – but I still think tax evasion should be illegal. Even if we could prove, without a doubt, that no woman ever regretted their abortion, I would still oppose abortion because I think it is wrong – not because I think someone might nevertheless regret it one day.
When we use abortion regret as an argument for banning abortion, we have erased the other vulnerable human being whose rights are being trampled on, and are instead basing our legal position on a fairly patronising notion that women aren’t capable of making decisions for themselves and living with the consequences. We are suggesting that women need to be legally protected from themselves and their own decisions – in other words, that we don’t trust women. Pro-life people do trust women, and we do value their opinions and judgements. We just also – not exclusively, but also – value their babies’ lives.