The unspeakable choice
A call for a different ‘morality’
I decided to write this following a conversation with a colleague who asked me about my work with women who have had abortions. She was particularly interested in why women might put themselves at risk of having a repeat abortion (often surprisingly soon after they have just experienced the difficulty of having to terminate a recent unplanned pregnancy). I think there are almost as many answers to this question as there are women who have more than one termination. What did come to mind for me, however, is how society’s approach to these topics might contribute to the problem rather than help alleviate it. South African Society can perhaps be accused of being ‘morally immature’ when it comes to the topic of sex. There is a strict moral code that everyone is supposed to keep up, to save face, but in reality seldom actually lived by it. As a result, there is a considerable gap between what is practiced and what is preached. We begin to engage in private sexual practices that we unnecessarily try and hide, even from ourselves. We end up behaving in ways that we feel compelled to be at odds with. A conservative moral approach to sex causes sexual behaviour to live in secret and it is from within these hidden areas of our lives that it becomes less manageable. This is true, I believe, for how abortion is dealt with. Hidden from public shame, it becomes difficult to address the factors that necessitate its use.
So what are the possible reasons why you would put yourself at risk of a repeat abortion? Well, for example, for a woman to take responsibility for contraception requires planning and empowerment. She must be able to admit to herself that she is going to have sex and to feel empowered enough to take charge of the conditions in which the sex occurs. Do we live in a society where woman are allowed to actively and openly plan to have sex? What does it say about a woman if she openly intends on having sex? What if the conservative audiences in our society compel her to pretend (even to herself, perhaps) that she does not intend having sex?
Despite the outdated assumption – sex is not a physical act that only happens behind the closed doors of a married couple’s bedroom. Some people do make the decision to have sex only after significant commitment in a relationship, but sex is not an isolated action that is separate from the rest of our lives. We cannot pack it away in a cupboard until we are ready to use it. Sex is entwined in who we are. We are all met with cravings for physical closeness and pleasure. A woman who is haunted by feelings of not being “good-enough”, does not feel free to be in control of her own body or feels under pressure to have sex in order to maintain the relationship – might find it difficult to make responsible choices about sex. For example, insisting to use a condom might require her to find an assertive voice that she is not used to having in intimate relationships.
When I enter into conversations with women about their decisions to terminate a pregnancy it is like entering into a secret world where we start to speak about the unspoken. Every woman who is reluctantly faced with the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy has a unique story to tell. The details of this story are what led to having to make this choice. There is almost always a societal audience (even if it is an imagined one) that places judgments on this story. This audience judges whether the story is sad, traumatic or desperate enough to make an abortion ‘morally justifiable’. The same audience compels individuals to feel shame about their decision, to avoid openly telling their stories and, therefore, undermining any attempts to actively deal with the events of their life surrounding the decision to terminate. How would things be different if women (and their partners) where invited to be open and honest about being faced with the decision to terminate a pregnancy? Would it not help put them in a position to engage more effectively with the issues and events that led them to this unfortunate decision? Would they be less likely to find themselves in that situation again?
My work with women who are considering or who have had a termination attempts to make room for a different morality: It is a morality that appreciates open dialogue about our sexuality; that helps them explore the individual stories that have led them to this point; respecting these stories as significant and worthy of a concerned audience; and attempting to privilege their voices above those of a judging societal audience.
Perhaps there is a myth that openness about abortion will lead to an immoral and complacent reliance on it (even the use of it as a form of contraception). In reality, I have witnessed that the decision to terminate is never an easy one and that it is possible to choose abortion and still have ethics, spirituality and integrity. My hope is that all women are never faced with having to make that reluctant decision but I am also quite sure that abortion is unlikely to be used as a form of contraception. Is it not unfortunate if the idea that abortions as shameful and therefore secret practices, deny the opportunity for control over women’s sexual wellbeing?