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Can You Be Pro-Choice and Grieve Your Abortion?

Kassi Underwood's memoir, May Cause Love, probes the difficulties many feminists feel in expressing grief around abortions in a way that doesn't set the pro-choice movement back.

During the summer of 2011, I was 20 and waiting tables at a fine dining restaurant in Alpine, Texas, my hometown of 5,000 people. My free time was filled with empty activities, a good many of which revolved around taking shots of cheap Espolon and chugging six-packs of Lone Star, usually in the company of other people who had never left home after high school.

Things changed in July. I started feeling lethargic and constipated for first one day, then two, then three. I hoped that it was just a lingering hangover, or perhaps a result of smoking too much pot, or maybe a consequence of my diet, which consisted largely of cheese sticks and Buffalo wings. After experiencing more of the same for two weeks, I decided to try a pregnancy test. I peed on two Clear Blue strips; both of them came out negative. Still, I was suspicious: It might just be too early for a home pregnancy test, I reasoned. I made an appointment to see a doctor. Not the family physician, though; if in fact I was pregnant, I needed that fact kept a secret.

At the doctor's office, I hovered over the toilet and peed into a plastic cup. I didn't feel any anxiety or sense of dread. My mind was elsewhere. The year before, my sister Jennifer was beaten to death by her boyfriend in their home in Ft. Stockton, Texas. According to court documents, he sat with her for two days in their house while she was comatose. It wasn't until he grew alarmed by her unresponsiveness that he took her to the hospital. She died on April 19th, 2010.

I was a student at Bond University at the time. I wasn't prepared to handle that sort of death; I doubt anyone really is. Grief manifested into suicidal thoughts, and I spent hours pacing neurotically around the campus, often instead of going to class. After six months of this, I returned to Alpine. A few weeks after returning, my family doctor prescribed me Lexapro, for depression and anxiety. The pills induced rage so I stopped taking them, but self-medicating with cocaine, pot, and tequila helped me feel numb.

August 2nd, 2011, was the day I found out I was pregnant. August 2nd was also the day I stopped self-medicating.

Not long after, I called a Planned Parenthood clinic in Midland, Texas—a two-plus hour drive from Alpine. The receptionist told me it was early enough to take an abortion pill. I let out an audible sigh of relief and made an appointment for the following Wednesday. I'd drive myself to Midland, I figured, and that'd be the end of it. Two days later, I called the clinic again. Maybe grief from losing my sister guided my decision, but—who knows why—I canceled.

When I decided to follow through with my pregnancy, I wasn't taking a moral high ground. Even then, I believed that every woman's choice about her body was a deeply personal one—a decision that should never be burdened with examination or commentary from outsiders. But I'm also aware that, without my daughter, I likely wouldn't have left Texas for New York City to pursue a career in journalism. When she hits a milestone like losing her first baby tooth, I feel flooded with gratitude for the choice I made six years ago. How, though, as a feminist and a pro-choice supporter, can I express any of this without also being used as a poster child for the anti-choice movement?

Kassi Underwood's new book, May Cause Love, tackles the murky nature of what it means to have a choice. At 19, she was struggling with alcoholism and living 1,000 miles from home with a drug-addicted boyfriend. A few weeks after Underwood's pregnancy was confirmed by a test at a doctor's office, she used $400 her mother sent for car repairs to pay for an abortion. Early in the book, Underwood self-medicates to keep from grieving her decision to terminate her pregnancy. Her grief wasn't the same as regret—she didn't regret her decision, knowing it was the right choice—yet Underwood avoided it all the same, shutting out her anxiety and sadness in the ensuing years with work and getting clean.

May Cause Love: An Unexpected Journey of Enlightenment After Abortion.

May Cause Love: An Unexpected Journey of Enlightenment After Abortion.

"My first pregnancy was supposed to be about joy," she writes. Instead, "I was twenty-four and had spent five years chasing my dreams like someone was holding a gun to my head ... working to make my abortion a worthwhile investment, trying to be happy."

The pro-choice movement is constantly under attack by anti-choice activists, who claim that all women who have abortions will regret them, and will live the rest of their lives emotionally destroyed. In response, the pro-choice movement has largely closed up any conversation around the real and complicated emotions—including sadness and pain—women might experience around abortion.

"It killed me to think that people like us might be lying awake in bed, somewhere else, suffering alone, feeling bound to secrecy or obliged to pledge allegiance to a political persuasion, or numb out psychic pain, or even pretend to be sad and regretful if they weren't," Underwood writes. "Nobody should have to hide the way they feel or police the way they talk about their own abortions."

Feeling grief without feeling regret isn't an uncommon experience for women who have had abortions. Ava Torre-Bueno, the author of Peace After Abortion, describes grief to Underwood as an experience that surpasses abortion or pregnancy—grief corresponds to the loss itself, regardless of rationale. As Torre-Bueno tells Underwood: "All choice involves loss. We carry all sorts of griefs, not just the deaths of loved ones. Leaving a crummy job for a sexy new career is a loss. Marriage is a loss of loves not chosen, as well as a loss of singlehood and independence. With some choices, the alternative remains a mystery: one college over another, abortion over a child."

Six years after her abortion, Underwood connected with Exhale Pro-Voice, a non-profit founded "by and for women who have abortions" to provide emotional support regardless of story or political leanings. Underwood tours the country alongside other women to tell their complex, personal, and unfiltered abortion stories. One speaker, Ronak Dave, admitted that she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after her abortion. "I don't regret my choice—I have no idea what was on the other side of it. But I never really felt relief about it," she said. Another, Mayah Frank, professed that she "was extremely depressed about [her abortion] for years." But she never wanted to take it back either.

It isn't just conservative politicking that's silenced women from expressing complicated emotions around their reproductive choices; it comes from the left too. My hands trembled with rage the day I read the Marie Claire piece arguing that Hannah Horvath, from the television show Girls, should have had an abortion and that "the rationale for her choosing to keep the baby is actually pretty anti-feminist." That sort of progressive rhetoric—which often festishizes abortions in a way that leaves little room for the varied experiences of reproductive choice—is exactly why I've never felt comfortable expressing that choosing pregnancy saved my life.

"Everybody wants a place to tell the truth without being judged," Underwood writes. If we suppress those narratives that seem inconvenient for the larger political project, what message are we sending to women about their real choices in the world? Women are routinely skewered for whatever reproductive choice they make. And denying us the right to live and process our truths hinders us from receiving crucial care—whether it be contraceptives, access to safe abortions, and universal childcare, or spaces to grieve without regret, or the freedom to narrate our experiences without sacrificing truth for ideology.

Underwood's book reminds us that when women are placed in boxes and used as political props for any movement—conservative or progressive—misogyny is at work. It's time we start accepting women's testimonies outside the bounds of the established political conversation.