Uma Thurman has written an eloquent, moving, profoundly human essay about the abortion she had as a teenager. She shared it in The Washington Post on Tuesday, two weeks after a new law went into effect in Texas, banning most abortions in the state. Thurman, like so many of us, has followed that development with “great sadness, and something akin to horror”. She was moved to share her own story “in the hope of drawing the flames of controversy away from the vulnerable women on whom this law will have an immediate effect”, and because she felt a “responsibility to stand up in their shoes”.
It saddens and angers me that policymakers keep putting women in the position of having to share their personal stories in order to defend their basic rights. But if someone feels able to do so, then I am grateful to them. Sharing a part of yourself so that others will feel safer and possibly less alone is a kind, powerful thing to do.
Thurman’s story goes like this: In her late teens, she “was accidentally impregnated by a much older man”. (This turn of phrase, in her essay, seems purposeful: the man in question was as much an active party to this as she was.) She was “ living out of a suitcase in Europe, far from [her] family, and about to start a job”. She initially wanted to have the baby, but after consulting with her family, realized she wasn’t in a position to do so. With the support of her relatives, she chose to get an abortion.
The termination was performed in Cologne, Germany, by a kind, male doctor who “explained every step of the process as it happened”. “It hurt terribly, but I didn’t complain,” Thurman notes. “I had internalized so much shame that I felt I deserved the pain.” At the end, the doctor told Thurman she reminded him of his own daughter. This small act of kindness meant the world to her: “In his eyes, I was a person,” she writes. “I was a daughter, I was still a girl.”
Thurman thoughtfully acknowledges the pain – physical and emotional – that accompanied her experience. At least some of that pain, it seems, has come from the secrecy and stigma that accompanied the decision.
It’s the first time Thurman has spoken publicly of her abortion, which she says “has been [her] darkest secret until now”. She highlights the later conception of her three children – “with men whom I loved and trusted enough to dare to bring a child into this world”. Without judgment and without apology, she writes: “I have no regrets for the path I have traveled. I applaud and support women who make a different choice. The abortion I had as a teenager was the hardest decision of my life, one that caused me anguish then and that saddens me even now, but it was the path to the life full of joy and love that I have experienced. Choosing not to keep that early pregnancy allowed me to grow up and become the mother I wanted and needed to be.”
The world tends to be bad at giving people the space they need to share their stories of abortion, whether they are deeply nuanced or straightforwardly simple. Some people experience trauma, some don’t. Some feel guilt, some don’t. We are bad at giving these narratives room to breathe, to be unique. But they need to be heard, and they need to be allowed to exist in the form that rings truest to the person sharing it.
We’ve heard too many times that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare”. Safe and legal, yes. Uncompromisingly so. Rare? I understand the initial intent behind the word – that abortion should be “rare” because in an ideal world, birth control would be widely available and free. But the “rare”, to me, will always feel uncomfortable. It has a twinge of stigma, of judgment, attached to it. It feels a little too much like an apology.
People have always needed and will always need abortions. I don’t know that our primary focus should be on making sure they remain “rare”. The “safe and legal” part is what I worry about.
There are regret-free abortions, and we need to be open about that. Thurman’s essay is an honest, deeply needed step in the right direction.