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Real Choices: Listening to Women; Looking for Alternatives to Abortion Paperback – July 24, 1997
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With that line, Frederica Matthewes-Green has opened up a new line of dialogue about the tragedy which is abortion. Whether pro-choice or pro-life, everyone agrees that abortion should be rare. But the debate about abortion has rarely moved on to ask what we might all do to make abortion rare. Matthewes-Green has continued on in this direction by conducting an extensive research project inquiring into the circumstances which lead women to choose abortion. REAL CHOICES presents her findings, which should serve as a basis for dialogue about what we all can do change a world in which 1,500,000 women every year seek abortion in the United States alone.
She used a combination of surveys, and most poignantly, discussion groups to listen to women reflect on the life situations that forced them into abortion. The stories are heart-rending. Too often, women are forced into abortion by the fathers, by their parents, by their counselors, and by their friends. The procedure itself is violent, not just for the life which is destroyed, but for the woman who experiences it. Many women seek out abortion because they feel they have no other choice.
REAL CHOICES asks us to think harder about ways in which we could offer women more positive options. We are all complicit in the abortion tragedy - when we assume that problems can be disposed of (without asking what consequence this has for the woman and her child), when we allow fathers to shirk their responsibility to the mother and her child, when we allow parents to pressure their children to get rid of "embarrassments", when we look askance at the girl in the class who is actually pregnant, we collectively create a climate in which women have no real choice at all.
If we all agree that abortion should be rare, then we should all be passionately interested in understanding the situations that force women to abort. The irony of the pro-choice movement is that it has created a climate in which many women feel they have no choice at all. The tragedy of the pro-life movement is that by pitting the life of the unborn against the needs of the mother, it has forced troubled women to refuse to acknowledge the reality of what they are doing. Matthewes-Green suggests that more compassion on both sides would go a long way towards healing our nation of its greatest wound. REAL CHOICES is essential reading.
Mathewes-Green weaves two threads: she discusses ways to address some of the issues that influence women to get abortions, and she shares personal stories from interviews with post-abortion listening groups. She is a pro-life advocate who cares just as much about helping women as helping the unborn -- a view that is often frustratingly missing from pro-life perspectives. She wants to solve the abortion problem by finding solutions for the reasons people get abortions, but this first required figuring out what those reasons were.
The most valuable part of this book are the stories she shares from the women in the listening groups she gathered. These women's stories are raw and real and insightful and heartbreaking. But those same stories bring us to the major issue I had with this book: these stories are not representative, and the author never seemed to realize it.
Mathewes-Green relied on three sources to understand why women get abortions: previous surveys that had asked abortion patients to select the reasons they got an abortion from a precompiled list; expanded versions of the same survey which she sent to pregnancy centers asking them to evaluate their clientele; and post-abortion listening groups sourced from post-abortion grief counselors.
The third source provides the deepest insights, but it also the least representative. This should have been clear to the author, but it apparently wasn't. Near the beginning of the book, Mathewes-Green stated that "[t]he disparity between reasons cited by pregnancy care centers and those cited by abortive women is curious." It's not curious. It's obvious. Women who felt they needed grief counseling because of their abortion are a biased sample. We cannot generalize, as the author does, from the experience of these women to the experience of all women having an abortion.
This is important, because these women consistently brought up two issues that are important, but which would be foolish to overgeneralize: they all regretted their abortions, and nearly all of them were coerced (often forced) into having an abortion. Their stories are important because the fact that there are women being coerced into having an abortion because someone else decides that it is the best choice is tragic, but we also should not assume that women who were not coerced have the same regret or would have been happy with the same alternatives.
Similar methodological shortcomings pepper the book. Mathewes-Green is strongly against single parenting. One reason she believes this is that it leads to terrible life outcomes for both the woman and her children. However, the data she cited to support this was comparing single parents with no more than a high school education who had their first child before they were twenty with couples with a college education who had their first child after they were twenty. There are other cases where she cites statistics without correcting for socioeconomic status. Given that correcting for wealth and education nearly always decreases or erases differences, the failure to not even mention the shortcomings of comparing those two groups is difficult to excuse.
All that said, the book is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the real stories of women who get abortion. While I don't believe that the author's conclusions are as general as she believed, she does point out a real and significant hole in the discussions of abortion and choice -- helping those who are coerced to truly have choice. Read it for the stories, not for the author's interpretations of those stories.
In the spirit of finding common ground, Mathewes-Green concludes the book with a number of ideas for making things better for women seeking abortions. Most of them are things that anyone who cares about women should be able to get behind -- helping women avoid being coerced into abortions, helping women find social support, helping women place their child for adoption if that's what they want, building flexible employment models to help women who feel unable to finish the pregnancy because they can't support the child. I wish more authors in this space would focus on finding the common ground.
(Another good source of women's experiences with reproductive choice is Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, & Abortion)
I could have done without the odd chapters though- I found Matthewes-Green's observations to be condescending at times and her hostility towards single mothers, working women, and welfare programs off putting.