Pivoting to Unwanted and Coerced Abortion: A Manifesto

Monica Snyder
June 16, 2024
Reproduced with Permission
Public Discourse

I was angry [at] my mother for encouraging me to get an abortion. I was mad at my boyfriend for (unwillingly) giving me the feeling that he didn't want this child and therefore also encouraging me in the direction of getting an abortion. I was mad at people who would have liked it if I had the child but didn't pressure me enough.

The testimony above, posted anonymously at the website ShoutYourAbortion.com, reveals the largely hidden reality of abortion in America. Could anyone, regardless of where they stand on the political question of abortion, read this woman's lament and describe her abortion as a truly free choice?

How can we as a society show up for women so that they don't find themselves in these situations? The pro-life movement has long focused on decreasing access to abortion. And while laws advancing prenatal justice have always been, and continue to be, a crucial part of pro-life work, they have never been the full answer. We must also find ways to decrease the demand for abortion, including the demand a woman's partner, parents, employer, and community place on her to get one.

Over the past two years since the United States Supreme Court handed down the Dobbs ruling overturning the federal right to abortion enshrined in Roe v. Wade, our country has seen a seismic shift in our abortion law and policy. Pro-life advocates have built on this historic legal victory by enacting laws that limit abortion and serve prenatal justice. But as we have seen all too clearly, this is not enough.

The growing availability of mail-order abortion pills has undermined the impact of these state restrictions, and other states have responded by moving in the opposite direction. Not only have these states stripped away even modest limits on abortion like parental notice and sought to limit the activities of pro-life advocates, they have aggressively promoted abortion to women in more restrictive states, even offering to pay for their abortion-related travel expenses.

Meanwhile, public opinion has shifted dramatically against the pro-life movement. Since the Dobbs ruling, the number of Americans who identify themselves as "pro-choice" has hit historic highs. More Americans than ever say that abortion should be legal under any circumstances, while those who say abortion should always be illegal are at their lowest number since the 1990s. These trends are even more pronounced among younger Americans - the demographic that actually faces the decision whether to get an abortion.

Yet, as demoralizing as these trends have been for the pro-life movement, a growing body of research underscores a new opportunity to advance the cause of prenatal justice while better serving women and families. This research shows that in a majority of cases, abortion is anything but a free choice.

As we will show, only about one-third of women, reflecting on their abortions, describe the experience as a truly free choice that had a positive impact on their lives. For the rest, those abortions were not in line with their values, were consciously unwanted, or were even coerced.

Here, we have an unprecedented opportunity to build common ground. Let us take the growing ranks of those who say they're "pro-choice" at their word. Let us invite them to join us in working to ensure that no woman ever gets an abortion she doesn't really want. In doing so, we can save more lives than we could ever hope to with the patchwork of abortion limits enacted since Dobbs - including in states without any such limits.

Unwanted Abortions Are Common

Heartbreaking testimonies like the anonymous one above are sadly all too common. The pro-life movement has long known that women are frequently pressured into abortions, but new research reveals the problem is far more widespread than even many pro-lifers expected.

Of women who've had abortions, 24 percent describe theirs as "unwanted" or "coerced." More than one million abortions annually in the United States mean roughly 240,000 women procure unwanted or coerced abortions every year. These women are significantly more likely to say that their abortions conflicted with their maternal desires and moral beliefs. They also say that if they'd received more support from others, they would have continued with their pregnancies.

Another 43 percent of women describe their abortions as "accepted but inconsistent with their values and preferences." Only 33 percent of women say their abortions were wanted and consistent with their values. These women are the only ones who reported that their abortions improved their mental health. The other 67 percent of women reported more negative than positive emotions from their abortions, especially those who felt their abortions were unwanted or coerced.

Shout Your Abortion brings depth to these data. The abortion storytelling project includes all types of testimonials. As the name suggests, Shout Your Abortion has many examples of women who considered their abortions to be empowering. But the website also often features women struggling with complex emotional reactions:

These experiences are especially tragic since many Americans report wanting larger families than they end up having. Half of childless Americans aged forty-five and older wish they'd had children, including 10 percent who wish they'd had four or more. Americans' preference for larger families is at its highest since 1971. Yet fertility rates continue falling - especially in pro-choice states.

Unwanted Children Are Uncommon

Meanwhile, the Turnaway Study found that when women are denied abortions, "mental health rarely seems to suffer." This study, conducted by abortion rights advocates, compared outcomes of women who obtained abortions to those who sought abortions at clinics but were turned away (because they were past the clinics' gestational limits). The study found that only one week after being denied an abortion, more than a third of women (35 percent) said they no longer wished they'd aborted. This statistic improved dramatically over time. Five years after being denied abortion, 98 percent of women who raised their children themselves no longer wished they'd aborted them.

The Turnaway Study also found that women who aborted saw both negative and positive emotions decrease over time, whereas women who were denied an abortion - especially those who had struggled over the decision to abort - had decreasing negative emotions but emergent positive ones. This was particularly true for women who had more social support for their pregnancies. As a twenty-one-year-old Midwestern woman described it:

Emotionally I think being with my friends and my family and them understanding was probably helpful. So, it made me be like "okay, it's okay to have this baby. It's okay . . . My family's going to help me."

Some of the women who were denied abortions said "they felt their child motivated them to have a better life or career or to avoid drugs and alcohol." Bonding to their children led them to retrospectively view their abortion denials in a positive light.

Coerced Abortions Are Far Too Common

Though there is some disagreement about how and why it affects the abortion rate, instances of intimate partner violence (IPV) are correlated to abortion. Physical violence is used to coerce women into having abortions they don't want. For instance, this past year, police accused a Florida man of killing his pregnant girlfriend when she refused to have an abortion. One might think we can trust health care providers in these spaces, but a physician slipped an abortion pill into his pregnant ex-girlfriend's drink (and got three years in prison). A nurse practitioner recently did something similar. And then there was the case of the Connecticut man who wanted his pregnant girlfriend to abort so he could be with his "other girlfriend." When she refused, he sent a hitman to murder her.

In fact, after an abusive husband (unsuccessfully) tried to poison Catherine Herring with abortion-inducing drugs, her brother, Louisiana State Senator Thomas Pressly, introduced the Abortion by Fraud Criminalization Act. This legislation specifically criminalizes the act of covertly inducing a woman to ingest abortion-inducing drugs without her knowledge or consent.

This kind of violence is far too common. Few know that homicide is a leading killer of pregnant women in the United States. An October 2022 study in the British Medical Journal found that American women are more likely to be murdered than to die of the three leading medical causes of maternal mortality: hypertensive disorders, hemorrhage, and sepsis.

There is some evidence that IPV is also used against women who have abortions. This has been used to attack anti-abortion laws. Some suggest a correlation between states with laws restricting abortion and higher rates of IPV, but Catholic University's Dr. Michael New revealed numerous problems with the study and showed that maternal mortality has actually declined since Dobbs.

Coerced abortion cannot be limited to the threat of violence from a partner. It is also very clearly used as a tool by sex traffickers, especially those targeting children. A State Department report on sex trafficking noted, for instance, that human traffickers may force pregnant victims to undergo abortions, usually in unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

Much Work Has Already Been Done

The pro-life movement is diverse, with different organizations focused on law and policy, education and outreach, and the philosophical and moral arguments against abortion. But alongside these efforts, there have long been individuals and groups who have dedicated enormous resources to providing immediate assistance to women in difficult situations.

Nationally, there are 2,750 pregnancy centers providing hundreds of millions of dollars in goods and services to millions of pregnant women every year, typically at no cost. These goods and services include ultrasounds, STD testing, prenatal education programs, and material support like diapers, wipes, car seats, strollers, and cribs. Some states have passed Coercive Abortion Prevention Acts, identifying specific forms of coercion and penalties for them. Other groups working with pregnant women have undertaken projects that have included, for instance: establishing rights of pregnant students on campus; building coalitions of maternal and infant health providers; developing culturally sensitive prenatal care programs; building maternity homes; connecting pregnant women to supplemental nutrition; establishing Her PLAN (Pregnancy and Life Assistance Network); and strategizing about ways to make birth free.

This is in no way a comprehensive list. There are many more examples of concerted efforts by people (pro-life and pro-choice alike) who want to make sure no woman gets an abortion because she feels she doesn't have a choice. While these are all worthy projects, there's still much work to be done.

No woman should ever be pressured or coerced into abortion - not by threats from a violent partner, not by someone else's agenda for her life, not by a lack of basic resources.

We Must Do More

Our nation cannot endure in the long term while millions and millions of our prenatal brothers and sisters lack equal protection of the law and are killed with impunity. Part of the answer when it comes to protection for prenatal children has to be legal protection. That's what it would mean for this nation to live out the full meaning of its creed. But this moment in time provides a new opportunity to focus closely on the forces that push women into abortions they don't want. This requires change.

Part of the change involves the language we use to talk about women who seek abortions and what motivates them. We should stop, for instance, referring to abortion as a "selfish choice." Not only is such language unpersuasive to the pro-choice people we're trying to reach, it doesn't match the reality of abortion revealed by the research discussed above. Likewise, we should stop talking about abortions done for the sake of "convenience" - a word that trivializes the gravity of both the decision to become a parent or place a child for adoption and the inestimable value of the child.

Instead, we should use language that calls into question the use of "autonomy" and "freedom" that some of our perceived opponents use when they invoke abortion "choice." We should use language that calls into question the idea that abortion is merely a health care procedure rather than something freighted with trauma for women who believe they have no other options. This shift in our language invites cooperation with genuinely pro-choice people (those who want women to be able to choose life). It also positions pro-abortion advocates (those who see abortion as an uncomplicated good) as a common opponent - a group that is not very large, but that has an outsized influence on abortion policy. And then we must redouble our efforts to make sure pregnant women considering abortion have ample options other than abortion.

But new plans and projects are required as well. Pro-life advocates, under the leadership of Charles Camosy and Eric Scheidler, launched a statement on "Building a Post-Roe Future" in January 2023. The statement affirmed that loving and protecting both mother and child required significant changes in public policy.

A few of its tenets include:

Hundreds of pro-life leaders, activists, and scholars signed the statement. There was and is much momentum to move in these directions of public policy. It must be harnessed and organized, particularly through the central principle of addressing unwanted and coerced abortions.

To these, we'd like to add a particular focus on explicitly addressing unwanted and coerced abortions via homicide, sex trafficking, and other kinds of violence. We should marshal our lobbying resources to work with all legislators (including pro-choice legislators) to further efforts to disincentivize, investigate, and punish both individual and organized efforts to wield the violence of abortion against women this way. One way to do this may be to require the screening of both women and men for intimate partner violence when they present for pregnancy-related care.

We should also work with local churches and other institutions to bridge political and ideological divides. We suggest, for instance, that more "conservative" Catholics (who tend to work in anti-abortion ministries) partner with more "liberal" Catholics (who tend to work in social justice ministries) to offer more local housing, vocational programs, child care, and other support to women and girls at risk for IPV.

Finally, we should commission studies of these matters using mixed methodologies to help determine where and how to best deploy our resources. These data will help pro-life advocates and organizations engage the widest range of collaborators on these projects.

Let's Work Together to Stop Unwanted Abortions

I started bargaining: "If only I would have done this. If only my mother this, my friend that. If only I would have waited a day or two, maybe my decision would have been a different one." After realizing that all of this didn't get me anywhere and finally getting a grip [on] reality, a terrible depression started. A depression that made me suicidal and broke me like nothing else has before. I realized my baby was gone and would never come back. It was my decision. No one else's but mine.

The passage above continues the anonymous testimony with which we opened this appeal to the pro-life community. What difference might it have made if someone had known how much she was suffering? While it remains true that the final choice over each abortion rests on the pregnant woman - even if that requires crossing state lines or acquiring black-market abortion pills - we as a society, pro-life and pro-choice alike, can and must do more to make that decision as free as possible.

No woman should ever be pressured or coerced into abortion - not by threats from a violent partner, not by someone else's agenda for her life, not by a lack of basic resources, and not by the indifference of a society exhausted by the equally unhelpful cries of "abortion is murder" and "my body, my choice."

While we continue to seek ways to extend robust legal protection to prenatal children and to persuade our pro-choice brothers and sisters that such laws are necessary to forge a truly just society, we should all be able to come together to stop unwanted abortion.


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