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Telling the truth.

AT FIRST, THE NEGATIVE LETTERS IN response to Amy's interview about her decision to have a selective reduction--that is, to carry one fertilized egg to term rather than three--made me feel protective of her and skeptical of the writer who interviewed her. Because Amy and I have worked together as friends for a dozen years, I know that she is principled, thoughtful, empathetic and life loving. Indeed, she only wanted to do this "as told to" essay because she thought it might help other women if she talked openly about a relatively new procedure.

Yet on the page, the result didn't sound quite like Amy. For example, if you didn't know that she grew up partly on welfare with a hardworking single mom, you might think that her worries about survival with three simultaneous babies were rooted in yuppiedom rather than realism. Nor would you know what a small person Amy is, or that her body rebelled even in the first days of multiple pregnancy, then settled into a happy and healthy one with the help of selective reduction.

I realized that, by wanting Amy to be understood and supported in her decision, I, too, had become part of the problem. I was behaving as if she needed to justify, something that is not only a right but a responsibility: to decide how our bodies will be used. In a society that makes females dependant on approval--not only from men, but from judgmental or fearful women who act as gender police--one fact must be repeated over and over again: We don't have to be likeable to have rights.

So what are the politics of our responses to Amy? I thought about other women who have used selective reduction to avoid multiple births, almost always because fertility drugs had produced many fertilized eggs. They courted this early abortion, as Amy had not, yet as far as I could tell, they were less criticized--if at all. Were they seen as acceptably "feminine" because they were victimized by infertility, yet craved a biological child? Or wanted to please a man who wanted his" biological child? Or were so desperate to experience pregnancy that they used fertility drugs plus another woman's eggs? Did Amy become less acceptable because she was "unfeminine" enough to refuse to be a passive vessel? To keep some life of her own? To be open about her decision?

We each have to figure this out honestly, but I'm pretty sure of one thing: Amy's story earned more disapproval because she went public with deciding her own fate--and she wasn't sorry. Because I wanted to see her better understood, I was offering reasons for her decision, yet in a way, I, too, was diminishing her ethical act of taking responsibility for her own body and life.

I'm grateful for this introspection. It made me remember again the early days of abortion speak-outs when there was less effort to justify ourselves, when the very desperation of our search proved the sincerity of our need. In some ways, ambivalence became a luxury of legality. In fact, the decision to give birth is an act infused with meaning by the degree to which it is freely chosen or forced. That's why feminists replaced "population control" with "reproductive freedom." We wanted to make clear that we would fight just as hard against coerced abortion or birth as for freely chosen birth or abortion.

I think it's no accident that we made more progress when we were outspoken than when we felt pressed by the backlash to justify ourselves, to be closeted, euphemistic, apologetic. Perhaps "reproductive freedom" should now replace "choice," a word with so little meaning that it can be used in ads for margarine and phone companies. The antiabortion forces successfully shifted the focus to the ferns-thus making even a zygote more important than a woman--partly because women ourselves gave up the visibility of standing up, telling our stories and simply saying, "I have had an abortion." This shift of focus allowed a "partial-birth abortion ban" to be politically successful, and is the rationale for the Human Life Amendment that would declare a fertilized egg to be a human life, thus nationalizing women's bodies for all of our childbearing years. If it succeeds, we will face an Amendment that allows our wombs to be legally searched, women to be forcibly restrained for an entire pregnancy and prosecution for murder if we survive an illegal abortion. We keep warning about going back to the bad old days before Roe v. Wade. This Amendment would take us to a place we've never been.

But if we say the truth, "I have had an abortion," we can add the real consequences: "I could be imprisoned for murder." Even the great majority of those who oppose abortion don't want that to happen. We may not tell the truth perfectly, acceptably, blamelessly, but we're more likely to succeed if we support each other in getting it out there.

GLORIA STEINEM lives in New York City, and is currently at work on Road to the Heart: America as if Everyone Mattered, a book about her more than thirty years traveling as a feminist organizer.
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Title Annotation:Talking About Abortion
Author:Steinem, Gloria
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2004
Previous Article:Selective reduction redux.
Next Article:The choice to speak out.

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