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My Daughter Texted Me To Ask If I'd Had An Abortion

"It’s not a secret, but I didn’t think that you were ready to know about it yet.”

by Sarah Erdreich

The text was five words long. Did you have an abortion? The text was from my ten-year-old daughter, Hannah.

It was the middle of the afternoon, the middle of the week. Early spring sunlight poured through the front windows of my house. I stared at my phone screen as a mix of nerves and anticipation ran through me.

Hannah knew what abortion was. We’d talked about the basics of the procedure and why her father and I supported reproductive rights. The day that the Dobbs ruling was announced, we’d walked from our home in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C. with our pro-choice signs and joined the protest at the Supreme Court. But she had never asked if I knew anyone who had had an abortion or had had one myself.

After starting and erasing a half-dozen texts, not sure what to reply, I finally settled on we’ll talk about this when you get home and tried to concentrate on my work.

When Hannah got home, I was waiting for her on our couch. She dropped her backpack and looked at me warily. “Hi,” my daughter said, her voice hesitant.

“Hey,” I greeted her. “Sit down.” Hannah did, slowly, as if she were afraid that she was in trouble, and then let out a long exhalation. When I realized that she was nervous, my own nerves evaporated. I couldn’t imagine having such a personal conversation with my own mother when I was ten, and I felt a rush of awe at Hannah’s courage. “What do you want to ask me?” I asked, my voice gentle.

It’s not a secret, but I didn’t think that you were ready to know about it yet.”

“During study hall my friends and me were bored and we decided to Google our parents,” Hannah said in a rush. “And when we put in your name, I saw something you wrote about, like, having an abortion.”

“Okay,” I nodded, wondering if any of her friends were currently having their own awkward conversations with their parents. “I did have an abortion.” Hannah’s eyes widened. “I was going to tell you when you were older. It’s not a secret, but I didn’t think that you were ready to know about it yet.”

“Why did you have one?” she asked.

“Because the chronic pain I have made it too difficult to have a healthy pregnancy,” I said. “I talked to a pain specialist and an obstetrician, and they both said that the only way I could manage the pain and stay pregnant was to take a medication that could have really hurt the fetus. That felt too dangerous for me and your dad, so I had an abortion.”

“Did it hurt?” Hannah asked.

“The actual procedure? No.”

“Okay.” Hannah nodded. “Were you sad?”

“I was,” I said. “And your dad was, too. But it was the best choice for us to make.”

I braced myself for the next question. Would it be about the medication? Would I have to explain what oxycodone was, why it was prescribed for me, and why it was so dangerous? Or would Hannah ask if this was before or after she was born? If she did, she would learn that she was four years old when I had my abortion. She would realize that there had been a chance she could have had a sibling.

Far too many adults are unable to accept that it is possible to not regret having an abortion but mourn the circumstances that made abortion the best choice. I didn’t know if my daughter could grasp that kind of nuance, and neither judge nor hate me for the choice I made.

Instead, Hannah leaned against me, and I put my arm around her. We were no longer waiting to hear what the other had to say; now, we were just together.

Hannah hasn’t brought up my abortion again in the year since our talk, but she has become more outspoken about reproductive rights. She’s especially proud of the pro-choice sign we have in our front yard. But I’ve thought a lot about our conversation, especially as states continue to restrict access to abortion care, anti-choice politicians refuse to clarify their confusing and dangerous state bans, and the Supreme Court considers a case that could further curtail reproductive rights and choice. It’s impossible for me not to wonder if the anti-choice movement would feel so emboldened if talking about our own experiences with abortion didn’t often feel so risky. And I worry that if I am silent about my own abortion, I’m feeding into the anti-choice narrative that abortion is something to feel at best ambivalent about and, at worst, a decision freighted with shame and regret.

Organizations like Shout Your Abortion and We Testify encourage storytelling to help challenge the false narratives and unexamined prejudices too many people hold about abortion. Their work is powerful and necessary; equally necessary, unfortunately, is the option for people who want to submit their stories to their websites to do so with an alias or anonymously.

What would our society look like if more of us felt able to talk openly about our abortions?

Being public about my abortion is a form of privilege. My husband, family, and friends all supported my choice. My child will not be ostracized if her friends’ parents read this essay. Saying “I had an abortion” will not threaten my livelihood.

The idea that being open about a medical procedure is a kind of privilege is proof of just how thoroughly the anti-choice movement has stigmatized abortion care. I learned this firsthand when I was writing a book about the pro-choice movement and quickly lost count of the people who, after learning about my work, told me about their own abortions — always prefacing their story with, “I’ve never told anyone this, but…”

What would our society look like if more of us felt able to talk openly about our abortions? Would our voices challenge the false narratives too many people have about abortion? Would our millions of stories and millions of reasons be enough to dismantle the unexamined prejudices around why people choose abortion?

I don’t know. I don’t know what it will take to live in a society where reproductive rights are equally protected, where abortion care is truly seen as health care, where medical decisions are not made by politicians and judges.

But I do know that since I can talk openly about my abortion, I have a moral obligation to do so. Even if it’s awkward. Even if it’s uncomfortable. Even if the conversation is with a child who was brave enough to ask me the question.

Sarah Erdreich is the author of Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement (Seven Stories Press). She is currently working on a book about motherhood and chronic pain and can be found on Instagram and Twitter.