Does Trying to Prevent Pregnancy Change the Moral Dynamics of Abortion?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader writes in with another perspective on the moral or cognitive dissonance of abortion, posing a new question: If you do everything in your power to prevent a pregnancy and it happens anyway, does that change the moral dynamics of getting an abortion?

Her story:

I’m a senior in college, and I just had an abortion in November. I had had an IUD inserted six months before, so I hadn’t paid attention to my symptoms until it was too late.

I was never uncertain of my choice. Because I had an IUD, there was fear of an ectopic pregnancy, so I had to get an ultrasound (something not normally required in my state, among the more progressive in these matters). The technician didn’t know that I was going to terminate and asked me what I wanted to know. I wanted to know nothing.

But by chance, I caught the briefest of flashes of her screen as I left the room. I was three months along and this necessitated a surgical abortion.

The question of dissonance is interesting. I was told throughout the process that it wasn't my “fault,” that I had done my “due diligence” by taking preventative measures. I had been “responsible” and this would soon “be over with.”

It doesn’t make me feel better. I’ve been alternating between feeling numb and feeling pain. I’m experiencing grief! I’m experiencing loss! My child.

I can’t help but cry for the life that I knew couldn’t be. I've thought a lot about what color eyes he or she would have had, how precious, how completely lovable she would have been—and, in a sense, still is.

To me, the question of embryonic development and personhood is beside the point; it would have grown into a human being and it would have been my child. I am not a religious person, but I do recognize how beautiful the gift of life is, and I hope to have a large family one day.

But I knew that this was not meant to happen, that at this stage in my life I am not mature or selfless enough to be the mother I want to be. I couldn’t afford to raise a child and live my own life—my family is poor and could offer me no assistance. (Even with my school health insurance, the hospital bill is an extreme financial hardship). I am confident I made the right decision and that my child would understand.

This reader’s experience is fairly rare. To offer some perspective: Mayo Clinic reports that less than one percent of women who use an IUD get pregnant in a year of typical use, a figure which applies to both the ParaGard/copper and Mirena/hormonal versions of the device. No form of birth control is completely foolproof—even tubal litigation, in which a doctor cuts or ties off a woman’s fallopian tubes, comes with a very slight risk of getting pregnant afterwards. But sterilization, and use of an IUD, are just about as close as you can get.

It’s interesting that the people this reader encountered—presumably doctors and nurses, but also maybe friends and relatives—suggested that her efforts to prevent pregnancy should be a source of comfort, moral or otherwise. The implicit suggestion is that intention matters; that if you do your best to avoid the position of having to make the choice, the choice itself becomes different.

This reader wasn’t persuaded by this notion. And the inverse is troubling: that women who don’t use birth control, or who aren’t otherwise “responsible,” somehow deserve pain more than women who do use birth control, or perhaps even have a greater obligation to carry the child to term.

If two women, one who used birth control and one who didn’t, end up pregnant and facing the choice to abort or not, it seems like their choice is pretty much the same at that point. The woman who used birth control might take comfort from knowing she did, but if she had consensual sex, she’s also not a total victim of circumstance, and she still has to decide what to do next.

This is another awkward, and maybe not-often discussed aspect of contemporary abortion: Birth control means that sex can be almost entirely separated from child-bearing and reproduction. But only almost. Any woman who has sex is implicitly embracing this risk: Even if I try my best to prevent it, there is a small, small, chance that this act will mean making a choice about whether or not to terminate a pregnancy.

The reader closed with a thoughtful note about why it’s important to share these stories:

As someone who hopes to be an artist one day, I think sharing our stories is important—a radical act when we are told that we and our stories should be kept quiet and hidden (even by pro-choicers). We are taught by their absence that painful, complex (or ambiguous) experiences are to be kept from public conversation. It's vital we change that.

Finally, to a point a reader made in a previous part of this thread—that our “request seems to be limited to the perspective of only half of the people affected by abortion”—we welcome all perspectives on abortion, whether you had one or chose not to, or you know someone who had one or chose not to, or anything else. As always: hello@theatlantic.com.