Chris Ann Maxwell shared a story over Christmas that she hadn’t thought about in more than 3 1/2 decades.
Maxwell is a Los Angeles entertainment attorney; for 20 years, she was an executive at 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight. She’s happily married now, with a full life and a grown stepdaughter, but in the late 1970s, she was a rookie lawyer yet to turn 30. She was in mid-breakup with her then-boyfriend when she found herself pregnant.
“I was just starting my career, and it required long hours and dedication,” Maxwell told me. “There’s no way I could be a single mother.”
So she decided to terminate the pregnancy.
You’re probably expecting a little moral at this point. Maybe she changed her mind at the last minute, whew, and now she’s surrounded by grandkids. Maybe the guy came back with a ring and they made it work, happily ever after. Maybe she became a shell of a woman, haunted by the price she paid for that moment of weakness.
But life isn’t a fable. Maxwell went on to work hard and love well and have a fine adulthood and never regretted her choice, though it wasn’t made lightly. And that’s a point that she and hundreds of other women think now bears repeating before it becomes a permanent culture war casualty.
With the first major abortion decision in nearly a decade pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, pro-choice advocates have filed a minor mountain of amicus briefs in the case of Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, referencing or recounting stories like Maxwell’s – stories in which women opt not to go through with an unwanted pregnancy and feel satisfied, on balance, with their choice.
Studies show that’s the rule rather than the exception among women who choose abortion. But most don’t share such feelings, and the media generally avoid that side of the story.
As a result, with the exception of the occasional tell-alls by feminist celebrities like Billie Jean King and Gloria Steinem, the human narrative on abortion has been controlled by the minority of the population who view it purely as murder, and believe that if a woman who has one isn’t sorry, she should be.
The corresponding silence by those who don’t share that perspective has made restricting abortion rights easier.
So to set the record straight, women with more to lose have begun to come out with their stories. U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, went public on the House floor in 2011 about a medical abortion she had in the 1990s. Grassroots projects like the 1 in 3 Campaign, launched the same year by Advocates for Youth, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit, and the Sea Change Program, which challenges stigma, have published books and websites full of accounts, signed and unsigned, of girls and women who have had the procedure.
Last year, a pair of women in Seattle unleashed a firestorm of controversy with a Twitter and YouTube campaign called #ShoutYourAbortion. The group is hosting a nationwide storytelling event on Friday, the 43rd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.
That activism has, in turn, informed the briefs filed in the Whole Woman’s Health case, which challenges a Texas law that has shuttered most of the state’s clinics by mandating, in the name of protecting women, that the buildings meet standards similar to those of surgical centers. The plaintiffs say the rules amount to harassment, since most abortions are done in the first trimester of a pregnancy and increasingly are done medically, not surgically, with a pill.
One, filed by Advocates for Youth, draws from the experiences of 900 young women who told their stories as part of the 1 in 3 Campaign. Another was filed by 10 women, including an Episcopal priest, the Harvard educated actor Amy Brenneman, and the director of neuropsychology at the USC Keck School of Medicine, who credit their happiness as professionals and parents to the fact that they didn’t have to give birth before they were ready.
But perhaps the gutsiest was filed by 113 lawyers – including Maxwell and about a dozen other Californians – who told the court that if they’d had to carry early pregnancies to term, they probably wouldn’t have become lawyers. It’s an extraordinary baring of the soul from women who otherwise probably would never dream of divulging their personal business.
“If I had not had an abortion, I would have never been able to graduate high school, go to college, (or) escape my high-poverty rural county in Oregon,” wrote one public defender.
“(A)t the age of 18, I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer and did not want to follow in the footsteps of my mother, my grandmother and my great-grandmother in becoming a mother by the age of 18,” wrote a litigation partner at a major law firm.
Maxwell’s story wasn’t detailed in the brief beyond the fact that she’d had an abortion, but she said she felt it was important to sign on “because I resent that we’re heading back into the dark ages.”
And these are ominous times, from a pro-choice perspective. Planned Parenthood has been the target of a coordinated assault since last summer, when pro-life activists in California released a series of sting videos falsely accusing the abortion provider of selling fetal tissue. Republicans in Congress hammered the nonprofit with ongoing threats to pull their federal funding.
The political attacks have set the stage for real violence; a lawsuit filed Thursday by Planned Parenthood says vandalism at clinics rose nine-fold in the months after the first video came out, and that security incidents at California clinics have quintupled since July. In November, a mass shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood left three people dead.
Meanwhile, a proposed parental notification initiative here, one that has come up before and has always been a nonstarter, has acquired big, out-of-state, conservative backing.
“This just seems like an all-hands-on-deck moment,” said UC Berkeley law professor Claudia Polsky, 50, who volunteered her abortion, at age 22, as part of the amicus brief signed by Maxwell. “There comes a time when it’s not enough just to send your check to NARAL.”
“These people outside clinics screaming ‘murderer’ and ‘baby killer’ – they’re trying to slut-shame us,” Maxwell said. “Do I think abortion is wonderful? No. But do I think it’s wonderful to make someone have a child they don’t want and can’t support? No. It’s far worse.”
Do I think abortion is wonderful? No. But do I think it’s wonderful to make someone have a child they don’t want and can’t support? No. It’s far worse.
Chris Ann Maxwell
As someone who has witnessed the hardening of battle lines since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, I hope the stories of these many women make a difference. And as someone whose job involves seeking the whole, messy truth for a living, I think what they are doing is valuable.
Abortion is on the decline; rates are almost as low now as they were decades ago when I was in high school. Still, almost every woman I know has an abortion story of some kind or another, and they don’t lend themselves to simplistic sermons. They’re just stories about what happens when life leads you to a crossroads, and gives you some choice that is both consequential and obvious in that moment.
Up until Maxwell got pregnant, she said, she had thought she couldn’t bear children. On the other hand, she was grateful 1973 had come and gone by the time her pregnancy happened. Just a few years before, one of her friends had nearly bled to death after a trip to the kitchen table of a back-alley abortionist in Topanga Canyon. Now a mere change in the law, a handful of words in a courtroom, and it was her call, when and whether she’d have a dependent.
“I checked into Cedars Sinai,” Maxwell remembered. “It was covered by my insurance. My mother drove me to the hospital and picked me up the next day and went out and got me Chinese takeout for dinner.”
Then, “sad, but not devastated,” she went back to the life she’d chosen, one life among millions of lives full of the choices that make us human and define us. When you think of it that way, it seems strange that we should be here more than 35 years later, re-litigating her right to that.