Sex Gets Real 162: Carol Sanger and About Abortion

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This week’s episode is very special to me. I want to thank all of the brave souls who responded to my call for abortion stories. To read their powerful words, scroll down to the bottom of this page. In fact, start there before you dive into this chat with Carol Sanger about her new book, “About Abortion: Terminating Pregnancy in 21st Century America”.

Abortion can be a ridiculously charged topic in the United States, which is unique among countries with legal abortion. Carol’s book is a fascinating and dare I say fun look into the legislation, the imagery, how technology has impacted the conversation, and more than anything focuses on what happens when people in marginalized positions are forced to choose secrecy over privacy.

We tie abortion to sex work, kink, polyamory, HIV/AIDS, and of course, to the larger oppressive systems at play in our society like patriarchy and gender role bullshit.

Despite the heaviness of abortion, this talk with Carol is delightful – there’s intimate moments and several genuine laughs as we dive into all of the terrific research Carol has done and why it’s more important than ever that we share our stories.

If abortion is a hot topic for you, I invite you to listen and to be patient. The stories, more than anything, are critical for us all to hear and absorb.

Don’t forget, Patreon supporters get exclusive access to rad content and extended episodes (including my recent chat with Dylan that goes up at the end of May!) Pop over to and support at any level (even $1!) to join in the fun.

Follow Sex Gets Real on Twitter and Facebook. It’s true. Oh! And Dawn is on Instagram.

In this episode, Carol and I talk about:

  • The power in Carol’s new book, which includes a comprehensive chapter on what men actually do when they are responsible for choosing the fate of an embryo or fetus based on actual circumstances.
  • Carol’s findings for the reasons men give for choosing to destroy an embryo or to terminate a pregnancy and how they’re nearly identical to the reasons women give for ending a pregnancy, and why men are not attacked or vilified for their decisions when their reasons are the exact same.
  • A new law that is sweeping many states that will disregard your living will and advanced directive about sustaining life if you’re in a coma or brain dead if you’re pregnant. In other words, the state is saying they can keep you alive even if you have expressly said you do not want that.
  • The difference between motherhood and fatherhood. Society expects mothers to be altruistic, even for their embryos and beyond. There is an expectation that women are destined, and desire to be, mothers above all else. This is why abortion is so shocking and upsetting to so many. It’s seen as the ultimate betrayal.
  • Choosing abortion as an act of protecting a potential child and why we don’t give that very thoughtful reason enough credit.
  • We trust women to raise our children, to care for them, but we don’t trust women to choose when to bring them into the world.
  • Listener stories of abortion and the power of these women’s words.
  • The importance of bringing nuance and real stories into conversations around topics like sex work and abortion – it’s not black and white as it’s often painted by the opposing sides.
  • Withholding mourning from people who are marginalized as a way to punish them, by refusing them a chance to have a range of emotions – be it someone who had an abortion, gay couples, or sex workers.
  • Women have been taught that caring for self is selfish – we see echoes of that around abortion as well as sexual pleasure. Carol and I roll around in that.
  • Privacy versus secrecy and why the secrecy around abortion is similar to the secrecy around being in the closet for being kinky, trans, polyamorous because of this culture of anti-sex and anti-autonomy.
  • Abortion doesn’t define who you are. We talk about what it would look like to learn people we love had abortions and how we can influence politics at a global level simply by making more space for disclosure and abortion stories, in all their nuance.
  • There’s similar shame and stigma around having HIV/AIDS because both HIV/AIDS and abortion are seen as the result of a personal choice, and that choice (sex) makes you a villain.
  • Carol’s one line in Chapter 1 that acknowledges that not all people who get abortions are women, but why she chose to keep the genders very binary in her book.

Resources mentioned in this episode

Carol mentioned a paper called, “I Would Like to Give My Baby, Like, Everything In the World,” which talks about women aborting to protect their children. While this is an academic paper that is not publicly accessible, Slate wrote about the paper here.

Lindy West and Amelia Bonow started #ShoutYourAbortion and to share abortion stories.

The Rewire book review by Katie Klabusich that Carol mentions in the episode. Check it out here.

About Carol Sanger

On this week's episode of Sex Gets Real, Carol Sanger chats with Dawn Serra about her new book, About Abortion, and how the silence around abortion stories has impacted legislation and politics. Plus, what would men do if they could have abortions?Carol Sanger is the Barbara Aronstein Black Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. She teaches courses on contracts, family law, and others focusing on reproduction, the legal profession, and law and gender. Her recent book About Abortion (Harvard University Press) is centered on the regulation of abortion.

You can follow Carol on Twitter @carolsangernyc

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Abortion stories

The following stories were shared with me for this episode. These are the stories of women who have had abortions. (Please note: minor edits may have been made by me for grammar or clarity.)

I asked respondents to share the factors that they weighed and considered once they learned they were pregnant, followed by an open space to share their story.


I’m sorry, I wish I was comfortable sharing more, but what helped me was finding a “I’m not sorry” abortion forums around the web.

Colleen, abortion at 23:

I knew I would have an abortion before it was even confirmed I was pregnant. I wasn’t ready. I was 23 and was starting college as a mature student. I hemmed and hawed for years about going to college and once I made the decision, I was committed. I had the abortion a few weeks before school started.

I got pregnant on the best weekend of my entire life. It was on a camping trip with a bunch of friends and I had reconnected with an old boyfriend from high school after not seeing him for a few years. There wasn’t any talk of renewing our relationship. We both understood it was just a moment in time.

Afterward when I found out I was pregnant, I cried and cried. I knew I was going to terminate because I was a few weeks away from starting university. It was still very difficult even though I knew what I needed to do.

I never told my old boyfriend because I felt like telling him would be cruel when I was already firm in my decision. We weren’t part of each other’s lives and lived in different cities. Afterward I had a difficult time dealing with what happened. I started to get angry that I was having to deal with the consequences by myself when I sure as hell didn’t get pregnant by myself. I had the urge to tell him because part of me was resentful that he had the luxury of being oblivious.

A friend of mine talked me out of telling him and I’m glad I didn’t. The anger eventually passed. I made peace with it. I got married years later to someone I met in college and am so thankful that I gave myself the freedom to go. It was the absolute right decision that I have never regretted.

I ended up having a child much later who is amazing in every way. I catch myself sometimes doing the math in my head though, like when I was 41 and realized that that first child would have been graduating. During these moments I thank the universe for the life and family I have and send intense love to that first child who I choose to believe went on to be born to a mother who was ready and ‘all in’ like I was when I eventually had my daughter.

Miranda, abortion at age 24:

My ability to financially and emotionally care for a child alone. I had been seeing the guy for a few months casually but was living at home to deal with my own anxiety disorder and my mom’s borderline during a divorce between her and the man who raised me. It was a time in my life when I knew that having a baby would prevent me from healing and getting out if a dark mental place and a dependent financial one.

Because of my abortion I am now happy and healthy, living on my own in another state. Good job, great committed relationship, and better mental health. I can provide a safe living situation for my much younger brother and pursue comedy, improv, and my dreams. I went alone and only a few people know what I went through, including my current partner. I still feel though, like I can’t share my story because my reason, that I just wasn’t ready, isn’t good enough.

Anonymous, abortion at age 19:

My work, finances and drug and alcohol dependencies.

Choosing to abort was one of the hardest decisions I ever made. In all honesty, I regret it a lot. I named the child I was carrying, and felt a lot of emotional attachment. To me, that’s why it was so hard – I have no moral objections to abortion, but having that child was something I really wanted. It became a ‘child’ rather than a fetus the moment I realized that this was something I wanted, not feared.

But it also wasn’t an option. As a sex worker, and, at the time, an addict, carrying that child to term would have killed me. It would have ensured such a loss of income as to leave me homeless, and caused me to abandon dependencies I relied on- which likely would have left me suicidal.

I still mourn today – 4 years later. But I also made the only choice I could. I hate the abortion narrative as it exists. I feel like my choices are to be fodder for pro-lifers, who would have allowed me to carry this pregnancy at the cost of, most likely, both our lives, or to abandon all negative feelings to stand with pro-choices. But the reality is that life is more complicated than that. My life is more complicated than that. I can relate to the pro-lifer’s narratives, but I also don’t agree with them. Ultimately, I did what I had to, but not being allowed to express any kind of regret, not being allowed to mourn? That’s hurt a lot.

Polly, abortion at age 18:

It was 3 days before I was leaving for college in Ohio and I had been sexually assaulted by my ex boyfriend who had sex with me while I was drunk passed out. For me, abortion was the only option. I wasn’t in an emotional or financial situation where I could bring a kid into the world. I wish abortion wasn’t so taboo because I didn’t tell anyone and had to go by myself. When I set off for college 3 days later it was with a pad in my underwear and very little emotional support from friends. My family had no idea what I was going through.

My first semester at college I was incredibly depressed because of all the guilt I felt from having an abortion. There were weeks where I wouldn’t do anything outside of going to class — instead, I would stay in my room crying because I felt so ashamed of what I had done. That was when the symptoms started and I first saw blood in my stool. Three years later at the age of 21 I was diagnosed with colon cancer.

In my heart of hearts, I believe that it was the depression after the abortion that led to getting cancer. Of course, I have no medical evidence support my causality hypothesis — but I have read a lot of material on how depression and cancer are correlated (mostly via a weakened immune system). Looking back on it, I wouldn’t change a thing — except maybe how much I punished myself. At 30, I can’t ever have children because of the radiation treatment from cancer and sometimes that breaks my heart. But more than my own selfish situation, my heart breaks for the women that will come after me, who will also punish themselves to the point of depression and illness. I wish we didn’t make women feel so alone when going through an abortion.

Ruby, abortions at age 17 and 21:

The first time, there was no choice. My mom took me to the clinic. I worked with guy. He was married and white. He did not speak to me after we had sex. The second time, I did it for a relationship. He told me he would leave.

My life before the abortion is context of many of my stories. I was sexually abused by my brother from age 6 to 16. I had my first sexual experience at age 16 while passed out in the back seat of a car at the local hangout, Sonic. I knew I had sex because my pants were down around my ankles.

I vomited all over my clothes. The next morning, I said “Damn that’s fun. Let’s do it again.” I had two relationships after that Sonic incident. My high school prom date would not go out with me unless I had sex. I got stood up for the prom. The popular kid invited me over and said, “We are having sex.” He did not talk to me again. I say all of this because in hindsight I never knew about enthusiasm or consent. My body was tool for the enemy. I had multiple abusive relationships. I have had many scares.

After the first abortion, I had a horrible smell coming from my vulva and vagina area. In all the emotional haste, I did not know I had to take antibiotics. We went to the OB/GYN and she shamed me something awful. That’s when I learned what I did was wrong. Resentment against my mother started then.

I continued to get into relationships with men who did not want to meet me in public or cheated on me because I was too ugly or too something. I would give them money, buy them clothes, and do anything so they wouldn’t leave.

It felt like that scene from Ridgemont High where she sees the boy that impregnated her. He was an asshole. So was my ex. Another reinforcer of shame.

I had many dreams about being a mother. I named the fetuses (at that time, they were babies). I got into recovery at age 26. During my fourth step, we performed a ceremony to help me forgive myself. I look back and I am grateful I did not have kids to take them through my active addiction. I felt judged by that doctor and myself.

At age 36, I had to have a hysterectomy. It was complicated. A one day procedure turned into 8 days. I had internal bleeding and my lung collapsed. They thought I had a pulmonary clot. It was bad. The doctor, my mom, and my sisters cried by my bedside. Everyone knew the ache I had for having a child. My therapist, at the time, told me I am grieving the babies I did not have.

I am married now and I cannot give him a child. The guilt for those abortions still hides in the back of my mind. I had my chance and I did not take it, all because of a man. August 8, 2009 is a life changing day. I use a present tense word because it is still with me. The abortions are the Scarlett letter of the hysterectomy. I work with women who have my story. They just don’t want to be alone. They need someone to walk them through a pain that’s at the essence of womanhood. I don’t explain away my liberation through celebration of holding hands of 100s of women and say “you are not alone.”

Katrina, abortion at age 26:

I knew that if my birth control failed this would be my choice. I was a single mom (having escaped an abusive relationship), I was going back to school and getting back on my feet, and I was in a relationship that was healthy but quite new.

I misplaced my pills the night of my birthday party. I was sure I’d just left them at home and could catch up in the morning. I celebrated with my boyfriend that night, comfortable, as usual, with the thought that I’d take my pills the following day. The next day came, I couldn’t find them, or the day after that, or after that and the pharmacy wouldn’t give me a replacement. I figured it was unlikely that I’d conceive that one night, so I didn’t get Plan B and when my refills came in I started taking them.

Then I missed my period and I knew right away that I was likely pregnant. My partner and I had discussed our feelings about unplanned pregnancies and plans if birth control failed when we first starting dating. I knew I didn’t want to have to face the decision to have an abortion, but I also knew that if I found myself pregnant despite our best attempts at prevention. I knew I’d miscalculated how things went, but I wasn’t about to let one night’s decision change the lives of my self, my three-year old child, my boyfriend and my family (they were helping me get back on my feet while I went to school). I was working for so much and making progress, I was not going to give it all up.

I took a test to be sure, it was positive (approx 8 weeks pregnant), and I immediately called Planned Parenthood and scheduled my procedure. The next person I called was my boyfriend letting him know what was going on (he agreed beforehand that if this ever happened he would help me pay for the procedure and be with me every step of the way). He was surprised but not upset, asking about my feelings first.

The day of my abortion procedure he drove me to the clinic. There were protesters outside and he was mortified that I’d have to walk past them. I’ve always been rather defiant and rebellious (I was raised by an activist) so I told him it was ok, I appreciated him being with me, and walked past the mob with my head held high knowing I was making the healthiest choice not just for me but for my child and my family.

The clinic workers were all polite and supportive. My procedure was a vacuum extraction with a “twilight” sedative so I don’t remember a whole lot of it. I do remember asking to see the remnants of my pregnancy and I said “goodbye” with the thought that if that little soul came around again through another vessel I’d love to be their friend or aunty (and truly, a close friend got pregnant not long after and that baby is now my godchild).

Afterward, I sat in the recovery room with two other young women as we waited for the medicine to wear off. One of them asked me, “Do you regret it?” I looked her in the eyes and I said, “No. People say they’re ‘pro-life’, well I chose my life and the life of my kid that I have now and the lives of my family members and loved ones. I chose to not bring a child in that would have grown up feeling like a burden. One life for many. And its not the end for them, because I believe we have many lives and that spirit will have another chance to come back, hopefully to a place that is welcoming and parents that are ready and able to care for them. I believe everyone should be born into this world loved and wanted. I don’t want another child right now, so I ‘returned to sender’.”

She was quiet for a moment and then let out what seemed a sigh of relief, closed her eyes and a soft smile came to her face. I believe I helped her. I’d like to think I did, that I was able to share my own confidence in my choice with her. It’s 7 years later now and my life is amazing. I have a new baby that I conceived consciously with my loving and supportive long-term partner. My first child is growing into a smart, mature pre-teen and I’m following my dream career. None of what I have now would have been possible if I had made a different decision. I look back at that time and I’m relieved I made the choice that I did because I love my life, the life that I chose.

Lillian, abortion at age 19:

What my family and friends would think. Not wanting to tell the father. Not feeling ready to have a child. Being scared that it would ruin my eating disorder recovery.

I got pregnant after sleeping with my boyfriend at the time. We used a condom and we were safe about it. I had just gotten out of my sixth inpatient treatment for Anorexia Nervosa and I had truly found recovery.

The hardest decision to make was between risking my life, the baby’s life and my recovery by keeping it…or having an abortion and saving my recovery. My mom was also very adamant about me getting an abortion; I was young at the time and had no way of taking care of someone else. I also live across the country from my parents so they wouldn’t have been able to help me easily. I was never OK with my decision totally, but I knew it was the right thing to do.

Two years later, I know I did the right thing, but it was really hard for a year or so after. Sometimes I still feel guilty and miss my unborn child… but I am handling it a lot better than I was. I felt really alone and got pretty suicidal at times. It’s hard to explain to people who have never been through something like that, I didn’t know how to talk about my feelings and I felt like I was being ridiculous.

I think the main thing I wish people knew about abortions and my story is that, you can be safe, use protection and still end up pregnant. It was never that I didn’t want that child, but I knew that the life I could provide for that baby would not be a good one. I felt like it would be more selfish to keep her and have to give her up for adoption. I want people to know that it’s not an easy decision, and that it’s something I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I learned a lot about myself since I had my abortion, but I do wish it’s something that I never had to experience.

Sarah, abortion at age 32:

That despite everyone telling me my hormones would kick in at thirty & I’d desperately want a child, I still just did not feel that was my plan for my life. My husband & I checked in & yup, still did not think parenthood was right for us.

I almost never think about it except on a political/policy level. I have zero guilt or regrets, just anger at all the ways it was structurally set up to make me feel bad, to make it stressful, and as if outside the bounds of normal OBGYN care. My very good health insurance has to cover abortion (NYS) but did not cover ANESTHESIA! Imagine another surgery where they would not cover necessary pain management (I was told it was not safe to perform without anesthesia because the patient would move). This major insurer only worked with 1 provider in all of NYC, the wait was hours, partners were not allowed after check in, & we were made to stay in hospital robes in waiting rooms for hours and hours.

The fact that our normal doctors with whom we have years’ long relations are replaced because of politics by an anonymous unknown at this sensitive moment is a totally illogical outgrowth of our criminalization of full family planning in this country. It made my blood boil.

And I was emotionally secure and clear minded – but I could feel the way these cues were meant to make scared, vulnerable, or conflicted women feel bad about difficult necessary decisions they were making for themselves for their own reasons. No one makes men feel like this for getting a vasectomy; they don’t have to go through a medical shame mill to get viagra prescriptions. Fuck that.

Anonymous, abortions at age 16 and 29:

My future plans, my current relationships, my age, my family, if I even wanted kids…

Making the decisions to terminate were not taken lightl,y but I made the best decision I could for myself & my future. My life has been what I wanted, full of challenges and successes. I reflect on the decisions I made to terminate from time to time and I know it was the right decision both times. I can’t imagine what life would be like if I had decided to carry either or both pregnancies to term.

Anonymous, abortion at age 27:

I knew I couldn’t financially support a child. The father was someone I had only recently started dating (a few months) and he had recently told me if we had kids and I ever left him, he’d take my children from me and make sure they suffered until I came crawling back. I was unwilling to put my child in that position. I will protect my children at all costs, even if that means not giving birth to them.

I have never doubted my decision. It was the right thing to do. At the time, I had recently moved to a state where it’s very difficult and very expensive to get an abortion. I didn’t tell any family or friends beforehand and only ended up telling my sister and her husband afterwards because I needed their help lifting things that I couldn’t carry. My dad and stepmom still don’t know. In the last year I’ve become more open about it and shared with a few friends and also told my mom earlier this year. I don’t regret the decision. I was protecting myself and the child from a dangerous man.

Holly, abortion at age 17:

My age, my health, my future.

I was gang raped when I was 13. I got pregnant. I was beaten, almost to death, five months later by the abusive “boyfriend” that had facilitated my rape. I lost the twin girls I was carrying and ended up with severe uterine trauma as a result.
I turned to heroin and sex to try and forget…or die… whichever was fine.

At 17 I got clean and had my first real teenage relationship. I was on the pill but still managed to get pregnant. As soon as I knew there was a baby inside me I was ecstatic. As soon as the person I was dating knew… he dumped me. For him it was a shackle. For me it was a second chance to protect and nurture… something I had failed to do for my girls.

I lived in southern Georgia at the time. My father was a marine. I drove 2 hours to be seen at a military clinic where no one knew me. Blood was drawn and an ultrasound was ordered.

“Your womb is a hostile environment,” the doctor told me. It was covered in scar tissue and did not have much lining. My painful and light periods now explained.

After a month in the hospital, when I was 13, I had been told I would most likely never be able to have children. But being a child myself I had thought that impossible. At 17, I realized that that one night had altered the course of my physical, as well as mental, future in real, lasting, immensely painful ways.

The current doctor said the baby had implanted too low… almost directly on top of my cervix. As it grew it would put pressure on my cervix, which would cause it to dilate, and I would miscarry. Likelihood? 95%. He could sew my cervix shut and put me on bed rest for the next 6 and a half months, but there was still no guarantee I would carry to term. I was a freshman in college at the time. I was a minor and completely dependent on two lovable but absent parents. I had just started my new drug free life. The doctor recommended termination. He said he’d give me a few minutes to think about it but something would need to be done today, regardless.

I got ten minutes to make my life or death decision. I chose to abort. I cried the entire time I was conscious. I cried every day for weeks after. I had to attend NA almost daily for months to not relapse. Since then I have been pregnant three more times… all accidents…all miscarriages… no living children.

I don’t know if you’re looking for self congratulations or self admonishment, here. I don’t have room for either. I have anger, at my abuser, at myself, at the world. But I made a choice that day… an extremely difficult one… that I was fortunate to be able to have. I grieve for all my children. I still wonder at and examine all my choices, but my life has moved forward. My current partner and I are trying to get pregnant. I am blissfully happy with him and am in the best position of my life (mentally, financially, etc.) to have a baby. I know it could end badly again… but I’m giving it one more shot. If it works this time, I like to think that there will be a little piece of all the others in this new life. If it doesn’t, then its just a little more grief. I’m used to grief. I can handle it.

  • Dawn
  • May 21, 2017