“To the world, I am an attorney who had an abortion, and, to myself, I am an attorney because I had an abortion.”
So begins an unprecedented friend-of-the-court brief filed this month by 113 lawyers who have had abortions, asking the Supreme Court to strike down a Texas law aimed at closing abortion clinics in the state. This quote, although not my own, explains why I joined my fellow lawyers in putting my name on this brief and sharing my story.
My personal and professional success has been possible because of a decision I made 35 years ago. In spring 1981, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. I was about to become the first person in my family to graduate from high school. I had a scholarship to college, and I planned to go on to law school. I was determined to break a cycle of poverty and teenage pregnancy that had shaped the lives of the previous three generations of women in my family – all mothers by age 18.
Then, just before graduation, I learned I was pregnant. Knowing that I wasn’t ready to be a mother, I had a friend drive me to a Planned Parenthood clinic, where I had an abortion. This was a deeply personal and private choice I have never regretted. I also never felt compelled to talk about it publicly until now, as I witness the erosion of the very freedoms on which I built my life.
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Across the country, abortion is becoming a right in theory but not in fact, particularly for young, poor women. Moreover, abortion has become ever more stigmatized, creating a culture of shame that silences women who have exercised their constitutional rights. That vacuum has been filled with misperception and misinformation – including from the Supreme Court. We are told that abortion is harmful to women and that those who choose to have one come to regret it. Not only is that paternalistic, it is also wrong. Like me, 95 percent of women who have had an abortion say that it was the right decision for them, and even among those who expressed some regret, 89 percent state that having the abortion was still the right decision.
Nearly 1 in 3 women in this country will have an abortion. That means that while no one talks about it, pretty much everyone, including the Supreme Court justices, knows someone, works with someone and respects and cares about someone who has had an abortion. It is critical that the court hear the voices of women like me whose access to safe and legal abortion allowed us to take control of our destinies. It is critical that we share with the court what abortion means to us: the ability to break the cycle of poverty and teenage motherhood, to escape abusive relationships, to achieve higher education and to preserve our health.
In March, the Supreme Court will decide the fate of the latest threat to this right in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a case challenging a Texas law that requires abortion clinics to essentially become mini-operating rooms and doctors to obtain admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles. Every major medical association agrees that these unnecessary hurdles do nothing to advance patient safety and, in fact, harm women, while their true intent is to force abortion clinics to close. If the law is allowed to stand, there will be at most 10 clinics remaining in a state with 5.4 million women of reproductive age, and women will be forced to travel hundreds of miles to find safe and legal access to abortion. And Texas is just one of more than a dozen states that have passed these types of restrictions.
In 1992, while upholding the constitutional right to abortion established in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court observed in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that “the ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.” If I had been forced to raise a child 35 years ago, I could not have put myself through college and Columbia Law School. I could not have gotten a job at a prestigious law firm and risen through the ranks to become a partner. I would not have met my husband and given birth to two amazing children in my late 30s when I was financially and emotionally ready to raise them.
I discussed my decision to publicly tell the Supreme Court about my abortion with my family. They uniformly expressed support - from my 17-year-old daughter, who said she would be disappointed in me if I didn’t, to my 83-year-old mother-in-law, who exclaimed with dismay, “I can’t believe we’re still having this fight! I thought my generation had won this right for you!” to my mother, who wished that she had had the choices that were available to me. Since the brief was made public, I’ve heard from countless other attorneys - friends, colleagues and strangers - who also feel compelled to share their own stories.
The brief represented 113 different stories, and every woman’s story is unique. What is not unique is the impact that access to safe, legal abortion has meant to us. We all have different reasons for the decisions we made but share a common outcome: We are all successful because we exercised our constitutionally protected right to have an abortion without interference. The Supreme Court must once again reaffirm this freedom so that my daughter does not grow up in a country where her reproductive choices are as limited as her grandmother’s were.
Janice Mac Avoy is a partner at the Fried Frank law firm in New York.