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Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s story counters misconceptions about who gets abortions

Most people who have the procedure are already parents.

Photo illustration by Amanda Northrop/Vox
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

“For me, terminating my pregnancy was not an easy choice, but it was my choice.”

So wrote Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington state, in an intensely personal op-ed published in the New York Times on Thursday.

Jayapal’s child, Janak, was born premature, weighing less than 2 pounds, the Congress member wrote. Janak needed intensive care for months and was in and out of emergency rooms for years afterward due to lung problems. Jayapal developed postpartum depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jayapal initially wanted more children, she wrote, but knew that any subsequent pregnancy could put her and her family through the same experience again. So when she became pregnant unexpectedly, she chose an abortion.

“I decided I could not responsibly have the baby,” Jayapal wrote. “It was a heartbreaking decision, but it was the only one I was capable of making.”

Jayapal’s story adds the personal experience of a woman of color to a debate that, she pointed out to BuzzFeed News, is sometimes dominated by white men. It’s also a reminder of something that’s often forgotten in that debate: The majority of people who have abortions already have at least one child.

Pop culture depictions of abortion — even those that take a sympathetic view — typically show childless women getting the procedure. Meanwhile, abortion opponents sometimes frame the decision to terminate a pregnancy as a choice between parenthood and a childless life, perhaps one focused on career. But stories like Jayapal’s are a reminder that people who get abortions are often making a more complex choice, taking into account not just their own needs but those of their families. As more people like Jayapal tell the stories of their abortions, they can help break down some of the many misconceptions surrounding the procedure.

Nearly 60 percent of people who get abortions are already parents

In her op-ed, Jayapal wrote of the heart-wrenching process of watching her child struggle in the months after birth.

“Janak went through multiple blood transfusions and was unable to eat because their internal organs were not developed enough to take in or process milk,” she wrote. “They were kept in a small translucent box in the neonatal intensive care unit and were stuck with needles constantly, each time emitting a painful bleating sound because their vocal cords were simply not developed.”

Meanwhile, Jayapal herself was struggling. She contracted a life-threatening infection after an emergency C-section and lived with undiagnosed depression for years afterward.

She and Janak’s father eventually divorced, and after years as a single parent, she remarried. “I wanted more children,” she wrote, “but in numerous conversations with my doctors, they told me that any future pregnancy would be extremely high-risk and could result in a birth similar to Janak’s.”

So when Jayapal got pregnant unintentionally, she was faced with a difficult choice: “I would be the one to potentially face another emergency cesarean section, and I would be the one whose baby could suffer the serious, sometimes fatal consequences of extreme prematurity.”

Ultimately, Jayapal chose an abortion, supported by both her husband and her doctor: “The network around me helped me to exercise my own choice, rather than imposing someone else’s views on me.”

Today, Janak is thriving, having recently graduated from college, and Jayapal also has a stepson.

The particulars of her experience are unique, but the general outlines are common. Often in TV and film, the person getting an abortion is childless — this includes both anti-abortion films like the 2019 biopic Unplanned, and TV shows with pro-abortion rights views like Hulu’s Shrill. Sometimes, the decision is framed as a choice between family or career — in Unplanned, for instance, the main character’s icy boss suggests she get an abortion and implies that having a child will make her worse at her job.

Of course, many childless people have abortions — Unplanned and Shrill are both based on true stories.

But it’s not, in fact, the norm. As of 2014, 59 percent of people who got abortions already had children, according to the Guttmacher Institute. And parents who terminate a pregnancy may be making decisions based not just on their own lives but on the needs of their existing families.

“I knew that I simply would not be able to go through what I had gone through again,” Jayapal wrote of her decision not to have more children. “Janak was far from out of the woods, and I needed to preserve my strength for them.”

Jayapal is one of a growing number of people — including fellow Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) — who have begun speaking openly about their abortions in recent years in an effort to destigmatize the procedure. These stories can help counter some of the misconceptions that still surround abortion.

These misconceptions include the idea that the typical abortion patient is a teenager (only about 4 percent of people who get abortions are under 18), and that America’s abortion rate is increasing (it’s at an all-time low). And they include the idea that abortion is always a choice between having a child and having no children. Jayapal’s story illustrates that, as with so many things about the abortion debate, the reality is more complicated than that.

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