A story otherwise known as The Case of the Man Who Regrets His Abortion.
Content warnings: Cissexism, trans/*/nb erasure. Quotes from transphobic and casually ableist sources. Discussion of abortion and pro- and anti-choice activism and rhetoric. References to suicide and body dysphoria. Summary at the bottom of the post .
For the record, I’ve started using “trans/*/nb” for the same reason TJ does.
Whenever there’s a legal case affecting contraception, abortion, or other reproductive health measures, twitter explodes. Most recently, rulings on clinic buffer zones and Hobby Lobby even managed to overshadow the saturation of World Cup tweets on my timeline for a little while. We got all the usual features: photos of clever pro-choice signs, comparisons to other forms of healthcare, “the government in your bedroom”, Satanism and Pastafarianism, the laundry list of medical conditions that make birth control and abortion lifesaving interventions, the cissexism that I take pains to avoid retweeted onto my timeline anyway in droves.
It’s in the hyperbole, saying that the only healthcare that businesses and states could ever care about restricting is reproductive healthcare for people with uteri, when transition-related care (let’s not even talk about other axes, like physical and mental disability) is frequently forced into being out-of-pocket. It’s “If men could get pregnant…”. It’s “all women deserve birth control”. It’s “‘Pregnant people’ is much longer to write than ‘women’”, when the writer feels no need to specify if their mentioned “women” are pregnant.
[Note: Here and in other places in this essay, everything I quote is a verbatim quote I’ve experienced. I have not included who said them because calling out individuals isn’t the point. The point is the solid wall they produce, no matter the individual speaker at a single moment.]
For the most part, I’m diligent enough as far as pruning my timeline goes for this stuff to only pop up through retweets, at least overtly. Usually it’s easy to calculate the trade-off, whatever reason I followed an account (to track Wendy Davis’ campaign after HB5, to keep an eye on Planned Parenthood in Ohio) versus my stomach and mood dropping no matter how fast I scroll. People who retweet the kind of thing I would unfollow for are harder to deal with. People I respect and have been told to respect, who have huge followings, are harder to deal with. People who are more subtle are harder to deal with.
Like still using “penis-havers” to talk about the people enforcing anti-abortion views, lumping arguably the most at-risk sector of trans/*/nb people in with cis male politicians. Like defining people affected by this kind of legislation as “women and afab trans/* people”, when not all women–or dfab people, for that matter–have uteri and not all people with uteri were designated female at birth. It’s justifying talking about women and women alone to wider audiences because antis would just get confused, and the person who said that asking that some trans person inventory for her why she should change her behavior in terms of how it affected them, personally.
It’s the man who regretted his abortion.
A couple cycles of anti-choice legislation back, someone got a photo of a protesting anti. Groups of protesters were swarming some civic building. Some antis were handing out signs reading “I Regret My Abortion”, plain white sans-serif on black. I remembered correctly that this was Texas, but it could’ve been anywhere. When this happened I hadn’t moved to the US yet; state-by-state battles were in my mind subsumed into an overall America that worried me.1 Seth Millstein got a snapshot that went viral (warning for cissexism in the comments)–nothing particularly different from the process of any other news story getting airtime.
I remember the photo as a full-body portrait shot; all I could find after the fact (credit to @opheliuchy for digging this version up for me) was this photo on instagram. The photo is of a White-looking person with short light brown hair and a grey beard, in a purple shirt with “I’m Human” printed above a fetal x-ray, holding up one of those pre-printed signs: “I Regret My Abortion”, a phone number, “Silent No More”. And this time around, that was the photo that exploded.
Twitter is–inevitably, unfortunately, blessedly, depending on the day–more ephemeral than other mediums. It’s been a little bit over a year (the Wonkette article I cite below is from July 3rd, 2013). I don’t have screenshots of how twitter recirculated it. This cropped, blurry version comes up if you google “Man holding I regret my abortion sign”. I can tell you how the original photo spread; I can’t show you anything but Seth Millstein/shortformblog on instagram chronicling their [his?] day.
There was pretty much one joke, which I must have seen running for more than three days (a twitter eternity). This one snapshot passed around like a bad cold in a small dorm, captioned “This sums up the anti movement” or variations thereupon, or sometimes just “Man regrets his abortion!”.
The first day, I cackled along with everyone I followed. The second day, I cracked that small smile at a joke I’d already seen enough times but didn’t dislike–you probably know that expression–and wondered why I felt a little uneasy. By the third day, I couldn’t make myself smile; I just felt like something was wrong.
There’s two people whose recirculation of that photo stuck in my mind: the person I saw it from first, and the person whose retweet marked the point where I couldn’t find it funny. To my knowledge, they both identify as cis. The first is a woman, the second a man. She has over 10,900 followers. He has over 92,600. I’m not going to name them. I wouldn’t have remembered they were both there by name, either, but the tweet that was the last straw was a direct reply to the first one I saw, and I’m a sucker for poetic symmetry.
The point isn’t to call these two out specifically, when they were probably milder than any other handful of pro-choice activists on twitter you could summon the names of. I’m giving you the numbers to help put the reach of this one chance photo in perspective, that it was visible to tens of thousands of people who happened to glance at their timeline, for days. The overwhelming likelihood is that they, too, snickered and moved on. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought, if I hadn’t seen it a second time, and a third, and a fourth, and…
Given what I’ve talked about above it’s almost a tautological repetition to say that everyone who put this on my timeline (directly, or by the indirect method of retweeting someone else) is assiduously trans-inclusive. No “No man in the history of the world has ever had a period” here, nor “Well, I meant all men”. No condescending responses to criticism by marginalized groups they’re not part of–at least, none of this that I saw. The high-profile people above stuck in my mind especially hard because I respect and admire them in particular. But if I only follow people who make sure to annotate how uterus-related reproductive care affects trans/*/nb people, why did this make me so uncomfortable? How did this come to pass?
Cis women who are anti-abortion/anti-choice are rampant, and frequently a topic of conversation. Like the meme of the homophobic politician who has sex with men, we have stories repeated over and over again: the woman who is anti-choice before she needs an abortion, hostile and defensive to nurses, doctors, and fellow patients while she’s there, then goes back to picketing immediately after. The high-profile anti-abortion, abstinence-only sex ed mother bringing her daughter into a clinic, after asking if there’s a back door. And the converse: the woman whose access to abortion made her decide it should be abolished. The nurse practitioner who befriends a clinic protester.
From (found through The Only Moral Abortion Is My Abortion, link below) Abortion Clinics’ Toughest Cases:
The medical director of an Indianapolis clinic recalled one prospective patient who phoned to ask whether the clinic had a back door. He said no. How, she asked, could she get inside without being seen by fellow picketers outside? Pointing out that two orthopedists practiced with him, the doctor told the woman “she could limp and say she was coming to see the orthopods.”
Choice Joyce quotes (emphasis mine):
Although few studies have been made of this phenomenon, a 1981 study (Henshaw, S.K. and G. Martire. Abortion and the Public Opinion Polls: 1. Morality and Legality. Family Planning Perspectives. 14:2, pp 53-60, March/April 1982) found that 24% of women who had abortions considered the procedure morally wrong, and 7% of women who’d had abortions disagreed with the statement, “Any woman who wants an abortion should be permitted to obtain it legally.”
(For further reading, I wholeheartedly recommend all of The Only Moral Abortion Is My Abortion; the bulk of the article is composed of personal testimony from staff at clinics. I’d provide a counterpoint link for the latter examples, but sadly couldn’t find any that treated their subjects like human beings–which is rather the debate. It’s an unfortunate side effect of refusing to promote people who pointedly ignore basic biology.)
Thus we cannot deny the involvement of women on both sides of the (now-abolished) clinic buffer zone. The majority of patients who undergo abortion are cis women, and the presence of women in the anti movement is obvious and unmistakable–while the politicians who enact these laws are by and large male (and presumed cis), the people agitating are frequently led by women. And if that 1981 study is still accurate today, the overlap between these groups is one in four. Talking about the politics surrounding abortion and the wider issue of reproductive justice means talking about the women on both sides (and the women in the middle). It makes it impossible to flatten women as a group down to a generalized support for access to abortion; even if one takes the easy way out (on either side) of claiming the opposition is under the influence of false consciousness, an effort has to be made to acknowledge them before we can proceed..
However, the idea that someone who’d evidently gone through testosterone puberty could’ve had an abortion? Laughable. Despite the high-profile case of trans men who’ve incubated children and gotten their own Wikipedia page for it, and the low-profile cases of all of those who haven’t, whether before or after transitioning, the idea of a man who had been pregnant was ludicrous. The same people who so carefully acknowledge that abortion is not only relevant to cis women let that fly out the window when considering groups that disagreed with them. Why?
Here’s where @opheliuchy found the image, where a Wonkette author under the name Doktor Zoom really regrettably epitomizes my point in an article entitled “Something needs to be done about all these men in Texas having abortions, because none of them are happy now” (both at the link and below, the transphobia you’d expect from that with ableism to boot cw):
See, we thought that maybe this was a fluke, and that there was nothing more that could possibly be said about the fierce derpery at work in this photo from the Texas Statehouse yesterday.
[…] Millstein had posted two other photos of men who also regretted having had abortions. Texas is apparently even weirder than we’d thought! […] Maybe the guy simply didn’t read what was on the signs […] the “pro-life” lady [Millstein] overheard tearfully explaining to a reporter, “We need to protect them [young women] from themselves,” possibly because they will grow up to become men who regret having abortions.
I’ve heard of Wonkette before, though not been a reader. Now I never will be. So I can’t tell you how widespread the influence of this article in particular was; all I can do is refer back to the reach of the sources who brought Millstein’s photo to me, the people who I would’ve otherwise vouched for on a near-flawless record of acknowledging trans/*/nb people in their discussions. Their audience: tens of thousands of people, one way or another. While many of the people circulating these images would defend the necessity of trans/*/nb inclusion when talking about the effects of rulings against abortion, suddenly the idea of them having access to abortion procedures was impossible when it applied to people who weren’t on the speakers’ side. For “young women” to “grow up to become men” was out of the question, because that spectre of trans/*/nb people was inconvenient. For a person with a beard to have been in a situation where they needed an abortion was unthinkable, and “sums up the entire anti movement” (quote via one of the people on twitter I’m talking about).
One of the side effects of belonging to a privileged group is being allowed to act without your actions being considered a reflection on the entire group. The counterpart of this phenomenon is considering a marginalized population as a block unit with no variation within it, sort of a group No True Scotsman. This is what produces one-sided inclusivity: considering a marginalized population only insofar as they benefit the viewpoints of the ally who’s speaking. While on the surface this seems better than nothing, it’s an act of dehumanization–it removes the right to nuance within a group by flattening it into a two-dimensional buzzword, relevant (consciously or not) only when convenient. Acting as though all members of a marginalized group must share a single, Borglike opinion strips them of individuality. While bringing them up on the surface appears to be inclusion, I’d go so far as to argue this kind of subtle stripping of autonomy is more pernicious than outright denial of their existence. And when trans/*/nb people are at a higher risk of sexual assault than the general population and people who experience body dysphoria are more likely to urgently need access to abortion for reasons of their own health, it’s quite likely that a disproportionate percentage of people in need of these services aren’t the cis women who are allowed a nuanced presence in this discussion.
The thing I want to highlight most strongly (so picture me dragging a fluorescent marker across the page until it bleeds through and rips the paper) is how easy this was. How simple it is to overlook marginalized populations and see what you want to see. How doing this means simplifying people from these groups to a tool, to a body of unanimous agreement without the right to hold opinions as individuals.
And you know what?
I am currently capable of bearing children, to my knowledge; the reproductive health issues that do run in my family–as far as I know–don’t generally interfere directly with pregnancy. It is not out of the question that I would need an abortion at some point in my life. And while I would lay my atheist self down to sleep to pray that I never become afflicted with what I currently consider the lack of perspective I would need to start calling myself pro-life…
I love children. I want children. But I would not be able to survive pregnancy. In theory, in isolation, in a frictionless, spherical universe that functions according to mathematical models with no interference, my body is probably capable of it. But the reality of it is that I am not. There is no way carrying a fetus to term would not kill me. If I did become pregnant, I would need an abortion. I would have no choice. And I would regret it; I would mourn. I would go through the same process of emotions cis women whose experience having an abortion turned them against reproductive healthcare access report. I pray to gods I don’t believe in that I wouldn’t try to export my experience that way, but the force of probability suggests it’s irresponsible to say no one would. There is no magical force preventing a trans/*/nb person from being anti-choice. As a matter of fact, it’s statistically inevitable.
And that’s okay. If you actually want to represent trans people as more than an automatic nod, a rhetorical tool, it has to be.
1. Yes, Mexico is just as bad, if not worse, on issues of reproductive health, as well as many other axes. Luckily for me, I hadn’t been in a position that made the difference put me at explicit risk yet. By contrast, last year’s incoming perfect storm of health insurance, legal adulthood, and a move to rural Ohio, as well as my hated inability to find equivalent Mexican news sources, kept my ears open.↩
tl;dr Summary: When people aren’t being careful, in the reproductive justice movement as in other movements *isms creep through. In this case, I’m talking about cissexism and trans/*/nb erasure. Even in the case of pro-choice activists who are assiduously trans/*/nb-inclusive, this inclusion frequently falls by the wayside when discussing antis, who are assumed to be cis. This is illustrated in the case of the “man who regretted his abortion” (a photo of someone who appeared to be a man, holding a sign reading “I Regret My Abortion” at a protest), an idea roundly dismissed as ridiculous from pro-choice activists with followings big and small. This halfhearted inclusion in which trans/*/nb people are acknowledged only as a unanimous unit on one side is unacceptable, and telling. We need to do better.
Edited to rearrange clauses in the last sentence so it’s clearer.