Monday, March 29, 2010

New York Times: In Subway Ads on Abortion, a Pretense of Neutrality

March 26, 2010


The woman in the ad is young and has a short, hip haircut, the kind you see all over the East Village. Her solemn face is half in shadow. “I thought life would be the way it was before,” the copy reads. And then: “Abortion changes you.”

The campaign, which has run in New York subways for the past month, makes a sweeping claim, but as anti-abortion strategies go, it is relatively oblique — a far cry from a brick in the window or a death threat to a member of Congress. A young woman pondering a difficult choice might check out the Web site, highlighted on the ad, which would lead her to the personal narrative of a woman troubled by her own abortion.

“We feel it’s really important for women and their families to have a safe place to experience their own range of emotions, apart from the controversy and debate,” said Michaelene Fredenburg, the source of that narrative and the founder of the Web site.

Especially since the recent abortion-fueled fight over the health care bill, we could use some more safe places to experience our own range of emotions apart from the controversy and debate. The numerous grim testimonials on the site, though, represent a somewhat limited range of perspectives —from depressed to tormented by guilt. It seems patently against women having abortions. So why not say so?

In its purported neutrality, the site, along with Ms. Fredenburg’s insistent representation of it as an apolitical “safe space,” undermines recent efforts by the poles of this most polarizing issue to find common ground.

To their credit, some who support abortion rights have, in recent years, allowed for more honest discussions about the range of emotions that can accompany terminating a pregnancy. Exhale, a postabortion hotline based in San Francisco, states on its Web site that for women who have had abortions, feelings of “happiness, sadness, empowerment, anxiety, relief or guilt are common.” It is also states that of the five founders, most support abortion rights and some have had abortions.

“To acknowledge that some people will feel remorse or shame but that it’s also all right not to — that’s what our movement has to do much better,” said Kelli Conlin, president of Naral Pro-Choice New York. That kind of conversation is a crack in the armor of abortion rights advocates that is long overdue, and Web sites like Ms. Fredenburg’s make evident why such advocates have long been wary of having it.

Nowhere on the site does mention an anti-abortion agenda. But when I clicked the “Find Help” button and typed in a Manhattan ZIP code, the first thing that popped up was Project Rachel, an initiative of the Roman Catholic Church to “present the truth of the impact and extensive damage abortion inflicts on the mother, father, extended family and society.”

So much for no judgment.

Ms. Fredenburg, who has collaborated with Feminists for Life, a group with an anti-abortion legislative platform, declined to name her financial backers. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, however, said the ad had been bought by the Vitae Caring Foundation, which seeks, according to its Web site, to “reduce the number of abortions by using mass media education.” Ms. Fredenburg said the group merely handled logistics of the purchase.

Someone seeking a safe space truly clear of the abortion debates might look, for a very different example, to the Doula Project, an organization based in New York that offers free emotional support and information both to women who want to continue with their pregnancies and to those who choose to undergo an abortion. Such a person might see progress in a consortium of abortion clinics that have started counseling women more fully about adoption options. She might be encouraged by the work of ProLife, ProObama, a group that aims to support social programs reducing the need for abortion, as opposed to pursuing a legislative agenda, which, its Web site says, “has intensified the division and partisanship around this issue, but has little effect at reducing the abortion rate itself.”

Cristina Page, who runs an online discussion for people seeking common ground in the abortion debate, said she found the campaign all the more disturbing for Ms. Fredenburg’s pretense of not taking sides. “What better way to destroy common ground than to make it meaningless?” she said.

Ms. Fredenburg claims the merely intends to help women who are suffering emotionally as a result of an abortion. But a site that seems to convince women that there’s only one appropriate emotional response, exquisite pain, is troubling — especially when its founder claims to be creating a judgment-free space.

An “Abortion Changed Me” campaign — that might be therapeutic. But “Abortion Changes You” — that sounds like propaganda masquerading as therapy.