The actress Ellen Burstyn has had more than her share of hard times. She had a mother who didn’t love her. She was already divorced twice when her third husband became an abusive stalker. But asked during a 2007 interview with a Toronto radio station what the low point of her life was, this is what she said, according to a Lifesite News transcription:
After a pause during which the interviewer prompted her about single motherhood, struggles with her son and more, Burstyn said, “You know, I guess, I hate to talk about this on the air, but having an abortion.”
Burstyn continued, “You know that was really an extremely painful experience.”
“Did you feel you didn’t have a choice?” asked the interviewer. “At the time I was just young and dumb, I didn’t really want to have a baby then,” she replied.
“It was the wrong thing to do and I really didn’t understand that till later,” said the actress.
“That was very very painful, that was probably the worst.”
Ms. Burstyn, now 81, is talking about abortion again. In an interview on WNYC’s “Death, Sex, Money” podcast series, Ms. Burstyn and host Anna Sale had the following exchange:
Sale: Speaking of a young woman with wanderlust, in the early months of leaving home, you discovered you were pregnant. It was 1950.
Burstyn: “That was before I left home. I was still in Detroit. When I left home, I was 18. I think that was just before then. Yeah at that time, there were no legal abortions. And you could only get an illegal abortion. And that’s not a pretty sight. There’s nothing but shame connected to that. And although I don’t recommend abortion to anybody, I don’t think it’s a good thing to do, at the same time if women are pregnant and don’t want to have a baby, under any circumstances to take care of a baby, they will get an abortion one way or another. And if it’s illegal, they will get an illegal abortion. As I did. And it’s a scarring experience …
Sale: Did you go alone?
Burstyn: … I had no one. I had no one to go with me. That’s not a good way to go. It’s not a good experience. It’s harmful. And I would always, if I had the opportunity, counsel somebody — a girl –to not have an abortion. To have the child and give it up for adoption. But, it has to be legal.”
Sale: Is that because of what you personally experienced, having gotten an abortion, that you advise against it?
Burstyn: Yes. Yeah, I think it’s a very traumatic experience, not necessarily at the time, but later. It doesn’t go away.
The host then asks if the abortion played a role in her inability to get pregnant later, and Ms. Burstyn replies: “The illegal abortion just botched me up so I could never get pregnant again.”
It’s disappointing, of course, that Ms. Burstyn still thinks abortion should be legal, but her logic is flawed.
Making abortion legal did not make it safe. Women still die. Women are still injured. Women still lose their fertility. We have to stop pretending that making abortion legal made it safe and sanitary. That is just not the case.
As I wrote about in my book, Recall Abortion, a pregnancy termination is like no other medical procedure. There is no pre-admission testing, no meeting beforehand with the doctor, no follow-up care.
On the day of an abortion procedure, women arrive at free-standing abortion clinics – many of them uninspected and completely unregulated – pay their cash (usually) up front, and see the “doctor” for the first time when they are already on the exam table.
My book and the Silent No More website are full of stories of women who received sub-standard care at abortion clinics. Tamah Warren of Tennessee recalls how, when the pain of the procedure (being performed without anesthesia) became too great, one of the women attending the doctor gave her a washcloth to bite down on. Can you imagine that happening at any other medical facility?
Kim in Mississippi remembers changing her mind and telling the doctor she wanted to get off the table. “After that, I was forcefully held down by two people and given another sedative.”
Can you imagine the lawsuit if this happened in a dentist’s office, or at any legitimate medical facility?
Don’t tell me that making abortion illegal will bring back the back-alley abortionists. The abortion industry never left the back alley, they just took their shingles off the back door and put it on the front door.
Ms. Burstyn says abortion has to remain legal because women are always going to have abortions, no matter the risk. I argue in my book that abortion has to be taken off the market because it is a failed product that harms women and kills their children. Which approach makes more sense to you: Keeping a dangerous procedure legal, or looking for life-saving options?
We don’t know how many women died from illegal abortion before Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton because the people who were fighting for legalization lied. We don’t know how many women have died from legal abortion since 1973 because reliable statistics are impossible to find. The deck is stacked against life.
But we do know that times have changed. Even though abortion in 1950 was no less wrong than it is today, we have to acknowledge that is it NOT 1950 anymore. An unplanned pregnancy is not the catastrophe it was in the past. Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, for all her pro-abortion filibustering, was a single teenage mother. Cathy Lanier had a baby at 14 and now she’s the chief of police of Washington, D.C.
There are three times as many pregnancy resource centers as there are abortion clinics, and growing numbers of maternity homes, so there are real options for women now. Choices that no one has to die for.
And then there is the loving choice of adoption, which is so often dismissed. After discussing her abortion and how it robbed her of her fertility, Ms. Burstyn talks about the son she adopted.
“I do have the feeling my son is my son, period… When you mother a child, that relationship is formed.”
We need to stop accepting the premise that finding adoptive parents for a child is somehow worse than abortion. That’s a ludicrous argument. Hundreds of thousands of couples undertake unhealthy, immoral and frankly, strange, procedures to become parents while more than a million babies a year are literally thrown away in this country alone. One woman’s unplanned pregnancy can be another woman’s treasured child and that is the truth.
Even though I disagree with Ms. Burstyn about keeping abortion legal, I’m glad she was honest about her own experience. As long as we are, for better or worse, a celebrity-obsessed culture, let’s make sure to tune in when someone in the spotlight has the courage to tell the truth about abortion. And pay attention, again, to what Ms. Burstyn said about abortion with the clarity of hindsight:
“I think it’s a very traumatic experience, not necessarily at the time, but later. It doesn’t go away.”
If you agree with me that it’s time to recall abortion, please go to RecallAbortion.com and sign the petition.