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21 Michigan Journal of Gender & Law 1 (2014)


Regret is a deeply contested emotion within abortion discourse. It is present in ways that we are both afraid of and afraid to talk about. Conventional pro-life and pro-choice narratives link regret to defective decision making. Both sides assert that the existence of regret reveals abortion’s harmfulness or harmlessness, generating a narrow focus on the maternal-fetal relationship and women’s “rights.”These incomplete, deeply flawed constructions mire discourse in a clash between regret and relief and exclude myriad relevant relationships. Moreover, they distort popular understandings of abortion that in turn influence women, creating cognitive dissonance and perhaps distress for those with different lived experiences of abortion. Finally, these portrayals contribute to the silence and stigma surrounding abortion.

This Article contends that regret is more suggestive of women’s deep reflection on the abortion decision and respect for the fetal relationship than of flawed decision making—signifying autonomy, not victimization. It explains why we view regret as an outcome of deficient decision making, how this conception misrepresents regret and confuses it with remorse, and why it prompts liberals and conservatives alike to devalue women’s autonomy. This Article charts a course for reconceptualizing and ultimately decentering regret by discussing several common missteps in current constructions: (1) conflating regret with psychopathology, (2) confusing regret with remorse, (3) confining regret to the maternal-fetal relationship and women’s self-commitment, (4) linking regret to deficient decision making, and (5) coupling regret and moral culpability. Finally, this Article discusses how correcting these errors reprioritizes autonomy and profoundly impacts abortion regulation.