Photo depicting Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears in a pink newsboy cap in 2002.

OPINION | On Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and the Idea of an ‘Acceptable’ Abortion Story

by Megan Burbank

The morning the news broke that Britney Spears had a medication abortion in secret at the height of her fame, a strange thing happened: People were kind about it. As a memoir excerpt detailing the experience overwhelmed social media, I saw messages of support and appreciation for Spears, and if there was any ire, it seemed mostly directed at Justin Timberlake, Spears’ boyfriend at the time, less for his desire not to become a parent at 20, but because even knowing all she’d been through, he would go on to slut-shame Spears in what is arguably one of the grossest clout-chasing campaigns of all time.

I hope Spears saw the messages of support. After all, she’s survived, she deserves them.

But in one surprising corner of the internet, I saw messages of disappointment with what she’d said: that for Spears, who had always assumed she and Timberlake would have children eventually, if “it had been left up to me alone, I never would have done it. And yet Justin was so sure that he didn’t want to be a father” and that “To this day, it’s one of the most agonizing things I have ever experienced in my life.”

This raised concerns among some abortion rights activists that the way Spears had framed her abortion story would fuel anti-abortion efforts. A few even linked to my NPR reporting on The Turnaway Study in an effort to show that most people don’t regret their abortions. (Never mind that The Turnaway Study measures something slightly different — emotional and economic outcomes as they differ among people who had abortions and those who were denied treatment.)

It was jarring to see my work deployed in this way, as some kind of gotcha against Spears’ decision to share her own experience of having an abortion. It got me thinking about the kinds of abortion stories that are acceptable to share, and the strange binary that’s been imposed on these most personal stories by the political climate we’re currently living in. Because abortion access is a deeply urgent issue and abortion stigma is such a problem, it’s an unqualified good thing when people feel comfortable sharing their experiences with abortion. The admirable goal of groups like Shout Your Abortion is to destigmatize abortion, making it possible to share abortion stories in a way that feels normal, safe, and free of shame.

But in the wake of Dobbs v. Jackson, it increasingly seems like we’ve replaced an old, tired paradigm with a new, overly simplistic one: the notion that you have to share your abortion story loudly and proudly, or run the risk of saying something anti-abortion activists could twist into a propagandistic narrative to push for even more bans and restrictions.

This concern is valid, but it also gives that kind of bad-faith political project a whole lot more power than it deserves. Anti-abortion activists are going to say this stuff anyway, so why let them dictate the terms of this conversation at all?

Historically, the anti-abortion movement has flattened abortion stories into something simple, harmful, and in need of eradication. What would it look like to embrace complex, nuanced abortion stories as what they are: the reflection of living in a world that doesn’t always provide pregnant people with the support and care they deserve? This ethic is aligned with reproductive justice and an argument for more reproductive health care options — not fewer.

When I heard the news about Britney Spears’ abortion, I felt proud of her for sharing her story. I also felt grateful. It was powerful and normalizing to see the biggest pop star of my generation come forward and tell the truth about the decision she’d made — in many ways a very typical one, and one that’s only becoming more common without the legal protection of Roe v. Wade.

Spears had a medication abortion. Now, so do more than half of Americans who have abortions.

Spears chose a medication abortion at home because it was the most private option. This is a common reason people choose to self-manage abortion.

Spears’ life may be extraordinary in its highs and lows, but in sharing her abortion experience, she showed how normal it really is. What better evidence that abortion is normal than that Britney Spears had one?

I didn’t always feel so tender-hearted toward Spears. When I was in middle school and Britney Spears was hitting every beat of her dance routines and smiling her big smile in magazine spreads everywhere and talking publicly about waiting until marriage to have sex, I found her deeply unrelatable. I was more of a Lilith Fair girlie. But as Spears has revealed more and more of who she really is over the years — a human being who’s been through hell and back and still seems to find joy in things like shopping at Target — it’s clear that she is so much more than the Pop Princess image that began as a gimmick and became an albatross. She’s the best narrator of her own experience, and, like anyone, deserves to own her story.

Her abortion is part of it.

And if we act like her abortion story is nothing more than fodder for a deeply misogynist wing of the Republican party, we’re sending a limiting, unhelpful message about the kinds of abortion stories we find acceptable.

As Renee Bracey Sherman, abortion rights activist and (accurately) self-described “Beyoncé of Abortion Storytelling” put it on Twitter: “Everyone deserves support during their pregnancy decisions and to make the decision that is right for them. I appreciate complex and nuanced abortion stories. I appreciate and love you, @britneyspears.”

I couldn’t agree more. People disclose their abortion stories to me all the time, and I know from experience that the correct response to this isn’t criticism and a link to reporting that has nothing to do with what’s being shared.

It’s just this: “Thank you for telling me.”

And so, Britney Spears? Thank you for telling us.

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Megan Burbank is a writer and editor based in Seattle. Before going full-time freelance, she worked as an editor and reporter at the Portland Mercury and The Seattle Times. She specializes in enterprise reporting on reproductive health policy, and stories at the nexus of gender, politics, and culture.

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