Published October 18, 2023
In her forthcoming memoir The Woman in Me, pop star Britney Spears reveals that she had an unwanted abortion early in her career after becoming pregnant with then-boyfriend Justin Timberlake’s baby. Here are a few key excerpts from her story:
It was a surprise, but for me, it wasn’t a tragedy. I loved Justin so much. I always expected us to have a family together one day. This would just be much earlier than I’d anticipated. But Justin definitely wasn’t happy about the pregnancy. He said we weren’t ready to have a baby in our lives, that we were way too young. . . .
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. . . . To this day, it’s one of the most agonizing things I have ever experienced in my life.
One has to wonder whether this decision—a choice over which Spears seems to harbor regret or at least deep sadness—might be a contributing factor in the highly scrutinized mental-health struggles Spears has experienced over the past two decades in the public eye. It’s a heartbreaking story at the most granular, individual level: a life taken and at least one other life altered forever as a result of that fact.
From my perspective, her experience is another example of the all-too-common story of abortion, where unsupportive and irresponsible men pressure women into ending the lives of their children. But at least some abortion supporters see it differently. In her latest Substack post, Jill Filipovic writes:
I have little doubt that this story will be seized upon by abortion opponents as one of regret. But I hear something much more complicated: The very adult reality of making difficult decisions in imperfect circumstances. . . .
I don’t know what goes on in her head, but I have to imagine she has at some point clocked that, if she hadn’t had an abortion in her late teens or early 20s, her two sons would have never come to be. She might be one-hit wonder Britney Spears, not pop icon Britney Spears. Maybe that would have been a more desirable path; maybe not. But that is how life works: The big decisions we make veer us off of one path and onto a new one, and with each choice, there are some opportunities seized and others not realized. When women end pregnancies, they generally do so in order to stay on their existing journey. Had Spears not ended the pregnancy with Timberlake, it’s not like she would have had her two sons plus one more kid; she would have been walking a different way, and her life would have taken a different shape.
And so too would Timberlake’s. Had he had a child with Spears when they were both practically children themselves, would his career be as fruitful? Would he have been in a position to find his partner, have his children? Maybe. But maybe not.
This argument demonstrates the worldview of many abortion supporters. They see abortion as a get-out-of-jail-free card, a chance to wipe the slate clean and preserve the future they have in mind for themselves. In this view, there’s no reason for Spears to regret her choice because there wasn’t much at stake in the first place; abortion is something like having a tooth pulled or an appendix removed. She came to a fork in the road that presented a morally neutral choice between motherhood now or motherhood later, pressing pause on her career now or preserving her potential for success later.
In this framework, there’s no way to know what the future might have held for Spears or Timberlake in an alternate universe, and that fact alone justifies the abortion. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: We can see in hindsight that they each went on to various forms of success and happiness and even eventual parenthood, so what’s the big deal?
One might call this the “personal autonomy” argument for abortion, but I prefer to think of it as the “controller of our destiny” argument. It appeals to the most basic instinct of the human heart. We all have a deep desire to live on our own terms, to ensure that our lives turn out the way we hope and dream. Filipovic made a very similar point during a debate she and I had at the University of Notre Dame last spring:
Sometimes abortion is an act of trying to keep one’s life on its same path. I know this will not be a popular comment here, but if I had gotten pregnant in my twenties, there is no amount of money you could have paid me to carry that pregnancy to term. There was nothing you could’ve offered me.
And if I had gotten pregnant in my twenties, I wouldn’t have the career that I have. I wouldn’t have my husband. I would never have met him. I wouldn’t have a life that I think is beautiful and incredible and that I value a tremendous amount. If I had gotten pregnant, it would’ve taken my life in a completely different direction that I would not have wanted it to go in. I am tremendously grateful that I have had the ability to prevent pregnancy where needed and that I would’ve had the ability to end a pregnancy that I know would’ve been the wrong thing for me.
While of course abortion is never an acceptable choice, I find it easy to sympathize with the underlying current of what she’s saying. But while we all might wish to force life to conform to our exact expectations, one of the most fundamental realities of the human experience is that this simply isn’t how it works. We exercise free will, but our choices are no guarantee of outcomes; our desires have no power to control the future. As I wrote in a reply to her at the time, none of us can control our destiny in any meaningful way:
The desperate plea for access to abortion comes from a deep, human place—from the fear of missing out on what we think we need or deserve, from the fear of losing control, from the fear of the unknown. And yet all I could think when I first heard Jill’s comment was that the most beautiful things about my life, the things for which I’m most grateful, came to me not because I predicted or controlled them, but as pure and unexpected gifts. By Jill’s own admission, the same is true of her, and, I’d venture to guess, it’s true of nearly everyone reading this.
The argument at the root of the pro-abortion cause is compelling to so many because it comes straight from the depths of every human heart. The temptation at work in abortion is a temptation we face every day, in big and small ways: to reject our human nature, to make ourselves like God, to claim for ourselves the power to decide good and evil, life and death.
And as it was in the beginning, it remains a lie. None of us can control our lives, and though our lack of control so often results in unexpected, undeserved suffering, it so often results in unexpected, unmerited beauty.
Perhaps most important to note, the “controller of destiny” argument accepts the myth of the “unencumbered self,” to the exclusion of the most crucial questions of the abortion debate: What exactly is abortion? What exactly is a woman choosing when she chooses to “terminate a pregnancy”? What is a man pushing for when he pressures or coerces an unwilling woman into making this choice? What do parents owe their children in justice?
Though I’ve debated Jill three times now and raised these questions in one form or another each time, she has yet to present an answer other than: None of that really matters. And I don’t mean to pick on her specifically here. It’s nearly impossible to find an abortion supporter who will address those questions. The reluctance is understandable, because the answer to each question is clear, inarguable, and devastating.
Every abortion takes the life of a human being, who comes into being solely because of the actions of his parents, child of a mother who carries him in her womb and a father who is equally responsible for his existence.
This returns us to Timberlake, a stand-in for the millions of far less famous won’t-be fathers over the decades who have flaked out on fatherhood and left mother and child alone. It’s telling that Spears chose abortion, despite having immense financial resources most mothers could only dream of. If her account is to be believed, she made that choice primarily because Timberlake was unhappy about being a father. If even a woman as successful and well-positioned as Spears wasn’t immune to that pressure, how much more must the average woman struggle to choose life in the face of coercion?
Every time I give a talk about abortion, I’m asked by at least one man in the audience, “What can men do about abortion?” I always reply that we need to become more comfortable repeating this fundamental reality: Every child has a mother and a father. Every father is equally responsible for the life and care of his child, regardless of the fact that the child depends exclusively on his mother until birth. As Spears’s story reminds us, when fathers run from that responsibility and rely on abortion to let them off the hook, women choose abortion when they’d rather choose life.
EPPC Fellow Alexandra DeSanctis writes on culture and family issues, with a particular focus on abortion policy and pro-life advocacy, as a member of the Life and Family Initiative.