Roar will publish a first-person story about abortion, “My Abortion: A Daily Story,” every day for at least 365 days.
The story behind many pregnancies is a story often left untold. Like the story of my friend Leslie, raised to believe her grandmother was her mother and her mother was her sister. Like the story of a childhood playmate of mine, whose mother never told him that his biological father was someone entirely different from the man who raised him. Like my story.
In 1967, my mother got pregnant with me as a result of a brief relationship with her boss while her longtime boyfriend was overseas in the military on an extended tour of duty. This older, married man impregnated her, and when she was unsuccessful in her attempts to get an abortion, she tried to pass me off as the child of her boyfriend. It worked, and it didn’t — the man I knew as my father made the decision to accept me as his, although he knew that biologically I wasn’t. But over the years — as the relationship between him and my mother disintegrated — he would throw a reference to the situation at her. She steadfastly denied that he was not my father. I didn’t learn about any of this until I was 22, when my “dad” told me. Afterward, my mother finally acknowledged her relationship with the other man and her pregnancy by him.
At the time, I reacted with an attitude of, “Well, what’s the big deal? Why didn’t you just tell me? Getting pregnant is not a crime.” But I can’t begin to imagine what my mom experienced as a naïve, scared, 19-year-old who was confused and confronted with a child she didn’t want and had been raised in a strict Catholic environment. Abortion was illegal, and she had no place to turn for support. It must have been horrible.
About a fifteen years ago in Washington, DC where I lived, an air-conditioning contractor found a baby’s skeleton swaddled in a blanket, tucked into a suitcase and hidden in a home attic. Both the suitcase and the bones are decades old — probably from the 1920s or ’30s. The five sisters who owned the house where the skeleton was found are all dead now — and the story of how the baby got in the suitcase and into the attic will probably never really be known. The niece of the women told me, “No way was it any one of them, they just weren’t that kind of people. We just want the whole story to go away.” A friend and neighbor of the elderly sisters said, “They were marvelous people. No way could they have been involved. None of the sisters would have had a baby like that but, even if they did, they wouldn’t have put it in a suitcase.”
And so it goes, the results of a pregnancy that someone went to great lengths to hide is discovered, and no one can believe that nice women could have had any thing to do with it. It’s that other kind of women who get pregnant and try to hide it.
Even now my mother would rather not discuss her experience of being pregnant with me; she’d prefer that it just disappeared. Talking about it, even thinking about it, must make her feel awful. I imagine it takes her back to being a trapped, scared teenaged girl in 1967. I’m sure it makes her feel guilty for the lies she told to cover it up. I would give anything for her to not feel bad about it, but I don’t begrudge her this unwillingness to talk with me at any length about that time. I know well that a phantom sense of shame can haunt the soul, and I know what it’s like to not want a child.
Right after the baby in the suitcase was found, I found myself fearing an unplanned pregnancy.
One night, after two glasses of wine, I confided in a close friend that I had screwed up my birth control pills and was afraid I might be pregnant. Her response: “What, are we in high school?” As if only teenagers have pregnancy scares, screw up taking the pill. When she asked me what I was going to do if I was pregnant and I told her that I would have an abortion, her immediate response was, “I’m not sure I could go through with an abortion.” I left the table that night feeling ashamed, stupid, isolated, strangely longing a sisterhood I’ve always believed in, even though I haven’t always been able to find it.
We went to a bar after dinner, but not before stopping at the drug store to buy a home pregnancy test. I was anxious to take the test, to not be pregnant, for many reasons — maybe most of all so I could tell my friend, “Hey look, I’m not such a loser that I mess up my pills and wind up pregnant. I’m not going to have an abortion.” I went into the women’s room at the bar, peed on the stick, waited … and uh-oh, I was pregnant.
I hid the test in my bag, and told my friend that I wasn’t. We stayed for a drink before heading home, and I had to will myself to keep from crying. It wasn’t because I was pregnant; I just felt so embarrassed and ashamed. I felt so alone. I wanted to talk to my friend about it all — but I obviously couldn’t.
Suddenly circumspect, I waited a few days before mustering up the courage to confide in another close friend that I was pregnant and planning to abort. Her response was swift and unambiguous. “No, no, have it. It’s a sign.”
These women are both ardent feminists who have worked extensively in the field of women’s rights, each with a tremendous amount of knowledge about the oppression of women. I was stunned by their reactions — both that they were critical of my actions and that they would think it was OK to do anything other than help me through my decision-making process. The fact that they would sit in judgment shocked me.
It was clear that having an abortion was the right option for me. I was in a relationship that I knew would not last, though I hoped it would, and I knew that I didn’t want to have a child in any event. There was no handwringing on my part. But, oddly, I also felt shame. I had aborted previously, in my 20’s, and I began to doubt myself, ask myself questions like, “Is it wrong to have more than one abortion?” Intellectually, I knew the answer to that, at least for me: If it’s OK once, it’s OK. As the writer Lidia Yuknavitch said to me, “Women either own their bodies or they don’t.” and I believe we do. But, but, but … but what? A lingering sense of shame stayed with me through the whole experience, and I have remained reticent to discuss my own abortion history. The pregnancy was miserable for me — although only a week passed from when I learned I was three weeks pregnant and when I had the abortion. During that week, I happened to have a regularly scheduled appointment with my gynecologist that I kept. A nurse in her office, updating my file before my appointment, asked me, “How many previous pregnancies have you had?” I lied and told her one, editing out the truth of another previous abortion. Two seemed still kind of OK, but three, no, I could not admit that. (“One for every 6 years of fucking,” I sometimes thought to myself, while trying to weave a narrative I could stand righteous with despite notions we have about women and multiple abortions. As if I needed to justify or explain myself to the world.) She responded, “So you have one child; how old?”
This infuriated me. I didn’t have a child. How presumptuous to conclude that all pregnancies result in children. How presumptuous she was to ignore the possibility of abortion, miscarriage, putting a child up for adoption, or the child’s death. How hurtful. “No,” I said, clearly and icily. “I do not have a child. I had an abortion.”
The visit with the doctor was even worse. I told her I thought I was pregnant. And she said, “So what are you going to do?”
“Have an abortion,” I replied.
“Are you sure about that?” she asked.
“Yes,” I told her. “I’ve thought about it long and hard; it’s the right decision for me.”
“Well let me present the other side,” she said. She then explained that she’d hate to see me “interrupt” the pregnancy (as if I’d be able to return to it later?) and not be able to get pregnant again. “I see a lot of women who have made that mistake,” she said. “You know, it seems pretty stupid to go through with that if you’re planning and then have a baby in a couple of years. You know what I mean? I mean, that’s just crazy. We’re never really ready for them, anyway. People always say they want to be prepared, but there isn’t any preparing. I really want to encourage you to think long and hard about it.”
I wasn’t planning to have a child in a couple of years, or ever. Her presumption galled me. And even if I had been, the way she treated my decision about my current pregnancy was stunning. She was a feminist. She was progressive. She was my doctor. My doctor.
Silly me, I proceeded to ask her for a referral to an abortion provider. “Oh,” she said, “I guess Planned Parenthood or the Washington Surgi-Clinic, or there is a group of doctors here in town that do them … somebody, somebody, somebody and somebody — it’s a long name.” There was no discussion of the risks of abortion, my feelings about it, or why I wanted to have one. This wasn’t even competent doctoring — assisting me in obtaining the medical services. She ended the appointment by saying, “Well, I’m here and would be happy to go through this pregnancy with you if you do decide to have the baby.” Pause. “And, if you decide to go the other route, good luck.”
There was no mention of, “Hey, please come in to see me for follow-up if you choose the abortion.” Nothing, except if you want to have a baby, I’m here. If you are going to do that other thing, see you later. I had been her patient for years.
Amid all this freedom and choice and supposed feminism and sisterhood that I believe in, that I have spent much of my life working toward, I’d never felt more alone. I developed a deep craving for real feminism, the place where women’s choice are accepted and not judged, where I don’t have to feel bad for choosing to terminate my pregnancy.
I was able to locate the one clinic in the greater metropolitan area that offered abortions under general anesthesia performed by female doctor — things that were important to me. Ironically, I called on a Wednesday and was told that if I wanted to see the doctor, I had to come that Friday, because it was her last day in the clinic before going on maternity leave. She was nine months pregnant.
The clinic was clinical. They only take cash. No one in the waiting room makes eye contact. I overheard the receptionist coldly and quickly telling a caller on the phone who was obviously having trouble coming up with the funding for her abortion to “borrow $10 from 20 friends.” (There are a number of abortion assistance funds that help women in need. It would have been very simple for the receptionist to refer the caller to one of them. Granted, the funds are chronically tapped out, but they provide counseling to women to help them try to gather the funds. It was wrong of the receptionist not to refer her there and I told her so. She glared at me and walked away.) The nurse who was drawing my blood pointed out while we were making small talk that the area was “a good place to raise kids.” I asked her about the doctor: “Is she nice?” The nurse shrugged her shoulders, “You know how it is, she’s nine months pregnant”.
It wouldn’t have been my choice of words given the setting, and while it didn’t upset me, I can see how it might have upset other patients. Obviously, the decision to have an abortion is a painful and difficult one for many women.
The doctor was certainly competent, but she didn’t introduce herself to me or say hello. It was odd, and off-putting. I can’t imagine going to a dentist who doesn’t introduce herself, let alone someone who is about to stick her fingers into my vagina. Regardless, she performed the abortion and soon I was in the recovery room, dressed and waiting to leave, listening to her and a nurse discussing the doctor’s plans for having the baby. Her parents had already arrived from out of town and were going to stay to help her and her husband during the baby’s first few weeks. It wasn’t news that a roomful of women who have just terminated their pregnancies necessarily needed to hear.
The entire experience — from my friend’s reaction at dinner to my own feelings of shame to the final minutes in the abortion clinic recovery room — mimic our society’s schizophrenic attitude toward legal abortion. We labor under the illusion that there are two kinds of women in the world, those who have abortions and those who have babies, when really they are often the same women, just at different times in their lives. We hear legions of pro-choice women, particularly single young women, say, “I’m pro-choice but I would never think of having an abortion.”
What a luxury! How wonderful to be a woman of childbearing years who does not see a pregnancy outside of marriage as so stigmatizing, so deeply shameful, so devastating that she is desperate to have an abortion. How different the world is today from the one young women of earlier generations faced. Imagine a young pregnant unmarried woman in 1940 being so cavalier about an out-of-wedlock pregnancy that she “would never think” to have an abortion. Think of the millions of often life-threatening illegal abortions that women endured in this country until 40 years ago, and that women around the globe still face routinely. According to the World Health Organization, last year alone, women around the globe had 21 million unsafe abortions. They are not enduring illegal abortions casually, just because a baby would be inconvenient.
Like so many other parts of feminism, there is inconsistency here between what we say and what we do. We say we support a woman’s right to choose her career path — and then frown upon women who choose to be stay-at-home moms. We say that we support a woman’s right to create her own sexual persona, and then have disdain for women we judge to be promiscuous by our own Byzantine standards. We say we support abortion as a valid choice for women, and then we marginalize it, refuse to treat it as a valid decision, we whisper about it and we hide it, even from each other. As former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen points out, “One of the ironies of parental-notification legislation is that the world demands 16-year-olds to tell their parents about their abortions when it is filed with 40-year-olds who have never done so.”
The dichotomous beliefs expressed by some women about abortion — that it’s OK, but not really — replicates the contradictions within the larger movement for abortion rights, which is rife with mixed messages. The choice movement often strikes an apologist tone in pursuing and defending safe, legal abortion. The rhetoric includes: “No one supports abortion as a method of birth control;” “We long for the day when no woman needs an abortion;” and “The choice to have an abortion is a tough decision.” The pro-choice advocates breathe life into these ambivalent thoughts. It’s not a baby, we’re hearing, but it is. It’s just another medical procedure, but it’s not
We do allow some abortions without a limited “tsk, tsk” — first time abortions for young women who have “messed up” on their birth control, those living in poverty, women with limited education, women with many children and limited resources. But we certainly don’t allow partnered, educated, middle-class women to have an abortion without shaking our heads. The racism and classism inherent in our societal attitudes toward abortion are horrific. I could almost hear the nurse at the abortion clinic who did my pre-abortion “counseling” thinking, “What are you doing having an abortion?” The schism between allowing abortion and accepting abortion as a valid choice that any woman can make is significant.
All of these contradictions, this lack of acceptance (let alone support) for a woman who aborts a pregnancy, seems particularly bizarre to me. We live in a world where, according to the Allan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit reproductive health research center, an estimated 43 percent of women in the United States will have at least one abortion by the time they are 45 years old. Though the experience of having an abortion is marginalized, it is clearly not happening on the margins. It is routine, and essentially commonplace.
Yet while our society is geared toward pregnancy and birth, and while there are tremendous resources and avenues of support for a woman planning to carry a pregnancy to term, there is no ritual, no system of support for the millions of woman who are aborting. I’m not suggesting that we need to have a shower celebrating a woman’s upcoming abortion — but perhaps we do need to find ways to collectively and individually support women who make the choice to terminate their pregnancy. We need to go beyond simple support for allowing that choice to be made legally.
I’m not seeking a world where any medical procedure is considered as casual as taking an aspirin, but I don’t want to live in a world where having an abortion is hush-hush, where women who choose this option must endure shame and embarrassment. Women shouldn’t be made to justify the need to have an abortion, to make excuses for it.
I wish I could have talked to my friend and said, “Hey, I’m pregnant, I feel like a fuck-up, I’m nervous about the abortion. I wish I could talk to my mom and ask her what it was like for her when she found out she was pregnant. I wish she could get past the shame and guilt and talk to me about her experience. I wish we could find a way to respect the fact that nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned and that many of these pregnancies will not be celebrated. I wish we could allow ourselves and others to acknowledge our own ambiguity and to make decisions free of shame.
Coincidentally, the month of that abortion was also the month my women’s book group, “The Clitoracy Project,” read Anita Diament’s The Red Tent, a novel that celebrates the traditions of ancient womanhood. It centers on the red tent where the women come together to menstruate, to miscarry, to have children and, yes, to abort. The book’s central character is a midwife, and it is replete with details of the rituals surrounding these reproductive occurrences.
At our group meeting, discussion of the book branched into talk about Heidi’s desire to have a baby, about Deb’s feeling that maybe it’s time to marry her boyfriend and start a family. But even in that group of loving, progressive, pro-choice women, I didn’t feel like the statement, “Well, hey, by the way, I had an abortion three weeks ago” would have been an acceptable addition to the conversation. In fact, while it’s unlikely that I’m the only woman in that room to have had an abortion, not one word of our personal experiences with abortion was uttered. It was, for me, a sad contrast to the scene in the book where a woman’s pregnancy is terminated by a midwife, against the laws and customs of the time, and a core group of loyal women care for her during the long procedure and its aftermath.
Perhaps in some ways it is easier to find real support during times of illegal abortion, when societal mores overwhelmingly deem abortion immoral, when supporting or opposing abortion requires more conscious thought and more direct action. At least then there are clearly defined camps of those in support and those in opposition.
Indeed, mine is a generation that supports a woman’s right to choose an abortion, if not the actual choice. Not long after our discussion of The Red Tent there was an “Emergency March for Women’s Lives” in Washington. One of the women from my book club e-mailed me about it, asking if we could all meet up at my house for it. Its purpose was to promote “reproductive freedom and self-determination for all women” and to “keep abortion safe and legal”.
We are, for certain, women raised on the notion that the personal is political, but shame on us for forgetting that the political is also personal.
Anna March is the founder and publisher of Roar. She writes regularly for Salon. Her novel and essay collection are forthcoming. You can learn more about her at annamarch.com or follow her on twitter @annamarch.