Twenty-five years ago I found myself, abracadabra, in the South of France. My friend Hannah and I were spending a week at the retreat center that her daughter managed. It was a fairytale week with lavender iced tea and canopied bedrooms in a walled cobblestone village where the roads wound gently down to terraced vineyards. There were 6 women gathered there to rest, write, talk and explore. It was a magical week and I enjoyed every minute of it.
It was there, on the final night, that I dared to share a piece I was writing. It is a little hard to understand today what a frightening leap this was. The essay was To Life and the topic was abortion…. my abortion.
People just did not talk about it let alone admit to having had one. But I felt compelled to go public. And so, without glancing up from the page, I read it through. I finally looked up to a ring of silence. That was soon followed by an unexpected reaction from all the women there. One by one each woman responded with tears in their eyes and their own story of loss and grief: an abortion, infertility struggles, a stillbirth, and miscarriages. Crushed dreams overladen with failure and fear and silence…. always silence. As the conversation and confessions tumbled out the room began to glow with love and sisterhood and relief.
More than 60 years ago, my mother, a nurse, helped start Planned Parenthood in Glens Falls, New York facing death threats in the process. And ninety years ago her father, a doctor, risked jail, when he made latex diaphragms in homemade molds in the basement to help his poor, beleaguered patients avoid a 6th or 7th pregnancy.
So it is with a heavy heart that I bring this story back now because sadly, we are once again fighting this battle for the right to our own bodies. In honor of Planned Parenthood and to all the women who are struggling for their reproductive rights….
Hush. Shhh. Some words should only be whispered. This one in particular, is rarely spoken in conversation. It is a political hot potato tossed about in every national election campaign. It is screamed back and forth at marches, sit-ins and debates. Although it seems significant to many, it is missing from normal conversation. It is almost impossible to find descriptions of it in print. Even those people who support it in principle do not want to talk about it publicly and many who are adamantly against it in public, embrace it in private when the need arises. Few things encompass such paradoxes.
As a woman who birthed four children, some already grown, I have been deeply immersed in this mothering enterprise for some time now. Between raising my own children, a couple of foster children, teaching nursery and elementary school, and now as a therapist, children have often been my primary focus. From the depths of my heartfelt commitment to the well being of all children, from my passion for mothering, from my reverence for God’s creation, I must now speak the unspeakable. I have to share my secret. The word is ABORTION. But the subject matter is life.
I remember that fateful morning when the little glass vial turned blue: oh, shit, I am pregnant. This time there was no elation, joy, or the sense of new worlds unfolding. There was only a sickening sense of dread. My thoughts kept traveling into dead-end corners. Make it go away. Give me another chance, I’ll be more careful. Maybe the blue circle is not really there, pointing like a scolding finger in the watery recesses of the test tube. A teeny azure ring at the bottom of an insignificant plastic tube. How can it wield such power over me?
Then comes the judgments. I am the one who honors children and the sanctity of the family. I loved having my children, and take great joy in their growth. I enjoy their company, their challenges. I know we are strongly linked by blood and destiny. So how can I choose to end this life beginning in my womb?
I search for insight. Here I am facing a life-changing, gut-wrenching decision and I can find nowhere to turn for guidance or comfort. Why can’t I participate in a panel discussion, attend a lecture, or read some books: Five Women Who Had an Abortion and Went on to Great Things or How to Love Your Way Through An Abortion, or Abortion- a Path to Transcendence? I am looking for personal Testimonials, for an abortion doula. Perhaps a priest or a rabbi to place a reassuring arm on my shoulder and light some candles.
Do you know that more than half of all pregnancies in the USA are unintended. Count me in there. I seem to be a a bit of an anomaly on the other indicators: the vast majority of women who have abortions are unmarried, fifty percent are under 25, and about half have no children.
A friend suggests that I listen to my heart. I do listen. I cry. I pray. I meditate. I listen. Either my heart is not speaking or my hearing is seriously impaired. My heart says: A baby is a sacred trust, a gift from God, the will of God. This child is meant to be. If I discard this fetus like a used tissue I might incur the wrath of God, create negative Karma. I will be destroying a life – whether I call it a collection of cells, a fetus or an unborn child. What if this act destroys my inner harmony, growth and self-realization. I’ll be re-born as a cockroach. (I can get pretty dramatic during a long sleepless night).
My heart also says: No, I do not want a baby. I have children. It’s enough already. There’s a population explosion, you know. There are already enough children in the world (I probably should have thought of that before child number 4. Don’t tell him!). I do not want to face the next few years in a state of desperate fatigue. There are new projects and new goals waiting for me, it is time to move ahead and begin the next phase of my life. I want to travel, to write, to volunteer more. I want to make a difference in the world. I want to laugh more and hug longer and worry less.
I need to speak about the process and my choice. I want to leave the shame behind and welcome the voices of women who live with this pain buried in their hearts. I want to reach out to those who will soon face such a decision. Let’s talk about it. Tell me your story and I’ll tell you mine. Abortion is rarely a great choice, few of us will run to it with glee, but it is sometimes the best choice available. It is my choice this time.
I choose life: the life of the four children who need me; the life of my husband, pressured to provide for us monetarily and emotionally; the life of other children whose lives I might change through teaching, writing and psychotherapy. And don’t forget my life? I choose that too.
Guess what….? I have gotten pregnant on almost every form of birth control thus far created. It is not like I was having wild, irresponsible, unsafe sex. (Well it was pretty damn good but that is a private matter). Do you know that more than half of all the women who receive abortions were, like me, using contraception? So I guess they were not stupid, loose women. If men were the ones getting pregnant, how much do you want to bet we would have better birth control by now? Come on, we are working on mosquito birth control. We can clone sheep. Most women give one of three reasons for deciding to end the pregnancy: 1. It would interfere with work or school, 2. They can not afford it, 3. The do not want to raise a child with alone or with their current partner.
There was recently a picture of a group of maybe 20 senators posing for a dignified picture as they proudly signed the latest abortion restriction law. Except for one they were all men, all white and all well over 50. Now, I keep thinking; what do they know about me and pregnancy?
Lee and I confront this decision separately. Perhaps it is guilt. It seems surprising that something that started out as an expression of our love can become such a chasm gaping open between us. I am angry with him for doing this to me. Yes, I know we did it together; still the anger remains. I am the one with life growing inside me. I am the one who feels nauseous every morning. I am the one to endure childbirth or spread my legs and allow in the invading stainless steel instruments. He is angry at his helplessness. What can he do? What can he say? We both know that finally the decision must rest with me.
I will not be facing this alone. One in 3 women in the US has had an abortion. So if you and I and another friend go out for lunch, one of us has already had an abortion. Look around you next time you are on the bus, or in church, or in the drugstore. Do the math. We are everywhere. I am pretty certain that number includes Democrats and Republicans, Jews and Christians and Muslims, Evangelists, conservatives and Tea Party Members. You know those white, silver haired, wealthy MEN who speak so righteously in our halls of justice and on TV against abortion? I will bet you a private school education for your little Johnny that they have their wives, mistresses, daughters and granddaughters have had an abortion.
Once I make my choice, hard enough, why do I have to walk by an angry line of marchers hoisting signs saying Jesus hates me. I thought Jesus preached love and forgiveness. How can they care so much for those bloody cells and care so little for the beaten and hungry children right here in our community?
During the great depression of the 1930’s my grandfather, a family doc was a colleague and friend of Margaret Sanger , the founder of Planned Parenthood. At that time it was against the law for doctors to give birth control advice even to married women! Think about that. Down and out women who were unable to feed the 4-5-6 children they already had, were getting pregnant every year and it was unmentionable. But my Grandfather secretly made latex diaphragms in his basement. Women came to him quietly and paid him in chickens and potatoes.
This is universal – being able to have a choice. The issue of control has been faced by women everywhere through the centuries. According to the World Health Organization,in countries where abortion remains unsafe it is a leading cause of maternal mortality,accounting for 78,000 pregnancy related deaths a year. That is far more than the 265 deaths from airline crashes last year and yet which do we hear about more?
Abortion has been used in every known society, regardless of its legality. It was practiced legally in the United States until the 1880’s when most states banned it except to save the life of the woman. Antiabortion legislation crept in as backlash against the growing movements for suffrage and birth control—an effort to control women and keep them in traditional childbearing roles. It was also a way for the medical profession to tighten its control over women’s health care, since midwives who not only delivered babies, but performed abortions, were a threat to the rising ( watch that metaphor) male medical world. And with the declining birthrate among whites in the late 1800s, the U.S. government and the eugenics movement were concerned about “race suicide” and wanted white U.S.-born women to reproduce.
Yet, even when it was illegal, abortion was still widely practiced. The ability of a woman to obtain an abortion at all, let alone one that was safe, was available if she was wealthy, white, and lived in an urban area. There you could surreptitiously find a physician who would perform the procedure for a high fee.
I am just old enough to have friends who went to Mexico for a “procedure” in the 60’s. Often unable to find a provider, poor women and women of color disproportionately turned to incompetent self-appointed practitioners or dangerous self-abortions My mother worked as a nurse during and after World War II. When I was older she would tell me about keeping vigil at the bedside of a young woman dying from using knitting needles to attempt a desperate abortion. She thought that once you saw that you would never want to make abortion illegal again.
I am in good company. Native Americans knew the herbs to use. Egyptians performed abortions. In India the secret methods are passed reverentially from midwife to midwife. Perhaps more highly evolved beings have always known how to prevent conception with thought control (I’m working on the technique, but obviously without much success). Many ancient cultures explain that the soul does not enter the body until the fourth month. That moment when we thrill to the first quickening movement within the womb is actually the grand entrance of the child’s soul. It thus follows that an abortion in the first trimester destroys a living organism but not an individual. It is a cohesive organization of cells growing within me but it is not yet a soul, not yet my child. That comforts me.
Prior to Roe v. Wade, as many as 5,000 American women died annually as a direct result of unsafe abortion,Today, the current death rate from abortion is 0.6 per 100,000 procedures. This is 11 times safer than carrying a pregnancy to term and nearly twice as safe as a penicillin injection. Yet approximately 219 women die worldwide each day from an unsafe abortion. Each day!
We women and mothers must speak of these things in order to banish the shaming and sorrowing secrets we carry. We love to share birth stories. The stories of my home births have entertained many and brought me repeated joy in the telling. Yet miscarriages, abortions, and stillbirths are still not for public conversation nor ceremony or memorial services. Perhaps they trail the dark miasma of back room, illicit operations, of failure and fault
Alone in my room, I consider how old my unborn child would now be. Would she have my overlapping toes or my husband’s luminous eyes? Though I cannot help but wonder, that does not mean I regret the abortion. Well yes, of course I do regret it but I did it. Part of me will always regret it.. and wonder, wonder. That decision is now part of my destiny. I am not ashamed. Would I make the same decision now? Maybe not, who knows. I am doing the best I can with this journey called life. I have dog, 2 cats, 4 kids, a loving husband who still makes me laugh. I am a lucky woman attempting to live a righteous life. I am all too aware of my shortcomings, I rarely forget my failings, and I live with the sadness of my past actions, but I am okay. This was my choice. It might not be yours. That may not sound like much, but I think it’s pretty damn impressive.
So here’s to life!