They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
A blue-black morning just after New Year's. My friend Maria drove me in her little Honda. I was braced for protestors. In the parking lot, nothing moved but us, and the contrail of our breath. I had imagined brushing past the rubble scornfully, meeting their self-righteousness with my own: "Why don't you go live your precious life?" Their absence was nevertheless a relief: a week of nausea had left me fragile, and I was walking half bent over, with tentative steps.
Antichoice people throw the number "40 million" around like it alone will convince nonbelievers of the horror, the horror: 40 million abortions since 1973 and counting. To me, 40 million abortions means that I have company and lots of it. Say maybe 30 million women (given multiples) who chose, over the past 30 years, to have a legal medical procedure. Thirty million women (not counting those who had illegal abortions pre-Roe v. Wade) who don't usually talk about that procedure, because if they're anything like me and my friends, it's over, they don't regret it, end of story. Thirty million women represents, roughly, one out of every four women in the U.S.
Inside the clinic, I waited. Forcing down saltines, slowly, with tiny sips of water. Not talking much, Maria quiet too beside me. She'd done this before, by herself, feeling more conflicted than I. This morning, the nausea crowded out any emotion but self-pity. In the square waiting room, other people waiting. I didn't look up much. A quick examination by a nurse confirmed my pregnancy. Fingers in and on my uterus, she claimed I was eight weeks. I argued weakly for six: Eight was impossible; my live-in boyfriend had been on tour. Probably some weird growth mutation due to the x-ray, I thought darkly. Not to mention the beer that had made me forget a step at First Avenue, occasioning that badly sprained ankle.
I was 29--it was late 1990. I was drinking a lot, as were most of my friends. I had a part-time job at a bookstore and a handful of freelance writing jobs. I cleared maybe $12,000 a year. My boyfriend, the same. I knew a couple of people with small children, and I didn't want to be them. I wanted to drink, see bands at First Avenue, and stay up afterward smoking, flirting, and deciding what was the best double album ever or who was most psychic among my women friends. My life had a loose-jointed fervor that I loved.
What you hear about are the regrets. The "post-abortion depression." The "couldn't get pregnant afterward." The "I know I sinned!" But if one out of every four U.S. women were wailing and tearing at their hair with as much ferocious guilt as the antichoicers say we feel, work wouldn't get done. Children wouldn't get raised (let alone born, abortion having made us all sterile and prone to breast cancer!). Sex wouldn't happen. Society at large would notice. Instead, most women pretend that abortion is a personal decision, and go on with their lives. Which is laudable, of course, but also, unfortunately, wrong-headed.
After more waiting, a session with a counselor. Another patient in the room, maybe two. I signed consent forms, looked the counselor straight in the face and promised I was there of my own volition and had no doubts. I'd already waited a week for my appointment. I'd spent most of it on the couch, moaning. My boyfriend was on tour again. Around 5:00 p.m. each day, I'd feel a slight easing of queasiness, move carefully upright, and shuffle to the kitchen to make ramen. The smell of the noodles cooking often threw the whole plan off. There was no sense of joy or purpose in me to counter the discomfort. It was irritating to be asked again if I was sure.
Antichoice people have made a woman's choice to have an abortion a public decision. They have clogged media online and off with stories of the relatively few women who regret aborting and/or who crave symbolina-hood, with its complimentary gift bag of support, sympathy, and smugness. Their public idea of Morality is, against the quietness of most women's personal, small "m" moralities, the only one hogging press. They have claimed God and called us sluts and, worse, casual. They have endowed abortion with a narrative of shame--to the point where a website presenting positive stories of abortion calls itself imnotsorry.net.
I won't even say, "I'm not sorry." Shame has nothing to do with my abortion story. Many of the accounts on imnotsorry.net sketch a narrative of rebirth: abortion as the crossroads where a woman realizes the value of her independence, ditches the abusive and/or indifferent boyfriend/husband, and sets out on her own toward schooling, fulfilling career, economic autonomy, and eventually true love. That's a wonderful narrative, and we need it. I can't say that my abortion kicked into motion any grand transformations. A couple of unrelated things happened, pleasant and painful, over the next year, and I did begin to focus more deliberately on my work and my relationship. But abortion didn't make me a better person. It gave me the freedom to bumble along on my humble path without damaging a child deserving of my wholehearted attention.
One of the other patients in the counselor's room began to cry. She didn't know what to do. She had careful blond hair, looked like a teenager. The counselor advised her to go home and think more about her options. I wanted to shake the girl out of her confusion, probably fed by some ridiculous "letter to my mommy" from an aborted fetus--the kind of noxious propaganda I first saw at 13. That the counselor so respected the girl's indecision surprised me. And then I felt comforted: Wasn't this, after all, what "we" say we do--let the woman choose?
In 1989, I joined 600,000 (the police estimate; organizers saw a million) other people in Washington, D.C., to demonstrate abortion rights support. I'd never been in a crowd so big and thickly massed, and the exuberant spirit it generated kept making me cry. The 1992 pro-choice march in D.C. drew between 500,000 and 750,000. The crowd at the march last month was unofficially estimated by police at between 500,000 and 800,000; again, organizers saw more than a million people. These are among the largest ever marches on Washington (no antichoice march has even come close). According to Planned Parenthood, 14 states have introduced 29 bills banning abortion outright; they should understand that voters like me exist in the millions.
Nor will I be shushed to silence by the pro-choice lobby who prefer we not admit that abortion involves death. I understand the reasoning: Let's keep the focus on women's right to do what they want with their bodies. Acknowledging the death of something shifts the debate to exactly where antichoicers want it, where they can hype the "violence" and "inhumanity" of abortion. Hell, let's sanitize things further and call abortion a "procedure." Yet avoiding the subject of the fetus's death means that the other side's characterization of it as "immoral murder" goes uncontested. The great and ironic mistake of the pro-choice movement is that we haven't capitalized on the public power of personal storytelling, including the reinforcement of personal morality. (Ironic because second-wave feminism was built on the idea that the personal was political.) It is time, I think, to bring the weight of 40 million moral decisions, no less appreciated for being heavy as stone, to the negotiating table.
The nurses in the surgery room were brusque and hard-handed. I don't remember being told what would happen. When the doctor began forcibly dilating my cervix, I felt deep, brilliant pain. "Quit hyperventilating," barked the nurse near my head, "or we'll stop the procedure." Now I was panicking about being panicked. Years later, when I had a miscarriage vacuumed by a solicitous hospital doctor who carefully explained each step, I learned that abortion can be a pretty painless, even serene experience. That experience made me wonder why the surgery staff had refused to be gentle. All I could think was that they too had swallowed the antichoice line that abortion is shameful, and that the women who choose it should be chastened.
In plain speech, I killed something that January morning. My antichoice friend Craig wisely will not allow me to call what I killed "potential." Okay, it was a human fetus, approximately one inch long at eight weeks. This is the average aborted fetus: Eighty-eight percent of abortions take place in the first three months, 80 percent of those in the first six weeks. The fetus had arms, legs, a head, and a heartbeat. It may or may not have felt pain, but that ability would not have distinguished it from any other nonhuman mammal (many of whom others slaughter for us with a cruelty we would not want to witness) in or outside of the womb. It may or may not have been viable; 20 percent of pregnancies are "naturally" aborted, which we call "miscarriage." (I've always wanted a T-shirt reading, If life begins at conception, God is an abortionist. Then again, I don't want to be shot.) This fetus could not live outside my body. It hadn't even grown a real skeleton.
In the recovery room, I leaned back in a recliner like the one in my parents' living room and let tears drain into my ears. I felt brutalized by the clinic staff. The cramps scared me. I was blackly angry at my boyfriend for not being there. I drank orange juice. Ate a dry cookie. It was like after giving blood. The cramps eased. I breathed again. The diaphragm hadn't worked. I wanted to have sex, and here was the consequence. My boyfriend was out working, doing his job. Okay. I may have wished goodbye to "it" there, whatever it was, with the same feeling of superstition ("you never know") that makes me avoid walking under ladders.
Of course, human tradition argues that nothing is as precious as humanity. Is a fetus a human individual, and thus sacred (or at least deserving of legal rights)? Science cannot tell us--and besides, what would be the benchmark? Brain waves? Consciousness? How a person answers that question depends on his/her beliefs. Certainly the women I know who have had abortions have contended with such questions, each in her own fashion.
I've heard an apocryphal story a couple of times about "a friend of a friend of a friend" and her two-year-old going over family pictures. The girl sees a picture of her parents alone and says something like, "Oh, this was when I came before." Her mother looks confused; she once had an abortion but is sure the girl doesn't know about it. "You know," says the girl artlessly, "when it wasn't the right time for me to be born." This propaganda is almost as silly as the fetus letter--a two-year-old remembering her soul leaving an aborted fetus, sometime to return?--and perhaps just as sly. Because it acknowledges that human "soul" is part of the abortion debate, and finds a way to "save" the soul from the antichoice narrative of murder. Some people believe that human souls, or spirits, wait for conception so they can enter the material world. Some people believe that souls are recycled, and ditto. Some people believe that soul is created at conception. I believe that spirit is inseparable from body, and that it grows with consciousness and experience. A fetus's soul, then, is about as developed as its huge-headed, stub-fingered, lungless and minute body. The death of that spirit is meaningful, but much less so to me than the death of the fierce cat soul named Hazel who loved to chase a toy on a fishing line. (Her killing, which I chose, was not heavily regulated.)
Beliefs differ. Mine are as significant and morally "right" to me as yours are to you. Because my beliefs may seem outlandish to people who believe the smallest spark of humanity to be of greater import than a 14-year-old house cat, let alone a mature forest, they will say I'm on a "slippery slope" that leads to the acceptance of infant murder and forced euthanasia of the sick and aged. It seems to me we are all always on a slippery slope to hell, and it behooves us to converse together about what we value most. What I value most is a good, full life for the already living--sick or well--including humpback whales and human newborns. If that seems sick and/or so idealistic as to be unworkable, what about cherishing every possible intersection of human ovum and sperm?
Women waving signs for that flabbily vague "CHOICE!" I think really mean: My reproductive decisions will be based on my personal morality, not anyone else's. And I think that's what we should say. That statement assumes that there is no one morally right way to think about abortion. It also assumes that women consider their reproductive choices seriously in the context of their own belief systems. Finally, it warns that pushy belief system-mongers pro and con must take their business elsewhere. Keep your laws off my spiritual beliefs. (Isn't that in the Bill of Rights?)
Many other people have noted that the point and effect of antichoice rhetoric such as "post-abortion regret" and legislation such as "Right to Know" (with its required feeding of "objective" information against abortion) is to infantilize women. We are not mature adults. We do not know our right minds (we must be advised over lengthy waiting periods). We must ask our parents. We are sexually passive machinery "knocked up" by active men. We are not sexual actors interested in our own pleasure--and if we are, we are damned. We have no right to responsibility. Society has the right to our babies, who are apparently valuable only before birth; afterward they meet a world increasingly disinterested in funding child welfare programs that protect children's health, environment, and public education.
The Christian church has long tried to control female sexuality and fertility with this sort of slander. The twist, as feminist historian Barbara G. Walker has noted, is that the more the church enforced the intertwined ideas that a) sex was for procreation; b) a husband had a right to sex at any time; and c) pious families should have as many children as possible, the more common infanticide and abandonment became. Walker claims that pre-Christian women avoided sex while breast-feeding, which reduced pregnancies. In contrast: An 18th-century foundling hospital in London received 15,000 infants in four years, of which less than one-third survived to adolescence.
Four years ago, my partner--the same boyfriend of yore, though more beloved--and I began trying to become pregnant. After six months, I underwent a tube-flushing, to clear the way for ovum and sperm's meeting. The next month, my breasts grew heavy and my period stopped. That familiar seasickness arose. I met it with joy.
For centuries before Christianity, before men's role in the process was known, reproduction was women's very real burden. Women's power to create and destroy was celebrated in god-figures: Mara, Kali, Hecate, Medusa, Persephone. Dark Mother. Queen of the Underworld. Many, like the Hindu goddess Kali, have come to be known primarily for their death aspect. But before Virgin/Mother Mary and Destroyer Mara were split asunder, they were facets of one entity. Women brought life, women took it (via abortive herbs), and women lost it--often dying from complications around birth.
Two months of anticipation ended in the doctor's office: The embryo was not the size it should be. An ultrasound found no fetus. After the abortion (boyfriend again on the road!), another doctor told me they'd found only a mass of cells: "a chromosomal mess," he called it. It's hard to mourn a mass of messed-up chromosomes (would an antichoicer call that "conception" and worship it?). What I mourned was the baby I'd nurtured in my head, the possibility of her, a living presence that the fetus I'd aborted never became.
The influence of the old gods is gone--or has been subsumed--and now in the U.S. we have modern medicine on the one hand and a pick-and-choose form of Christian fundamentalism on the other. The former distances women's involvement in the procedures of reproduction; the latter, with the assistance of a cowed state, would preempt women's power to choose among those procedures. In either case, women are too often given to understand that we do not know what is best for ourselves and our bodies. We are divorced from mind and body both.
I was 40; we gave it one more year. We didn't attempt fertility treatments; adoption began to seem an exact fit. I don't believe abortion caused my infertility. (Among the women I know who've had abortions, most are now mothers.) I played the age game and lost. Even if by some slim chance the abortion had an effect, I can't see worrying about it. Infertility is not my "punishment." (Nor is adoption "second best." And the irony that we are benefiting from another woman's choice not to abort does not slay me. I wish for pregnant women the world over to give birth, abort, or release for adoption as they please, free of familial, societal, or economic coercion; in the meantime, aren't there children to raise?)
The physical experiences of abortion and miscarriage so paralleled each other that I began to see them as part of a continuum. Nature ended one because the chromosomal mix wasn't right. I ended the other because the environmental mix was unhealthy.
One of the writers on imnotsorry.net describes her abortion as an "induced miscarriage." The phrase works for me because it doesn't keep separate the decisions of a woman's mind from those of her body. Both are weighty and consequential. Both are marked by divinity (however you define it): the god-spark (if you will) of human thought as much as sexuality. The mind creates or destroys just as the body does: the baby in mind growing alongside the fetus, or stopped, unborn. Isn't this our responsibility as humans: to know when we have the physical and mental capacity to nurture? To understand our limits?
A friend of mine tells me she thinks differently about abortion since she's carried two boys to term. "It's not that I regret my abortion, or that I'm not pro-choice," she says. "But seeing the ultrasounds..."
I think I know what she means. I love the uniqueness of my son fiercely. If all that promise hadn't been born...but then I wouldn't know him, wouldn't miss him. I would know another soul, and love its uniqueness fiercely. Or I would love a childfree life with my very unique dearest. It's a paradox of truths: Human singularity is a blessing; we can't possibly catch and hold every star. Each truth rests inside the womb of the other, a seed of dissent. Can we acknowledge them both?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.