Today is the national 1 in 3 Speak Out, part of a multi-year movement to reduce abortion stigma by asking women to tell their stories.
I know this is a powerful thing because I did it. Twice. After I wrote an essay that got a lot of attention, I was invited to speak in October 2012 to the campus chapter of Planned Parenthood at Central Michigan University, the school I was attending when I had an abortion in 1967, six years before Roe v. Wade. Last month, I went back to CMU, this time to be the opening speaker at an Abortion Speak-Out, a 1 in 3 event coordinated by students.
At both events, I stood with a microphone in my hand and tried to describe what life was like on their campus in the late sixties. I joked that I was there representing Life before Time. Even that reference was too historic for them. These were people who were ten years old ten years ago, being carted around to soccer practice. I was fifty-six ten years ago, wearing some of the same clothes I have now and almost driving the same car. Now, I am clearly older, thinner, deafer, but also more certain, with more courage and less regard for consequences. These students didn’t need to know that, though. The empowering nature of aging from fifty-six to sixty-six could not have been more irrelevant or uninteresting to them. In their eyes, I had just simply crossed over and I had probably done it, not ten years ago, but twenty or thirty.
I stood there and felt like I was calling to them from across the Grand Canyon. I want to tell you how it was, I said, my voice echoing in the auditorium. They looked at me so respectfully, so ready to listen.
And I tried. I told them about the different rules for male and female students, how premarital sex was a bad thing for women but an expected thing for men, how there was no access to birth control, that a woman had to be married to get a doctor to prescribe birth control pills. I told them about the extraordinary stigma about unwed pregnancy, that girls in high school and college would just suddenly be gone, visiting their aunt in another state, so they said, never to be heard from again. There would be rumors about babies being born and put up for adoption, but nothing was ever confirmed. All of it was shadowy, not discussed.
The shame and the fear of shame were gargantuan. I tried to convey that to young people who, rightfully and thankfully, had no idea what I was talking about.
I wanted to bring them into the head of my 19-year old self but everything I said sounded like a caption under a black and white photograph in a history book someone left on the bus in 1970. There was no way for me to tell them that the girl I was then hewed to all of the gender stereotypes that existed, rebelled against nothing, felt powerless a good share of the time, and had no compelling direction. That girl was a sliver of the person I am now, the thinnest specimen that could possibly be extracted from a living organism, put on a slide, it would barely be visible, that’s how small a part of me she was. But still I remembered how she thought, how she careened around the alternatives after she found out she was pregnant and knew right away that an abortion was the only option.
I told them the overwhelming feeling of being trapped by having gotten pregnant and my realization, only many years later, how I was trapped alone, my partner in crime, as it were, able to stroll away with no repercussions. The unfairness made me indignant all over again but I think my young audience thought I was just being political, harping on gender inequality as they knew it, their world full of the tiny micro-aggressions that have become so popular to spot and denounce.
So I finished telling my story and they applauded. After we waited several impossibly long minutes, a young woman got up in the back of the auditorium and walked down the aisle. She sat on the carpeted stairs of the stage and told her story. Hers was more recent. The evening progressed that way. Long waits, silence, and then someone else stepping forward. It was a show of patience and listening, remarkable and precious.
Since then I have been going over what I said, wondering why I wasn’t able to get those young people to see what it was like, to understand the walls of gender roles, and to really understand the horrible stigma of not being married and having a baby. And then I realized it’s because the stigma is gone. It just simply doesn’t exist anymore. The creature I tried to describe has become extinct, there is no conveying how its huge ragged wings attached to its furry hide.
What that tells me is that stigma that makes people ashamed, gets them sent away, means that they never speak about what happened to them can be lifted. If it can happen with women getting pregnant and not being married, it can certainly happen with women who have had abortions. Having had an abortion can become something that happens. It doesn’t have to be a stony, ugly secret that takes forty-five years to unearth.
So if you have a story, tell it. If you don’t have a story, listen to one.
We can change this thing, we already have.