I remember sitting at this very kitchen table telling one daughter and then years later the other daughter about the abortion I had when I was 19. I told them about abortion being illegal at that time and how my boyfriend devised a plan which turned out to be very scary, although successful, and then I told them about how I wanted to make sure they avoided the same fate. And they looked at me like teenage girls look at their parents.
I could have been an emu that wandered into our kitchen from the Australian outback, acknowledging the open loaf of bread on the counter and stretching its neck to peer on top of the refrigerator and, finally, fixing its two beady eyes on the teenagers at the table. I was that foreign. Everything about me was foreign and out of place. “That’s not going to happen to me,” said one girl and then the other. And, of course, it wouldn’t, because, by that time abortion was legal. Neither of them would have an abortion by an amateur by the light of a table lamp in a motel room. No, they were right about that.
I remember sitting in the hallway of the old community action office where I worked. Across from me sat a new friend, a woman my age, who was my partner on writing a grant to help women released from prison find employment. We decided to combine work skills with energy conservation and teach women to make insulated curtains which they would then sell. It was well-meaning but ridiculous but we didn’t know it then.
We were sitting on the floor waiting for our boss to review our first draft. The conversation turned to our college lives. She told me she’d gotten pregnant and had to get married. I told her I’d gotten pregnant and had an abortion. I told her how the decision still affected me; it had been a terrifying experience and it hung on me like my mother’s last sweater, maybe not the terror as much as the shame. “I don’t see what the big deal is,” she said. “People do what they need to do.” She has been my friend now for forty years.
I mulled this over and then I quit telling people about my abortion until I wrote my story in a very frank and raw way and many people read it. Then I stood on a stage – not once but twice – and told my story as if in the telling I could somehow change the course of history, remind everyone contemplating abortion restrictions what it was really like when abortion was illegal but the only people who cared were people who already thought abortion was a right so my angst impressed no one but me. In my mind, I’d think how I was hurt by what had happened, how it scared me and made me feel like a criminal. But then, I’d think, oh, please. Even I waved my angst away like it was the whining of a teenager.
I have grown used to people thinking that my having had an abortion – illegal or not – was no big deal. And I know that it is futile trying to convey the panic and fear I felt at the time or the shame and guilt I felt afterward. It isn’t like that anymore so people don’t get it. And they shouldn’t. My daughters shouldn’t get it, my friends shouldn’t get it. No one should have to get it. Illegal, scary abortions are a thing of the past, a fifty year old thing, like polio. No one ends up in an iron lung anymore. I’ve been told those days are over.