I can’t even talk about Alabama because, if I do, if I even start thinking about it, I’ll start hating on people and that’s contrary to where I want to go with my life at this point since I’ve resolved to stop making people I differ with my enemies and to start finding common ground with them but there is no common ground to be found with people, men and women, who would force a younger me to have a stranger use a wire to end a pregnancy that I couldn’t have a doctor end because he would be breaking the law and so I had to take my life in my hands because that was less terrifying than what would lie ahead if I continued to be pregnant, and that’s what I’ll think about if I think about Alabama, that they wouldn’t care about the wire, it wouldn’t mean anything to them, but it could have killed me.
the action of bringing someone or something under domination or control
The guys in Washington can puff themselves up and talk all they want about their belief that life begins at conception, that the ‘unborn’ have rights that take priority over a living, breathing, born woman, that overturning Roe v. Wade would right a 45-year old wrong and set this country on a path of morality and righteousness. They lie.
All of this fervor to pack the Supreme Court with a solid anti-choice majority is about one single thing: subjugation.
The linchpin of gender equality is control over one’s own person. My husband controls his body. I control mine. Taken more broadly, men control their bodies. Women control theirs. That’s what we have now, more or less, although creeping restrictions on birth control benefits and access to abortion services erode this notion.
However, if one gender controls their person but the other cannot, then the two genders are not equal. In the event of an overturned Roe v. Wade, the genders would again become quite unequal with men having full agency over themselves while women’s agency is limited, proscribed, and subject to government intervention.
Taken a step further, if a pregnancy results from the actions of a man and a woman, it will be only the woman’s body subject to external review. The guy can pretend it never happened.
I know how this works. I lived through it.
I became pregnant before Roe v. Wade. I’ll die before I get the image of being completely trapped out of my head, a young, witless woman with no money, no options, boxed in by secrecy and shame, fraught with fear, fear of being found out, fear of doing something illegal, fear of getting hurt or worse. Just utterly trapped.
Meanwhile, my boyfriend was unmarked, he had not a single stain, he was unscathed. A not unkind person, he was, just by virtue of his gender, filled with options, not the least of which was driving away. How is this fair? I thought at the time, that I should be so stricken by this situation and he can be so free?
Because, dear one, you and your boyfriend are not equal. He controls his body. You do not.
How do I say this to women in the plainest possible way? If Roe v. Wade is overturned, the government will control what is happening inside your body.
Years ago, I did abortion clinic defense with a friend of mine who was a devout Catholic. I would pick her up early in the morning and we’d drive to whatever clinic was being targeted that day by the anti-abortion protesters being bused in from other states. Once there, we would link arms with hundreds of other people, women in suits on their way to their office jobs, college students with Rasta hair, men wearing feminist t-shirts, and the protesters would yell at us, really yell at us, inches from our faces.
“Would you ever have an abortion?” I asked my friend one morning, the sun just barely up and the grass wet beneath our feet.
“Never in a million years,” she answered.
We pulled our linked arms closer so there was no space between us, each of us clenching our hands together into tight, strong fists. What we stood for was clear – our right to be in control of our own bodies, our own lives, our own beliefs, no one telling another what she should do. Freedom.
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.
After my abortion, I set about punishing myself.
I was 19 and a freshman in college. It was 1967, six years before Roe v. Wade made abortion a thing that could happen in the daylight. My abortion happened in a dark room on a dark night, everything about it was furtive and secret. Illegal and unclean.
The first punishment was the suffocating box of guilt.
The box was, like my abortion, dark, secret and unclean. I wore it everywhere on campus, unable to move my arms or legs more than tiny inches, breathing only now and then through cracks in the box. It was stifling and small and it was only at the end of the day, back in my dorm room, that I could peel the box off and lie on my bed smoking cigarettes. I listened to Joan Baez sing The Death of Queen Jane for hours in the dark, the lights of the campus casting shadows on me. “Queen Jane she turned over/She fell all in a swoon/Her side was pierced open/And the baby was found.”
People I’d only known a few months since the start of freshman year would ask me what was wrong. I’d changed, they said. They thought I was heartsick because my boyfriend was so far away. They couldn’t see that my abortion had pierced me, it was an event that had run me through.
I couldn’t tell them I was different now. I was marked. By the abortion but also by having sex without being married. I washed my face every morning thinking about it. I was a slut now. That’s what I was. Even if no one knew. I knew. I was embarrassed and sickened by this, ashamed in the deep nauseating way I was as a child when my mother would look at me when I’d done something wrong and quietly say, “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
The second punishment was leaving my boyfriend. And he was a lot to leave. Handsome, tall, strong, capable. He was 19, too, but a fully grown man, even in high school. He drove a Jeep with a canvas roof, scuba-dived in deep quarries, and read books about politics. He was a boxer whose trainer thought our relationship was a distraction; a serious boxer would stay focused, the trainer said. My boyfriend laughed. I adored him.
Then I went away to college and he stayed home. I spent a fortune on long distance phone calls, sometimes, in desperation, charging the call to a made-up number, the first remotely dishonest thing I’d ever done. His letters told about the old boat he’d bought and his plans for taking the boat on Lake Michigan; he loved the life he was living even while I was awash in the misery of a central Michigan winter. But he loved me. I had no doubt. And because of being so sure, I became pregnant.
After the abortion, I couldn’t love him anymore. It wasn’t allowed. It would have to be part of the price to pay. I blamed him for my guilt. He should have given me more options, offered to marry me rather than talking about how we were too young and needed to wait. That I had become a slut was now on his head. That’s what I believed. And he did nothing to make it better; he’d put the abortion behind him as soon as it had happened. He wondered why I was stuck on it. It was done and over. And would never happen again. He would make sure of it. He promised. It wasn’t enough.
The third punishment was dread.
I would have to pay for my sins but it wasn’t clear when or how. A person just can’t do these things, go against the rules like I had, and not suffer consequences. I wavered between thinking the payback would be massive, like I would die, or specific to my crimes, like I would be forever childless or give birth to a terribly deformed baby or, worse, give birth, but have the child die later from some vicious cancer. That there would be a tremendous punishment was certain in my head, there was a score to be settled, by whom I didn’t know. I’d stand in the shower at night, the water beating down on my head, and think of the many tragic things that awaited me. This wasn’t once in a while. It was every day, every shower. The dread was my punishment; they say fearing execution is worse than the execution itself.
I was 19 thinking these things. Just 19. I felt already that I had lived a terrible life. It was meant for me to feel that way; it was intended for me to feel guilt and loneliness and dread. It was my punishment for making a mistake. And like all punishments of women around the world, this one eventually delivered a strong message. The message was stamped like a brand on the palm of my hand but it took decades for the letters to become clear, years of studying my own heart, and understanding the rightness of my ownership of my own body, my own self.
I see the words that were written. They are still there, deep, indelible, lasting. They say this to me and the world: You did nothing wrong.
Photo: Glenn Carstons-Peters
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.
In a move that surprised almost no one, the Supreme Court decided today that Hobby Lobby, a corporate entity, can somehow claim that paying for contraception for its employees violates its (the corporation’s) religious sensibilities. This comes on top of last week’s Supreme Court decision to strike down the Massachusetts law that kept abortion protesters a decent distance from patients entering and leaving abortion clinics.
People who value reproductive rights which should include every woman who has thought two seconds about if and when she wants to have a baby and all the partners of said women need to stop gaping with their mouths hanging open at every new headline. “Golly, did that just happen? Can Hobby Lobby really exclude birth control from its benefits?” “Wow, you mean that protesters can get right up in someone’s face and scream at them when they’re trying to get from their car to the abortion clinic’s front door?”
Yes, it’s astonishing. It makes you blink twice. Did I really see that naked man running across the baseball field? Well, yes, I did. And I shouldn’t be surprised because he’s been standing without a shirt and waving his arms in the front row for the past hour. It wasn’t enough for him. He needed to go further. He needed to take off his damn pants and run, swinging, across the outfield.
Here’s the headache, friends and neighbors. They are just getting started. What happened today and last week isn’t the end of the story, the culmination of years of erosion of women’s reproductive freedom. It’s the beginning.
What else can happen? Plenty. There are a lot more items on the right to lifers checklist. When they’re done, we’ll be rolling our own condoms out of goat intestines. You wait.
It’s time to go underground. It’s time to create a whole new subterranean infrastructure of women’s reproductive health care that would include the provision of free birth control and abortion services. Stop asking institutions which are increasingly cracked at the seams and driven by maniacal corporate hard-ons to do what’s right and just do it ourselves.
Oh wait! This has been done.
Anyone possibly remember Our Bodies Ourselves? The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective? The subversive 1970’s group that told women how to do their own gynecological exams or how to have parties and do each other’s; the same one that walked a newly pregnant reader step by step through pregnancy and delivery; the book that told pregnant women that, no, they didn’t have to go into a hospital, lay on their backs with the feet in stirrups to have their babies delivered by forceps because their doctor (male) couldn’t be bothered to wait for the natural course of things? Yeah, them.
Employers and insurers and corporations aren’t going to save us; the less they can pay for, the happier they are. Politicians aren’t going to save us because they can’t stay focused on one issue long enough to get any traction. Today, while the Supreme Court’s decision was being announced, President Obama was talking about immigration. I get it. Our immigration policy is a nightmare and it needs to change. But could we just get one type of human right in the bag before flitting off to another one?
The message today, in my mind, was this. Women can’t rely on anyone but ourselves (and our allies, I guess). If we want dependable access to birth control and safe abortion, we have to create it. We have to remember and rejuvenate words like collective and cooperative. We just cannot tolerate another instance of being told what we can and can’t do as if we are babies not ready to chew real food.
Someone asked me today, what’s the next step? Of course, it’s working to elect smarter people with a sense of core human rights. But it’s also cultivating and stoking the deep, deep sense of resentment every woman in this country should have right now for the insult leveled at her and every woman. You’ve been waiting for the real deal to get mad? It’s the real deal.
24/100: 24th in a series of 100 essays in 100 days.
Reposting this piece from 2012 because it’s the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The piece was originally published on Open Salon where it’s been read by 115,000 people and then was picked up by Salon. I don’t know how many people read it there. Despite writing it and having it read by a lot of people, the piece is hard for me to read. It was just a terrible time.
After this was originally published, a young woman at Central Michigan University, where my story took place, contacted me about coming to speak at an event sponsored by the campus Planned Parenthood chapter. So I went and told my story standing on a stage with a couple of dozen people in the audience and it was then that I realized that these stories really need to be told. No one born after Roe v. Wade can really understand the awful choices facing women when abortion was illegal. Safe and affordable abortion is fundamental to women’s rights. Here’s my story.
It wasn’t a coat hanger. It was a wire.
The theory was that by inserting the wire through the cervix, moving it around a bit and then removing it, an infection would result and the pregnancy would be aborted. It worked. It was March 1967.
Afterward, after I watched the ‘doctor’ wash his hands with one of those little soaps wrapped in white paper, after he tilted the bedside lamp just so and after he said, “That should do it,” I got dressed, left the motel with the flashing vacancy sign, made my way to the bus station in downtown Detroit, and rode in the dark in the eerie silence of a mostly empty Greyhound all the way back to Mt. Pleasant, the tiny Michigan town where I was a freshman in college. Curled up next to the window under my black pea coat, I wondered how long it would take, whether it would be on the bus or later. I worried that something a lot worse than being pregnant would happen to me because of what happened in the motel room, that I’d get sick or bleed to death. I wondered if I would ever feel right about what I had done and if there had been choices that I hadn’t considered. I remember feeling like a mouse that had found the tiniest hole for escape while a giant tomcat loomed. I was distraught, empty, and alone on that bus. Back in my dorm room, Jane, my roommate held both of my hands in hers and said, “It will be ok. You’ll see. You’ll have lots of children when the time is right.” It was a gesture of kindness and compassion that even now brings tears to my eyes.
I was 19. I had slept with my boyfriend just a single time. When I missed my period, I ever so reluctantly made an appointment with the town gynecologist who confirmed the pregnancy and then quizzed me incessantly about whether I knew who the father was. Did I know who the father was? Of course. There had only been one person ever. Yes, I knew.
The doctor told me to tell my parents but I couldn’t. My mother who had suffered for almost her entire adult life with severe depression was so deep in her terrible place, on the couch or in bed all day, sleeping or staring, that I almost cancelled my departure to college. The last child at home for many years, I had become her driver and caregiver when these episodes occurred. Leaving seemed like the worst kind of betrayal and yet the pull of the relief I knew I would feel being out from under her mental illness was irresistible. I really wanted to be in a place where people were happy. The thought of going home, sitting down on the couch, where I knew she would be, to tell her I’d gotten pregnant was unfathomable. Without question, I could not do that. My problem, then, was mine to solve.
My father, matter of fact as he was about everything, would line up a Justice of the Peace and get us married but my boyfriend had already nixed that plan. He had a friend who had a friend who knew about the ‘wire’ plan. We didn’t have the $250 it would cost to pay a bonafide illegal abortionist so the only option was amateur hour. There was no real discussion. The wire became the path we would follow. I was cornered. I knew I was alone with the consequences whatever they would be. My boyfriend could walk away and no one would ever know. He was free. I was cornered.
I grieved and was wild for a full year after that. I broke up with my boyfriend, realizing right away that any man who would advocate the wire wasn’t lifetime commitment material. I drank too much, bounced from guy to guy, and remember not much from that time except long times in the shower crying in grief and guilt. For years, I counted the days and months – how old the child would be if the pregnancy had not been terminated. The guilt was overwhelming. But as I matured, I recognized the decision for what it was – what I believed was right. I accepted responsibility and forgave myself. In the truest terms, I did what I had to do.
But what I had to do was a dreadful thing. The lack of safe, legal, and affordable abortion put me in a dingy motel in downtown Detroit to undergo a risky, unsanitary procedure that could easily have maimed or killed me. That I lived to tell the tale, to write about it on this page, is a small miracle of my life.
Six years later, abortion became legal in the United States. Of any accomplishment of the women’s movement, this one was always at my core. It wasn’t right for women to risk so much in order to be in control of their own reproductive lives. It wasn’t right to punish women who have been cornered by circumstances – unplanned pregnancy, no job, no money, no options – by daring them to find the $250 illegal abortionist in their city or worse. It wasn’t right that women should have to pay for a mistake with their fear, risk their future health and their very lives while men could walk away and be free. I was happy, so happy about Roe v. Wade. At last, I thought, this one thing for women – at last.
Twenty-five years after my abortion, busloads of anti-abortion protesters came to my town. Each morning they would pick a different abortion clinic and turn out by the hundreds to harass women coming for their abortion appointments. The crowds could be enormous with people waving signs with what they claimed to be pictures of aborted fetuses, and singing “My God is an Awesome God” verse after verse, hour after hour. Right away, I signed up to be a clinic defender and each morning I’d get up at 5, pick up a friend, and go lock arms with hundreds of like-minded folks to ‘protect’ that day’s abortion clinic and the women who needed its services. We’d stand there silently while the protesters yelled at us and sang their hymns. They’d call us baby killers and murderers.
Sometimes it would be nose to nose, shoulder to shoulder. The protesters would bring their children, too, and they would be singing “Jesus Loves Me” between choruses of “Awesome God.” We’d all be standing in a giant scrum while morning traffic zoomed by, horns honking in support of both sids. Special protectors in orange vests would shepherd each woman into the clinic for her appointment while protesters surged to scream at her. I couldn’t believe how evil and cruel it was to be screaming at a woman when she was in such a terrible situation., when she was cornered. I wanted to yell at them, “HASN’T ANYTHING BAD EVER HAPPENED TO YOU?
Where is your loving kindness?
And here we are again. Demonizing women. Limiting birth control. Shrinking access to legal and safe abortion. Daring women to go find the wire. All while men can walk away and be free.
It makes my 64-year old soul angrier than almost anything. The extreme hatred for women voiced by politicians, the talk of legitimate rape, the unbelievability of the idea of an ultrasound probe, the intent to demean me/us – it all puts me back on the bus in the dark, by myself, cornered and alone.
It’s so wrong to treat women this way. So wrong. We just can’t go back.