From the Outback

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.

I Hid the Wire

Because.

Red's Wrap

It wasn’t exactly a secret. I just very carefully picked the places where I talked about it. I had to trust that people I told would have a good reaction. Even after decades passed, I couldn’t risk criticism and I really couldn’t gamble on someone asking me why.

I told my husbands but not always the boyfriends in between. I told a few women friends but I never told my family. I never breathed a word of it to my older sister or brother and I would have sooner died than tell my parents. They never knew. If they were alive today, I wouldn’t tell them.

Then one late afternoon in August 2012, after I’d heard yet another news report attacking women’s rights, I sat down at this computer and I wrote the story of the illegal abortion I had in 1967. The essay wrote itself, poured on to the…

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What the Supreme Court Decision Means to Me as a pre-Roe v. Wade Survivor

I know the fear. I remember everything about it. Being afraid of doing something illegal. Being afraid of getting hurt. Being afraid of bleeding to death. Being afraid of being so damaged that I wouldn’t be able to have children when it was the right time.

Then wasn’t the right time. I was a freshman in college. I became pregnant. It was 1967. I had two options. Marry the father or find a way to have an abortion. The father said no to marriage. He was right. We were too young.

A person would look at me now and say, oh, you had options. You just didn’t explore all your options. You didn’t try hard enough. You could have had the baby and given it up for adoption. Maybe. It’s hard now to explain the world for women in 1967. First off, I would have had to leave college. Drop out. I might not have been permitted to return since there were very strict notions about proper behavior in college. And, yes, this was a public college, not a private religious school. I would have had to go away. By that, I mean I could not have just gone home to my parents’ home, continued the pregnancy, give birth, sign adoption papers and return to school. No, that could not have happened. The shame on my parents, my regular Midwestern, Methodist parents, would be unfathomable. They wouldn’t tolerate it. I would have to go away, to another state, to a home for unwed mothers. That’s how it was done.

I made what I thought was the only decision I could make. I got an illegal abortion. And, as it turned out, I lived to tell the tale, which I have done in personal essays but also in person, returning twice to the college where I had been a terrified freshman to stand on a stage and tell my story to students nearly fifty years younger than me. I told my story and they applauded for me. But I knew they didn’t understand it. No one who wasn’t alive in the time before Roe v. Wade understands how it was.

In my case, it was an abortion using a wire done by the light of the table lamp in a motel room.

For many years, state after state has given in to the people against reproductive freedom, passing more and more intrusive and restrictive abortion laws. Vaginal ultrasounds, long waiting periods, required ultrasound viewing and all manner of mean-spirited laws put in place for the sole purpose of chasing women from legal and safe abortion back to the world of metal hangers and home remedies. The thinking was if we make abortion impossibly difficult to get, make sure it’s expensive and cumbersome, and that people will have to travel long distances and have the most hardship possible, they will quit getting abortions. No. They won’t. They’ll just stop getting legal abortions.

I look at young women and I think, you shouldn’t have to worry about this. You should be free of this fear. You should be able to live your life, own your body. Women deserve better than wires.

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision in the Texas abortion case made me overjoyed and grateful. I felt like a prisoner of war returning to the U.S. from a fearsome foreign land, kneeling to kiss the ground. It was that precious. It was like my country reclaimed me and my rights, reclaimed all women and our rights, brought us back into the world of freedom and self-determination, and made us whole again. To have Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg say this simple true thing: “When a State severely limits access to safe and legal procedures, women in desperate circumstances may resort to unlicensed rogue practitioners, faute de mieux, at great risk to their health and safety.”

Yes. I know. It used to be that way but it’s not anymore. Thank you, Supreme Court of the United States.

 

 

Five Things Young Women Should Know about Life before Roe v. Wade

Tomorrow night I am going to the campus of the small state university where, as a sophomore 47 years ago, I discovered that I was pregnant and agreed reluctantly to have an illegal and unsafe abortion, the effects of which hung on me for years like a wretched, filthy grey sweater.

I look back at that time, the winter of 1967, six years before Roe v. Wade, and I just thank God I survived. Many women didn’t. The coat hanger that has become the universal symbol of the risk of illegal abortion? It’s not hyperbole. It was really used. In my case, it was a wire. Small difference. Same outcome.

As they should, young woman regard that time as prehistoric. Why would an American woman with an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy use a coat hanger or a wire, drink lye, or douche with turpentine? This answer is this and remember it, it’s important. They did these things because they had no choice. No choice.

Of all the things I wish I could tell the college students who will come to the Abortion Speak-Out tomorrow night and politely listen to a woman who could be their grandmother, there are five things I need them to know about life before Roe v. Wade.

First, when I was a young woman, women were off the hook. Beyond marrying well, expectations were low. It’s hard to describe now how low expectations were imprisoning. You’d think a woman would feel liberated being out from under expectations of career, success, and accomplishments. It felt like a small pretty pasture with a barbed wire fence.

Second, when I was a young woman, women were waiting. They were always waiting for the phone to ring, to be asked out, to be told how to act, to be given permission, to do the next thing they were supposed to do. Oh, there were permutations. Some women were more traditional, Betty Crockers on their way to embroidered aprons. Others were hippies. Each did their waiting in their own way but they were all waiting on men.

Third, when I was a young woman, women were expected to be virgins until they were married. I look at that statement as I write it to make myself remember how it was. A woman who had sex was deflowered, no longer pure, shouldn’t wear white on her wedding day. ‘No man will want you if you’re not a virgin,’ said everymother to everydaughter. This caution was not reversed, however. It was expected that men would have ‘experience’ before getting married, with whom it wasn’t clear.

Fourth, when I was a young woman, women were always to blame. Curious, since woman’s power was so circumscribed, but women were to blame for being a tease, getting men into states where they couldn’t control themselves, and, of course, women were to blame for the biggest mistake of all, getting pregnant. If a woman became pregnant, it was her problem to solve. She was alone at that point. He could leave.

Fifth, when I was a young woman, women learned to be angry. They learned to be ferocious, unforgiving, humorless, insistent, and profane. They learned to be fearless. They learned not to wait. They learned to place blame where it belonged. They learned that they didn’t need a man to tell them who they were. They learned that loving a man didn’t mean having to stand behind him. They learned the most important thing of all:  That no woman is free until all of us can control what happens to our own bodies.

The five things young woman should know about life before Roe v. Wade have largely been forgotten. There are now things of the past – women’s obedience and deference, the expectation of virginity, the blaming – and I am glad for that.

But one of the forgotten things is women’s anger. Women’s beautiful, righteous, powerful anger. It’s the only thing I miss about those times so long ago. The only thing I wish we could bring back. It’s been replaced by resignation and cynicism, a sophisticated powerlessness, a throwing up of our collective hands, the belief that nothing can be done to turn the steady tide of anti-choice laws across the country. We’ve forgotten the anger women had when I was a young woman. It’s caricatured into small frames of women with wild hair burning their bras.

It wasn’t a cartoon, the true women’s movement. Our anger was fierce and beautiful.

When we were angry, we were rising. We need to rise again.

Telling My Story Again for Roe v. Wade

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.

The Wire

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.

Our Faces

The anti-choice folks have been genius at the fine art of shaming. I have to hand it to them. It’s impressive how the shame of having gotten an illegal abortion has morphed into shame of getting a legal abortion, the distinction seemingly lost on folks. It doesn’t matter if it’s legal, if you get an abortion, you have something to be ashamed of. It’s not something to discuss, to claim, to share, to educate, to support, to empower. It’s to be a secret. A shameful secret.

That’s why when the topic of reproductive freedom and the right to choose an abortion comes up, the argument proceeds with one side holding up the half-true pictures of dead fetuses and the other side hugging the Constitution. Abortion rights has no face right now because all of us who have had abortions are wearing burqas.

The 1 in 3 Campaign maintains that one in three women have had an abortion. But I’m betting that if I took a bullhorn to downtown Milwaukee and asked women to line up on Wisconsin Avenue and asked those who have had abortions to please take two steps forward that no more than four or five would step forward. The shame machine has been that powerful.

My sense is that women are silent because they are afraid of being judged. They think that the reason for their abortion won’t be accepted and that they’ll be disparaged for being selfish or callous. No one these days seems to have a good enough reason to have an abortion. Raped? Serious birth defects? Fatal risk to the mother? No one’s reason is good enough. That’s what the shame machine has brought us.

The really tricky thing about shaming and what makes it so elegant as a political strategy is that you just have to flip the switch and women do the rest themselves. In other words, women who have had abortions are so vulnerable to the second-guessing and moralizing of others who were not in their shoes and will probably never be in their shoes, that they clamp their own hands over their own mouths. They do it to themselves. It doesn’t even have to be done to them.

Now that is a true shame.

The secret becomes silence. The silence becomes shame. The shame becomes oppression.

That’s where we are right now. Being silent, being ashamed, and being oppressed.

The truth shall make you free. That’s where we are now as a nation of women. It’s our faces that need to be representing reproductive freedom and our stories that form the reality of choice in this country.

I told my story last year in an essay called The Wire that was read by thousands of people across the country yet my own still thick layer of shame kept me from sharing it widely in my own home town.

I urge other women – when the time is right and your story will have power – tell your story. Put your face on reproductive freedom. Burn the burqa and be strong. I’ll be right there with you.