What’s At Stake

sub-ju-ga-tion
noun
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.

_________________

Photo by Jose Fontano on Unsplash

____________

Innocent

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

I’m 1 in 3

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.

#1in3Speaks

 

Going Back to Explain

On Monday night, I’m going to put on my skinny jeans from Target and my really great looking brown boots, wrap a paisley scarf around my neck and put on my brown velvet jacket and I’m going to walk into the Central Michigan University Library Auditorium and try to tell a group of students what it was life was like for women living on their campus 45 years ago.

I’m going to be the featured speaker at a 1 in 3 event sponsored by the CMU chapter of VOX, Planned Parenthood’s student organization.  I was asked after a blog post I wrote about having an illegal abortion in 1967 was posted on Salon.com and went viral. Amazingly, 111,000 people read my story, a story that I had pretty much kept to myself for 45 years.  Yes, my close friends and, even my kids, especially my girl kids, knew the story.  Having had an illegal and very unsafe abortion at age 19 made me a maniac about birth control – ask either of my girls.

Anyway, I was a student at Central when I got pregnant and had a really unsafe abortion.  I remember the fall in Mt. Pleasant, the idyllic Michigan town where Central is located.  I remember my dorm room, the two beds and two desks; I remember laying on my bed and smoking Salems, balancing the ashtray on my chest and wanting to be so very, very free and cool.  I remember the phone calls with my boyfriend back home, how much I missed him, and how I lied to the operator so she would charge someone else’s phone for the long distance calls I made to him every other day.

Today, I researched ‘rules at Central Michigan University in the 60’s’ so I could make sure that the crazy ass curfews and late minutes and penalties and expulsions that I remembered were actually accurate.  And they were.  Rules for women were pretty intense.  My sister, my role model, had gotten tossed out of Central four years prior to my being there, for being caught half in and half out of the dorm’s basement window.  She was extraordinarily popular, pinned to a TKE  and dating a gymnast at the same time, she was a marvel of her time.  (Is it strange that I not only remember this fact but these guys’ names? Yes.)

Back to the dorm after curfew (11 on weeknights and 1 on weekends), she decided to avoid the front door and sneak in the back.  Our father was beside himself since his primary purpose in sending her to college was to marry a college man – instead she came home in shame and married a guy who owned a hardware store. It was all cool to me, though, I thought she was amazing.

I talk about the rules for women at Central because they were emblematic of the whole culture.  Nice girls were to be protected – from men and themselves.  So they needed curfews and bed checks and the dorm mother checking their possibly alcohol breath at the door. If women weren’t protected, terrible things could happen.

They could get pregnant.  It was the worst thing that could happen.  No joke, my friends.  It was the end of life as we knew it.  Pregnant, unmarried women just plain disappeared, that is, if they couldn’t afford to go to New York for an abortion.  They went away – mysteriously, without explanation, and usually didn’t come back. Shades of Pinochet.

So my job on Monday night is to bridge a couple of generations, probably a couple more than can be accomplished with my Target skinny jeans.  My job is to tell them that I don’t think much has changed about being wild in love or making terrible mistakes.

I will be their grandmother telling them that condoms can fail and that if they get pregnant they will be the ones to handle it.  That no matter how wonderful their guy is, he can still leave and probably will. I’ll tell them they have options and that they will make the decision that is right for them.  I’ll remind them that all women have that fundamental right and that it is absolute and precious.

I’ll sound bitter but I won’t be.  What I learned at Central changed my life.  It really did.  And I couldn’t be more grateful.  Or glad to be back.