What’s At Stake

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


I Hid the Wire


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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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

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.



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.



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.