My junior high school held a model United Nations, and I was assigned to a panel on abortion. A bookish, very virginal fourteen-year-old, I went to the library to do research and found about a dozen books with titles like Our Choices and The Ethics of Abortion. The librarian gave me a sympathetic look at the check-out, and I blushed.
But after I read the books, I wasn't embarrassed; I was convinced: abortion had to be legal in a society where women were valued. Abortion was inevitable, and had to be safe and accessible. I got all kinds of politicized and armed myself with statistics about back-alley abortion. As a high-school freshman, I went to meetings and demonstrations for the Women's Action Coalition and carried banners. I didn't know anyone who'd had an abortion, and I hoped I would never have one, but I was ready to defend our right to with every magic-markered poster at my disposal.
For the first two years of high school, I belonged to the women's-rights club and had a "Keep Abortion Legal" pin on my backpack. My friends and I took civil disobedience classes and one time went to a D.C. march determined to get arrested. Some anarchist friends of ours lay down in the middle of the street, but they weren't really in anyone's way, so the police just watched them shiver on the cold pavement.
But then, at another demonstration — I think it was in Union Square — a guest speaker ascended the podium and claimed that she'd had seven abortions. My friend and I looked at each other and furrowed our brows. Really? Seven? We didn't cheer for her and left early. Young and poor women who couldn't in any way
handle or afford to have a baby, that's what we had in mind. This abortion-as-birth-control activist lady? Not so much.
Shortly thereafter, I got distracted from my political inclinations by drug experimentation and sex. I used condoms. So did my friends. There were a few pregnancy scares, at which point abortion was discussed as one of several legitimate options. But none of us ever had to make the decision, because none of our furtively purchased stick tests ever came up pink.
Then, when I was seventeen, someone close to our family got his girlfriend pregnant. Steve was two years older than me, and at college upstate. His mother, Sarah, called my mother and asked if his girlfriend, Andrea, could stay with us when she came to the city to have the abortion, because there was no place for her to have one anywhere near where she lived. I wasn't particularly into the idea of sharing my room with this quasi-stranger and her friend for four days, but I was ready to be supportive and to defend her against every protestor in New York.
When Andrea and her friend showed up at our apartment that weekend (her boyfriend "couldn't make it"), my mother and I were shocked to see that Andrea actually looked pregnant. Talking to her that night, it was hard not to keep looking down at her stomach, thinking that what was inside soon wouldn't be there. I wondered how many weeks along she was. My mother's friend hadn't said. But thinking about her stomach going from round to flat made me feel a little sick. I tried to make small talk about Steve and the city. I think we played along with Wheel of Fortune on TV.
On the appointment day, my mother, Andrea, her friend and I took a cab to a clinic in midtown. There were protestors. My activist training had primed me for such an eventuality, but I didn't need to lock arms or anything. Someone from inside came out and ushered us in. The protestors left plenty of room around the door. They shouted things like "Don't kill your child!" while brandishing sweet photos of bouncing babies and gory ones, too, of aborted fetuses in trash bags. I hoped Andrea wasn't too upset, and tried to stand between her and the yelling. I secretly hoped no one on the street would think it was me who was getting the abortion, then felt ashamed for being so vain.
We sat in the waiting room until Andrea was called. There were women of all ages there. She went in and wasn't inside very long before she came out. "That was it?" my mother asked, surprised. "I have to come back tomorrow," Andrea said. When my mother asked why, Andrea said, "Because I'm at five months. They do the dilation one day and the extraction the next."
My mother — a pro-choice feminist who marched in demonstrations for the Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell and is one of the bravest people I know — turned pale. She
This is what I had shouted for at all those demonstrations?
could hardly speak. We left the clinic, through the gauntlet of protestors, and took a cab home. That night, we were watching TV in uncomfortable silence when the phone rang. It was Steve.
I took the phone into the bathroom. "Steve," I hissed, "why aren't you here? And why is she showing?"
"We didn't know until a couple of weeks ago that she was pregnant!" he yelled. "I saw the bloody tampons in her every month. I swear to God! And where do you get off? You won't even get her pot."
"She told me she asked you to buy her weed and you wouldn't. You're so selfish."
I was fleetingly impressed that he cared enough to be concerned about her stress level, even if he was hundreds of miles away.
"She's stressed out," he said, sounding stoned.
"Maybe she's supposed to be!" I yelled back. "Maybe this isn't supposed to be easy!"
Immediately, I felt guilty. I did know people who could get her some pot. My mother and I weren't being as comforting as we could be. But then I saw Andrea in the living room, flipping through magazines and joking with her friend, her stomach pushing past her unbuttoned jeans, and all the disapproval came rushing back. This is what I had shouted for at all those demonstrations? This girl, chain smoking and doing her nails and seemingly fine with her decision? Steve's right not to interrupt his busy pot-smoking schedule to take care of a baby that was only four months from being born?
The next day, we took her back to the clinic for the second part of the procedure. It took longer. We went back to the apartment and she stayed on the couch for two days watching TV. Then she and her friend took the bus back upstate.
Andrea and Steve broke up a year or so later. No one ever spoke about it again, until a couple of days ago, when I called my mother.
If there had been a Bible in our home, I would have thumped it.
"Did that really happen?" I asked her.
"Yes," she sighed. "When Sarah called, I didn't ask why they couldn't do the abortion upstate. I didn't know until she came out of that clinic room and said she had to come back the next day. I didn't know people even got abortions after six weeks. I'm pro-choice, and I know it's always such a hard choice, but what that girl did was murder. And I helped her. That will stay with me for the rest of my life."
In Salon a few months ago, Ayelet Waldman recalled her own second-term abortion and said that she felt she had "killed" her fetus, but had no regrets. "Listen to the pregnant woman, and you cannot help but defend her right to abortion," she wrote. That's probably true, but looking at Andrea, I felt revulsion. Politically, I still felt I had to defend her right to do what she was doing, but personally and morally I felt it was wrong. Even though I was a godless, liberal native New Yorker, I saw second-term abortion as a sin. If there had been a Bible in our home, I would have thumped it.
I've never said this out loud before, that I have such reluctance about abortion past a certain point — which in my case is definitely before Andrea's five months, when the fetus kicks, has a heartbeat, and sucks its thumb. Being pro-choice with reservations is taboo. It is to wrestle with guilt and doubt and feel that you must be silent. And I understand why. Last year, my colleague Lynn Harris wrote a great essay about how she and her husband help women get access to second-term abortions. I hear and agree with everything she says. I see how it's a class issue, and I appreciate the many totally legitimate reasons why many women can't or don't get them before they're so far along. I applaud Lynn. But privately, I still can't get over this deep moral anxiety about it. And I think that's something we should talk about. At the same time, I fear that by saying such a thing I'm stoking the fire of the fundamentalists, giving comfort to a political enemy that would also restrict access to safe and effective birth control if they could.
My husband grew up in a very small, very devout conservative town in Texas, where contraceptives and abortion were difficult to obtain. Like many of his friends, he had a baby and got married at eighteen, making ends meet by going on food stamps and working as a pizza delivery boy and then, blessedly, getting a college scholarship. The result is we have a bunch of amazingly great preteen kids in our lives. I adore my stepson. He was born a few months after Andrea's visit twelve years ago.
Would Andrea's hypothetical child
"What if you're aborting the next Einstein?" pro-lifers sometimes chant. I hate that. It's so Sliding Doors.
have had a good life? Almost definitely not. I suspect Steve and Andrea would have been less-than-stellar parents. Their child would probably be an adolescent mess right now. But I don't like to think about that kind of thing. "What if you're aborting the next Einstein?" pro-lifers sometimes chant. "It could be the next Hitler, too!" pro-choicers inevitably shout back. I hate that. It's so Sliding Doors.
But I do wonder if maybe we pro-choice advocates aren't more conflicted than we let on, and therefore if maybe pro-life advocates aren't as well. Maybe the deal is that pro-choicers have to say, "Allow abortion up until the ninth month! Free and on every corner!" And pro-lifers have to say, "We can never, ever allow it, even in cases of rape and incest, even if the mother might die!" That way, we meet in an awkward demilitarized zone, the first trimester, with restrictions and obstacles that hurt the poor and the young. And so we fight back and forth and make it easier this month and harder the next, so everyone's almost okay with the way things are, but no one really is. n°
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©2005 Ada Calhoun and Nerve.com