A True Story, For Troubled Times
It is a frightening time to be a woman in the United States. We have not yet reached equality, still earning less than a man for doing the same work, still victim shamed for sexual assault, still struggling to have our full humanity recognized in our culture. And now, even as we continue to push forward, we are being forced back.
Already we were being told what kind of medical care we can choose for our children, threatened with felony conviction for pursuing that care beyond the boundaries of our home states. Now we have lost federal protection for our own reproductive care. Echoes of a military state rumble through legislative halls as we face proposed penalties for pursuing our own life-saving and life-affirming care.
In response to the recent overturning of the Roe v. Wade verdict, women everywhere are suddenly sharing their stories about choosing abortion; the when, where, and why they chose not to bring a pregnancy through to birth. These women are everywoman. I have been personally witnessing these stories, spoken by black women and white women, women who speak with a Harvard accent and women who speak broken English, women who are married and single, women who could have given birth to a viable, living baby and women who could not, women who are 19 and who are 79, women who conceived in love and women who conceived in abuse. I have listened as students, physicians, authors, Olympians, legislators, and mothers from every creed and class of women have spoken up, marking themselves as someone who has chosen this care that is increasingly threatened in our country.
At the same time that I am witnessing these tales and holding my breath as women's freedom stands on proud but shaky legs, I am preparing to get a new tattoo--an image of a bird dissolving into dust, along with these words from Sue Monk Kidd: "When I am dust, sing these words over my bones: she was a voice."
A Voice. It feels like my calling. But as I watch and listen to these women sharing their stories to bring humanity to an argument that should never be debated, I realize that I cannot claim this title--A Voice, capitals calculated and consequential--unless I am willing to stand alongside these women, to add my story to theirs.
My name is Deb. I am 47 years old, and when I was 16, I chose an abortion. This is my story...
I could count the number of times I'd had sex on one hand with fingers left over when I got pregnant. The very first period that should have come following the loss of my virginity was late. Not the couple of days, sweating bullets, followed by a deep sigh of relief kind of late. The oh fuck, what am I going to do, who can I tell, why is this happening to me, I am scared shitless kind of late.
I was using birth control as I understood it, based on the education I'd been given. My school district offered sexual education, but I would offer that they used the term a bit loosely. Reproduction was presented much like an odd math class, with a focus on numbers and statistics. I was taught that a menstrual cycle is 28 days. The only time a woman can become pregnant is during ovulation, which takes place in the middle of the cycle, on day 14. Condoms can prevent pregnancy, but the best method is abstinence.
These things were presented to me as facts. Implied in the curriculum was that pregnancy was burdensome, birth was terrifying, and being a teenaged mom was shameful. And let's not forget the cultural lessons all female children are taught: don't be a slut. Or a prude. Boys don't like girls who say no. Or yes. Sex is dirty, menstruation is dirty; you are dirty.
No one offered me the course that I should have been taught, which was much less mathematics and much more weird science. No one told me that sperm can live in the female reproductive tract for more than a week, that a cycle can be of any length and young women's cycles are more likely to be unpredictable, No one taught me that you can ovulate on any day of your who-knows-how-long-it-will-be cycle. And I never heard a word about the real math here, which equals there is a chance that you can get pregnant ANY TIME YOU HAVE SEX.
No one told me that sex was natural and joyful, that sexual urges were normal, that nearly every human has sex, and most of them start in their teens. No one acknowledged that, had I been born just a few hundred years prior, at my age I would have been married and had several children already. The natural, animal, and spiritual aspects of sex were avoided altogether, in favor of this oddly truncated and misleading physiology/algebra lesson.
Outside of school, I had wonderful, kind, pretty open-minded parents. My mother asked me (before I started having sex) if I would like to be on birth control pills. The idea that anyone might see me as a sexual being was so distressing (see the above) that I didn't even consider my answer. I uttered a typical teenaged sound and said no. There was probably eye rolling. There was no thinking, on my part, mostly because of my discomfort, but also because I was not having sex at that point.
When I did become sexually active, it was with a boy I had been dating for more than two years. I fully anticipated that we would marry. He was a kind person, several years older than me, who waited patiently for me to feel ready. We thought we were doing the right things, using a condom near the time of my supposed ovulation, until that first menstrual period that never came.
I don't recall whom I told first, him or my mother. I do recall feeling physically ill at the thought of having to tell either one of them. Had I been a better liar (a skill I've never acquired), I might have simply gone to a clinic alone and had an abortion. Going through that alone felt less terrifying than telling my boyfriend or my parents that I was pregnant. Alas, women with glass faces don't have secret abortions, so I did tell them both. I remember a lot of crying, on everyone's part.
I remember buying the pregnancy test, at the drug store farthest from my home, where it was least likely I would see someone that I knew. I remember there were several options, and I didn't understand the difference between them. I remember feeling like my face was on fire, the seconds feeling like hours as I studied the options, trying to hold back tears. I remember thinking about stealing it, so I wouldn't have to take it to the cash register and pay for it. I remember deciding not to, because the only thing that seemed worse than buying a pregnancy test was getting caught stealing it.
I remember taking the test, though not where I was when I did it. I don't recall whether I was alone or with a friend. But I do remember that the minutes stretched like rotten taffy, sickening and sticky, and I have never wished so hard to unsee something as I wished for that second pink line to go away. I remember feeling like my entire life was dissolving around me, like a Dali painting; everything softening and dripping away, leaving me standing in a puddle of unrecognizable goo that just a few minutes prior had been my normal girl doing normal things reality.
I remember learning why our attempts at birth control failed, and feeling bitterly angry. Why didn't anyone tell me how to keep this from happening?! What was that 28 day, day 14 bullshit they taught us in school? Why did they just keep telling us not to have sex when they know we're going to do it? Why didn't anybody keep me safe???
I remember my mother telling me that my father didn't believe in abortion. I remember wondering what his beliefs had to do with it, if she had to tell him, if he would still love me. I remember avoiding looking at him, because I was afraid of what I might see.
I remember seeing a Halloween troll doll in the hospital gift shop, one with neon green hair and an orange pumpkin outfit. When I woke up after the procedure, my mother gave it to me. I remember giving it to my best friend a few months later, when she got pregnant and chose an abortion.
Many of the women whose stories I am holding in my heart as I write this described the choice to have an abortion as difficult. I have no doubt that it was for them, and is for many. I honor the right for women to experience the choice to release a pregnancy, for any reason, as difficult. But I am leery of labeling abortion a "difficult choice." I worry that this opens the door for further judgement of women for whom it was not.
Abortion was not a difficult choice for me. I was not ready to be a mother, not sure I ever would be (and, in fact, I have continued in my choice not to birth a child). My boyfriend was not ready to be a father. I had two years remaining in high school. Pregnant girls are not treated with kindness by their fellow teens (or their teaches, for that matter). To follow through with a pregnancy in order to give my baby up for adoption would have subjected me to ridicule that would have traumatized me and my baby for life.
I had chosen to have sex and had done the best possible job that I could with the knowledge I had at the time to prevent a pregnancy. I wasn't successful. And I wasn't going to be a mother. The entire situation was painful in a way that's never been eclipsed by anything I've experienced since, but the choice was not difficult in the traditional sense. There was no waffling or weighing of options, no doubt about the right choice. I still feel that way, that I made the right choice. There has never been one moment of doubt. In this sense, the decision was easy.
Until I wrote this, I could count on one hand the number of people who knew I had an abortion. Why didn't I share my story before? Because it's mine, my private business. I've had moles removed, too. I've had irregular pap smears. My blood type is A+. These aren't things I ever felt the need to share. Also, there was a desire to avoid being judged. It's not anyone's business, what I have done with my body. I'm not interested in the opinions of others, and the best way to avoid being offered those opinions is to keep my business as mine alone.
Why am I sharing now? Because I am A Voice. And right now, women need to hear A Voice. A Voice that sounds like their own, A Voice that reminds them that they are not alone, A Voice that tells the truth even when the truth is not welcome.
My name is Deb. And I have had an abortion. That's not all of my story. But it is part of it. And if that part of my story helps you in any way--to honor or tell your own story, to choose what's best for you, to decide whether or not you trust or respect me--then I am glad to share.