“Would you still help me get an abortion if they make it illegal?”
When I was in high school I had a car and no parents to tattle to, so sometimes people would come to me when they needed help and didn’t want anyone to know about it. I drove people to women’s health clinics after school and made hurried trips to the emergency room in the middle of the night. I counseled people about Plan B, birth control pills, and had condoms on hand even though I was a virgin myself.
I was a fear-hearer and secret-keeper. I witnessed and tried to absolve guilt.
I comforted and mothered the best I could figure out how to.
I promised that knowledge was power, and power was control, and control meant everything would be okay.
Maine’s a pretty rural state, and while I never required an abortion myself I felt obligated to have a plan in case I did, or someone I knew did. It would necessitate travel. Travel required planning. Planning required one to be able to think through their fear, their guilt, their grief. I tried to convey that I was willing to help, and often that just meant talking through things. But I also always offered to drive, to sit in the waiting room, to hold someone’s hand. Even if I never had to do it, I just wanted people to know that someone was willing. Even if we never hung out, or didn’t talk, I just wanted to use my premature adulthood for good.
After the election a few months ago, a friend asked me — hypothetically, she was quick to qualify, as if asking legitimately was a Sin — if my offers still stood, given the sociopolitical climate. Would I still be willing to help women get abortions if it was made illegal?
It took me a minute to process that she was asking with no hint of hyperbole. This was a real conversation we were having, describing a situation that may become reality. A reality that I was told my whole life would never be mine by women older than me, retired first-wave feminists who fought until they bled, and fought to bleed, so that I’d never have to.
Several of my mentors, all women now well into their middle-age and beyond, have confessed to me late at night over steaming cups or tea, or after a glass too full of wine, that they had “back alley” abortions. Stories of being dragged through the streets of city they’d never been to and piled into nondescript, unfurnished rooms. Given alcohol, pills they couldn’t taste, and lined up alongside other unfortunates as though they were staring down a firing squad. Slumped against each other, incapacitated by drugs and fear.
Some were taken to warm little houses on treelined streets where the curtains were drawn in the middle of the afternoon and a sheet thrown onto the kitchen table. A motherly looking women, still in her apron, would hover between their legs as a batch of molasses cookies baked in the oven behind their heads.
Others remembered nothing. Some couldn’t remember. Others chose not.
None of the women who told me their stories regretted their decision. They all believed that they had done the right thing for themselves, at the time, in that situation. Some felt guilt knowing they had gone to extreme lengths, breaking the law, putting their lives at risk. Putting the lives of those who helped them at risk.
They didn’t feel guilty about having an abortion. They felt guilty because they risked lives in order to have one. They felt guilty because they had to lie, to sneak, to evade. It wasn’t their choice that gave them guilt. It was the means they had to undertake to see it through in a world where Women’s Rights had to exist, because Human Rights didn’t apply.
While researching my book, I came across a passage in a book by Paula Weideger where she discusses the menstrual taboo at length. The book was published in 1975, but we haven’t progressed much in the 40-some years that have elapsed in terms of open discussion.
In acknowledging the continued presence of the menstrual taboo, and taboo around women speaking about the inner workings of their reproductive lives in general, Weideger observes that women often focus on the negative aspects of their period, which placates the patriarchal society that has conditioned us to frame them as a negative experience.
We teach young people that menstruation is, at best, an inconvenience and at its worst, capable of becoming a pathology. From a very young age, many of us learned to refer to our period as “the curse”, or expected it to interrupt our lives. We’re taught that we can’t have sex on our periods because it’s gross. We’re taught to hide our tampons in our boots as we walk from class to the bathroom. We develop a code amongst ourselves and should even our worst high school enemy have bled through her trousers, we’d tell her, because no one deserves such a humiliation.
For many of us the negativity that frames menstruation is more than a societal construct, because our menstrual experience is truly negative.
The trouble is, society dictates that we do not protest too much. It’s okay give a deferential ha-ha to our annoying periods, but the minute we try to speak up about the ways in which it debilitates us, we’ve gone too far. Society would like us to continue to feed the narrative that menstruation is negative, but not to the point where we question the medical establishment (which has always been, and still is, largely patriarchal).
To claim that menstruation in some way disables us is to reject our core femininity in a way that’s deemed threatening. Weideger suggests that the menstrual taboo reinforces the primal fear of rape that drives women at a visceral level: to deviate from the narrative that mollifies men would make us vulnerable to their aggressive response.
“If a woman is to reclaim her own image and her own body, she must be able to reduce the anxiety that rape will be her punishment.”
Weideger wrote those words 40 years ago, but when I read them, the weight of recognition was so heavy I had to put the book down.
I remembered talking to a young teenage girl I was mentoring about consent, and she brushed me off with typical adolescent self-deprecation:
“I’m not attractive, though,” she insisted, “A guy wouldn’t do it with me even if I offered.”
The remark stung for a lot of reasons, but the first thing I did was make her look me in the eye so I could tell her plainly, “A man doesn’t rape you for your beauty, he rapes for your power.”
Weideger was thinking about, if not writing, those words around the time many of the women who told me their illegal abortion horror stories were contemplating their limited options.
For some, then and now, being confronted by the need to even consider one’s options for an unplanned pregnancy are thrust upon a person without their consent. I have always advocated for a woman’s right to choose, but often framed it for myself as being the natural continuation of all my choices about reproductive health — which is to say, I have always made very intentional choices.
I reasoned that I have always been diligent about birth control. If it failed, I would have an abortion. If at any point I had a planned pregnancy that would not come to fruition because of some kind of genetic glitch, I would have an abortion. These were obvious answers for me, and I never labored over them. God forbid —as one must always preface —if I was ever raped and impregnated as a result of that act of violence, I would have an abortion. Of course I would.
That’s been my privilege in life thus far, and is not every woman’s story.
These decisions were reached easily because I never had to worry about the how. Abortion, for the 25 years I’ve been on earth, has been attainable. Enmeshed in divisive sociopolitical rhetoric, yes — but available nonetheless. I would be shamed, threatened, vilified — but I would not be breaking the law by procuring an abortion.
This was important not on principle, not because I was particularly concerned about breaking The Law, but because the fact that abortion was Lawful made me feel that it was safe. That it was somehow regulated, that I would not end up in some building with not heat in a seedy part of town, unconscious, with several thousand dollars in cash seeping from my coat pocket and a bottle of Extra Strength Tylenol.
I never expected the lawfulness of abortion to protect me from being attacked by those who thought it ought to be a crime. I’m not that naive.
I just found solace in the fact that so long as abortion was lawful, it would not be dangerous. That as long as abortion was legal, if I was the victim of some horrendous act of violence, I could be helped. I would not be forced to enact violence upon myself. I would not have to self-immolate to survive.
“Would you still help me get an abortion if they make it illegal?”
I thought about how so many women have never had a conversation like this. It would have been terrifying enough to ask, “Will you help me get an abortion even though it’s illegal?” It certainly wouldn’t have been easy to ask, “Will you help me get an abortion now that it’s legal?” knowing what kind of opposition and denigration awaited them.
To have known the freedom I have known, to have had the agency over my own body that I have had, and to consider that it may be taken away, that we will lapse back, stirs up that primal fear in me that was never truly put to rest. I was told that I was growing up in a different era, that I would never have to face these horrible, dystopian realities. Yet the older, wiser, women in my life still put that fear in me, and now I wonder if it was because they weren’t confident that we wouldn’t some day revert back.
They still warned me not to tempt men. Before I’d even menstruated, before I needed a training bra, I was warned that men would look at me. That I had to hide myself for my own safety, because they know not what they do.
I was instructed to coddle men, to not antagonize them. I was taught that the only power I possessed over the men in my life was withholding sex until the gutters got cleaned, or the trash taken out. I was taught that sex was a currency, but men owned the bank. I just had a safety deposit box.
I was taught that consensual sex was an obligation of my desirability, and that rape was a consequence of my having failed to hide it.
I was taught that birth control was my responsibility because men couldn’t be trusted. Experientially, it seemed less that they couldn’t be trusted, but rather, that men rarely considered putting their comfort below mine.
My safety ahead of their pleasure.
Sex began to feel like something tangible that I could either give willingly or it would be taken from me. Sex was something I had, but that I did not own.
How could I possibly say no? That was my first thought when my friend posed the question of would I still . . .? I think about the primal fear of men, constantly vigilant about castration, and I realize that I feel the most sexually disempowered I have ever felt in my life.
The fears of men drive them to seek power, to take it, to reclaim it. They are praised for standing up on principle. Legislation is signed in their names. They get corner offices and secretaries. They erect statues. They alternatively praise and disparage women as it suits them, and women defer to them out of fear, and envy, and exhaustion.
They take away our rights not to punish us, but to remind us that our rights were never truly ours. Men have rights. Women were given rights.
Seeking power externally has been a dead end for me — the feminist slut, the dumb bitch who should get raped and kill herself.
All I feel I can do now is turn inward, cultivate the power within. And if one day I am driving down a dark, deserted highway with a woman I hardly know in the passenger seat, the night sky bright above us, the moon a searchlight, I will take her hand.
I will tell her that as long as she has a pulse, her body is her own. Her blood belongs to her. Her brain belongs to her. Her heart is her own, and she does not have to give away in order to be loved.
I will focus straight ahead as we drive and tell myself the same.
Abby Norman is a science writer & editor based in New England. Her first book, ASK ME ABOUT MY UTERUS: A QUEST TO MAKE DOCTORS BELIEVE IN WOMEN’S PAIN, will be released March 6, 2018 by Nation Books/Hachette.