You don’t get to have all the babies
The original title of this was Let’s Celebrate Abortion. Which I know I’m not supposed to say. So let me amend: Let’s celebrate the easy ones.
But these kinds of abortions don’t get talked about, much less celebrated. Because apparently the first rule of pro-choice PR (and I get this, I really do) is that we need to “respect the other side” and talk about abortion as a sad, painful, and complicated decision.
Well, sorry, sisters in the trenches and I don’t want to set the cause back 50 years, but fuck that. Our stories may not get told, but there are lots of us walking around who’ve had abortions that not only didn’t make us sad, but happy. Thrilled, even.
I know this because we talk about it. In secret.
The first time I talked about it publicly — on Facebook — my heart thumped and my hands shook. I’d wanted to come out about it for a while, because what kind of feminist was I if I couldn’t even be honest about something that one in three women have done?
It wasn’t even the thought of generalized stigma. In fact, there was only one person I was worried about, and that was my then brother-in-law. Despite his political views, I loved him and liked him and didn’t want him to think less of me.
But then New York Magazine ran a story with photos and short interviews of a bunch of women telling their abortion stories and I thought, Stop being a wuss.
So I posted the article and wrote this:
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how abortion is yet another closet, and how few of us talk publicly about it. That bugs me, so here goes (heart beating fast although I’m not sure what I’m scared of): I’m one of the one in three. There. If these women can have their photos in a magazine, then I can come out on Facebook. Not quite sure what I hope to accomplish, if anything. Guess I was just feeling like a hypocrite for wishing this was something more women talked about and then not being one of them.
It felt good, being honest. And as I might have expected, my friends were wonderful and supportive and said they wanted to hug me.
Two years later, I told my story:
It’s #ShoutYourAbortion week, so even though I’m hardly in the closet when it comes to mine, I suppose I haven’t exactly shouted it. I also haven’t posted anything about Planned Parenthood on Facebook because I can’t believe we’re still having this conversation. Really?
Here’s the thing — I’m happy to shout, but my story is not the kind that will sway anyone who thinks women shouldn’t have control over their own bodies toward thinking maybe they should.
There’s no hardship, no sad backstory. I didn’t do this to be a better mom to my other kids or because I couldn’t afford to have a child or because I was single and didn’t know how I would raise a kid alone. (The only thing resembling hardship was the unbelievable pain I was in for several weeks. Like the kind of pain where you have to excuse yourself from conversation to go curl up into a ball and writhe, which I did more times than I can count.)
I just didn’t want kids. Still. Ever. Never had. And to paraphrase Katha Pollitt, puberty to menopause is a long damn time to make sure no stray sperm ever gets in your uterus.
The decision was probably the easiest I ever made, and that’s not an exaggeration. I called Planned Parenthood, made an appointment, walked in four days later, and walked out no longer pregnant. Once upon a time, I thought we would get to a point where I wouldn’t have to consider myself lucky or privileged to live in a state where I could do that.
I went to Planned Parenthood because I was new to the city and I didn’t have an OB/GYN, and I knew they would take excellent care of me. Which they did.
That night was the first night in weeks I slept straight through without waking up every hour or two in excruciating pain. The next morning, I wanted to dance a jig I was so happy.
Anyone who’s looking for conflicted feelings or even complexity, this isn’t the story for you.
I feel pretty silly posting this, because as with so many things, it seems like I’m preaching to my liberal echo chamber. But Lindy West is right. Abortion is not something we should whisper, not as long as Planned Parenthood and other women’s healthcare providers are under attack.
But as I said, we’re not supposed to talk about happiness. People all along the spectrum of pro-choice thinking — from politicians to activists to reluctant I’d-never-get-one-myself supporters — want abortion to be hard and sad. When Lena Dunham said recently that she wished she’d had one, she got slammed. A male commenter on a friend’s Facebook page wrote: “You’d never say that you wished you’d had cancer.”
Abortion isn’t cancer, and do I really need to say that? It’s also, as I think Gloria Steinem or Catherine MacKinnon pointed out, not a root canal. As in, we shouldn’t go so overboard making it no big deal that we talk about it like it’s a minor medical procedure (even if it is). But I would say let’s not equate it to a root canal for another reason: because if you don’t want to carry a baby to term or raise a child, the freedom that comes with not being pregnant is momentous. Yes, a root canal can relieve the debilitating pain of an infected tooth. But an infected tooth is unlikely to change the entire course of your life.
Bill Clinton said it should be safe, legal and rare. Why rare? Pregnancy isn’t rare. Birth control isn’t easy or fun, and not all sex is consensual.
Pro-choice advocates are always saying, defensively, “It’s not like anyone is pro-abortion.” Well, I am.
When I was in the room at Planned Parenthood where about 15 of us were sitting around with our IVs, waiting our turns while “Million Dollar Listing” played in the background, I looked around at all the other women and thought, Look at all this potential. Think of the things we’ll be able to do with our lives because we’re ending these pregnancies.
I know that people who would like to see abortion outlawed don’t give a shit about this — my life or the lives of the other women in the waiting room or whatever potential we might unleash by getting abortions when we did.
But what about other life? The life of kids we love?
Which brings me to my next thought, which is that sometimes even painful abortions should be celebrated. And I’m not talking about aborting a fetus that has no chance of surviving outside the womb. That’s just heartbreaking and brutal and not something any woman should go through.
I’m talking about abortions that make room for other kids, kids who haven’t been born yet.
A college friend of mine grew up in a religious family in a small town in Indiana and met the love of her life while we were in college. Our freshman year, she got pregnant and had an abortion. Now, she and her boyfriend fully expected to spend the rest of their lives together and raise a family, so the decision to abort was incredibly painful, and still not something she talks about with most people. But they were kids, and they weren’t ready to raise a child.
Fast-forward to the present: they’ve been married for 25 years and have three amazing kids who range from 15 to 23.
I love those kids — each one of them. They are so different from each other, so quirky and surprising and divergently passionate about the strangest things that I can’t imagine the world without them. They wouldn’t exist without their mother’s college-age abortion. She and her husband might have gone on to have other kids, sure, but the world wouldn’t have these three people in particular. And I think that would be a loss.
So I find it maddening that one of these kids has become ardently anti-abortion, as in, she thinks it should be outlawed in every instance. I don’t know if her mother has ever told her about the earlier abortion, and how that unborn baby made room for her and her brothers. I don’t know if it would matter.
But it matters to me.
The same goes for the guy I was with when I got pregnant. We loved each other and both had stable careers; we could have brought a kid into the world with the expectation that we would be a two-parent family with plenty of food on the table. But I’d never wanted kids and he didn’t either, at least then, or at least not with me.
Fast-forward to the present and he’s with another woman and they have a child who is by all accounts adorable and smart and charming and delectable. That child would not be in this world if I hadn’t made that appointment at Planned Parenthood. As with my college friend, my ex may have gone on to have other children even if we’d had one of our own, but it wouldn’t be that child, the child he did have and whom all of his aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins love so much.
Anti-abortion people: You don’t get to have all the babies! If abortion is outlawed, you might get a net increase in the number of babies on the planet (along with a bunch of dead women killed by botched attempts and countless more depressed women and poor women, and come to think of it, some loss of future babies because botched abortions can lead to infertility), but you won’t get to keep them all.
As I write this, I realize that I don’t know what you want. Do you want more babies, period? Do you want every fertilized egg to grow into an embryo into a fetus and into a breathing person, no matter what the circumstance? Even if it would mean we lost the chance to have other people in this world, other potential babies who would have no chance at being conceived if the embryos before them weren’t aborted?
It’s not a zero-sum game. But it is a game of chance. That one sperm out of hundreds of millions should have met the egg of the month and eventually grown into every person who’s ever lived is indeed a miracle. I’ve been the ultra-sound buddy for my best friend who’d been trying to have a baby for years, miscarrying along the way— I’ve seen a grain of rice grow into a gummy bear that we all desperately hoped would turn into a lemon and then an avocado and then a person — and I’ve felt the cold dread as the technician’s face hardened and said, “You’ll need to talk to the doctor.” I’ve cried off and on for a week, mourning the loss of the one we all hoped, somehow, would be the one who made it.
I have another dear friend who had two miscarriages before she had two girls, now 1 and 3, and she told me that she will always remember the would-be birthdays of those two babies who were never born. Of course she wouldn’t have the children she did if she hadn’t miscarried. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel the pain of those ghost children, just as I imagine my college friend sometimes thinks of the child that would have been if she and her husband had not decided she should get an abortion.
So much hope invested in a collection of cells, a zygote not yet a person but whom we want to see brought into this world.
The collection of cells growing in my body had no such hopes surrounding it. And I’ve begun to think that it is that hope that transforms an embryo into a baby.
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