How I Learned I Was Pro-Choice by Secretly Aborting My Friend’s Baby
For the record, you can get pregnant in a hot tub. A lot of people don’t think it’s possible. I don’t exactly know what science they’re using but, whatever they’re telling themselves, they’re wrong. It happens. It happened to a friend of mine. After his hot tub one-night stand, the girl he had sex with came to me and told me she was pregnant. She informed me and not him because she was my girlfriend’s roommate. And she needed my advice. But before she told me she was pregnant, she asked me if I could keep a secret. I said I could. Like Heath Ledger’s Joker, I’m a man of my word. But I had no idea of the impact of the secret she was about to share. I figured it was about my girlfriend. I was dead wrong. She told me she was pregnant and my friend was the father. And since she was in college, she was thinking about getting an abortion.
She wanted to know what I thought. More importantly, what my friend would think. I told her I had no clue about his opinion on abortion. We’re guys. We don’t often know each other’s middle names, which means when it comes to really serious personal information, like his stance on abortion, I was even more in the dark. I knew my friend’s middle name but had no clue if he was pro-choice or pro-life. All I really knew was, like me, he was raised Catholic. I told her this. She asked me to decide for him, whether or not she should get the abortion.
I asked why she couldn’t just tell him. She refused. She admitted her mind was made up. She really just wanted to know if he would hate her for what she was planning to do. For some it’s easy to have an opinion on things like the death penalty or abortion; but I found it’s quite different when you’re the one who has to throw the switch.
After what seemed to be an interminable silence, I told her I’d need the night to think about it before I could tell her my decision. I wanted to say it was totally unfair she put me in this position, but I didn’t. She thanked me and made me promise again not to tell anyone, not even her roommate/my girlfriend. As you might well guess, I didn’t sleep much that night.
How do you decide something like that for someone else? How do you know what the right thing to do is? What grounds do you use to decide if an abortion is the right call? Morality? Practicality? I had nightmares of babies cussing me out. I had dreams of my friend pushing a stroller and cursing my name. There was no way to be certain. And, in the absence of certainty, my mind offered me lots of ways I might ruin the lives of others.
The next morning, puffy-faced and tired, I pulled myself out of bed and kissed my girlfriend, who was already up and ready for class. She said I was tossing and turning all night. I lied and said I was just having some silly nightmare. She said her bed was too small and she should get a new one. I said it wasn’t the bed. She kissed me and left for school. She and I had gone through one pregnancy scare in the time we were together, but we got the morning-after pill and nothing came of our scare.
In the kitchen, I drank a glass of water and took a few long even breaths, knowing that in a few moments, her roommate would be awake and I’d have to tell her my decision. It was the toughest decision I ever had to make. And I was going to take every second I could to agonize over what to do. When I heard her bedroom door open, I felt something inside me move. It was my stomach falling, twisting and knotting up in my gut. She managed a pained smile and said, “G’morning…” And then went to bathroom and got sick. I heard her vomit. I don’t know if it was psychosomatic, if it was the stress, or if morning sickness starts that early in a pregnancy. I knew so very little about babies and pregnancies. I wanted to call my parents and ask them what to do. But I swore to hold her secret. After she washed up, I poured some juice for each of us and asked her if she’d thought more about it.
I heard myself say “it” and knew that given enough time “it” would need a name and a social security card and new shoes and haircuts. But for now, it was still “it,” and just as easily “it” could still be in reference to her situation, her condition. She looked at me. Opened her mouth and said nothing.
I knew her answer. In that quiet morning moment, I slowly nodded. She asked me if I would go with her. She had no one else to take her. Again, I nodded. She said she wanted to go that day. It was all happening. With two head nods I’d decided to secretly abort my friend’s baby. But I didn’t really see it like that. I felt that as long as it was in her body, it was her choice, and that it wouldn’t be my friend’s baby until she’d carried it to term and delivered it. This is how I learned I’m pro-choice.
After some bullshit breakfast of Pop-Tarts that neither of us finished, I walked out to my car, and then drove around in front of their little cottage-style apartment. And she walked out. The heavy passenger door of my ’65 Chevy slammed shut with all the finality of a decision that had now become a course of action.
Neither of us really spoke as I drove. We went to the next town over, so she wouldn’t be spotted coming out of Planned Parenthood by anyone in our small college town. Long swaths of fields stretched to the horizon, separating the two towns. Tomatoes. Corn. Sunflowers. Alfalfa. As I drove, the fragrance of the fields wafted in the open windows. My car had no air conditioning and the day was hot enough that the breeze of motion provided some comfort, but our destination counterbalanced the cool air, and left us both feeling a heavy and unspoken dread.
Moral critics like to paint the young women and teen girls who get abortions as people who are casually using abortion as some lazy last line of birth control. They act as if it were done with all the care one might put into littering. I ashed my cigarette out the window and knew how wrong those critics were. This woman was terrified, angry at herself for being in this position and scared she might ruin any chance of her ever having a baby in her future. I know because just before we got there words started to spill from her mouth. Unformed thoughts jumbled on top of one another. I don’t think she was telling me why, or justifying our secret decision, I think she wanted to hear her own fears and anxieties spoken aloud so they might be diminished by the light of day.
When I parked in the shopping mall parking lot where Planned Parenthood was, we were both slow to get out. I made a bad joke and said if she was good then afterward we could go get ice cream, like she was a kid going to the doctor. It wasn’t funny, but it seemed to shift the context enough that we both got out of the car smiling. At what, I don’t know.
In the waiting room, there was plenty of reading material. I mutely stared at the really old Seventeen magazines and the brochures on birth control options, comparing IUDs to diaphragms and condoms to abstinence. She didn’t read anything. I flipped through a Cosmo, but the over-sexed articles seemed grossly ironic reading for a waiting room of an abortion clinic. Not even my dark sense of humor found much funny. I put the Cosmo back. I saw her hand on the armrest and covered it with mine. She lifted her hand and wove her fingers between mine. I could feel her heartbeat pulsing fast like some small mammal.
The receptionist called her name. She squeezed my hand. And then, she stood up. I told her everything would be okay. I had no real proof that what I was saying was the least bit true, but somehow, saying it felt right. She smiled weakly, apologetically, and she knew I had no idea if everything would be okay, but she seemed happy to hear it. The receptionist held the door. I watched it sweep close and they disappeared from view. I knew the next time I saw her she would be a much different woman. She’d just crossed a dividing line. No longer a scared college girl, she was about to become a woman who’d dealt with a woman’s troubles.
In the waiting room with me were a few other girls. All of them were teenagers. And all of them were there with what looked to be their mothers. No one was talking. No one was on a phone. No one was doing much of anything, other than quietly confronting their fears or steeling themselves with what I imagined was something similar to what I told her, everything will be okay. When I made eye contact, the scared teen girls looked through me, not at me. I was presumably the only man in the building. And I felt like it.
As I waited, one image kept flashing across my mental theater — my friend’s face. I would see him soon and not be able to tell him what I’d done. And if I ever did tell him, would he forgive me? Would he thank me? Or would he hate me for making such an important choice in his life? My feet didn’t fit the shoes of Fate, but here I was deciding the course of my friend’s life, unbeknownst to him. I felt like I wanted to vomit. But I remained seated.
When the door opened and she came out, I felt relieved we could finally go and put this all in the past. But then I saw her, like, really saw her. She was hunched over like she felt empty inside and the void in her middle made it impossible for her to walk upright. I sprang from my seat to help her to the car. The nurse said something about the signs of complications, and how if there was excessive bleeding to take her to an emergency room and that she’d need to rest for a few days, and other things that turned into a stream of words, ones I could no longer focus on, because I was focused on the look in my friend’s eyes. She seemed so lost, shell-shocked; her eyes were unfocused and staring out at some distant point a thousand miles away. I put an arm around her and helped her to the car. I saw two of the waiting teenagers stiffen at the sight of this stooped young woman who’d just had the procedure. They stared at the face of their potentially near future. They studied this young woman who could only shuffle because some of her insides had just been vacuumed out and now she was showing all the signs of that trauma.
At my car, I unlocked the passenger side door. But before I could open it, she started to cry. And it quickly escalated to sobbing. I hugged her. And we leaned against the back door. The keys were still in the lock. The sun was bright. The crows cawed in the distance. Cars slowly drove around in the parking lot. But for that moment, we just held each other, bonded by our secret and her pain. Again, I told her everything would be okay. I repeated it a few times as my shoulder grew wet with heavy tears. And then in a tiny voice, she said, “I wanna go home.”
Driving back past those fragrant fields, the smells of spring seemed cruel. All of their fertility was some mean reminder. As we got closer to our small college town, I asked her if she was hungry. She nodded. And then shook her head “no.” I told her that since they didn’t have many groceries in their fridge, I’d stop and get her some comfort food for later in case she got an appetite. She waited in the car while I ran in and bought pre-made mashed potatoes, baked chicken, some side dishes.
Back at her place, she lay down on the couch and I fetched a quilt and blanket. I made her as comfortable as I knew how. Neither of us had an appetite. So we watched television. It was hard to find something that wouldn’t remind her of couples, babies, sex, children, the future, etc. So we watched Antiques Roadshow on PBS. Safe with the flea market crowd, although neither of us were really watching the glowing box.
And then she started to cry. I comforted her best I could, but nothing could take away the pain and hollowness. Unable to make her feel better, I distracted myself from the waves of guilt wrecking my peace of mind. I was still unsure if I’d done the right thing or not.
As afternoon slipped into evening, the room grew dark, lit only by the flickering television. Outside we could hear other college kids coming home, laughing loud, talking about their weekend plans and enjoying that Friday afternoon-turned-evening. As the antiques on TV were appraised, I got high. She did not. Just before her roommate/my girlfriend got home from class, she got up and went to her bedroom to take a nap. She thanked me for driving her there and taking care of her. It was the last we spoke of the clinic. Ever. We had our secret and that was that. When my girlfriend got home, I said nothing of my day and instead concentrated on how hers was.
The next day I woke up early, and coming out of the bathroom, I saw her. She thanked me again for giving her a ride the day before. Casual. No indication of our serious business. I told her, as a big brother, I just treated the women in my life the way I hoped other men would treat my sister. She cried a little. But stopped herself. And then she told me she was driving to her hometown for the weekend. Her parents were away and she wanted to be alone in her childhood bedroom. I didn’t know if that was a good idea, but I was done making decisions for other people.
I carried her overnight bag to her car. She was still walking with a slight hunch, but doing her best to hide it from anyone. At her car, I asked if I could ever tell my friend what I’d done. She said, many years from now, if I still wanted to, I could tell him. But she didn’t understand why I would want to. She wasn’t raised Catholic like my friend and I and so she didn’t understand the idea of absolution. I needed to know that one day I could be free of how I was feeling. I also felt somewhat empty inside. She thanked me again, we hugged and then she drove home to spend the night in her childhood bedroom all alone.
Years later, after he started his adult life, got married and had a child, I took my friend aside one day and told him I needed to share something with him but I was afraid of how he might react. He saw in my eyes it was serious. Without any hesitation I told him some years back a woman came to me and said he’d gotten her pregnant. She was certain it was him because she hadn’t slept with anyone else that year. And she and I decided it was best for her to get an abortion. I let the word hang in the air. I waited. He processed what this meant. After a long and painfully silent pause, he let out a sigh. You never know what those mean until some words follow, but they were slow to appear and clarify. Finally he said, “Thanks, man. You’re a good friend.”
I’d waited years to hear that.
It’s easy to say we’re pro-choice or pro-life in theory. When you argue about abortion politically, it remains someone else’s problem. But when you have to make a judgment call, it’s far harder to choose to stand by a woman, a person who’s scared and desperate, and decide that despite any doubts or reservations you may have, her choice is the most important thing in that moment. No matter what she chooses, you’re gonna have her back and support her.
And that’s how I learned to be really and truly pro-choice. It was the toughest decision I ever made, but I’d do it again if I had to.
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Zaron Burnett III on Twitter
Photo by Drew Herron.