Note: This essay will appear in three parts.
Second-wave feminism hit in 1969. Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. In 1976, I turned thirty.
Backstory: I’d been sexually active since age 20, back in the dark ages (1966!) when “abortion” meant being picked up by a black car with tinted windows on a Newark street corner and blindfolded; when “taking responsibility for birth control” meant tremblingly braving a male gynecologist who made suggestive wisecracks about my anatomy. Somehow, using a chancy combination of rhythm and diaphragm, I had miraculously avoided getting pregnant throughout my twenties. The simplest central tenet of feminism – that being female is a full human plenitude, not a shameful lack – had saved my soul. Abortion, I believed, was a woman’s business. My body, my choice. Case closed.
Then I had one.
I. The circumstances were painfully complicated.
(As if the circumstances surrounding an abortion are ever less than painfully complicated.) It was 1982, and I had been living with Jacques for ten years. That spring, his mother, whom I loved, had died, holding our hands. Eighty-four years old, she had been strong and healthy until two weeks before her death, in Romania, of pneumonia following the flu.
Have you noticed that life is often given when life is taken away? I’m not just talking about people’s conscious need to console themselves by having a child when someone dies – to remind themselves in the thick of grief that life doesn’t just end, it also begins. I’m talking about something much more mysterious. I didn’t just get pregnant by accident in the summer of 1982; I also got pregnant by accident in the summer of 1981 -- almost a year before Jacques’ mother died (but I’d almost immediately miscarried). Maybe a coincidence, maybe not. These were the only two pregnancies of my life, at age 35 and 36. Both times, we had no plan to have a child, and I was using birth control no less faithfully than I ever had when I was younger and presumably more fertile.
It’s almost as if Something knows before we know that a death is coming, and sends life in solace and balance and continuation.
Two more brief stories: a young friend of ours, living with the man she loved and planned to marry, got pregnant “by accident.” She had an abortion because they decided they were not yet ready, financially or emotionally, to have a child. The following year her older sister became ill with a virulent form of cancer, and died in less than a year. I’m not suggesting for an instant that the death was some kind of karmic reckoning for the abortion. On the contrary, I’m wondering whether the new life might not have been sent to make the whole ravaged family smile through their tears. Maybe a coincidence, maybe not. Maybe Something kind and wise behind the scenes knows more, knows better, than we do.
The second is a 9/11 story. Mayor Giuliani’s personal assistant, Beth Petrone, was married to Terence Hatton, the captain of the FDNY’s Rescue One. They had been trying without success to start a family, and were considering fertility treatments, when Terry was killed at the World Trade Center, along with so many other New York City firemen, trying to save people from the collapsing twin towers. Two weeks later, Beth found out that she was pregnant (with a daughter, Terri).
[UPDATE: Another example is posted here.]
Jacques’ mother died in May; I got pregnant in August. The decision was agonizing. I had always wanted to have at least one child. Jacques, who had survived and escaped from a Soviet slave-labor camp in his teens, did not. His reasons were complex (and not pertinent to my point about abortion, so if you’d rather skip the particulars, go here). He had pitied his powerful father for being unable to save him from the Red Army, and was terrified of having to watch helplessly as his own child fell prey to some future disaster. His psyche hadn’t healed from its own wounds, and that slow process demanded priority. Being a prisoner and a disinherited refugee at an age when others are learning a trade, profession, or family business had left him less than wealthy, when he believed (having grown up wealthy) that only wealth could provide security – except when it couldn’t. He knew he carried the gene for the epilepsy that had killed his sister, deprived of medication, in another Soviet camp; he’d had a few seizures himself. His ultimate reasons remain a mystery to me; after all, for him, the last of his family, to refuse to have a child meant committing lineage suicide, the end of a proud and vital line that he could trace back to the fourteenth century. It seemed to me a strange combination of egotism – he’d set his heart on redeeming his prison experience by becoming famous for his book about it – and nihilism, an icy Nietzschean disdain for life. (Which now, two decades later, has almost completely melted, exposing the great, soft heart underneath.)
And then there were my reasons. On the one hand, I didn’t want to miss out on the primal, fulfilling experience of having a baby. (That way of putting it sounds callow to me now, but I’m not going to censor it, because that’s how I felt then, and, I think, how most young women – maybe especially educated, progressive young women – view childbearing. Call it narcissistic, or call it one of nature’s tricks, but if we didn’t view it with that romantic selfishness we might never take it on.) On the other hand, after a decade together I still wasn’t fully committed, or married, to Jacques. Living with a survivor is a tough task to take on, and I wasn’t sure I’d chosen it so much as fate had forced it on me. As his oldest and most devoted friends will confirm, Jacques was and is a great man, but a difficult one. (Our friend Nick puts it succinctly: “ I love Jacques, but he’s a pain in the ass.”) Even while my actions said I was in this for the long haul, a part of me was protesting, and still looking. I had this notion that if I became a mom at 37, what was left of my sexual life would be foreclosed (a glance at the divorced and dating moms all around me could have disproved that). I knew if I had a baby I could never give it up. I was sure that Jacques in his half-healed state would be a terrible father, and that forcing fatherhood on him would only cause misery for us all, not least the child.
The strongest argument for having the baby, apart from my own abstract, long-cherished desire to have one, was my love for his mother and her ardent desire for a grandchild. I sometimes thought I loved her more than I loved him – more uncomplicatedly, for sure. When our Japanese karate teacher said to me, “Jacques-san mother come your inside,” I got a chill.
It wasn’t enough. One day in October, after waiting the requisite, excruciating month “till it was big enough so they could get it all” – a month during which I changed my mind several times a day and alternately succumbed to and fought off my wonder at being pregnant -- I lay down on the abortion table.
II. Abortion and Aftermath
I’m not going to dwell much on the abortion itself. It was over quickly, and having made the decision, I was more focused on getting it over with than on precisely what was being gotten over with. (An 8-week embryo, I knew if I thought about it – and I tried not to -- something that didn’t have a proper nervous system yet, that probably still looked like it could become a fish or a pig rather than a human being. It had been important to me to do this as soon as they’d allow me to.) I’m the type who always wants to be aware of what’s happening to me (I hope to be awake when I die, something I had in common with Jacques’ mother, who’d said, “I am curious about this last great experience”), so I chose to have local, not general, anesthetic. A shot in the cervix made the gradual dilatation tolerable, but the actual procedure hurt, a sharp invasive pain in a place so inward that I could feel it was meant to be inviolable. I didn’t make much noise, and the young male doctor said, “Good girl.”
I had gone through the preparations, paperwork and waiting in a manic daze. I think the other women there must have thought I was crazy, or obnoxious, I was so desperately upbeat. It’s those other women I remember most from that day – the big soft strong Irish girl whose equally husky boyfriend cried to her in the elevator afterwards, “We could have had it if you’d wanted to”; the slim, self-possessed African-American woman who was in the middle of a masters program and couldn’t let her hard-won education be derailed; a woman my age or older who just wept quietly into a tissue the whole time; and very young, very black Sara, who woke up from her anesthesia with a dazzling smile of pure relief.
Relief was mostly what I felt too, if I felt anything at all. I don’t remember any depression. I remember an alarming amount of bleeding as my body finished the job. What I mainly remember, though, is the dreams. There were three, and they came at unhurried, almost ritual intervals, over the first weeks and months after the abortion.
The first one is the least clear to me now; all I know is that he was a nursing baby. In the second dream, he was maybe a year old, in a once-piece print “footie” pajama, standing up holding onto the railing of his crib and looking straight at me. It was the third one, though, that still haunted me thirteen years later, when I wrote the following poem. It was the one in which he said goodbye:
My ghost son keeps pace with me,
long-legged as I am.
He’s twelve, or would be,
the age he was when he left me
in the third dream, in the subway,
lifting his cool boy’s hand from my shoulder
and crossing the stream.
At the time, these dreams didn’t trigger a flood of grief, as they would have if, for instance, I had lost a wanted pregnancy. What I felt was surprise. Because, first of all, he? How on earth did I know it was a he? But I knew.
It’s a strange fact that I’ve never dreamt the sex of an unborn baby wrong. When one of my sisters or friends was pregnant, I didn’t always dream about it, but when I did,, the girl or boy I had dreamt of always arrived at the end of the nine months. I didn’t see any reason to believe that I’d be right about other people’s pregnancies and wrong about my own. No, he was a boy, all right.
I can’t tell you now whether the realization came slowly, over years, or all at once; whether it arrived piecemeal, through painstaking reasoning, or sudden and complete. All I know is that at some point it dawned on me: If he had a sex, then he also had a face. And a temperament. And maybe a destiny. The die was cast. We comfort ourselves by saying, “I can always have another baby.” But this wasn’t a baby. It was that baby.
I had come upon the objective fact that that “baby,” child, embryo, wasn’t an idea in my mind. It was an individual in my womb.
You’d think that would be self-evident, wouldn’t you? It’s the way we think about “wanted” pregnancies – wondering what he or she will look like, what family members the baby will resemble, trying out names. But in order to make it easier, less painful, less troubling and traumatic for women who aren’t ready to have a child to have an abortion, we’ve created this weird disconnect. We imagine the wanted embryo as a little person, and the unwanted embryo as a formless, meaningless blob.
Both are lies, in a sense, but they’re lies of a different ontological status. As a pro-choice woman I used to be outraged by the gruesome posters pro-life demonstrators waved, showing dismembered second- or third-trimester fetuses. An 8-week embryo doesn’t look anything like that! An 8-week embryo doesn’t feel pain like that!
Right. That’s why early abortion is less offensive. It’s nipping a human life in the bud, quite literally, rather than ripping apart a fragile but well-formed and undoubtedly sensate little being. (Advanced ultrasound has pretty much cleared that up: they smile in the womb.) Even most pro-choice Americans believe there has to be a point of no return, though they disagree about exactly where in gestation to find it. But it’s a whole other species of lie to say that an 8-week embryo is little more than a blob of phlegm. You were that “blob.” Everyone you love and can’t imagine your life without was that “blob.”
I once had a flabbergasting conversation with the mother of the family I told you about that lost a daughter to cancer. She’s a close friend of mine, a vivacious, youthful 80 now, and I love her very much, but I think of her as what I call an “NPR listener” -- someone who holds all liberal principles as unquestionable and superior. We were talking after one daughter’s abortion, but before the other’s illness became known. She was telling me about a conversation she’d had with a priest or minister who was pro-choice, and she said with vehemence, “He's not stupid. He knows that’s – “ with a wave of her hand – “nothing.” I was open-mouthed. This is a woman who will carry a spider carefully outdoors and release it! And I thought, “That ‘nothing’ was your grandchild.”
How can someone have such reverence for the tiny miracle of a spider (which I share, by the way), yet believe that a human embryo, burrowed into the wall of a womb and growing and unfolding its design with a dizzying impulsion, is “nothing”?
I know exactly how, because I’ve been there.
It is a violent reaction against another lie, a very old and powerful one whose grip has only recently been loosened: that a woman is nothing but a vessel for new life. That to be female is to be always and only a means to an end, never an end in yourself. That whatever you may nurture in your mind and heart is as substanceless as spiderweb compared to what you will nurture in your womb. That it was enough for a tiny point of life to take root unchosen inside a woman’s body for all her own life’s dreams and chances to be aborted. Yes, aborted. Like the tiny moon blotting out the vast sun, that minuscule dot of life was enough to occlude, to eclipse, her own, sliding across its shining promise like a disk of darkness.
Allow me to exaggerate here, since we’re dealing in the polemical all around. I know all the yes-buts: Most women want to be mothers. Mothers have great power, great pleasure; nothing in their hearts or minds is wasted, et cetera. Yes. But: most women no longer want only to be mothers, and rightly so in a crowded, war-torn world that needs the gifts of their hearts and minds as much as of their wombs. And when motherhood comes too soon, or too often, or against her will, it guts a woman’s life instead of fulfilling it. ((It can also bring surprise fulfillment, of course. Or complete tragedy, where the greatest sufferer is the child.) Nor does “too many” or “too soon” mean the same to any two of us: one will welcome eight children, and adopt three more with special needs; another cannot give her all to more than one or two, and some know they’re not meant to have kids at all. For the well-being and life chances of her someday children, as well as her own – and all the more so if she is poor – each woman needs to have the final say over whether and when she bears a child.
“Well then,” conservatives will say, “let her not have sex until she’s ready to be a mother!” But the invention of birth control, imperfect as it is, has ended that inequality between the sexes, once and probably for all. Like (and unlike) men, women now claim and explore their own sexuality as a vital root of everything they do, a force that belongs as much to them as to life, that engenders the self as well as the next generation. That sounds more empowering in theory than it is in practice, at least as long as “Sex and the City” wannabes try to twist their own desire into a parody of men’s. But even if women take back the power of “No,” it will only be in the service of a more self-possessed “Yes.” It’s this bold female claim on full human life – mental, spiritual, adventurous, professional, sexual, as well as maternal – that “pro-choice” women fear is the real target of the “pro-life” movement. If a woman can be compelled by law to bear every child she conceives – well, first of all, she won’t; she’ll fly to Puerto Rico if she’s rich or stick a coat hanger up her cervix if she’s poor, just as desperate women did before 1973. But the very principle that a fertilized ovum trumps a growing girl or a full-grown woman renders her own right to life provisional and insubstantial, ready at the first kiss of sperm and egg to be reduced to cobwebs and swept away.
Whew! I didn’t know I could still access the passions of my youth. I was afraid that in the natural conservatism and chastened hindsight of middle age, I would only be able to tell one side – the other side – of the story. And that would not have been the whole truth. A lie is not set right by another lie. Sometimes two opposing truths have to be held in mind at once.
I’m reminded of a time in my early 30s when I was very unhappy. I had done a stupid thing that hurt others and myself, and I was making painful amends. I was out on the street one day -- I must have looked pale and wan, and for some reason I was wearing a large button with a picture of a whale on it that said “A Right to Live.” A black kid of 16 or 17, a total stranger, walked right up to me like a messenger of God and said, “You know, you have a right to live, too.” The truth about abortion is that sometimes an embryo’s right to life conflicts with a woman’s right to live. And yet to cancel one or the other cannot be the answer.
And that means that just as the Right can’t wish away the real woman – so newly and precariously the owner of her own life, with consequences that will ripple out to the ends of the earth – the Left can’t wish away the real embryo and fetus.