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What We Don’t Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Abortion

A protester holds a sign while marching in the "Slut Walk" in New York, Saturday, October 1, 2011. (Photo: David Shankbone / Flickr)

I had an abortion four years ago. I just recently decided to start talking about it.

I didn’t stay silent out of guilt; the abortion was very much the right decision. I didn’t talk about my abortion because one doesn’t talk about one’s abortion. It just isn’t done. You don’t casually drop it during a playdate. Women tell their birth stories in graphic detail, but abortion? It’s just not part of polite conversation.

And yet – I’m now “that woman.” Yup. I did it. And I’m going to keep doing it.

Will my in-laws disown me? My friends? Will I lose potential clients by writing this under my own name? Will I get hate mail? Maybe. I know, too, that I am speaking out from a position of relative privilege: as a white ciswoman with a college degree and a self-employed career, my abortion doesn’t fit me neatly into right-wing stereotypes. Nor am I in danger of being fired, beaten or murdered for having or for talking about an abortion – the stark reality for millions of women. I have considerable freedom to speak out. And I plan to use it.

Why? Because last week the Supreme Court decided that it is perfectly okay for employers to exert control over their employees’ birth control decisions. The week before, it decided to abolish clinic-door buffer zones in Massachusetts, allowing anti-abortion protestors more freedom to physically assault and intimidate women as they attempt to access reproductive health care. It was also reported that NBC refused to run an ad for the pro-choice romantic comedy Obvious Child simply because it contained the word “abortion.”

Not only are we not supposed to access abortions – or contraception, or any other reproductive health care – we’re not even supposed to breathe the very word in public. In 1973, the era of George Carlin’s “seven dirty words you can’t say on television,” it was a popular topic on shows like Maude, but today abortion is a four-letter word. Even in films about unintended pregnancies, like Knocked Up and Juno, the characters almost always either redeem themselves by deciding against abortion or fail to consider it at all.

That’s why I felt I had to say it.

I was out with some friends, all parents. Two of the other mothers, both in their mid-thirties like me, both extremely intelligent and accomplished, confessed that their recent second pregnancies had been accidental. They’d cried all through the first trimester, they said.

It made me remember terminating my own second pregnancy. My daughter had been four months old when we accidentally conceived. I had just returned to my workplace and was trying desperately to juggle nursing, child care and my job (and failing – I was on thin ice at the office). I read the pregnancy test with numb horror, so different from the joy I’d felt when I discovered I was pregnant with my Lucia. Then I’d jumped for joy. Now: “Shit!

I thought about going for it. I was madly in love with my baby girl and thought perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad to have another. (This was before I experienced the toddler years.) I wanted to keep it. I wished I could keep it. But how would we pay for child care when we could barely cover what we had now? How would I manage to hang onto my job? My partner and I crunched the numbers. It was clear that we wouldn’t be able to swing it, not with massive student loan payments hanging over our heads. The pregnancy was already beginning to interfere with breastfeeding. My vagina was still healing from the nasty tears it had sustained during childbirth.

So I scheduled an abortion. My appointment was two weeks away. I didn’t feel pregnant. It didn’t feel like it had before. I thought I’d recognize pregnancy if I felt it again, but I didn’t recognized the strange sensations or the odd taste in my mouth that had tipped me off the first time around. I’d worked my way through college as a procedure counselor (and sometimes receptionist) at an abortion clinic. I knew what to expect. I’d held hundreds of women’s hands during their abortions.

My partner was supportive, but unable to be emotionally present: his brother had died during an experimental multiple sclerosis treatment just a few weeks before. In fact, I realized, we must have conceived the day he died – hours before, and in a stunningly unlikely fashion (trust me on this). The loss shocked us all. We navigated the funeral planning unaware of what my body harbored.

I had to schedule the abortion for two weeks out because I had a trip planned. I was going to Pittsburgh, back home, for not one but two baby showers: an old, dear friend and a cousin. One was in a fire hall, the other in a restaurant near the steel mill in Leechburg. I wore my baby in a Bjorn, swaying her back and forth as my cousin unwrapped onesies and pacifiers, feeling the pregnancy heat in my palms and the soles of my feet, wishing I could get away somewhere and cry.

The night before my abortion, I cried – hard. My partner held me and hugged me, and laughed a little when my bawling face resembled that of our baby daughter, the first family resemblance between us. (She was a carbon copy of her father until six months or so: just imagine a little bald middle-aged Italian guy in a pink onesie.)

The procedure itself was fine. I spat angrily at the old men outside the clinic who called me a murdering whore on my way in, and thanked the escort who shooed them away and held the door for me. When I told my counselor that I’d once had her job, during my undergraduate years in Pittsburgh, she told her colleagues and they all treated me as one of their own. I chose to view my ultrasound. (I still have the photo.) When the vacuum started my blood pressure dropped, enough to concern the doctor, and my counselor held me steady through it. It felt profoundly disruptive. It was over quickly. I was green and woozy but held it together enough to thank my doctor profusely for being willing to do his job.

In the recovery room I perked up after a few crackers and some ginger ale. Soon all of us were talking. This is probably the only social situation where it’s actually permissible to talk about your abortion. We ended up discussing pro-choice politics: why had it been so much easier to cross the bridge to New Jersey than to get an abortion in Pennsylvania? What was up with those 48-hour waiting periods? There was solidarity to be found in those funky old green vinyl armchairs.

Afterward I was a mess. When a pregnancy leaves your body – whether through childbirth, abortion or miscarriage – there is always a sudden precipitous hormone crash, a moment when your body realizes it’s no longer pregnant, stops manufacturing pregnancy hormones and then falls right off a motherfucking cliff. This crash can be deeply traumatic. After Lucia, when the crash hit, I was still torn from childbirth and in terrible pain, struggling even to sit up enough to nurse my newborn. I broke down in tears. My partner drew me a bath, sat with me and let me sob while downstairs my mother rocked the baby to sleep. During the hormone crash after my abortion, I had no such support. My partner was grieving and exhausted, still in shock from the loss of his brother. I had to go to work on Monday.

At work it was clear I was falling apart. My closest friend at the office, younger than me but a father of two, asked what was up. I didn’t know him then as well as I do now; I didn’t know how he’d react to the truth, but I very much needed his support in dealing with the unexpected pregnancy and its loss. I am not proud of this, but I lied. I said I’d had a miscarriage. I said the same to my newly widowed sister-in-law, a devout Catholic. I was groping blindly for a way to grieve. When it comes to talking about abortion, there are many judgment calls involved – not to mention a strong element of self-preservation. Freedom of speech might be the law, but for most of us it is subject to restriction by economics, violence or ostracism from our families and communities; most women who stay silent about their abortions do so for very good reasons. I don’t feel good about being untruthful, but women who choose not to disclose their abortions should never be made to feel guilty about that decision.

My supervisor, a progressive and fiercely intelligent middle-aged mother, confronted me about my poor performance. I’d been vague with her: something personal’s going on; it’ll be over very soon. When it seemed very much not to be over, she was insistent. I took her into a private room and confessed tearfully that the reason I’d been so distant was that I’d been pregnant unexpectedly and I’d had an abortion, so now it was over, it really was, except for the hormone crash and the worst cramps I’d ever had in my life, and here the tears came and I tried to hold them back. She was quite supportive, though my position was still tenuous; I left the job not long after.

A week after my procedure I drove back to that clinic in New Jersey for a follow-up appointment. I realized afterward, on my way back to the bridge, that I didn’t have $5 in cash for the bridge toll. In fact, I had $19 in my bank account, too little for an ATM to allow me to withdraw cash. I had to drive through the E-Z Pass lane without an E-Z Pass. Sirens blared. Red lights flashed. My license plate was photographed. A ticket was mailed with heavy fines. I thought, if anyone needs proof that I can’t handle another baby right now, surely this is it.

I told a couple of friends the day I had my abortion, socialist and feminist friends I knew wouldn’t judge me. I told my mother, who was wonderful. I told a few close friends in other cities. That was about it; I didn’t say much else about it for the next four years. I told a few people whose close friendship I gained during those years, but for the most part I kept my mouth shut, even as some people around me dealt with – and kept – unintended pregnancies.

Four years later, there I was, having drinks and guacamole with my fellow preschool moms and listening to them describe crying with rage all through the first trimester. I couldn’t stop thinking, but did you consider it? Was it an option for you? These are not permissible questions to ask. I wondered if the fact that no one ever talks about abortion was part of why so many people seemed not even to consider it an option. I wondered how in the world we would ever get past that if women like me didn’t talk about our abortions.

So I said it. I said, “Yeah, I got pregnant right after my first too. But there was just no way. Just no way.” And let the absence of a second child in our family sit for a second. “I’m really happy with my decision. Thank God that option was available.”

I meant this. I still do. My abortion was not easy or fun – and it has taken me at least as long to process as childbirth did – but it was absolutely the correct decision. We were able to get back on our feet financially; I left my unhappy work situation and eventually ventured out on my own as a freelance editor, which has been deeply fulfilling. I could not have done this with a second child.

Recently, during a conversation about childbirth at a picnic, I told someone else about my abortion. I told her I’d made a political decision to talk about my abortion as though abortion is a normal thing that women do – because the truth is that one in four women will have an abortion in her lifetime. Abortion is a normal thing that women do, and we should stop asking women to sit in silence when the topic comes up. I saw before me a lifetime of holding my tongue, of uncomfortable evasion on the topic of “oopsies,” and I didn’t like it. Since I have the freedom to speak, why should I be silent?

The woman I told at the picnic had a deeply emotional reaction. She called me brave. I don’t feel very brave when I talk about my abortion. I feel small and scared.

But I don’t like staying silent out of fear. I don’t think that’s how anyone has ever gone about winning civil rights. And we have a lot of work to do.

So let’s talk about our abortions. Everyone who is able to, everyone who is ready – let’s speak out. Let’s treat them the way we’d treat, say, a root canal. Our health care system walls reproductive care off into its own domain: treating birth control differently than other prescriptions, insisting that women obtain abortion care at special clinics rather than undergoing this simple outpatient surgery at the gynecologist’s office. Let’s push back by treating it like it’s just another extremely common medical procedure.

And whether or not we disclose our abortions, whether or not we’ve even had them, let’s talk as though having an abortion is a perfectly okay option to consider when you’re very unhappy about being pregnant. Let’s act like women have a choice.

Let’s tell our friends that there is nothing wrong with ending an unwanted, life-disrupting, economically catastrophic pregnancy, and let’s listen to what they say and support them in whatever decisions they make.

Let’s put a human face on abortion; disagree with it if you like, but know that women you like and respect have made a different decision and have lived happily with that decision.

Let’s get to the point where telling abortion stories at a party is just as common as telling birth stories. As long as we stay silent, it’s a right that can be taken away from us.

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