I wish more women could have that experience and that feeling.

by Elayne

November 1, 2017

I had an abortion when it was legal in New York State in 1977. I was divorced from my first husband, the mother of a six-year old son, and going out with the man who would become my second husband. We intended to get married and have a child, but it was no time to have a baby. It was too early in the relationship, and my husband to be, Cliff, had a professional move to Washington DC planned before he would move to Brooklyn to live with me.

I’d like to say that my pregnancy was a birth control error, but I think we got amorous and hopped into bed before I could insert a diaphragm. I thought I was a week from ovulating, but I was wrong. A few days later, I felt myself ovulating and was tested as soon as was possible in those days—after missing one period. My abortion took place at a women’s health clinic on the upper east side of Manhattan. It was an entirely pleasant experience––I remember the staff as very supportive. wonderful. It was an early abortion––I was seven weeks pregnant. I remember a phrase my mother had once used when she spoke about abortion––“bringing on one’s period.” That’s exactly what it felt like.

The day after my abortion, I expected to feel guilty, but I didn’t. I had exercised my legal right. Abortion was legal in New York State and, after Roe v. Wade, it was the law of the land. What a tremendous sense of relief, that feeling of one’s life being “back on track” of being able to live the future one had planned.

When I was in college, abortion was illegal, and contraception was hard to get. I remember during the first week of college, a senior on my floor handed me a crumpled piece of paper. She said, “I hope you never need it, but just in case you do.” The paper contained the name of a doctor in western Massachusetts who performed abortions. In college, I used contraception when I could get hold of it, but there were anxious nights when I sat up late, waiting for my period. I saw lights on in windows across the quadrangle and wondered if other girls were also worrying about being pregnant. As lights went out, I hoped some girls had started to menstruate. But there were always stories of girls who dropped out, who got married quickly, or who had terrible illegal abortions.

After college, I came to graduate school in New York and soon joined a women’s health group. I was barely in this group a week before someone handed me a crumpled piece of paper with the name of a doctor in Westchester who did abortions. The women’s health group I joined was like many other groups across the country: we wrote and distributed leaflets about contraception, breastfeeding, childbirth, abortion, breast cancer, and sterilization. We took women to get abortions; I took my teen-aged sister-in-law to that Westchester doctor. We taught women’s health courses and we gave workshops. We helped organize demonstrations and teach-ins for the repeal of the New York State abortion laws.

One teach-in centered on women telling their abortion stories. There were many moving stories, but the one I still remember was not an abortion story. It was the story of a young Catholic woman who did not have an abortion. She was sent to a work house for unmarried, pregnant women in Chicago. She had a blue-eyed, red-haired baby boy, the nuns’ favorite. She stayed at the home for three months—long enough to develop a deep attachment to her baby. I will never forget the young woman’s description of leaving the home and turning to wave at her plump, smiling baby boy in the arms of a nun, who was holding up one of the baby’s hands to wave goodbye to his mother. The woman had married and tried to conceive for years but never could. That woman convinced me—if I needed to be convinced—that the emotional stress of an abortion was nothing compared with the trauma of giving up a child.

Do I “shout my abortion?” Well, I often have, but I must know my audience. I never speak of it randomly (just as I don’t speak about any number of very personal matters). And when I do mention it, I sometimes lie and say it was a birth control accident, as if I must justify needing an abortion. And I have lied about having had an abortion in cases where I feel it might endanger the care I will receive. For example, when filling out a health information sheet in a doctor’s office or hospital, I may choose “miscarriage” rather than “abortion,” to explain three pregnancies and two live births. But whenever anyone speaks negatively about abortion, I always say something like, “I think every woman has a right to control her fertility and it really is no one’s business but hers.”

Over the years, people have asked me if I don’t wonder about the baby I might have had. No, I don’t. If I had had that baby, who knows what effect it would have had on my early relationship with my husband?  Would I have had another baby? And, even if I had, would I have had my wonderful daughter? No, I don’t feel guilty about having had an abortion. But I almost feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I feel so fortunate that I had a safe, legal abortion. I wish more women could have that experience and that feeling.

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