I Learned About Abortion Before I Knew What Sex Was

by Laura

August 17, 2022

Women’s reproductive rights get debated without the full reality on the table. Birth itself is not even out of the closet. The denial of its closeness to death. The huge intensity of the birth process. Death is unacknowledged and birth is glossed over.

Telling the truth of women’s lives requires nuance, speaking about things that are not polite or acceptable. Speaking about things that are deeply feared.

I learned about abortion before I knew what sex was. It was 1973, the year the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v Wade. In Catholic school the Nuns put on a gruesome slide show of discarded, and mutilated fetuses which worked well to persuade us.

I went to France on my own in my junior year in college, underestimating the cost and leaving my diaphragm at home as a sign of loyalty to my boyfriend.

In a bar in the North of Paris, I started talking to a punker guy in a leather jacket and spiky hair. He made me laugh and he spoke enough English to have a conversation. As the bar was closing, a nice couple invited me and him to their house. The couple made me feel like I was safe. I hadn’t left the bar with him. I had left with them.

He and I ended up sleeping on the floor. He kept trying to get in my pants. I managed to hold him off most of the night.

Here is where my Catholic good girl training went awry. How do you politely say no and stick to it when you are drunk, tired, and depressed? Extra fortified resources are needed, but I didn’t have them. I gave in. I let it happen. Nowadays we’d call it date rape.

The next day walking down the street in the white winter light of Paris, I felt a tickle, a spark deep in my belly. Uh oh I’ve never felt this before!

I knew right then I was pregnant. It was the morning after, before there was such a thing as a morning-after pill. It was as easy as doing nothing, getting pregnant.

I wonder if it was that easy for Marie.

Marie was the grandmother we never knew. The woman who gave birth to my father. We didn’t know her because her death was locked in a closet of shame.

A year after my dad was born. She moved back home when her marriage was on the rocks. I don’t know why her mom arranged for her to get an abortion. One of many abortions resulting in death. Death for the mother and fetus, double death. Marie got lost in the ethers, a shameful death from an illegal abortion in 1928.

I didn’t know how to get an abortion in France, so I flew back that same week. When I got back to the states I was a mess but kept up pretenses around my family.

All that Catholic discipline was good for something. Lying by omission, deceiving everyone around, putting one foot in front of the other, getting myself enrolled in the next semester and using the student health services to get a pregnancy test. Filling up my own closet of shame, like my grandmother before me.

Luckily for me and every woman on campus there was Doctor Rogers.

Doctor Rogers was a gynecologist at my college health center. She had seen it all and she did not judge. She understood what it meant to be young and sexual and having to deal with the consequences.

Yes, my pregnancy test was positive, yes, I wanted an abortion, no I wasn’t even slightly on the fence. She sent me to the new Planned Parenthood clinic down the street.

I didn’t want to wait, me and the other women there, like me, didn’t want to be there, in that small room, sitting against the wall on cold plastic seats set on metal legs. I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to hide. I didn’t want to be known. Get it over with before anyone notices it’s me.

It’s difficult to describe the feeling I had during the abortion procedure except like a hole in space. I felt the gone-ness of it. It pervaded the room.

Did I think I’d be judged for it? Did I feel guilt? grief? I would not have done anything else no matter what the cost.

I mostly felt huge relief.

That Planned Parenthood clinic no longer exists, I never anticipated abortion access would go that way in the future. I thought it would be easier, not harder to access.

But then a month later I had complications. I started bleeding.

Marie, is this what happened to you? Quietly bleeding to death or likely something worse?

In the emergency room a young, disgusted male doctor examined my insides. Another botched job from up the street, he said, referring to the Planned Parenthood Clinic down the road even though it was a fairly common problem that many women experience after an abortion.

I got rolled in for a D & C.  Dilation and Curettage, it sounds like a beauty treatment but, it’s a procedure to remove tissue from the uterus with a suction device.  Many years later a boss of mine had to have the same procedure. She described the anesthesia and comfy pillows. They didn’t give me any painkillers, just turned on the vacuum and scraped out the hemorrhaging tissue.

The pain was extraordinary.

They rolled me on a gurney out into the hallway. I couldn’t move. I was fully alert and completely immobile. Just lying there motionless in the hallway like a discarded piece of meat on a slab.

I had saved myself. It was traumatic but I did it because I could. Marie was 23, I was twenty. I had a chance to survive.  I didn’t die like Marie, the grandmother I never knew, I lived to tell the tale.

This is a micro illustration of the great gaslight over women’s reproductive rights.

We don’t know the reality of what happens when people have sex and one of them gets pregnant. Shame keeps so many unintended pregnancies in the shadows.  Shame does not stand and fight, furiously articulating its rights. Shame works like a self-imposed gag order.

Sure, you can say abortion is murder, I’d say it felt like death to me. Death of a potential life. Putting out the spark. I’ll give you that.

But sometimes a spark needs to be extinguished to avoid destruction. The emotions around this ultimately profound event run about as deep as the Big Bang. That’s why it’s a strategically effective move to twist the issue into a holy movement against it.

No one is in favor of killing babies.

What about the right of a woman to claim independence as a person? What about the right of the child not to be born into desperate circumstances?

Such rights cannot even be considered when the shame of sex covers up the reality of what happens between human beings.

Legislation without reality attached. Let’s see how well that works?

Let’s see this debate for what it is. A divide and conquer strategy.

It’s not about saving babies. It’s the perfect issue to incite groups to fight over crumbs of freedom, while getting the people into office that’ll keep the wheels of resource extraction turning to bring in the cash.

One woman in Africa hit the genetic jackpot and was strong enough to give birth to a child who survived long enough to successfully give birth too which ultimately gave birth to all of us down the line.

It is miraculous, but there are enough of us now.

We can rethink the sanctity with which we put on the embryo, when so many fully, living breathing humans are in such great need and we are in danger of overusing the resources of our planet earth.

We must do our best to pass on our abortion stories and transcend the shame. To tell the tale and work to create a society structure that is based on the truth of people’s actual lived experience. That’d be a good place to start.

Remember that our stories are ours to tell. We’d love to hear your story too!