Shamed Into Silence, Empowered to Choose

2916236666_4732829c72_zImagine being a teenager before 1972. Birth control is not a legal option. You haven’t had a period for three months. The swelling in your belly confirms your worst fears. You aren’t ready to get married. A back-alley abortion is dangerous. If your condition becomes public, you face certain shame and blame for having “gotten yourself” pregnant. You feel powerless.

Now imagine what is at stake today if access to birth control becomes more restricted, if Roe v. Wade is further eroded, or if Planned Parenthood is defunded. Rather than being empowered to make informed choices for themselves, girls and women who are unprepared for pregnancy could again become powerless pawns in a political game of control.

During the period prior to Roe v. Wade, girls who “got themselves pregnant” would typically be removed from school once they started “showing.” To protect these girls from shame and humiliation, they were often sent away to unwed mothers’ homes. Those girls could then secretly have their babies, relinquish them for adoption, and then return to their communities as though nothing ever happened. I was one of those girls. I wasn’t a “loose” girl, but I was a lost girl. I had grown up with unspeakable abuse and neglect. Like too many other girls with low self-esteem, I looked for love in the wrong places.

Public opinion condemned girls like me who became pregnant outside of marriage. Just a few years before Roe v. Wade, a business leader in Portland, Oregon was quoted as saying, “Frequently the girl has no regret, no remorse and no conscience. We’ve come to the point, I think, where we again must speak in absolute terms about moral values.”

At 16, I gave birth to a baby boy. I was pressured to give my son up for adoption. A week after my child was born, I took a bus into downtown Portland and signed papers to relinquish him. No parent or guardian was required to sign on my behalf.

Shame is a powerful silencer. I was admonished to never speak about having given birth as an unwed teenager. I was supposed to pretend like nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I was supposed to pick up my life before it had been interrupted.

For the next decade, I didn’t believe I had any power over my own life. I saw myself as a victim rather than having any agency of my own. I went through the motions of living, but my spirit had been seriously damaged.

It wasn’t until I was a teaching assistant in graduate school that I realized I had never been allowed to grieve for a child I lost. I also learned that two of the other graduate teaching assistants I knew were birthmothers as well. They too had been shamed into silence. Ironically, we had all been drawn into the field of communication.

I eventually searched for my relinquished son through a state agency. He was contacted and told I was searching for him. He chose not to have contact with me. Nonetheless, I felt a sense of closure knowing he had been contacted.

I sometimes wonder if I would have chosen abortion had it been available to me when I was a teenager. I don’t know for sure what I would have done, but I do know that if I had been given the basic right to make an informed choice concerning my own body, I could have more willingly embraced whatever consequences followed. Instead, I spent too many years feeling like a powerless pawn with no control over my life.

It has now been decades since girls and women were denied basic reproductive choices. Yet I believe that if we are not vigilant, we could once again see a time when girls and women are shamed into silence rather than empowered to choose.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user Torsten Mangner licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Paula Pic

Paula Usrey is an associate professor of communication at Umpqua Community College in Southern Oregon.


  1. Kristine E Tolman says:

    Paula, I have to wonder if my DNA “mother” was in a similar situation. I’m 50 years chosen by my mom. She’s mom and will always will be. All I know is that the DNA “mother”…it’s really difficult for me to write that word, but I’m not sure what else to type. All I know is that she was a young, single pregnant girl in 1965. So odds, she also was forced to give me away. Part of me wants to be grateful that she did. I’m happy for my life and the turns that it took. I can guarantee that I would NOT be the person that I am today had I not been chosen to be with my mother, brother and father today. And it gets even more complicated as I was adopted a second time by my mother’s 2nd husband…the person I call my father. It’s often complicated. I’ve always known I was chosen. I’m not my mom’s adopted daughter…I’m just her daughter. I drive her crazy even at 51 LOL! But it’s terrible to think how people in this country want send women back to the 1950’s with no say over the natural rights as women to control their own bodies. I was not blessed with children, but I have a 5 year old niece I’m crazy about and I’m 24 year veteran teacher. Thank you for sharing your story.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience too.

      • Helen Laurence says:

        What a well-written and moving account–and how important a reminder that we are in danger of losing ground in this area of women’s lives. Who has decided that the state should have a controlling interest in my body? As more and more infringements of our rights to birth control and abortion occur, one might recall the famous line: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” I applaud your courage in sharing your own story. Beautifully stated.

        • You raise a good question, Helen. “Who had decided that the state should have a controlling interest in my body?”

          Thank you for taking time to read this piece and respond. I value your comments.

  2. Julie Kale says:

    Thank you for writing this.
    I was born in 1972, and I believe the younger generations need to hear these stories.
    No one should have had the perience you had. We can NEVER go back to that. We can never take our rights for granted.
    I appreciate you greatly. Much respect.

  3. I agree that younger generations do need to hear these stories. I don’t want a new generation of women to experience what women did before Roe v. Wade.

  4. I’m unwed and pregnant by the man I’m marrying in 2 weeks. I’ve been with him since shortly before turning 18 and I’m now 21 by the way, he’s 30 yes big age gap but he never knew my age he just knew I was young and on my own surviving. People give us snide comments over an unwed baby on the way and I tell them the truth my town won’t let us get married til we have had premarital counseling I don’t know if it’s a law but I refuse to do it being together sonlong. We finally found someone who’s willing to do it without the counseling because he knows us(now). If ever forced to give up my child because I’m young and unmarried they’d have to kill me first. I wasn’t supposed to be able to have children and I will never let this one go

  5. It was Feb 1972 when I had mine. It was legal in California and I believe New York. I had been working since I was 16 and had invested in church bonds, so luckily I had the money. I lived in San Antonio and everyone went to Mexico for their abortion. Some doctors would do a “D&C” but I was unable to get the name of one of those. I called a number in a weekly newspaper that was buried among phone numbers of how to pass drug tests. I was told I had to go to a doctor to make sure I was pregnant. I found a woman who I thought would be more sympathetic and informative. To my horror, she summoned me into her office and told me the “good” news. She started lecturing me on my diet, cut out potato chips and soda. I stopped her midsentence and said I wasn’t going to have the baby, I was getting an abortion. She then stepped up her lecturing explaining it was illegal and she knew where I could go to deliver and put the baby up for adoption. My response, “how dare you think if I had a child I would give it away? I will go somewhere where it is legal” and I left quickly so upset that she had treated me worse than a male doctor. I called the phone number back. They had regular flights leaving San Antonio loaded with young women for California. I had worked at the San Antonio International Airport the previous summer and got acquainted with most of the airline support staff. I was so terrified that one would recognize me, recognize the purpose of the flight and make a call to my parents, where I was still living. I couldn’t risk it so asked for another city–Houston. I concocted this elaborate cover story for my parents and had my future husband drive me to the Houston airport. Once I got on the plane, a huge wave of relief passed through me. I knew I would obtain a safe procedure unlike my friends that went to Mexico. I knew that I would be able to have children later in life and not be butchered. The rest is a fog. I remember the night before we were summoned into a convention room at the hotel and given birth control information which I had not had previously. The one thing I will never forget is that before the lecture began, the spokesman asked for people to raise their hands if this was the second time they had come. Lots of hands. Then he asked, how many the third time. Less hands. He then asked, “So how many have been here four times?” I made up my mind that this would be the one and only time for me. I was shocked at how many kept returning. After I got back I got my first ever yeast infection. Under an assumed name I went to a clinic and the doctor treated me with something that had a deep purple tint. I was horrified that it got on my underwear–my mother was still doing my laundry! My parents never found out, my dad is still alive and I’ve never written anything online for fear that he may still find out. I’m 63 and my first grandchild turned one last week. I have never regretted my decision. I was in my first year of college and there is no way I would have been able to support a child. I waited until I was 30 and had the money to break the cycle of abuse that I observed of my mother, my step-sister and brother. I had the money to have a live-in nanny and it made all the difference in the world on how I raised my child. Again, no regrets. I would have been miserable if I had brought a child into the world and given it up, it would have destroyed me. Thank you for letting me write about this.

    • Betty,
      You sound like an individual with a lot of courage. I’m glad you know that you made the right decision for yourself – in spite of the many obstacles you had to face to do what was best for your life and your future.

  6. Paula – This is powerful! I also gave birth to a baby boy in 1972 (my only child), and as a young mother, I remember well the political and cultural issues that surrounded the decision(s) I had to make at that time. I also remember the incredible shame I felt.
    Young women need to hear these stories. They need to know how difficult it was prior to Roe v. Wade passing, and how important it is that we do not go backward on this issue.
    Thank you for having the courage to share.

    • Thank you for sharing your story. I believe we must refuse to accept the shame others used to control us. We’ve got to tell our stories so that younger women recognize the sense of urgency those who have lived in the “dark years” understand.

  7. Kathleen Lopez says:

    Dear Paula,
    Thank you for sharing this article and for being so clear about your intentions. I still remember vividly the day you asked me to come with you to find out about your baby & your courage when you learned your son was not able to meet you. I was in tears the entire time you were in the office and soon decided to locate my son who was born Oct. 1966. He was the result of a date rape. While I would never have had an abortion I still respect and support a woman”s right to chose. I have recovered from the shame of being raped and giving up my baby but I still grieve. I reunited with my son and his family for a short time but after his mom passed he withdrew from us. He has two children, his daughter now graduating from high school, and I’ve not seen them since his son was five. My only other birth child is not able to have children. Happily I have 2 borrowed daughters and 3 sons and 7 grand/god children. All of my 9 children and 9 grand/god children light up my life every time I think of how we have affected each other’s lives – whether birth or borrowed.

    • Thank you, Kathleen, for sharing your thoughts. I am sorry to hear your birth son no longer is in contact. That must be very difficult after reconnecting. I’m glad you have children, god children, and grandchildren in your life who warm your heart. I look forward to seeing you this summer.

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