“She threw herself down the stairs.” That’s what I heard about abortion stories as a kid in the ’60s. I was told the young woman had risked her life in a desperate attempt to induce a miscarriage.
The next time someone brought up abortion, a friend of mine told me she’d locked herself in the bathroom and used a homemade lye douche to abort. When she woke up in the hospital, she learned she was no longer pregnant but she would never be able to conceive again. That’s what I knew about abortion when I entered college in 1968, one year after the Summer of Love.
While free love was in the air, abortion was illegal and I had no idea how anyone would go about finding a provider, let alone making sure it was safe–I got pregnant.
I was a freshman in college. My father had died the year before and my boyfriend had recently returned from Vietnam and had his own share of problems. He had a simple solution: I’d drop out and we’d get married. He argued that I wouldn’t need a degree since I’d be staying home taking care of him and our child(ren). I didn’t see it that way.
To this day, I can recall the fear and dread I felt when the doctor pulled off his glove after my first gynecological exam and told me I was pregnant. Panicked, I assured him I’d be all right. I was going to get married.
I just wanted to get out of that office and think. I knew I wasn’t just looking at nine months of pregnancy, I was looking at a lifetime of abandoned dreams and hopes for a better future. It was the certain knowledge that I would bear more than my share of the child-rearing. It was knowing how devastating it would be to my devout Catholic mother, who was so proud of me and sacrificed so much to help me pay for school.
I was the oldest of four and the first in our extended family to go to college. It was not the example I wanted to set for my siblings. I was convinced there was no way out for me. Even if I knew how to find an abortion, it would be illegal, too expensive and most likely dangerous. It was (and remains) the only time in my life I seriously contemplated suicide.
When I was in high school in Detroit, we used to whisper when a pregnant acquaintance “had to get married.” That doesn’t mean much to young people in the U.S. today. We’ve become accustomed to women choosing to be parents with or without benefit of a partner. At that time, a pregnancy out of wedlock wreaked havoc in many families.
Hasty weddings were arranged or the pregnant young woman was sent to a home for unwed mothers or to visit “family” somewhere far away. She’d return after giving birth, her child adopted. Having an “unwed mother” in the family was a source of deep shame and humiliation. Being an “unwed mother” meant you were easy, a slut, a tramp. I’m grateful that’s changed for some, but there are still cultures and communities where forced marriages and honor killings result.
As for me, I got “lucky.” I miscarried in the dorm bathroom, surrounded by college girlfriends who stayed with me in shifts, holding my hand, reading to me or playing music to distract me from the pain. When it was over, seven or eight hours later, they put me to bed and called the health services doctor for instructions.
At his request, one of those dear friends fished the fetus out of the toilet, put it in a jar and then inside a bag, and got on a bus to take it to health services to make sure it was intact (the doctor wanted to be sure no fetal matter was left in me). While a frightening experience, it is one of my most cherished memories because of the solidarity of women. The woman who took that bus remains a dear friend and has my undying gratitude.
The boyfriend soon married someone else–who was also pregnant. I was able to graduate and get on with my life. I joined my local NOW chapter and quickly became involved in the struggle for reproductive rights, staying involved in a variety of ways through the years.
I am past my childbearing years, but I still get angry about what’s happening to women who are trying to control their fertility. It should be simple: Motherhood should be a choice and it should be one that’s informed by reality, not happily-ever-after fairy tales.
I’ll be posting regularly on the Ms. Blog about reproductive rights. I can’t think of a more appropriate place for us to take back this issue. I’ve been reading Ms. since Wonder Woman graced the cover the first time in 1972; it’s exciting to be part of its extension into the blogosphere.
I’ll also be developing ideas for a documentary and a play about abortion. I’d love your comments, ideas and suggestions. I’ve told you my story, now can you tell me yours? Let’s get this conversation started.
See more Ms. coverage on abortion.