My first abortion was in 1969. There have been hundreds since then.
I wasn’t the patient. I was the counselor, the hand-holder, the nurse. Before Roe v. Wade, an uncounted army of women like me dedicated ourselves to helping our sisters make decisions and take action about their unwanted pregnancies and other reproductive issues. We listened to their stories, counseled them about options and helped them find the services they needed. We often accompanied them to appointments and procedures.
Some of the stories from those years were heartbreaking: women pregnant by rape, by abusive partners, as the result of sexual assault by family members or the absence of sex education by their schools and families. Women with privilege and resources could travel to other countries or get “therapeutic” abortions—but for most women, the distress of an unwanted pregnancy was magnified by financial issues and lack of access to safe and legal procedures.
Most of the stories were complicated. Some women who chose abortion did so with shame and profound regret. Others felt little conflict or were crystal clear in their choice. But no one I met, not one of the hundreds of women, made the decision lightly.
After Roe, some of us who had been volunteer counselors were hired by the abortion clinic that opened in our city. We did the same work, more or less. We listened, counseled, supported the woman’s decision and tried to be there for her no matter what she chose. Access was easier and abortions were safer, but the decisions and financing were still difficult for many of our sisters.
Decades later, I still see many of the faces of the women I counseled, before and after the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. I feel the hands I held. I mourn the few who died seeking help. I remember their faces and their stories, their pain, their anger, their frustration.
The sights and sounds of the procedure itself are still with me, too. It has taken me over 40 years to write about it. When I finally put a character named Esther into an illegal abortion scene in a grungy motel room in my forthcoming novel, Her Sister’s Tattoo, the intensity of the sensory memories surprised me.
Drawn Venetian blinds darkened the room. The desk had been pulled into the center of the room, with folded blankets and pillows arranged on top of shower curtains to catch the expected fluids. A crookneck lamp clamped to the edge of the desk threw a circle of light on the sheet. Esther looked away from the machine sitting on the low dresser, the tray of instruments, the loops of rubber tubing, the metal bucket on the floor.
Once he pocketed Deborah’s cash and examined her, the doctor turned on the radio, loud. The first time she made the trip with a pregnant woman, Esther thought he liked to work to music, was inspired by the crashing cymbals and majestic horns. Silly you, Rosa had said afterwards: the symphony was to cover up the noise if a woman screamed or cried.
Deborah didn’t make a sound, just clutched Esther’s hands against her chest. Esther didn’t know where to look. Not into Deborah’s eyes, that was too private, and certainly not at the bloody stew being sucked through the tubing and into the bucket at the doctor’s feet. What would he do with that? Flush it? A mascara trail snaked from the corner of Deborah’s eye and disappeared into her hairline. Esther squeezed her eyes closed, thought about Molly, left with Mama for the afternoon with two bottles of breast milk and a long list of instructions. The orchestra advanced to a softer movement. The bedside clock ticked with a minutely irregular heartbeat. The suction machine whirred, gurgled, stopped.
Abortion is an odd issue. It is both intensely personal and deeply political. The decision about whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term can touch on so much of our sense of ourselves as women, as human beings, as activists and contributing members of our societies. Whether we want children or not, the ability to make those choices is a central part of our agency as women. Many women of my generation fought very hard for legal access to abortion and contraception. My daughters’ generation was more able to make these decisions, although financial and geographical barriers still exist.
Many of my daughters’ generation remember attending pro-choice rallies in their strollers. Those demonstrations were powerful.
One of my strongest memories from my twenties is a protest march organized by W.I.T.C.H.—the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell—and held at the morgue in Detroit. We were told to dress in black and bring wire coat hangers, the grisly symbol of desperate self-induced abortions. Hundreds of us walked slowly up and down the sidewalk thrusting coat hangers into the air. There were no speeches. Instead we keened, our loud voices crying wordlessly; mourning our sisters, mothers, daughters lost to illegal and unsafe abortion procedures. I still tear up remembering our angry laments filling the city sky.
Many women were changed by the fight for legal abortion, and the related issues of safe and affordable contraception choices and appropriate gynecological care for all women throughout their life-cycles. I was profoundly changed. During one abortion procedure, when an unexpected complication threatened the life of the patient and nurses responded to save her life, I decided to apply to nursing school. “I want to be like them,” I thought.
Reproductive rights are once again under virulent attack, ultra-politicized in the current polarized cultural arena. These days, the scenes and smells and faces I remember have a new urgency. We won this battle once before—through all those petitions and lobbying, demonstrations and educational programs—but here we are again, facing misogyny in the courts and legislatures, and putting our sisters and daughters and granddaughters at risk.
Esther and I will be there, coat hangers in hand. I hope you will promise to join us in the courts and on the streets. I hope you will you gather your friends and sisters, your daughters and granddaughters, and dress in black and keen with us at the morgue.