In the spring of 1975, at age 28 — during my first year in law school — I had an abortion. Given the same circumstances, I would do it again. I am telling the story of it now, almost 40 years later, because I want to share my experience directly, without the filters of religiosity or advocacy that otherwise make abortion almost impossible to talk about. The widely-respected Guttmacher Institute reports that since 1973 when Roe vs. Wade was decided, nearly 53 million legal abortions have been performed in the U.S. Yet the subject has become so fraught, few women admit to having had one. Many people give lip-service to the idea that having an abortion is “not an easy decision.” But millions of women make the decision for their own reasons every year. This is my story.
Some background: I graduated from college in 1968; women in my generation became sexually mature before the Pill was widely available. During my high school and college years, when people got pregnant, they might disappear for a time, then come back, having given a baby up for adoption, which no one talked about. There were some quickie marriages in college. More often, there were abortions. Many of my peers who got knocked up could afford (or their parents could afford) a trip to Mexico for a legal abortion. Some women had a family doctor who could make a quiet referral, and a safe abortion could be had for cash, off the books.
After college, I joined a consciousness-raising group. We all bought copies of “Our Bodies Ourselves,” and talked a lot about having control over our own reproductive health choices. (It was revelatory to study the book. My only previous sex-ed had been one of those Kotex films that were shown in middle school in the 1950’s. Abstinence was presumed; the films were about managing your period.) By the late ‘60’s, more women were getting on the Pill, but not everyone. Our mimeographed newsletters were full of first-person horror stories about botched “back alley” abortions stretching back into the 1930’s and 1940’s. Since abortion was illegal in those years, one got the name of a “doctor” who was cheap and available. But resorting to these practitioners was obviously taking a big chance. Many were unscrupulous, and would require that you have sex with them before they would do the procedure, or they operated in unsanitary conditions; resulting infections sometimes rendered a young woman sterile or required a hysterectomy. We read with terror that the back alley quacks were often unprepared for complications; if the abortion was botched, a young woman might find herself in a cab on the way to a hospital where she might or might not be treated. Or she might just die, perhaps hemorrhaging to death, with the true cause swept under the rug. I’ll never forget one picture of a woman, curled up face down on the floor, her legs under her, dead from a botched abortion.
Safe, legal abortions were a top priority for us second-wave feminists. We believed that decisions about contraception and pregnancy should be made by women for themselves, in consultation with their doctors and partners. It was an article of faith in the movement. As we used to say, “women are people, too.” The fact that we could conceive did not make us non-persons. No one I knew thought of a first trimester fetus as a separate life – for one thing, many, many miscarriages happen during that time, sometimes without one hardly knowing it. A heavy period that was a few weeks late . . . Pregnancy was a “condition.” If you weren’t married, or weren’t ready, it was a problem to be solved.
But back to my life. The late 60’s and early 70’s were the time of “sex, drugs, and rock & roll,” and I was not immune from these trends. I was taking the Pill (but nervously – stories circulated about blood clots), and I have never had sex with a man who used a condom. They never offered, and I never asked, in that pre-HIV era. I got married at 25 in 1971; my husband was 24 and going into the Army. After discharge, we moved to San Francisco and I decided to go back to school. Enough of being a secretary. I began law school in fall, 1974.
Looking back on my experience in law school, I realize now that I was seriously daunted by the predominantly masculine environment. There were more women going to law school in the 1970’s, but still I was one of 100 women in a class of 500. Although not all of my fellow students were “gunners” (hotshots), these men set the tone. They were brash and outspoken, and openly reacted with disgust when someone made a lame remark. Class rank was a constant preoccupation. I had never been in such a competitive environment. We were called upon to recite in rotation, and woe betide a person with a small voice, or a hesitant delivery. In other words, we women were at a natural disadvantage and I felt like a fish out of water.
And so, I was pressed to try to learn a new way of thinking and acting that were not at all natural to me. I felt pushed hard to be less “feminine.” A story — there were summer classes at the community center in my hometown, and I went to Charm School there at age 12 with a gaggle of other girls. In addition to learning how to set a table, we were coached on how to sit and walk in a ladylike way. We also were taught to prompt men to talk to us by asking questions, and to draw them out, by asking follow-up questions. It was not ladylike to dominate conversations, be confrontive, or to openly disagree, especially with a man. We were to laugh at their jokes. I remember our instructor’s parting shot: “Remember, you are never the most important person in the room.” I had internalized a lot of that advice, but now in law school all of that conditioning had to go. I understood this intellectually, but emotionally I was at sea. What was I turning into? Would I like myself?
Meanwhile, I had gone off the Pill, which I had taken for almost ten years, and was instead using contraceptive cream. Sometimes I didn’t use that much, because– I rationalized– it irritated me. So, it shouldn’t have been surprising when I missed a period. I went in to Planned Parenthood for a pregnancy test, and when it came back positive, I had a reaction that I can only call odd. I was not elated, nor was I despairing; the feeling I remember is one of satisfaction. Now that I’m much older and know myself better, I realize I was unconsciously courting an “unplanned” pregnancy. At least I could still get pregnant! I hadn’t been entirely unsexed by law school. If I had had any self knowledge, I would have known that this was what was at the heart of my reaction. But at the time I was in a state of denial about being pregnant. I had no thought of the future reality of raising a child. I floated back to my assigned seat in class with a bandaid on the inside of my elbow, wearing a slight smile. That bandaid was my small signifier that I was a woman, I had had a blood test and was pregnant, not that anyone noticed.
My husband, on the other hand, was aghast. This was not what he had signed up for. I was going to law school to become a professional, to realize my dream of making the world a better place. How would I be able to get through the first year of law school, let alone two more years with an infant? (I know, some women do it, but I didn’t know any of them.) I had loans and no income. My husband wasn’t even a year into his first post-Army job, and was working for a low salary in an academic setting. He wasn’t ready to support a family and did not want a baby. He told me outright that he considered himself too immature to be a father. If I had this baby, I might end up a single mother. He was adamant.
And actually – I agreed. I did not really want a baby, despite my subconscious need to be reassured that I was a woman. We consulted our parents. They were entirely supportive of the decision to terminate. I told my two best friends at law school. They were completely in agreement. Although we did seek counsel from people close to us, in the end, this was no one’s business but ours. I do not believe that women’s bodies become public property when conception occurs.
As I’ve said, in my circle of friends and peers, pregnancies were considered “conditions” in those days – something that was happening to a woman’s body about which the society at large had no stake. The question always was, what to do about it. So it was that I found myself in a group of about a dozen women waiting in the early morning hours at the hospital for abortions on a cold day in early March. It was a short procedure for which I was lightly sedated. I remember holding the nurse’s hand and saying, “thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.” There were no complications and I was not far enough along to have noticeable hormonal changes. It was really a non-event.
I graduated from law school two and a half years later, passed the bar, and got a well-paying job. My husband had changed from one academic department to another, and was very happy in his new position; he felt his career was launched. We started our family two years after that. I had a boy at age 33, and three years after that, a girl. I occasionally thought about the abortion, but only idly, and without any emotional charge. I pondered, what would it be like to have three children instead of two? But wait; if I had carried that first pregnancy to term, I might still be a secretary and very likely a single mother of one.
Many years later, I decided to go to a Buddhist ceremony for parents of “lost children” that was held at the Zen Center’s Green Gulch. I had learned that Japanese women who have had miscarriages or abortions make a point of praying to Jizu, a Boddhisatva who is the guardian of children who have died ahead of their parents. He helps their souls across the river between this life and the next. Although I am in no way religious, I was drawn to some aspects of Buddhist practice, and this idea was very attractive. I had also become aware that I am not good at grief, and I regularly block difficult feelings. I wondered if I was harboring some emotions below the surface about my abortion that could be accessed and relieved by this Buddhist-themed ceremony.
It was unexpectedly grueling. Every parent there had a story, and we all told them. There were people who had had miscarriages and abortions, but also couples who had lost young children and teenagers to accidents, illness, and suicide. The stories of these parents who had had their precious fully-formed children ripped from them were heart-rending, especially since I had my own children by then, and the two of them were the center of my life. Empathizing with the parents of lost older children allowed me to tap a well-spring of grief about the tiny proto-life that I had discarded. I had never before imagined it as a baby or child, but I did that in the ceremony. One exercise was to make an item to leave with one of the statues of Jizo in the garden. I made a little coat out of a scrap from an old nightgown of mine. When I finished it, I said that this was for the child that never got to be held against my body, wearing this nightgown, which my living children had experienced countless times. I started crying and couldn’t stop. I cried off and on for the rest of the day.
I’m very glad I did that ceremony, for me. I think I needed to bring the experience up into the light of day for examination and meditation. But the baby I imagined that day dissolved quickly into a wisp of smoke, and I never was moved to conjure it again. A sadness I did not know I had harbored was expiated, and then the experience was put to rest. I think that for the vast majority of the millions of us who experience abortions, life simply goes on. That is what has happened for me. After all, women have been terminating unwanted pregnancies since ancient times. This wheel keeps on turning.
I have written about my experience here to bear witness to a reality of women’s lives. I am telling my very ordinary story, because I feel passionately that every woman deserves to have the same right I did. Cultural acceptance of the civil rights principle that reproductive health decisions belong to the woman involved and her alone has been under siege. It will not survive — to the detriment of our daughters and theirs — unless we who have had abortions have the courage to speak up for it. As Thomas Jefferson so wisely said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
Evan is an appellate lawyer in San Francisco.