Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the US Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal. It passed with very little fanfare, a smattering of articles, a few blog posts, a bunch of tweets, the usual call to give money to Planned Parenthood. Which is odd, when you consider how much a woman’s right to exercise choice has eroded in the past decade or so—87 percent of US counties don’t have an abortion provider, for example, and as more state governments vote to defund of Planned Parenthood, that number will rise. Rachel Maddow devoted herself to a series of segments exploring the real-life consequences of Roe v. Wade’s slow erosion. Hers was a lone voice in the reproductive rights wilderness.
In many ways, I was fortunate to turn 18 in 1980. I spent a good six years having sex before AIDS began to be a poorly understood concern. Abortion was fairly cheap and widely available. Reproductive Rights, even with the Moral Majority groaning in the background, was pretty much a given. I also had the good luck of growing up in the Northeast, so liberalism was a default setting, at least in politics.
If I was fortunate in timing and location, I was less lucky in biology. I was a very fecund young woman. I was also depressed (I wouldn’t get an accurate diagnosis of Bipolar 3 until my early 40s; Bipolar 3 says I’m mostly depressed with the occasional pharm-induced bout of mania), and as my bad biological luck would have it, my depression was made more acute by taking birth control pills.
I’d go on the pill, grow so depressed that I was suicidal, go off the pill, and get pregnant. Then I’d have an abortion. This happened seven times over a span of sixteen years, beginning at 18 and ending with my last abortion at 34. In the interest of full disclosure, I also had an ectopic pregnancy, which raises my pregnancy total to eight, which is a lot. Even I will admit that is a lot.
A couple of the abortions I had were full-on D&Cs; the rest were vacuum aspirations. None were pharmacological, aka RU4-86, aka Mifepristone, because that didn’t become available until 2000, five years after my last abortion. Five of them I endured entirely awake, and two I had under “twilight” anesthesia.
I give these specifics to show you that while I might have gotten pregnant easily, I was not unaware of my actions. I knew precisely what an abortion was, how to prevent pregnancy, what the outcome of unprotected sex might be. I still had a lot of sex, much of it unprotected, and I got pregnant. Sometimes in telling this story, I say that I got pregnant while on the pill. In the stark light of truth, that didn’t happen. I just had sex and I just got pregnant. Often.
These days, as I slough off into menopause, I wonder how different my life might have been had birth control pills not made me certifiably insane. No hyperbole here: I actually was committed to a locked ward for two weeks. My mom signed the papers. I had attempted suicide twice. I was on Ortho-Novum at the time. The birth control pills of the ‘80s were not the happy, friendly, acne-reducing birth control pills of today. They were not low dose or very low dose. They were serious and they fucked me up righteously.
I also wonder how different my life might have been had the morning after pill been an OTC med when I was still young, dumb and filled with come. I’ll never know. I suspect I’d have spent more than one day puking my innards out, and much less time staring up at the poster of a setting sun plastered on Planned Parenthood’s ceiling, tasting the Novocain the nurse just shot into my cervix.
To have one abortion, commonplace narratives seem to suggest, is difficult. To have two is distressing, and to have three or more is simply bad taste. I am, according to my numbers, a wanton slut. Perhaps I am. Perhaps I’m not. Perhaps—and this is the point I’d like to drive home—it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, abortion is a medical procedure, and no one should be judged for having it. Lizz Winstead argued this point yesterday, though even she was quick to point out that she’d only had one abortion. You know, lest you think she’d been irresponsible. You know, lest you think she’d been someone like me.
As The Daily Beast reports, women experience abortion guilt by association. Kate Crosby, who researches the stigma of abortion at the University of California, San Francisco, has found that “women who have abortions specifically try to distance themselves from others who have had the same experience. They don't want to consider themselves part of the stereotype, the woman who is sexually promiscuous and careless about birth control.” In other words, they want to distance themselves from women like me. I was sexually promiscuous and careless about birth control. I was, horrors, one of them.
Perhaps women’s need to distance themselves helps to explain why on several occasions self-professed feminists have tried—and failed—to hide their horror when I admitted how many pregnancies I’ve had. I’m steeled for condemnation from Conservatives, Fundamentalists, Republicans, and Right-to-Lifers of various stripes, and, frankly, they can condemn me until their hearts turn cast-iron black with it; I don’t care. I’m not, however, given to protecting myself in the company of fellow Progressive Democrats, of Anarchists, Polyamorists, Socialists, Feminists and Libertines. I should learn to be, because they judge me.
Perhaps you do too.
Here’s the thing, and the real point of this piece: we who believe ardently in a woman’s right to choose, we who believe that right is inalienable, we who believe that we should trust women, we who call ourselves feminists, we shouldn’t give a flying fuck whether that person has had one abortion or fifteen; whether she’s promiscuous and careless or monogamous and mighty unlucky; whether, in short, she’s like you or whether she’s like me.
You know, yeah, I did get pregnant eight times. But six of them were with boyfriends, men who told me they loved me, men to whom I said the same. Only two of those pregnancies came from having casual sex, if there is such a thing. (As I grow old, I’m inclined to think there isn’t.) Those six men never stopped me, never said, “Hey, let’s not do this. Here’s a condom.” None of those men said no, none were forced, and all pledged their love. And that “But” in the second sentence, and indeed the entirety of this paragraph, shows that I’m not immune to the cultural tool of control that is shame. I shouldn’t feel shame, but I do. Some gossamer vestige. I shred it under my harridan’s heels.
It’s an ouroboros of a thing. Women won’t have equality until they have agency over their bodies. Women won’t have agency over their bodies until they have equality. One thing is for certain, however, shaming women for having abortions—one, or more than one—only helps the side who’d gladly wrest that right from our cold, desperate hands.
Which side are you on? Me, I speak aloud, again, for the right to choose. For the right of women to have children or not. For the idea that women should be considered first as people and only distantly as potential mothers. For the idea that women have the right to say yes or no, to fuck or not fuck, to fuck up and to make right, to create their own destinies, inside, outside, upward, and beyond.