Every few months, the abortion debate comes back into focus in the mainstream media — like it did a few weeks ago, when the news broke of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy, and her mother’s stance on abortion rights. That’s when I started feeling guilty, and angry.
The circumstances of my abortion were incredibly mundane. I was 19 years old, a junior at a college in Boston, deeply in love with my boyfriend (J.), and doing well in school. I worked full-time at our school newspaper, heading there daily after class and staying regularly past midnight. I was taking birth-control pills, but my schedule — which forced me to value every last moment of sleep — made me irresponsible about taking the pills at the same time every day. Sometimes I would miss doses entirely and take two in one day to make up for it. Occasionally, I would have (what I didn’t really think of as) unprotected sex; I believed I was protected not only by my inappropriately administered Ortho Tri-Cyclen, but also by young-adult invincibility.
I found out I was pregnant on a Sunday, thanks to a home-pregnancy test that I bought at CVS after discussing with J. that my period was late. I don’t remember being nervous about taking the test. But when I saw the results — positive — I left my dorm suite bathroom and literally crumpled to the floor just outside the door, weeping out of fear and for the decision I knew I would make.
I wasn’t ready to have a child. That’s it. Not financially, not emotionally. There was nothing else to think about. I called J., called Planned Parenthood, and scheduled my abortion for Halloween 2002.
My memories of that day are unformed. They aren’t fuzzy, or hazy, as people describe memories; I believe they literally never took shape. I know that we walked to the Planned Parenthood clinic across the street, and made our way past the protesters who stood — only a few strong — in a cluster outside the state-designated “buffer zone.” Inside, I found out that I was approximately six weeks pregnant. I know that a Planned Parenthood doctor gave me one RU-486 pill at the clinic, and another to take at home. (I’d decided to have a medical abortion, rather than a surgical one, because I thought it would be less physically painful and less invasive — more private. Also, I was within the eight-week time frame when it’s still an option.) She warned me that shortly after taking the second pill, I would experience some pain.
Back at the dorm, hours later, I know that I writhed in my twin bed, suffering from debilitating, convulsing cramps. My roommates, best friend, and boyfriend hovered around; they brought me pain killers, Tiger Balm, hot-water bottles, and applesauce, and all the while they stroked my head and conferenced in the background about how I was doing. I bled profusely as my body rejected the fetus that had been described to me as “the size of a grain of rice.” I threw up. And finally, I fell asleep.
Three days later, I showed up for work at the newspaper as though nothing had happened. In some stroke of truly black comedy, we had an editorial-board discussion that very night about whether or not to run a pro-life insert that would bring in a ton of money, but go against our editorial stance. I felt sick. We opted against running the insert, and I can’t remember if I even offered an opinion during the conversation. That’s the last thing I recall in the days immediately following.
Now here I am, almost exactly six years later. My abortion made me practice safer sex, and it introduced me to the pro-choice movement. It put a strain on my relationship, which broke apart eventually. It made me feel scared, and relieved. And it puts me in a group with the 40 percent of American women who have also had abortions by the time they’re 45 years old.
That’s a lot of women. But we’re rarely the ones you hear about.
When pundits and politicians debate abortion, they often bring up the most unfortunate cases: rape or incest victims, or women with medical problems. The fact that these women risk losing the right to govern their own bodies is outrageous. So we end up fighting for those worst-case scenarios, which somehow makes what we might call the “normal” cases seem more cavalier. As if some cases are less essential, and therefore less justifiable, than others. Let's be clear — it's the circumstances that vary, not the validity of our decisions, nor our need for access to safe, legal abortions.