It seemed to have happened quietly, quickly, very subtly. It was there, overshadowing everything else, demanding immediate attention –
The funny part about it was that thing had always been there -always a reality, but hanging in the shadows -part of the generalized white noise of the collective unconsciousness; something you had to make a special effort to get in touch with.
Until it wasn’t -until it burst forth with a power, vengeance and energy so heightened and intense that everyone could not help but notice the change.
The thing had definitely taken on a life of its own -What was once only whispered about or discussed with those intimately involved was now generalized cocktail party conversation, another political discussion point, the static, the cacophony of voices, the media attention, the politics, the same questions, the same answers multiple variations on a theme.
One day, there it was -as big as life -ABORTION -THE “ISSUE”.
Abortion the Issue was exploding, and the fallout burned everything it touched. Nothing was exempt -all aspects of contemporary life and communications; talk show topic, front page in all newspapers, discussed ad infinitum on Buckley, Downey, Phil and Oprah -there were more demonstrations -new organizations, alliances and coalitions forming -old ones coming out of the closet -abortion as a political issue; abortion as a business; abortion as a political football between the executive and the legislative branch; abortion as a religious issue; as a birth control problem, as a population control necessity, back alley stories revisited; abortion as the issue that inspired thousands of arrests of members of “Operation Rescue”, abortion as the motivation for 600,000 people marching on Washington. Abortion now acceptable for discussion to people who otherwise only whispered about it. A “Made for TV” movie, pro-choice art exhibits, concerts, tee shirts and poetry readings. A rush on wire coat hangers. Yes, the heat was definitely on.
Strangely enough, the thing had never been an “issue” for me, having occupied a more private, fundamental and intimate space in my reality. A reality whose rites of passage and seasonal changes had signposts of their own. Not for me calendars full of children’s birthdays or friends’ anniversaries. No, my markers were far more personally political than that.
It was 1971 (two years before Roe v. Wade) and New York was one of the few states with liberal abortion laws. I remember the first patient at CHOICES. In her early 20s and very, very nervous. She was from New Jersey, alone, without her husband; there with a supportive friend whose face betrayed a well of empathetic anxiety.
I remember myself. I was in graduate school for psychology: young, intense, involved with founding CHOICES because it seemed romantic. And I was nervous. Very, very nervous. No one had trained me; legal abortion was an uncharted course full of morality, theology, philosophy and politics, but no experience in dealing directly with the abortion patient herself. “What do I say to her?” “What will she say to me?” All the psych courses flooded in… theories, theories and more theories.
This woman was terrified. She was pregnant and did not want to be! In that, she was not alone. But here she was a pioneer. And I was to guide her way. 1971 and a brave new world for women -I was to be her bridge -her midwife into the realms of power and responsibility that are so much a part of the architectural foundations of the abortion decision. But that understanding was to come later -much later, when abortion was an “issue”.
That day, 18 years ago, there was only that woman, her fear, her need, her pain, her strength, her vulnerability and her hand. The hand that I held tightly in mine, listening to her nervous staccato talking to help ease the discomfort of the dilators -locking her eyes in mine, breathing in rhythm with her -becoming joined to the point of personal discomfort. In the end, I do not remember a word of what passed between us. It was strangely irrelevant. I do remember her face. And I remember her hand; the hand that became for me in that moment of time, without my knowing, the guiding force of my life …her hand, and the intimate, personal connection of one woman helping another, forging a natural alliance with that woman and all the thousands who have followed her through my hands so that my memories of my life before abortion are of another age -another time -another place –
No, abortion was never an “issue” for me.
The countless stories, the reasons agreed with or not -my judgments on their merits changing with the climate of the times and my own psychological evolution -the hours and hours of conversations counseling husbands, lovers, sisters -and mothers whose fury at their daughters’ betrayal needed more salve than I could give…”let her go local -let her really feel the pain so she knows never to do it again”.. The heads on my shoulder as I would sit on their beds, wiping tears of relief or regret or both, whispering comfort, giving absolution, directing rage, sharing life.
The pills that were too strong or too weak, the diaphragms not re-fit because the doctor said it was unnecessary -“I always give all my patients I.U.D.’s, or Pills or Diaphragms”, the shame, anxiety -“go off the pill and use foam”, the ignorance “I didn’t have an orgasm -how could I be pregnant?” -so that I came to define a new medical reality “iatrogenic pregnancy”. To me, physicians as surrogate fathers had a far more direct meaning for many of these women.
The love that was shared and taken back to give again and again and again so that the words “burn out” seemed a popular psych fad and self-indulgent luxury.
The first time I witnessed a second trimester abortion on a 14 year old girl and wrote, “Now the ‘abortion issue’ comes home to me and CHOICES… hard. It’s not just ‘blood and tissue’ anymore.” The results of choice are not diffused and amorphous, but observable and definable. Time for evaluation and deeper commitment…
The teenager whose hand I held -eyes terrified, wide with innocence and fear. How often have I stood beside her and thousands of her sisters… my hand wet with sweat, my rings in the pocket of my lab coat, murmuring words, trying to give wordless comfort, protection, as they lie so vulnerably with their legs in the ritualistic spread position of the gynecological table.
Coming to CHOICES …barely more than babies themselves… babies having babies. Most second trimester abortions are teenagers… innocent… won’t believe they’re pregnant till it’s too late to deny it… too afraid to ask for help… maybe it’ll go away… maybe if I wish hard enough.
I remember this 14 year old, and too many of the others like her. I remember that when she went into the recovery room I gave her a stuffed animal to hold and seeing her clutch it in a gesture of natural protection pondered on how sex and abortion had irrevocably altered the nature and reality of childhood -of her childhood.
And so it comes to me that one may view abortion ultimately as a “choice of victims”.
Back in the operating room there is another teenager -her feet are removed from the stirrups… her small hand still clutches mine. And I feel rage… rage against the male who impregnated this child -her father, brother, some young boy with no thought for the consequences? This child woman has been duly “punished” for her part of the sex act, for her innocence, but for him there will be no censure… there never was -never is. Perhaps she came back again -next year or the year after -didn’t know? didn’t learn? didn’t care?
No, abortion was never an “issue” for me.
I remember it distinctly -the point in time when I became political: it was summer, 1976, and Republican Congressman Henry Hyde had succeeded in passing legislation that would effectively remove the right of abortion for poor women on Medicaid.
“If we can’t save them all, we can at least save some,” said Hyde, referring to the pregnancies of the Black, Hispanic and all the politically and socially disenfranchised -these women and their unwanted pregnancies were Hyde’s first strategic target -the opening salvo in his war against women. Because of the collective powerlessness and political vulnerability of the “enemy”, it was an easy victory -an especially easy kill.
Hearing that news, I was filled with an intense self-awareness, coupled with a strong feeling of fate. I instinctively knew that my life was irrevocably changed.
I had in that moment made the transition from the personal to the political, from the world of singular experience to the broader, more demanding and dangerous one of social and political activism.
Soon afterwards as a student, I walked the halls of Queens College sounding a hollow alarm on many a deaf ear; after all this “issue” did not involve personal survival. “It won’t affect me, it won’t effect any of the people that I know. Anyway, we can always travel, go to Puerto Rico, London or somewhere -anywhere.”
So I slowly began to understand the profoundly pervasive nature of the false class and racial separations between and among women and how the separations are used and abused by those in power and those who would have power -and how often, too often, they are abused by women themselves.
It is 1982 after a televised debate on the “issue” with Roland Smith moderating -I have just finished taping and coming out of the studio. I call my office and find out that my pregnancy test is positive. Later I make arrangements for an abortion. My diary entry the night before reads “For one night I am a mother”…
No, abortion was never an “issue” for me…
In 1985 the temperature rose suddenly. Not being able to affect any substantial legislative or judicial rulings in favor of restricting abortion, a new form of terrorism was born out of the frustration of the anti-choice movement. That year alone saw approximately 40 violent attacks against abortion clinics and family planning providers. The guerrilla and street tactics included arson, bombing, death threats against physicians and clinic staffs, dynamite, gunshots, vandalism, harassment of patients and direct violence against women attempting to enter abortion clinics.
1985 was the beginning of my entry into the Surreal World of the politics of abortion violence, terrorism and constant anxiety so that all other “issues” seemed mere diversions. Something that living with day to day, year to year had become just “part of the territory” -an integral part of living with the reality of abortion. So that January 22nd (the anniversary of Roe v. Wade) began to take on comparable and at times more significance than March 6th (my own birthday).
January 22, 1985, a pro-choice march and rally with members of NARAL down Fifth Avenue to the Right to Life Headquarters on 34th Street. My first experience with a soap box, the incredible thrill and rush of battle, the knowledge that this was part of my destiny -the small band of pro-choicers -the many who were afraid to come out… the sense of danger, of risk.
January 22, 1987, standing in four feet of snow in what was reported as the worst blizzard in 10 years, testifying for abortion rights in blinding snow… a woman in a wheelchair… women holding abortion rights posters buffeted by the winds …deciding not to take an invitation to go indoors.
And the next day reading only about how people braved the snow storm to wait for a bus…nothing about the battle and the brave warriors… only a mention of an anti-choice rally in Washington… it was obviously the wrong season for the Main Stream press.
The continual threats, the debates, being called a murderess and Hitler on national TV (“No, Reverend Falwell, I will not feel guilty when I stand before my maker with the blood of thousands of babies on my hands when I stand before Her, I’ll feel proud”) -the rallies, the meetings, the marches, the media, the endless, endless women and their stories.
And now, as if waking from a dream of a cool, dark evening into the glaring light of morning, the society is now ready to debate openly, vigorously the pros and cons -the realities or so-called realities, of the abortion “issue” -But before that, there were the women, the women and the lessons they taught me…
Lessons about power, love and survival.
I remember a lecture I was giving at The University of Massachusetts at Amherst. A young woman was in the room. She listened to me intently and at the end of the session she began to speak hesitantly and tentatively. The story she told was not unique. “I never told anyone this before but I had an abortion. I was 19 years old when I found myself pregnant, living in a small Catholic town; no one knew, not my parents, not my lover and certainly not my priest.” Alone, all alone she made an appointment at the nearest abortion clinic. She had to walk for 10 miles to get back to her house. Alone, afraid but no longer pregnant. She spoke and I listened. ‘It was such a difficult choice for me to make. The mother in me wanted so much to have it, to love it, to see it grow… The other part knew that it was impossible.”
The “Other Part”? In a very profound sense, the truth is that Abortion, the act of choosing whether or not to have a child, is and of itself, a mother’s act.
Abortion is so often an act of love, love for oneself, one’s family, for the children one has.
An act of love and survival. It was for the 1986 anniversary of Roe v. Wade that I gave a sermon at the First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn -“Women, Love and the Power of Choice”. I subsequently learned that it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who gave the first sermon in the Church’s history. I always wondered what he would have thought about an anonymous letter that I read to the congregation.
“I think the thing I will always remember most was walking up three flights of dark stairs and down that pitchy corridor. More than the incredible filth of the place. More than the indescribable pain. More than the hemorrhaging and the hospitalization that followed. More than the gut twisting fear of being found out and being locked away for 20 years. More than those things, those pitchy stairs and that dark hallway stay with me and chill my blood still.
Because I saw in that darkness the clear and distinct possibility that at the age of 23 I might very well be taking the last walk of my life, and that I might never see my two children, my husband or anything else of this world.”
Yes. Abortion is an act of love, survival and POWER. In the politics of the abortion “issue”, and the reality of women’s lives, this business of power and responsibility is a watershed for many because it directly conflicts with the all powerful and pervasive images of WOMAN AS VICTIM. Historically viewed and conditioned to be dependent creatures, victims of biological circumstance and passive, the extraordinary power that women take on during the process of the abortion is an uncomfortable and awkward mantle for many.
This is why there are organizations like WEBA (Women Exploited By Abortion) and American Victims of Abortion dedicated to reinforcing and propagandizing the view that women are not responsible for their actions and decisions, that they are in effect acted upon rather than those who act… Their philosophy is congruent with George Bush’s assertion that women are the “second victims” of abortion. Not willing to view women as full moral and spiritual agents, those who oppose legalized abortion would not hold women morally or criminally accountable for having them if, in fact, abortion was recriminalized.
WEBA and AVA are women centered organizations that have incorporated this minimal secondary view of women and place all moral responsibility on the “system”, usually centralized in the “providers”, the abortion clinics and physicians. Not only are women to be second class victims not to be criminally prosecuted -they now have achieved the moral status of children and, just like children, they cannot be held accountable for their actions –
As if life owed you because you were female -owed you not equal participation in the society, but a credit card to a perpetual state of childhood and dependence where only daddy, the government and the doctors would be held accountable. As if women did not know and understand that an eight-week fetus has a heart beat, as if they never see the sonogram pictures… and still decide to abort… As if the right to choose means that it is a good or a positive choice for each woman. As if having the right to choose gives you the inalienable right to make the right choice. As if after an abortion you will never feel guilty or strange or sad or ambivalent or confused or gratified or relieved or enraged or all of the above and more… As if women did not have the right to sometimes make the wrong choices.
Abortion the issue has a multiplicity of colours and intricacies and questions and philosophical positions -abortion the reality is pure radicalism in the classical sense -as defined as to go to the “root cause of”. Some of these roots include the reality that abortion is intimately attached to sexuality and as such calls up some of the darkest and most threatening fears in many of those who would oppose it. Sexuality, although seemingly promoted and sold endlessly, is something that our American culture is extremely uncomfortable with on any level except as a consumer item, a market product, an “industry” (pornography or a medicalized problem -sexual therapy). True Eros is denied, and women’s sexuality becomes defined by the results which far too often are violent and alienating.
The only way anti-choicers deal with the sex abortion connection is the most punitive: “They had their fun, now they must pay.”
Power. Within the abortion decision process, women choose the results of their sexuality, and exist in a profoundly pro active assertive psychological position in relation to their place in the world. To the anti-choice mentality, women choosing and having abortions is in direct opposition to God’s plan. This thinking reaches its apex in the politics of “Operation Rescue” where the philosophical concept of a “higher moral value” (innocent unborn human life) no matter what the gestation, is given more weight and importance than the woman who carries it.
The act of abortion and choice is power. It is women at their most powerful, exercising the right of fetal existence. That is why it is so strongly opposed. One could argue with the results of that choice, but the ability to choose and the ability to act on that choice is in a sense far more important than the results of the choice.
This power (of choice) is traditionally held by the male establishment and defined in both military and common law -Historically, it is men who will decide who survives -not women.
Abortion the act -not the “issue” has no ambivalence -It is a synthesis of the most profound order and takes women out of the zones defined for them and situates them in a place which they alone define and they alone control. In the act of abortion, women take their lives and futures into their own hands.
Abortion is power, abortion is love, abortion is struggle, abortion is survival. And it is in the halls of the abortion clinics that these realities are played out. Here, there is no promise of salvation or a perfect heavenly father who will assuage all pain and heal all wounds.
The abortion clinics have become the new Cathedrals of our age -its workers the grassroots clergy. Here, there is existential dread, anxiety, an initial taste of power -the love and support of women -the crushing fundamental truth coming home that you are responsible for your own life and the life growing inside you -that you have the power to choose and that you must understand, integrate and live with whatever consequences -morally, psychologically or politically -that result.
It is here in the clinics that a different definition of love and salvation gets played out. In its halls, abortion is very often an act of personal growth -for others an ongoing struggle a “Reluctant Epiphany”. Abortion is the theme, the one thread that runs through all lives, the one pure commonality -a decision made within the context, colours and threads of each individual life -a reality of immeasurable complexity.
There is light in abortion clinics -but it is different. It is this -just this that targets them for destruction.
If only! wasn’t 14.
If only I was married.
If only my husband had another job.
If only I didn’t give birth to a baby six months ago.
If only I didn’t just get accepted to college.
If only I didn’t have such difficult pregnancies.
If only I didn’t have three children already.
If only I wasn’t in this lousy marriage.
If only I wasn’t 42.
If only my boyfriend wasn’t on drugs.
If only I wasn’t on drugs.
If only, If only…
It is 5 a.m. on a morning in 1988 and the lights of the city mingle with the beginning of morning. The streets of New York are strangely anticipatory. I finally come to understand my obsession with Joan of Arc. It was preparation.
Abortion the reality has made my life a continual battle and me a constant warrior.
It is 5 a.m. on a cold Saturday morning and I am waiting with other pro-choice warriors in front of the Carter Hotel where the troops of Operation Rescue are gathering to begin their terror tactics against a New York City abortion clinic.
Someone hands me a token for the subway and before I know it I am swept away down under somewhere where the smell of urine and the rush of the trains are the only real sensations I experience. It has been many years since I traveled the New York City subways.
Everything else is unreal -surreal.
I am surrounded by hundreds of Operation Rescue participants. No one speaks. No one knows where we are going. Finally the train stops somewhere and everyone gets out. I am running down 23rd St., trying to outrun Randall Terry and his cohorts. We are determined to keep the clinic doors open.
11a.m.:we are still there. Surrounded by voices singing “Amazing Grace”, I struggle against the desire to sing with them. We keep chanting, “Not the Church, Not the State, Women must decide their fate”, “Operation Rescue your name’s a lie, you don’t care if women die” -I can say them in my sleep now. “Racist, Sexist, Anti Gay, Born Again Bigot go away”. But they don’t go away -until they are forced by the police. I notice that the emotional temperature is rising and that abortion is not an “issue” here either.
“Amazing Grace.” By the grace of God. The God of the Old and New Testament demands that Operation Rescue participants rescue babies about to be killed. Nat Hentoff writing in the Village Voice three years ago, “If only pro-choicers could see the fetus as a baby seal in utero”…But where is that uterus, Mr. Hentoff? Operation Rescue sees fetuses -vulnerable, helpless -lambs to the slaughter. “I am the lamb of God”. The God who demands repentance.
I cannot deliver that. But -April 2, 1989 we deliver a message to the Cardinal of New York, John J. O’Connor -a proclamation -A Bill of Rights on abortion.
The demonstrators start by chanting the same slogans. But today it is different. We have placed our thesis on the great doors of the Cathedral -where statues of the saints look coldly at the passing activity below them.
Today it is different because we are ready for a higher level of sacrifice. Nine pro-choice people will be arrested. Some of them planned to be -others were caught up in the time, the moment and the intense spirit of the thing. It is the first orchestrated pro-choice act of civil disobedience in New York. All of them told me that for them abortion was much more than an “issue”. It was a time of pure radicalism -when the light pointed to the root and we addressed it –
Recently, I was at CHOICES on a Saturday. To get into the building, I had to pass screaming pickets and demonstrators -signs held high -rosary beads pushed into my face, women yelling at entering patients that they were murdering their babies.
Once in the building as I walked down the hall, I saw a young woman in the Recovery Room. She could not have been more than 16 years old. She was just waking up from the anesthesia and she was crying for her mother.
I went over to her bed, put down her siderails and held her. Her tears mixed with mine. For that moment, I was all mothers as she was all children. As I held her, another hand reached out to me from the bed next to hers and pulled me towards her.
This woman was Russian and about 35 years old. She whispered these words to me: “You are the only one that I have now. I am totally alone. No one knows about this. It was such a difficult choice for me to make. It was so very necessary.” She continued to tell me how the man involved really did not care. How much my caring and I meant to her at us point of her life. How God would assure that we would meet after death.
No, abortion was never an “issue” for me.