This year, it’s now been 20 years since my abortion.
I hadn’t realized until this week that was the case. Despite being something that made a huge impact on my life — or rather, kept a pregnancy at the time from having at the huge impact on my life it would have — it’s simply not an anniversary I keep all that aware of.
I’m pretty certain that’s not because I’m heartless, I’m not. Nor is it because children are so irrelevant to me that that choice was meaningless to me on that score. My love and care for children, and how much I enjoy having them as a big part of my life, was the hardest part of that choice for me. I’ve been a dedicated teacher for over 20 years, I’m a child and adolescent advocate, and I consider my standing as Auntie Extraordinaire with the utmost import. On the whole, I’ve easily spent more than 50% of my life to date helping, guiding, and caring for other people’s children. I simply am not a parent, and knew then, as I knew since and still know know, that personally reproducing wasn’t the right choice for me.
Ultimately, I think the reason my abortion less significant than it might be otherwise is because 20 years ago, when I had an abortion, the culture and community surrounding me in that choice were far more supportive of it than the culture, and many communities, people in the same position are surrounded with now.
When I discovered I had become accidentally pregnant, I knew I had choices, and I knew — not believed, knew — all of those choices were possible, good, right options. I was able to easily reach out and talk with other people about making my decision, including two mothers of children at a school I ran at the time. I didn’t feel fear or anxiety about telling people I trusted, about asking for help, and I didn’t feel concerned that anyone I talked to wouldn’t be supportive of any choice I wanted to make. I didn’t worry that if I said I was thinking about abortion anyone I spoke with would lose respect for me, would abuse me, would degrade me, would try and talk me into what they wanted. All of those conversations went well: all were supportive and helpful. I was with a partner who I knew from the onset, even though we hadn’t really discussed it, would be supportive of whatever choice I made. And even with feelings about this choice that weren’t in perfect alignment, those divides were something we were able to work out with care and respect.
When I decided on abortion, I knew I had access to abortion, even though I also knew I was going to have to struggle to come up with the money to pay for it, just like I had to struggle to come up with any amount of money more than $20. I didn’t wonder if i had the legal right to terminate or not: it was a given. Of course I did. I didn’t wonder if there was a provider I could easily get to by walking or the bus: of course there was, and I just looked up my options in the phone book — where the only services listed under abortion were, in fact, abortion services — choosing a provider just a couple miles away from my apartment. I didn’t worry about accidentally winding up at a crisis pregnancy center instead of a clinic: they didn’t exist yet.
I knew there would probably be some protestors, and there were, but I felt so personally and culturally supported in making my choices, and I knew there would be clinic escorts, to help if I needed, that I knew walking through then would be something I could handle easily. And it was. For the young woman walking in with me for whom it was more challenging, I stepped up, the escorts stepped up. Even someone unsupported could count on the kindness of strangers.
I didn’t worry much about my safety or that of my provider: the year before, and early in 1992, clinic violence was low. (It would, as it turned out, massively increase later that year.) Oddly enough, later that same year, the Supreme Court also ruled on Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, allowing states to put more restrictions on abortion.
I knew that however I felt after my procedure, it was okay, and I knew that without having to read anything on the internet or in books, without having to have a counselor at the clinic tell me that. I knew that if I felt relieved, as I did, that that would be supported by the people around me. I knew that if I felt at all sad, and I also did, that would, too. I knew that however I felt, I did not have to worry about anyone around me…. those feelings to try and further a personal agenda. I knew that no matter how I felt, no one I trusted would try and capitalize on it. I knew that if I didn’t feel well for a day or two after, I could call any of my friends and ask for them to come by and bring me soup or just sit with me.
And I knew that I got to decide how important or unimportant my abortion was to me then and thereafter: that it was up to me, and that whatever import it did or didn’t have? It was okay.
I know that all of that, all of how my experience was, is becoming more and more rare, and has been becoming so for some time. I’ve been watching that change ever since like watching a highway accident in slow motion. What I describe from 20 years ago is an experience of abortion when it is normalized and respected as a choice: normalized and respected by a person, by a culture and community.
While that certainly would not have been the universal or unilateral experience of everyone who chose abortion then, it certainly was far, far more common, I’d say, than it is for nearly anyone, anywhere, now.
Every year, I hear from young people who have become pregnant accidentally or unwontedly, and what I hear is probably what reminds me most of exactly how many years it has been since my abortion, and how very much has changed: not for the better.
So many of these things I simply knew — that I would be supported, that I would be okay, that I would be able to access the abortion services I decided I wanted — are things that so many, now, don’t know. Sometimes they aren’t sure. Often times, they are sure: they’re sure they will not be supported, not by friends, family or partners. They have to think hard to come up with even one person they know who will be supportive. Some cannot think of even that one. And if they don’t have the money on their own? If you can’t think of even one person who will be supportive of your choice, that takes asking each of your friends for ten or twenty bucks to help you right off the table.
Sometimes they are sure abortion is their own best right choice, and that they will be okay… until they receive misinformation masquerading as care or science about how wrong they are that they’ll be okay. That they’ll become infertile or ill from a procedure infinitely less associated with infertility and illness than childbirth, for example, or that they’ll become traumatized from something which is often entirely nontraumatic unless some “caring” outsider puts trauma unto it. Sometimes, all they need to do to hear misinformation about reproduction, pregnancy and abortion is to turn on the news and overhear a government representative.
Sometimes they have no idea if they even have the legal right — particularly as minors or undocumented citizens — to obtain an abortion, and if they do, don’t have any idea of where a nearby provider is: or IF there is a nearby provider at all. In many cases, there isn’t one: in the United States, as of this year, in 87% of counties lack abortion services. Some talk about having thought they found a provider, only to discover they were instead defrauded by a crisis pregnancy center. Some go to a clinic to terminate a pregnancy, only to have family members, partners or friends show up to bully them out of it. Some come to clinics alone, and talk about how they have had to lie, and will need to continue to lie, to everyone in their lives about being pregnant and choosing to terminate, because if they told even one person around them the truth, they wouldn’t be able to make the choice they want to. Sometimes those same people were protesting in front of the same clinic the week before.
The right to safe, legal abortion in the United States has always been tenuous since we achieved it, but over the last 20 years, it not only has it become more tenuous than ever, but it has been chipped away in tiny pieces — and some big ones — so consistently, both via public policy and public sentiment, that it seems highly unlikely right now that most people who choose to have an abortion will know the things I knew, or have the experience I had, including the experience of having a procedure carry only as much weight as they want to give it themselves.
I don’t just feel that everyone should have the right to a safe, legal abortion which they can access and afford. I feel everyone should have the right to an abortion which has as much meaning, or as little, to them as it does, and the regard and respect of those around them — be they family, friends or partners, or over aching culture and public policy — to, of course, freely afford them that right.
Heather is the founder and executive director of Scarleteen, a young people’s sex education site based in the States.