I, too, had an abortion. Not in tragic circumstances, not when I was young and vulnerable – a few years ago. I was married, had a house and a mortgage, a well-paid job, three great kids. I just didn’t want any more.
I sometimes teach Holly Pester’s poem ‘Comic Timing’, in which the speaker goes to Ilford, has an abortion, takes a cab home, hosts a house party and clowns around. My students often interpret it as a painfully ironic scenario. ‘The speaker’s effort to chat to the cab driver shows the extent to which women are conditioned to make others feel better – even though she is undergoing a traumatic experience, she cooks, entertains her friends, putting their feelings before her own . . .’ Abortion is preconceived as tragedy, not – as the poem’s title reminds us – as farce. In Pester’s poem, abortion is a comedy of errors that doesn’t end in a bedding, but begins with one.
As I bounced my six-month-old baby on my lap, my husband beside me, I told the GP I was pregnant. ‘Congratulations!’, he beamed. No. His face got confused and quiet. He referred me to the clinic at the local hospital.
This was the first permission I secured, of the two required under the 1967 Abortion Act. Abortion is not a right in the UK; it is an exception, which can be procured only by persuading two physicians ‘that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family’. Since the continuance of pregnancy carries a greater risk than the termination of one, the permission for an abortion appears to be a formality. But it still requires the good will of doctors to interpret the risk broadly. The burden in law on the pregnant person is to show that they are at risk, in need; they must ask, and hope, rather than demand. The power to assent or prohibit rests with the physician. In order to secure permission not to continue with the pregnancy, I had to magnify the risks: how much I was already suffering as the full-time carer to three children, how fragile my mental health was, how I would be tipped over the edge by baby number four.
The abortion clinic was part of the hospital’s Early Pregnancy unit. I had been there many times: I’d undergone two rounds of IUI in the IVF clinic before the conception of my first child; I had rushed in, weeping and bleeding, when pregnant with each of my three children; I had had two ‘ERPCs’ – evacuations of the retained products of conception, poetically – after two of my three miscarriages. Those were dire circumstances. The ERPCs were also, technically, abortions. But where, earlier, I had clung to my chair, waiting for my name to be called, watching on fire with despair as the sonogram showed a heartbeat, or slow, or none, now I was in the same waiting room, sad but also certain that I wanted no more.
I waited with people who wanted, or did not want, to be pregnant, or who occupied a position of ambivalence along that spectrum, in a crowded room watching daytime TV. On the other side of the partition a Nurse Practitioner would explain the procedure. ‘What will I see’, I asked. A small, bean-shaped cluster of cells, perhaps. I would take a mifepristone pill today to block the progesterone and cause the uterine lining to break down, and a misoprostol two days later to expunge the tissue. First I would have a scan to confirm that it was not ectopic, but unlike on the other side of the clinic, the screen was turned away from me, and I was not handed a printout to be pinned up on the refrigerator or sent in happy texts to relatives. The obligatory image was taped discreetly inside a folder and handed to the second doctor, who asked me some questions, and confirmed my permission, which in the moment seemed like the granting of a right, but was not one.
I put out my hand and a pill was placed in my palm. The lines in my skin branched in two directions: swallow this and have no baby, resume your life as you intended; give it back and after Christmas you’ll be a mother of four. I got a bit tearful. It is rare in life to stand at the precipice of such a clear delineation of options. But I took it without hesitation. Two days later I took the second pill and went home to watch The Red Shoes while a babysitter looked after my kids and I bled out whatever was left of my decision.
I grew up in Philadelphia, a very Catholic city, with a geography we parcelled out in parishes. My two great-aunts were Sisters of St Joseph, my great-uncle an Augustinian priest. A picture of Pope John Paul II sat in a frame by the glass candy dish in my grandmother’s house, my aunt handing him a copy of the New Catholic Encyclopaedia which she had edited. Mass every Sunday, Confession, First Communion in my handmade bridal dress and veil, Confirmation in flaming gowns of martyrs’ red, carrying a life-sized cross on procession around the neighbourhood in Holy Week. I sometimes crept into church and knelt in front of the shrine to the Virgin, who was removed from her niche in May and crowned in flowers, to beg her intercession with school bullies. I had my feet ritually washed on Holy Thursday. I wept hot tears while watching Franco Zeffirelli’s film about Jesus.
I went to a Catholic primary school and an all-girls Catholic high school. At the weekend we hung out with prep school boys who drove their parents’ Audis to silent homes stuffed with antiques and booze on the Main Line. I knew lots of Brett Kavanaghs. In our Senior year, we were prepared for our journey into adulthood by a class on ethics taught by an ancient nun. Topics included homosexuality (an abomination – exams required us to prove this through specific Biblical citations), AIDS (gay plague), premarital sex (forbidden, disgusting), contraception (likewise), rape (the nun explained that the woman who was raped by Mike Tyson was asking for it), and of course abortion. She demonstrated: ‘If I had a baby in a basket here in the room and started stamping on it and kicking it’ (that part was enacted with relish), ‘you’d stop me, wouldn’t you?’ They really did patrol the school dances and tapped us to warn when we were getting too close: once male desire was ignited, it would burn right through you, and there was no point in saying no.
The nuns we knew who ran off with priests, the priests who ran our theatre programme until they were indicted for child sexual abuse, the geriatric faculty that was never renewed: even at the time I recognised my culture as a wayward island in 1990s America. The Edwardian muslin gowns and gold crowns we wore for graduation were tokens of the archaism of our education – like the elderly Daughter of the American Revolution, with a bird’s nest pin on the shoulder of her Chanel jacket, who told us about rimming, or the nun stretching egg whites from a spoon to explain ovulation. This, we wailed, was our preparation for the world?
For the world of Pennsylvania in 1992. In Casey v. Planned Parenthood, a case that challenged the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act (the defendant was Bob Casey, a devout Irish American Catholic and anti-abortion Democrat who was Governor of the state from 1987 to 1995), the Supreme Court decided that states could not impose an undue burden on those seeking abortions. In the wake of the decision, Operation Rescue planned to attack clinics downtown, including the Planned Parenthood that overlooked the Market East train station in Centre City, where I fainted one afternoon while getting a prescription for birth control pills. With my friend N, another irritable high school senior who volunteered with me at the AIDS clinic at the local hospital, I joined a group of about twenty people – mostly older Black and brown women – defending the clinic. We stood under a muggy summer sky, steam that smelled of diesel and hot pretzels rising through the vents in the sidewalk, a couple of nervy teens linking arms with strangers who also were sweating and trembling. A crowd of elderly people approached the clinic. They were singing and praying rosaries and holding up photographs of butchered meat. They looked like my relatives. Rumours had circulated about potential violence – anti-abortion activists might take razor blades to our ankles. Doctors and nurses had been murdered. It was frightening to stand, aged seventeen, in a line of resistance against the stalwarts of a culture that had bred me.
Just then, with a dream logic I can barely trust even though I am certain it happened, a group of drag queens appeared from around the corner, and intercepted the old praying people, dancing, singing, twirling feather boas and parasols. They danced in a ring around the Catholics, who looked bewildered as laughter and music remixed the Hail Marys. In that moment of carnival, the queens showed me that what seemed like tragedy could become comedy, with the right choreography. Nothing – not gender, not religion, not life – was a simple binary.
Abortion is just one response to the messy process of reproduction. The random events that happen within a body can’t often be managed by acts of will – any more than a birthing person can control the muscles of the uterus, contracting according to their own design. This fierce force, which felt to me like captivity by what was not-me in the muscular and chemical cascade of labour, is what makes the process so terrifying and exhilarating. The mental and physical effects of hormones, the day menstruation starts or doesn’t, leakages and clots, variable flows, pain, fibroids and cysts, anaemia, ectopic pregnancies, getting pregnant too soon or not at all, miscarriages, foetal anomalies, labour that comes on too early or too late, too fast or too slow, ‘failure to progress’, breach births, placentas that detach or don’t, tears and cuts and incontinence, mastitis, hernias, postpartum psychosis, menopause . . . The work of reproduction is not only dangerous, it is anarchic.
Having surrendered to it seven times, surviving three live births and each time feeling my body edge towards death, I had learned to submit to the wild fatalism of the organism: to give myself up to whatever my body would do without my knowledge or determination in its moments of greatest danger. I hoped to be able to make a decision, or at least give a name to what was happening to me, though many times I also wanted to flee from myself. The reproductive body is not wholly governable. Unintended and unwanted things happen. Some can be endured, interpreted or enjoyed; others must be corrected or mitigated. Holding on to your own self in this gory mess isn’t easy, but for me it always begins with speech: I do not want this. I choose otherwise.
Image © Tayo Heuser
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