Editor’s Note: The September issue of Commonweal featured a symposium titled “Abortion After Dobbs.” The magazine has been publishing a series of articles and essays that continue the conversation begun in the symposium. This is the second in that series.
If I believed a fetus was a baby, I would be the most ardent of ardent anti-abortionists. But I do not, and it is something to which I have given serious thought for many decades. Perhaps it is the fault of the pro-choice movement, inherent in our name, “pro-choice,” that anti-abortionists assume that people like me brush aside the nature of a fetus as one of those pesky questions with which we needn’t concern ourselves. The issue of abortion is emotionally fraught. Like all emotionally fraught questions, it can lead to a crude projection of the other, a blunting of argument, a refusal of nuance.
I realize that my position on abortion is strongly influenced by my personal experience. I don’t believe that personal experience is an inviolate source of authority, vulnerable as it is to the distortions of which the human mind is capable, the all-too-human tendency to want to justify ourselves and to silence difficult objections. But ethical decisions can only be made in the light of experience; to assume the opposite is its own kind of distortion. It cannot but rankle that the male celibate hierarchy of the Catholic Church, my Church, has a disproportionate influence on the question of abortion, which could not be further from their experience.
I have been pregnant five times, and intimately involved in two pregnancies not my own. My experiences of pregnancy have led me to a conclusion that has not been stated clearly or often. The word “pregnancy” must always be preceded by the definite article this.
My first pregnancy occurred when I was nineteen. I was a sophomore in college, thrilled with my life at the college of my dreams. I was a scholarship girl; my father had died twelve years earlier, my mother had only a high-school education.
It was the day after Thanksgiving, and I went to see the movie Camelot with a group of friends. The fate of Guinevere and Arthur, superbly played by Vanessa Redgrave and Richard Harris, had broken my heart and I wept uncontrollably leaving the theater. My date, feeling the need to comfort me, invited me to his apartment. Comfort led to what was then known as heavy petting. We did not have intercourse, and I didn’t know then that intercourse was not required for impregnation. I missed my period, but I couldn’t imagine that I was pregnant. I consulted a gynecologist. He told me that in fact I was ten weeks pregnant. Seeing my shock and horror, he informed me that if I could come up with $2,000, he could arrange for a psychiatrist to write a letter asserting that I was suicidal and therefore an abortion was required. There was no way I could come up with $2,000. The only money I had was the $500 I had saved from my summer job. I would literally rather have died—I knew I was risking my life—than tell my mother, and even if I had, the yearly salary she earned as a secretary was $8,200. I remember the exact figure because of having to fill it in on scholarship forms.
I knew that having a baby would mean the end of the life I had worked so hard to begin. The shame that would have fallen on me and my mother was too unbearable even to contemplate. Panicked, I asked everyone I knew where I could get an abortion, which was illegal at the time. I got a number from one of my classmates.
I phoned it and was given a date. I was told to come alone and stand in front of a movie theater in the Bronx. At the assigned time, a car pulled up and a man honked the horn for me to enter. He told me to sit in the back seat, got out of the car, came around to me and put a blindfold around my eyes. He drove in what seemed like circles and then stopped the car. Still blindfolded, I was led by him to the basement of an apartment whose location I had no way of knowing.
He removed the blindfold only when I was inside. The room was small and anonymous; a fluorescent light on the ceiling buzzed. Several women were seated on salmon-colored plastic chairs. One by one, they disappeared into a room and after a time walked out, looking white and shaken. I was the last to be called. A man in a white jacket, who spoke no English, offered me a Darvon, a mild painkiller. I got on the table, and the excruciating procedure began.
Then the man who drove me blindfolded me again and left me back in front of the Bronx theater.
I was still living at home, not having the money for a dorm room, so a friend let me sleep in her room that night. She held me in her arms as I wept from the memory of the pain and the awareness that I could have died. I was also angry that if I’d had more money, I would not have had to put myself in danger. But not for a moment did I regret what I had done.
The gynecologist who had offered me the psychological loophole said that I could come and see him afterwards to make sure there were no complications. He told me that I was fine and warned me that I seemed to be unusually fertile and should be aware of the implications of that.
In 1974, I was twenty-five and enrolled in a PhD program. I was involved with a man who seemed just right: we were both ferociously intellectual, passionately literary, the stars of our separate graduate programs. We shared the same politics and taste in painting and music. Most important, we were both involved in progressive religious movements, he as a Jew and I as a Catholic. A few days after he had gone back home after what I thought had been a lovely weekend, I got a letter from him saying that he couldn’t be involved with me anymore because I wasn’t Jewish. I shot back a terse, bitter reply: “Did that just occur to you?” The next week I discovered that I was pregnant, although I had carefully used a diaphragm. I knew that I wanted to have an abortion; I knew that I very much wanted to have children, but not in this way, and not at this time. I saw that the path to a career as a writer and college teacher would be greatly complicated, if not rendered impossible, if I had a baby. The child of a single mother, I knew the costs on both sides. Complicating things was that my mother was descending daily into further depths of alcoholism and depression; I had become her mother and I knew the effects of her finding out about my pregnancy would be devastating.
I went to my local Planned Parenthood. Everyone was more than kind; I was tested and found to be nine weeks along. I wrote to my former lover, informing him. He was remorseful and said he would help me pay for an abortion. I informed him that Planned Parenthood only charged $200 and he needn’t bother. He sent me $100 the next day.
The Planned Parenthood facility was welcoming, clean, and cheerful. The friend who accompanied me was invited to stay until the procedure was done. I was given an anesthetic; the doctor explained the procedure. I will remember the wonderful nurse all my life. She was probably in her sixties, small, compact, with tight gray curls and a reassuring touch. “I was retired,” she said, “but I came back to work because I wanted to be part of the new world, where women could have abortions safely. When I was a student nurse, there were so many botched abortions that some smart-alecky young doctors referred to the place where the women were treated as ‘the septic tank.’”
I experienced only mild discomfort, was given medication in case any more discomfort ensued, provided with a number I could call at any time, and given an appointment for the next day. My friend took me home and I spent the night in her apartment. Certainly, I wished that what had happened had not happened, but I never thought I had made the wrong decision.
The doctor whom I saw the next day assured me that I would have no trouble getting pregnant in the future.
In December 1979, I was joyously married to a man I deeply loved. We were very eager to have children, and our joy was boundless when in January of 1980, I became pregnant. I loved being pregnant and was fortunate that everything went smoothly after the first three months of morning sickness. At that time, I was determined to have a drug-free delivery, but after twenty-two hours of labor, I agreed to an epidural and at last gave birth to a beautiful baby girl.
I can say without reservation or hesitation that it was the greatest moment of my life. I remember the first moments alone with my new baby in the recovery room; it was quiet and dark after the noise and bustle of the delivery room and I felt brimming over with peaceful love…and the strangeness that this creature that had lived inside my body was now a citizen of the world, about to begin her own life. I whispered to her, “Welcome to the world, my love,” and tears came as freely, as effortlessly, as uncontrollably as sweat, so grateful was I for the miracle in which I had somehow participated.
When my daughter was a year old, a neighbor, someone I knew only slightly, called me weeping. She said she thought she was having a miscarriage—she had learned only that week that she was nine weeks pregnant—but that she wasn’t sure: blood and something else came gushing from her and not knowing what else to do, she sat on the toilet.
She had always seemed fragile to me, overwhelmed by everything in her life. She was small and slender with strawberry blonde hair and large green eyes. Her husband was an electrical engineer, but his real passion was bodybuilding. She had a black German shepherd who strained on his leash when she walked him; I feared he could knock her over any minute. Her house seemed too big for the furniture in it; I felt like I was in Alice in Wonderland when I walked into the living room.
She was still sitting on the toilet when I arrived, and I took her to bed and wrapped her in towels and blankets. “I have to ask you an enormous favor,” she said. “I think what I passed was a fetus but I’m not sure…and I need to find out from the doctor whether I’m still carrying a fetus or whether it’s gone. This is going to be unpleasant, but I need you to do it. Take what is in the toilet and bring it to the doctor with me.”
I felt I couldn’t refuse her, although I was hesitant about the prospect of fishing bloody matter from a toilet. But having dealt with my mother’s and grandmother’s illness and affliction from my early years, I knew I could do it. I felt great pride when a close friend said of me, “You’re the one people call if they have to go to the emergency room.”
I took a cup and scooped what I could into it. Floating in the bloody water was something gelatinous around the size of a large postage stamp. Was this the fetus? I couldn’t know. It seemed so much more like the kind of heavy period I’d sometimes had than anything like a human child that I was tempted to flush it down the toilet. But I obeyed my friend’s wishes.
The doctor told us that it was in fact a fetus, that she had miscarried, and would need procedures to remove whatever remains she was still carrying. “Do you want to take it home?” the doctor asked, and my friend looked at him in anger and said, “Of course not…please dispose of it in any way that you normally do.”
I was surprised at how tender her husband was when we got home; I hadn’t credited him as someone with much tenderness. But although they were Catholic, they had no impulse to bury, to baptize, to name what had been lost, which was, whatever else it was, obviously not a child. I wondered why the Catholic Church, so insistent on the personhood of all fetuses, didn’t require burial or baptism.
In July of 1982, I became pregnant again, and once again my husband and I were thrilled at the prospect. In mid-November, I was pushing my daughter in a stroller on my way to the health-food store when my water broke. I was eighteen weeks pregnant. I was rushed to the hospital and put on complete bed rest, hoping that the amniotic sac would reseal itself and I could hold on to the pregnancy. For ten days, I lay on my back in the hospital, unmoving with a stillness of which I wouldn’t have believed myself capable, terrified that if I turned or lifted my arm the wrong way, I would cause a miscarriage. Despite my best efforts, I went into early labor at nineteen-and-a-half weeks. My husband was beside me for it all; I asked him to look at the fetus and tell me what it was like. He said, “It was very tiny…it was like a baby but not like a baby. All I could think of was how pathetic it looked, how unable for life.”
I felt a greater despair than I had ever experienced. I felt a failure as a woman, that I had failed this creature whom only I had known, and that, even though I had not felt it move, I had known it as the most intimate possible inhabitant of my body. It was the last time I prayed with any faith that my prayers would be answered. It was the last time I felt safe or protected in or by the universe.
Part of the great difficulty was that I did not know what I was mourning. I was angry when someone sent me a condolence card on the loss of a baby because this creature inside me who had not yet moved was not the same order of being as the child to whom I had given birth, whom I held in my arms, and nursed at my breast.
As soon as I was able, three months after the late miscarriage, I tried to get pregnant again, and in the first month of trying, I did. I could not possibly experience the same easy pleasure as I had when I was pregnant with my daughter, and when, in the fourth month, I began spotting, I was seized with terror. We were on vacation in Cape Cod, and I went to Boston to see an obstetrician who was a colleague of the wonderful man who had delivered my daughter and been present at the loss of the second pregnancy. The Boston doctor determined that I had what was called “an incompetent cervix,” and suggested a procedure where a stitch would be put in to tighten the cervix. My New York doctor disagreed, and I waited in great anxiety while they debated the proper course, finally opting for bed rest and no invasive procedure. Once again, I lay dreading the dire consequences of any false move, but in fact I carried to term and gave birth to my son—although the cord was around his neck, and he required a forceps delivery in the course of which my vaginal walls were nicked, and I had to be wheeled to another room to be stitched up. So it was only after that recovery that my little boy was brought to me and the same sense of miracle, of unspeakable love, was mine.
In 2010, my daughter called to tell us she was pregnant, and I literally danced around the house for joy. But the pregnancy was troubled, and I stayed with her as, like me, she had to lie still to forestall miscarriage. But miscarriage occurred, and it was a grievous time for her and her husband, but also my husband and me.
Luckily she inherited the genes for fertility that all the women in my family seem blessed with, and soon she was pregnant again. No one who has miscarried can ever be entirely free of worry during a pregnancy, and I kept reassuring her that everything would be fine. But I wished that I had had the ability to pray for something specific, an ability I lost when I had the miscarriage at nineteen weeks.
At twelve weeks, she emailed us a sonogram of a healthy boy. We put it up on our refrigerator, and as I obsessively looked at it, I tried to understand what it was that I was looking at. It had the shape of a baby, but it was faceless, featureless—like a space creature swimming in its capsule. It occurred to me that, as it was featureless, I would not be able to tell it from any other fetus of the same age, and yet I kissed it every time I passed the refrigerator. I knew I was kissing an image only…but of what? An image of potential, whose actuality seemed alien and strange. My daughter is a doctor, and I asked her what she thought this being was, and she said: “Give it up, Mom. It’s unknowable and anyone who thinks they know is indulging their own fantasy.”
I am the grandmother of two splendid grandsons, brimming joy in a new key. I would, in a second, give my life for either of them.
I can imagine someone reading this who is firmly committed to the idea that a child is a child from the moment sperm meets egg, saying: “Very nice, very moving, but it’s only her experience…too little to resolve anything.”
So, I have tried over the years to address the problem not only from my own experience but using the kind of rational thought I would apply to any ethical question.
This is particularly vexed with abortion because there is no analogy for it; the attempts at analogy are seriously flawed, the most common being the analogy of murder. There are two important reasons for this. One is the problem of procreation: in no other human act is the gap between cause and effect so radical. The act of sex, performed for pleasure, lasts minutes; the commitment to a child is lifelong. And there is no other act whose moral valence changes over time.
I was lucky to be able to discuss this in great depth with someone whose scientific knowledge I could trust. Among the greatest of good fortunes in my life was my meeting the woman who would become my best friend on the first day of high school. We spoke to each other every day for fifty-six years, until her untimely death at sixty-nine of breast cancer. She was beside me at the birth of both my children. She was a woman of extraordinary accomplishment, board-certified in pediatrics, cardiology, and anesthesiology. One of her fields of expertise was pain in children. She was enraged at what she called the “junk science” of doctors who claimed that a first-trimester fetus could feel pain. She explained to me over many conversations, including sharing many images with me, that these doctors with anti-abortion agendas were confusing a fetus’s ability to respond to stimulus with the ability to process pain. All multicellular animals, most of them invertebrates, can respond to stimuli. The fetus is unable to do more than respond to stimuli until the end of the second trimester, at which time it begins to be capable of initiating movement. This was the consensus of the scientists she considered trustworthy. She reminded me that it is impossible to replicate the situation of a first-trimester fetus in the womb.
I will admit to having reservations about late-term abortion, but none at all about those occurring in the first trimester, and I understand that this renders me vulnerable to the anti-abortionist question: How do you draw the line, medical advances making it possible for younger and younger fetuses to survive outside the womb? Late abortions, however, even second-trimester abortions, are the rarity, and many second-trimester abortions occur because of the difficulty of obtaining a first-trimester abortion or for serious medical reasons. Why put a law in place when the reasons for it do not apply to most cases, when it would in fact harm the majority of people whom it would affect?
Anti-abortion people are correct when they say that abortion is a serious issue. It raises large questions: What is it to be human? Do we always believe that life, by the simple virtue of being alive, is desirable? But really, we know that the answer is no. Who among us has never said, in relation to a death that ended a painful life: “It’s a blessing”?
They believe they are holding up the idea of life as an absolute good, and that pro-abortion people are taking away the idea of an absolute good. If we can’t say that life is an absolute good, where are we to look for absolute good? I would suggest that we consider that it is an absolute good to act to avoid or to prevent suffering. With this in mind, shouldn’t we examine what we know causes suffering, rather than focusing on what is unknowable?
We know that it is not a good thing for a woman to bear a child when she doesn’t want it. That bringing a child into an environment that cannot well support it has grave consequences for the child and its family. That throughout history, women have often died or experienced irreparable bodily harm from illegal abortion. That states that have banned abortion—Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa—have not been morally admirable, and that states with the greatest concern for the well-being of their citizens have made abortion available and safe.
And we know that women with strict ethical principles have had abortions. I remember inviting four women, all in their eighties, for lunch. One was a survivor of Communist tyranny, the career of another was finding placement for refugees, the third had devoted her life to a mentally-challenged son, and the fourth was a mother of five. All of them had had abortions, but being upper-middle-class, their abortions were safely performed by doctors they trusted. They assured me that many of their friends had done the same.
The chances are good that women who have had abortions are reluctant to reveal that they have, so pervasive is the stigma attached to it, so frightening are some of the responses from radical anti-abortionists.
I know this reluctance very well. It took me fifty-three years to get over it.