Talking About My Abortion
Abortion is sometimes a trauma, sometimes an anticlimax, sometimes a relief. There are a million abortion stories just like there are a million stories about giving birth and going to war. None are representative. This is mine.
Manifesto of the 343 was published in France in 1971, when abortion was still illegal. It was a confession of having had an abortion, something that made you liable for arrest, signed by 343 famous women. Among them were Catherine Deneuve and Marguerite Duras, Francoise Sagan, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jeanne Moreau. Nearly every cigarette-sucking French sex symbol admitted she had had the procedure. The newspapers called them "the 343 sluts." Leave it to the French to make abortion glamorous.
In 1974, abortion was legalized in France. The 343 sluts changed everything.
In America today, abortion is legal. But few famous women would add themselves to a similar list.
When some defenders of choice talk about abortion, they often focus on edge cases: rape victims, life-threatening pregnancies, or teens who don't know how babies are made. That kind of dialogue sometimes makes it seem like abortion is reserved for "other" women. Women who aren’t like them. Which, despite all delusions of enlightenment, is exactly what I thought when at 20, I realized I had an embryo growing inside of me.
Then, just like that, the other was me.
There are so many reasons why women need abortions. Those reasons are often wedded intractably to money. Some women have to abort longed-for pregnancies because of illness. Abortion is sometimes a trauma, sometimes an anticlimax, sometimes a relief. There are a million abortion stories just like there are a million stories of fucking and giving birth and going to war. None are representative. This is mine.
For me, whether or not I would have an abortion was never a question. It was just a question of how soon I could get one. I have never had maternal instincts. I was also broke. I was proud to have clawed my way to that elite station in life represented by having a room that no one walks through on the way to the bathroom. I slept on a mattress on the floor, and worked as a naked model for amateur photographers—a job that, at the best of times, I often suspected would get me murdered. I was in school training to be an artist.
A baby meant the destruction of everything I might become. Being pregnant made me understand how and why women, pre–Roe v. Wade, stabbed knitting needles into their cervixes. Abstract debate meant nothing while I was throwing up every hour, just wanting to be how I had been before.
Pregnancy felt like a mixture of stomach flu, clinical depression, and having a damp gray blanket wrapped around my brain. Every day on the freezing subway platform on the way to school, reeling with fever, I'd think about throwing myself on the tracks.
As much as I dreaded surgery, I was militantly pro choice. Because I believed abortions were a right, I pretended mine was no big deal.
The day before I got my abortion, I posed naked for a series of pinup skateboard decks. I sat with the other models in the cavernous white studio eating stick after stick of spearmint gum. By then, it was the only thing that wouldn't make me vomit. Stylists shellacked my hair, painted my mouth, and propped my body into the painful back arches favored by Gil Elvgren. It was a demanding shoot, but I was glad for the candy-hard artifice of it. I would be tough and cheerful. Back straight. Shoulders back. Willpower over biology. I would brazen it out against my own body.
I got my abortion at a Manhattan Planned Parenthood. Two old men stood outside. Between them, they had one faded cut-up fetus sign. It was hard to tell what was more tattered, the men or their sign. They were sad substitutes for the Midwest's protester armies. My boyfriend and I flipped them off with relish.
Because abortion providers live under constant threat of murder, places known to provide abortion take on the ambience of a prison. You enter Planned Parenthood through metal detectors.
Everything that was wrong with the clinic made me angrier at a country that put it under siege. I was determined to be cheery and cordial. The receptionists may have barked at us while we gave them our four hundred bucks. But they were risking their lives.
My boyfriend paid and left. What followed was a seven-hour assembly line of blood tests and ultrasounds, but above all, waiting. Because Planned Parenthood is a terrorist target, no one was allowed to accompany you. You sat surrounded by other women. You waited for your abortion alone.
Unwanted pregnancy feels like womanhood at its most hateful and cowlike—the broodmare inside the bombshell. You are yourself, full of wit and dreams and adventure. But biology is conspiring against you, to sicken and trap you. Nature cares nothing for individuals.
Finally, I spoke to a counselor. She was there to make sure that you're not terminating your pregnancy at the behest of an abusive man. As she asked me her checklist of questions, I burst in tears. She was the first person in the clinic who had been kind to me.
I took off my clothes and put on a paper gown. Soon after my abortion, I started getting tattoos. They were a way to mark my body as mine, even naked, even sick, even if someone shot me and left my body along with others in a pile. A tattooed body was no longer anonymous.
"I'm not taking my sneakers off," said a woman outside my little changing cabin.
"Then you'll get your baby on your sneakers," a nurse responded.
I got onto the table and put my legs in stirrups. The doctor asked me about my job. It seemed so trivial, this bit of humanizing banter. I now know it’s a technique for distracting your patient from pain. The nurse kept stabbing the back of my hands with the IV. I jerked away. She yelled at me to stay still. This was the last thing I remembered before the twilight anesthesia kicked in. Later, I replayed this moment with hallucinatory vividness. I'd wanted so badly to be strong.
I remember stumbling off a gurney, and sitting on a hospital chair next to another woman sobering up. They gave us aspirin and a cookie. The woman started talking. She was a young, pretty mother. The fathers of her two children were both in jail. The man responsible for the pregnancy she'd just ended had wanted her to keep it. She told me that she no longer believed men would take care of their children. She was working two jobs, and working hard to be the best mother to the kids she had.
That feeling there, as we sat chewing our graham crackers and exchanging pleasantries over pain, I'd recognize again when I was sitting with fellow protesters in a Manhattan holding cell. It was solidarity.
My boyfriend took me home. My best friend John bought me flowers.
Pregnancy's gray blanket was lifted. The fleeing hormones and anesthesia combined, punching me hard. That night, I hallucinated the nurse yelling at me. Surgeries are their own sort of horror. You are an individual. They make you meat.
I was too traumatized to go to my follow-up appointment. I should have gone. I spent much of the next month in bed, laid up with a fever. It was winter. The old men who taught anatomy were skeptical when I pleaded illness for missing class. I dropped out of school. It was the right choice, but illness was the impetus.
In between modeling gigs, I'd lie in bed for days, drawing piles of dirty laundry on the floor. Faithfully rendering folds is gold-standard academic-art practice. "Work, talentless," I'd tell myself, to keep drawing, to keep smiling, to keep my legs moving as I walked to a job in the cold.
Compulsively, I searched out abortion stories online. Women for whom it had meant nothing. Women for whom it had meant everything. Most of all, women who were not sorry. I found no information on patching myself up again. For the right, recovery means repentance. For the left, you weren't supposed to have to recover at all. Abortions were different from miscarriages. Those are tragic. We were bad. If you get an abortion, you haul yourself to work the next day. The world owes you no sympathy. Count yourself lucky you were able to get one at all.
A visit to an abortion clinic is often a middle class girl's only brush with the brusque, painful care that is the lot of America's poor. The better funded go to private doctors. They get treatment that's far more personal and less public. Proper pain killers, no protesters in sight, and your man holding your hand.
When Planned Parenthood opened offices in three shopping malls, Michele Bachmann fumed that women "are doing their grocery shopping, picking up Starbucks… and stopping off for an abortion.” Oh Michelle, if only it were that easy.
My abortion was when my politics become personal. Sure, one can march against the Iraq War. But it’s far more visceral to know that decaying politicians would force you to give birth. That 50 years ago they would have had you, you personally, die in pain and shame.
The ability to have an abortion is as important for women as the vote. It is the basis of fertile women living equal lives. As soon as I could, I raised a thousand dollars for Planned Parenthood. It felt like paying a debt.
What pulled me out of my depression was refusing to shut up. I talked about abortion with my girlfriends. With my acquaintances. With a bluntness that was probably uncomfortable and annoying in retrospect. What I found was that almost every woman I spoke to had had one too. Behind our sleek careers, our prettily painted faces, we had our blood and pain.
One out of three American women has had an abortion. But that's a statistic, not a face. I've never spoken about my abortion publicly. It's terrifying. One expects death threats, to be called a baby killer. One's societal training is to be classy, be private, pretend your activism is on the behalf of others. Never let them see you bleed.
Never, ever tell your own story.
But silence, as much as anything, is why abortion's such an easy target in America. Stories save lives.
I had an abortion. I'm not sorry. I'm not afraid.
Illustration by Molly Crabapple