If you told most of the friends and family I grew up with that I’ve had two abortions, they probably wouldn’t believe you. A clergyman’s daughter and a firstborn, I began cultivating early in life the appearance of some kind of unimpeachable Holy Innocent – an appearance I think I’ve managed to throw off in recent years. (Have I mentioned I got a tattoo this year?) But to the people who knew me as a child and young adult, I certainly didn’t seem to be the kind of girl who’d have had an abortion, let alone two.
A frequent foil to my good girl image was a friend I’ll call Lilith—after the biblical Adam’s first wife, allegedly demonic in comparison to virtuous-until-the-fall Eve—or “Lily,” for short. (She’d kick my ass if I used her real name.)
Lily once said to me, “Break some rules or something, will you? You’re making me look bad.”
Lily didn’t keep it to herself when she had an abortion in her twenties. She knew she’d be shamed for it, but she didn’t seem to give a shit, or if she did, she wasn’t letting on. She needed someone to go with her, or at least someone to bring her home from the hospital so she could be released, so she spoke up and said, “I’m pregnant. I need an abortion. Who’s taking me?” She was on her parents’ insurance still, so they were bound to find out anyway.
Sure enough, afterward, some in her family who knew about it wagged their fingers at her. Lily hung tough; she barked back at them. “Fuck you,” she said. But I could tell it bothered her.
Cut to ten or so years later. In my thirties, I have had two abortions, six years apart. I tell no one, not even Lily, leaving her alone to flap in the breeze of her family’s vilification. I perpetuate the shame—hers, mine, and that of every woman who has ever chosen to terminate an unwelcome pregnancy—with my silence.
For years I told myself I’d withheld that information because it wasn’t anybody’s business, and maybe it wasn’t.
Later I told myself it was because the topic of abortion was unpleasant and difficult, and nobody wants to talk about it. That’s my husband’s take on it too. He was party to an abortion when he was forty, and although he is very glad it got him out of co-parenting with someone he didn’t want in his life any longer, he remains deeply conflicted about having gone through with it. Even to the staunchest of pro-choicers, the reality of abortion, the termination of something—someone?—that had gotten a start, is unfortunate and sad. It’s still so, so crucial to have as an option. It is an option my husband would choose again under the same circumstances, and one I would also choose again. But it is never a happy option, even when it provides great relief.
Whatever my reasons, I’m now of the opinion that I wasn’t doing anyone any favors by keeping quiet. Not Lily. Not the friends who wanted to talk about abortions—the abortions they’d just had, the ones they were agonizing over whether to have. Every time I acted as if I’d had no experience with pregnancy termination myself, I helped perpetuate the stigma, not to mention fear. I missed an opportunity, each time, to help another woman come to terms with that choice—and maybe even make that choice. I withheld information that could have informed someone, or at least comforted her and maybe kept her from feeling alone and like a “bad” girl for something that surely didn’t make her bad.
Recently, a nonprofit monologue writing workshop I co-run (tmiproject.org) held a weekend retreat for women. The participants ranged in age from nineteen to seventy-seven. At some point in the weekend, the topic of unplanned pregnancy came up, and nearly every one of the eleven participants had a story. One, against her parents’ wishes, kept a child she’d conceived at sixteen. Many had had legal abortion. The four oldest women confessed to having had illegal abortions in the sixties and early seventies, when those were the only option. One woman in another of our workshops talked about having to postpone her 1973 post–Roe v. Wade abortion after the provider was shot dead in front of the clinic.
It was a discussion that everyone wanted to contribute to, and which inspired those who were still keeping secrets about their own unplanned pregnancies to finally divulge them. The women who’d had illegal abortions shared their stories for the first times in their lives, and were relieved to learn they hadn’t been alone. They were so relieved that they cried and hugged.
The youngest participants had their minds blown. Most notably, one girl, a college junior, said the discussion opened her view on abortion, and the people who had them. “This is really changing my mind,” she said. “I never knew anyone before who’d had an abortion, and I had always had a dim view of people who did.”
Hearing her, I realized a crucial—maybe the most important—reason for talking openly about abortion: young women, first-time voters, need to know real women who’ve had abortions. They need to hear from women who’ve had to have them illegally, so they will be more likely to vote for candidates who won’t send us back to those dark ages, when that was the only way.
Finally, I opened up to the group about my abortions. The retreat was one of the first places I ever did. It was a relief to be a real girl instead of a “good” one, to be like the other women.
Alleged “good” girls, like the kind I used to be, are the worst. We are complicit in upholding ridiculous, unrealistic standards to which others ultimately are held. We stand by, pretending to possess neither needs nor unflattering emotions, all the while hanging realer sisters out to dry. We allow them to be vilified for asking for what they rightfully deserve, speaking out when they disagree, daring to take chances, making messy real-life mistakes—including ones that lead to abortion.
And often, we “good” girls are totally full of shit, secretly doing the things the other girls are doing, but never owning up to it. Having abortions of our own, for instance. Before that, acting like the purest of virgins a year into college, when we’ve in fact been sexually active since sixteen.
Imagine the look on my father’s face when he inadvertently learned that I, the perfect daughter, had a diaphragm. (Remember diaphragms?) He and his wife had driven me to a pre-op screening session at Albany Medical Center, near where I attended college, in preparation for a laparoscopy I was about to have. The doctor suspected I had endometriosis.
It hadn’t occurred to me that I might not want my father present in the room when a nurse performed a pre-op interview. I was so convinced of my own shining example, I forgot I had something to hide.
“Have you ever used barrier contraceptives?” the nurse asked.
My father and I seemed simultaneously to stop breathing. I could have lied, but maybe my answer had some important bearing on a decision the doctor might make regarding my surgery. I could try and tell the nurse the truth later, but would there be a later? Would I get that chance? Maybe not.
“Yes,” I answered. My father’s face blanched. His effort to conceal his upset only magnified it. He would never be able to un-hear this. Just breathe, I told myself.
“What kind of barrier contraceptives have you used?” This lady wasn’t going to let me off the hook.
Was I really going to acknowledge in front of my dad that I owned and operated a diaphragm? A diaphragm represented a much greater threat to a late-teen’s father—a man desperate not to have further shattered the illusion of his daughter’s innocence and virtue—than, say, condoms. Condoms take comparatively little thought. They represent impulse. “Okay,” my father might have been able to delude himself if my answer was condoms, “she’s tried sex. But maybe she won’t ever do it again—at least not until she is married to a nice, Jewish man.”
A diaphragm, on the other hand, represented a premeditated and significant investment of one’s babysitting money and a fitting by a doctor—a commitment to future sex.
The truth was, I had a diaphragm before I even had my period, which I didn’t get until I was eighteen. Come to think of it, that was kind of a responsible, good-girl move—making sure my first boyfriend took me to Planned Parenthood for reliable protection. I thank Whoever Is In Charge of the Universe that Planned Parenthood was there for me, because there was no way I’d go to my pediatrician, who’d probably tell my parents, and I didn’t yet have a gyno. At Planned Parenthood, I was able to get protection, no questions asked, confidentially, for very little money.
But I doubt my father saw my choice as a “good” girl move that day. Witnessing his reaction to what really shouldn’t have been too surprising for a normal nineteen-year-old made me even more reluctant to reveal certain truths about myself in the future.
That laparoscopy confirmed endometriosis and led me, inadvertently, to my first abortion.
In the years after that operation, I saw many doctors, in New York City, on Long Island, in New Jersey. One told me the endometriosis, combined with the pituitary micro-adenoma I’d developed, would prevent me from ever being able to get pregnant. I’d been divorced from my first husband for a few years when the doctor told me that. Single at the time, I didn’t give much thought to the implication that I’d never be a mother. Instead, I saw my condition as painful but convenient birth control.
A couple of months into dating someone, once our standard-issue New Relationship HIV tests came back negative, we ditched the condoms.
When we were sure I was pregnant, there was no question in my mind what I’d do. Even though I was thirty, an age by which I’d once assumed I’d be a mom, I wasn’t feeling very much like a grownup. I made very little money, and lived hand-to-mouth in a tiny East Village hovel. For his part, my boyfriend wasn’t anyone’s idea of a beacon of emotional or financial stability. He was living off of me. We fought all the time, and I’d been waiting for him to save up enough money temping to move out of my tiny tenement. But he kept sabotaging opportunities for work and for apartment leases. He was not daddy material, and I was not mommy material. And I was too “nice” to kick him out.
I didn’t even entertain a moment’s thought of “I can do this on my own.” There was no thought necessary, or even possible; every cell in my body screamed, “GET THIS OUT OF ME.”
It’s not a feeling or thought I’m proud of. It doesn’t at all fit with my “good” girl image. I don’t enjoy the thought of myself as the kind of cretin who couldn’t love a newborn living thing she’d created, regardless of the rest of its parentage. I don’t relish the view of myself as someone lacking even a small vestige of a maternal instinct. But it turns out that’s who I am, and that was my first glimpse into that reality.
I felt strongly about my choice to abort, but I also felt guilty about it. I was deeply conflicted—this was a potential life—but not so conflicted that I’d consider for one minute not going through with it.
Easing my conscience a little was the doctor’s suspicion that the fetus wasn’t viable. Easing it more was the apparent miscarriage that began the day before my scheduled abortion: clotted crimson pouring out of me after a few sharp cramps. I called to ask the doctor whether that meant I could forego the D&C. Then I’d still be a “good” girl who hadn’t had abortion. But since I was at about the eight-week point, he said, the operation was still necessary.
In my book, you are only allowed one mistake pregnancy in which your own negligence and/or sheer stupidity play a role. Which is why I was deeply disappointed in myself, and even more ashamed, when I allowed a negligence/stupidity combo to lead me to a second one.
It was 2002, and it was with my 9/11 boyfriend, the guy I clung to after meeting him at a vigil, in Union Square Park following the terror attacks, when it seemed like the world was coming to an end. A guy who was really nice, but who was much younger than I was, not just chronologically speaking, and who lived in his van half the year. And who sort of didn’t know who the Beatles were. Seriously, his reference to the Beatles was, “Oh—I think my step-mother likes them.”
Somehow, in my oxytocin-addled, post–terror attack state of some kind of dementia, I decided it was safe to have unprotected period sex. Never mind that I still had an unbelievably irregular period, with intervals of six, eight, twelve, three weeks in between. I was hardly a candidate for anything vaguely resembling the rhythm method. But, well, you all know how much better sex feels when it’s unprotected—especially for the guy you, a “good” girl, are trying to please. And what’s the chance of fertilization, let alone implantation, when your uterus is violently wringing itself out to the point that you often find yourself doing Lamaze for hours at a time?
How I’d been able to have sex in that condition in the first place is beyond me. Ten years later—three years after a merciful hysterectomy—I have no idea how I did that.
Thanks to my supremely unpredictable cycle, I was eight weeks pregnant again before I figured it out. I didn’t think it was remotely possible. Then I had to get off the N train at 49th and 7th Avenue, halfway through my ride from my boyfriend’s place to mine, so I could puke into a garbage pail on the platform.
I was furious at myself when the faint line appeared in the window of the pee stick. My mind wanted to rely on the line’s weakness as evidence I’d registered a false positive. But my sore boobs knew better. They’d reached a level of soreness that I’d only experienced once before—the last time I’d been pregnant.
Again, there was no question I’d abort. That GET THIS OUT OF ME feeling was back. I called the same doctor who’d performed my D&C six years before and tearfully, shamefully pleaded with the receptionist, “I’m pregnant AND I NEED NOT TO BE.”
Again, my fucked-up plumbing conspired to help me feel a little bit less guilty about not only choosing to terminate but also feeling DESPERATE to do so, heartless, non-maternal alien that I seemed to be: the reason the pee-stick line was so faint, and the reason I’d been experiencing sharp pains in my lower right pelvis, was that this pregnancy was ectopic—specifically, lodged in my right fallopian tube, apparently common for women with endometriosis.
I had no choice, this time, but to abort, so I could feel a little less bad about it. I also didn’t have to have it done surgically this time; ectopic pregnancies are eradicated through chemical abortion.
The next day, at the doctor’s office, he injected me with the chemotherapy drug methytrexate, and then, using a speculum, inserted some ground-up ulcer medicine into my uterus. Only a few hours later, my body would begin to expel the embryo.
“It’ll be like bad period cramps,” the doctor explained. I wondered what that would mean for me, someone whose period cramps had always gone to eleven to begin with.
Still, I didn’t cancel dinner plans I had with my family at a restaurant in the East Village for the next evening. I didn’t want to tell them what was going on with me, that that night as we were dining, I was aborting the next generation, that I wasn’t the “good” girl they thought I was. I could have said I was having a bad period, but they knew that pretty much all my periods were bad, and that frequently I pushed myself through them to show up for work or other obligations. I couldn’t imagine canceling the plans, having them come up to my apartment before or after they all had dinner without me. My mother would get hyper-concerned and grill me about when was the last time I went to see the doctor about my endometriosis, and I didn’t want to lie to her, or raise any suspicion. So I went to dinner. Writhing in my seat, excusing myself to go to the bathroom often, I went through three super-maxi pads.
Recently, I had lunch with my mother in my hometown, where she still lives. Over seafood salads, we caught up and then moved on to talking about people in our lives. She said she’d just learned that a close friend’s daughter was unexpectedly—and unhappily—pregnant for the second time, but only by a few weeks.
“She’s terrified of having to have another abortion,” my mother said of her friend’s daughter, “and she’s afraid her insurance won’t cover the cost.”
I silently wrestled with myself as my mother told of this woman’s anguish. I wanted to tell my mother to tell her friend that, especially at such an early phase, her daughter could probably have a chemical abortion like I’d had the second time. It would probably be much more affordable, even if her insurance didn’t cover it. It would be less traumatic.
I wanted desperately to help put another woman at ease, and to let her know there were other possibilities, other choices. But if I spoke up about it, my mother would ask how I knew, and it would be difficult for me not to tell her it was because I’d had one. Telling the women at the writing retreat was one thing. Telling my mother was another entirely.
Finally, I came down from my high, high horse.
“You know, chemical abortion is an option these days, when it’s early on,” I said.
My mom looked at me with an expression that said, “How do you know?”
“I had one,” I admitted.
“You had an abortion?” she asked, clearly in disbelief. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?” She seemed to feel betrayed.
“I just . . . couldn’t,” I said. “But I’m telling you now.”
There was a pause.
“I’ve actually had two,” I said.
She asked a few questions. Then it got quiet.
My mother looked sad. Not only had she been disillusioned about her “good” girl. She’d just learned that I had been able to get pregnant. I imagine that must have been hard for her. She’d wanted me to give her grandchildren. The surgeon who’d performed my hysterectomy assured me that the condition my uterus was in when he removed it—the combination of severe endometriosis and extreme adenomyosis—indicated I’d never have been able to carry a baby to term. That had helped me to make peace, at the time, with not really wanting to have kids. I was off the hook.
And I suppose the knowledge that I couldn’t have them helped my mother make peace with the lack of progeny coming from my very compromised womb, whether I wanted them or not. For her to learn I was capable of getting pregnant, even if I didn’t seem equipped for staying pregnant—it seemed to, in rapid succession, raise and dash some hope in her.
But then, a few minutes later, the topic shifted. We were done with the revelation that Sari, the “good” girl, had been no better than the alleged “bad” girls, and we were on to the ins and outs of chemical abortion.
“It’s really not so bad,” I said. “It’s kind of like a bad period.”
I was offering information that could put my mother’s friend’s daughter at ease, informing her of another option, in case she needed it. Instead of protecting my insidious “good” girl image, I was using the truth of my real, very human experience to help someone else. So what if that also meant my mother’s friend would know. And her daughter. And whomever else my mother chose to tell—my mom’s a bit of a yenta.
“By the way,” I added, “she probably won’t want to, like, go out for dinner the next night.”
I started to feel good—a different kind of good—relieved of a tremendous burden, and useful.
This essay is excerpted from Get Out of My Crotch: Twenty-One Writers Respond to America’s War on Women’s Rights and Reproductive Health, edited by Kim Wyatt and Sari Botton.