I was 17 when I fell in love for the first time. I wanted birth control beyond condoms and luck. I had no money. I was on my parent’s health insurance, but I couldn’t tell them. We’d never talked about sex. Or sexuality. Or menstruation. Or anything to do with the body. But it was 1973, and I didn’t know how or why, but Planned Parenthood was there for me.
Mani and I drove to San Jose, 30 minutes away, and had a consultation with a doctor. Bernard was a soft spoken young man with long black curly hair. He gave us information and cautionary advice about various methods of protection. Concerned about my youth, he took me aside to make sure I wasn’t being pressured by a man seven years my senior. He sent us home to consider our choices. We didn’t want to wait, but they had rules, and probably my best interests at heart.
For the next appointment I borrowed Mani’s new car while he had to work, and went on my own. Putting my legs into stirrups was new, and uncomfortable and disturbing. But it got me safety and freedom. Driving home in the growing dusk, the car inexplicably broke down on Highway 101. I stood on a narrow center divider as cars rushed past. A lone man pulled over, and when I wouldn’t get in his car, he said he’d call a tow truck. By that time I was frightened and frantic from the whole ordeal, but the tow truck driver shared a joint with me, called the dealership and ordered them to stay open until we got there, and then yelled at the salesman on my behalf, to make sure I wouldn’t have to pay for the tow or the repair. A memorable time.
I came of age in a place and time when these options were readily available. I could maintain my privacy. A trained health professional watched out for my best interests. I was unclear about the battle that was fought before my time, unaware that others might not have these same choices.
Over the next decade Planned Parenthood provided me with various forms of birth control – not just to avoid involving my parents, but also later when I had no insurance, little income, and was flying by the seat of my pants, aka young adulthood.
I could have been a teen mom. Or one who used a coat hanger or Lysol or worse to abort a baby I didn’t want. I could be dead. But between Planned Parenthood and Roe v Wade, I had agency over my life, and a choice. I could create the life I wanted.
* * *
In the summer of 1982, Alan and I drove around the U.S. searching for the right place to settle into our newly married life, where in some distant future we would raise a family. That fall we arrived in Santa Barbara, and began a months-long search for jobs and housing.
We lived with Alan’s parents in Port Hueneme, 45 minutes away. Finally Alan landed a job packing and mailing comic books in a hot little warehouse near the beach. He made $5/hour. I met him for lunch on the sandy lawn by the Pacific Ocean in between my interviews and house search.
Then I managed to get part-time work for the Christmas rush at a bookstore, also at $5/hour. We made more than the minimum wage of $3.35, but not enough to live on. I planned to be an outgoing employee so I would be hired full time after the holidays. We found a house on the outskirts of town, affordable only if we rented out two of the three bedrooms. We barely made ends meet.
That Thanksgiving I was inexplicably nauseous and tired, unable to eat in spite of my mother’s delectable cooking. Being pregnant never crossed my mind; I’d had a Dalkon Shield IUD for several years without a problem (in spite of its reputation for pregnancies, infections and even deaths).
The Christmas rush was on at work, and I went in exhausted and not knowing why. I found refuge behind the cash register, leaning on the counter, hoping not to throw up. I got hard looks from my boss, but I could barely drag myself out to the aisles to push books or straighten shelves.
When I figured out I was pregnant, we agonized. I was 27 years old. We were just beginning our nebulous lives with a tenuous hold on making it work. It felt wrong to abort when we had a happy marriage, family support, a roof over our heads. But I couldn’t imagine starting a family while making so little money, no benefits, no medical insurance, no time off, living in a crowded house, and no way of starting a career or improving that life any time soon if we had a baby. I wanted to be a mother. Just not yet.
While we tried to figure out what to do, my boss laid me off. I was slacking too much. Overwhelmed by the enormity of it all, I burst into tears and blurted out my story. She took pity and gave me a second chance.
Then a dear friend came to visit, a woman my age who was also a rabbi. While I wasn’t religious, I trusted her deeply thoughtful approach to life decisions. To my surprise she’d been in a similar situation and had made a decision to abort. Not being ready to start a family, in her opinion, was a fine decision.
Once again, Planned Parenthood was there for me, though I had to make my way past the flow of religious protesters carrying signs with pictures of bloody murdered fetuses, yelling terrible things at me. The clinic provided an escort to protect and support me as I walked from the parking lot, and treated me with care.
I never questioned how I would get the services I needed, or if they were available. Of course the choice was ours to make; how could it be otherwise? It was my body, my life, my choice.
* * *
Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, the news is full of stories about the increasing loss of reproductive health access to children and teens, rape victims, incest victims, people whose health is threatened, poor people, people of color, rural people, religious people. About states where abortion has been banned altogether and where clinics are shut down and worse. It’s horrific, frightening, depressing, and infuriating.
My story is one of ease, choice, and privilege. I never worried about lack of safety or cleanliness or a less than professional clinic or doctor. I never worried about the cost; there was none. I worried maybe a little about risk – it’s a medical procedure after all. I was a little sad about letting go of what would eventually become our child.
But I have no regrets. It was the right choice for us. It was part of a whole family planning package, just as birth control was. It was our choice to create an optimal environment for bringing a baby into the world.
This choice should be accessible to anyone, without restrictions. Only a pregnant person can make the decision about their body and life. Forcing people to have babies, forcing unwanted babies to be born, is antithetical to a basic human tenet that every child be brought up with love and care.
There were 862,000 abortions performed in 2017 in the US. I’m part of a group of women who decided not to have a baby because the time was not right. Still, the total numbers are relatively small. Less than a million out of 325 million citizens. A quarter of a percent. So much attention on such a small number of people. There are so many causes to work for that could help lift people up. The poverty rate in the US is 14%. 13 million children are hungry, yet there’s enough food to feed the world. Yet control over others’ bodies is somehow a guiding crusade for too many.
50 years after Roe v Wade, abortion still isn’t a neutral topic. 40 years after my own abortion, I still hesitate to tell the story. It’s personal, and it shouldn’t even be an issue. But I never thought it was a right we would lose.
“I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed.”Sister Joan Chittister
* * *
In 1984 Alan and I each had steady work and income, some benefits and insurance, maternity leave, stability, and enough love to go around. Though having children is never easy, our baby girl brought joy to everyone around her. She was thoroughly wanted and cherished. Family planning made that a possibility.
When I accidentally got pregnant again 18 months after our daughter was born, I wasn’t planning to have another child yet. The small business I’d just started was my second baby already, demanding and exhausting. I doubted I had the time and energy but we COULD give this child a good life. Again, we had a choice.
Is there ever a good time to have a child? Even in the best of circumstances it’s disruptive as hell, and a jump into the unknown. If you don’t have a choice, that jump can be terrifying and can upend your life.
We left that pregnancy to fate, and that tenacious little embryo stayed on, a wonderful addition to our busy lives, and a blessing ever since.
I’ve occasionally had “what if” moments, pondering alternate life trajectories. But it always ends with gratitude that everything turned out the way it has. If not for Roe v Wade, if not for Planned Parenthood, if not for having a choice and autonomy, my husband and I would not be who and where we are now, we may not have had the careers and lives we had, and would not have the two wonderful children we have now.
This should not be a privilege.