Tuesday, January 22, 2008


(Me and Mama in December 1956, Kolkata, India -- I always knew I was a wanted child)

Never once in my life as a sexually active adult have I had to consider birth control, or fear becoming pregnant. In this regard, I am not just an historical anomaly among women since the dawn of humanity, I am rare within my own generation of historical anomalies. Despite my assertion that my preference (who I let into my sheets with me) is a choice, not predetermined by biology -- I am a lesbian by choice, every single day of my life -- still, I know how lucky I am. Lucky to sidestep the issue of reproduction, the question and worry that claims a significant portion of the thoughts of almost every other woman I know. My sisters: I am born to your ranks, and I know your task, even if I have not shared it directly. I stand in solidarity with you.

When I was sixteen, living in a small town where my mother had grown up, I heard from a friend whose mother had been my mother's best friend as teenagers that my mother had gotten pregnant from an affair with a married man and, somehow, in extremely rural Texas during World War II, had an abortion. I was enormously upset by this gossip -- not at the choice of an abortion, but at the loss of a sibling who might have been my longed-for sister. Eventually, I went to my mother and asked her about it. She was shocked, unpleasantly so. She acknowledged the affair but denied the abortion, saying with a disbelieving laugh, "I don't think I even knew such a thing existed then."

She added "I completely support a woman's right to choose, you know. It's our bodies, that's the way g*d and nature set it up, which means it's up to us to decide whether or not we fill our wombs. But I'd never personally be able to have an abortion, no matter the consequences. That's my choice, not one you have to share. Just so you know."

Mama was an extraordinary woman, and although by the time she told me this I was well-launched in my choice of sexual partners, still, it was liberating to hear. And now, at 52, with my fertility behind me and decades of radical feminism under my belt, I agree with her: It's our bodies, our selves, and there's no way to allow others to make that choice for us without giving up an essential piece of personhood. And -- I don't think I could ever have chosen abortion, either. You can be a radical lesbian-feminist, support choice completely, reject abortion personally, and not be contradicting yourself.

We don't get to hear that much because we are constantly hounded on this issue and don't feel the room to be honest. We are hounded by people who also don't want us to have birth control and a myriad of other sexual, biological and cultural choices. The same people who want to outlaw abortion are fine with the death penality, and that contradiction is real, is the deal-breaker. They are no more pro-life than the Peacekeeper missile was about peace.

And it's easy for me to guess at what my choice might be, but, as I've acknowledged above, it's not a reality I've ever had to even try on for a day. How can I really know?

I had a chance to hear Sarah Weddington speak to a NOW gathering in Lubbock, Texas not long after she argued Roe v. Wade. I remember being surprised by how ordinary she looked, how strong her accent was. I understood, all the way down to my bones, that the ability to say no to pregnancy was more important to me, even as a lesbian, than any other liberation struggle I would encounter in this life. I was then, and remain, grateful to her for the common-sense way she found this clear ground for us all.

I've been close to many women who have had abortions, many of them lesbians who came out at some point after having been pregnant. I've never talked to anyone for whom it wasn't a deep wound. Some, a few of them, regretted their choice. That's to be expected. We regret many choices we make as young people. I've always loved the Carole King song with the line "If it had been as I intended, I wouldn't have the peace I know." My idea of hell would be to find myself locked into the decisions and convictions I had at 17, or 22, or even 28. To roughly quote Dodici Azpadu in her book Saturday Night in the Prime of Life, "Wisdom does not automatically come with age. We have to seek it, accept change every step of the way, work for it to acquire it." Regret is useful only as a temporary signpost; we have to leave it behind to transform ourselves.

Mostly, the women I've talked with who chose to not give birth expressed a wish that circumstances had been different, that they could have received enough support and instant maturity to have carried their child to term, but since that was utterly unavailable to them, they were content they had done the right thing for themselves and those who would occupy their future years. I believe them, just as I believe the women who regretted what they'd done. I have no reason to do otherwise.

One woman I knew, a lover of mine, was forced into an abortion at age 16 by her fundamentalist father. She had deliberately gotten pregnant with the boyfriend her parents hated, because her sister before her had gotten pregnant at 16 and been pushed into marrying the boy. She thought it would work for her, too, pregnancy as a way out of the house. Instead, her father found an Air Force doctor who would terminate her pregnancy with no questions asked. She was furious and damaged, as you can imagine.

Later, when she did marry, it took her many tries to get pregnant. Eventually she had a daughter, and when she came out as a lesbian, we raised that daughter together.

At age eighteen, that daughter became pregnant with a boy she loved and, under pressure from him and her biological mother, she had an abortion. A year later, while she was living with me, she got pregnant again, with the same boy. This time, she wanted to keep the child.

At that time, I was living hand to mouth, not quite meeting rent each month. I had no financial resources I could draw on. My daughter said she would drop out of college, collect state assistance (which would be completely inadequate here), somehow swing it. The boy offered no economic help, had none to offer, really. I told her it was up to her; she and my grandchild could go on living with me, of course, and I'd help her as much as I could.

But when she called her other mother, living in another state, the woman who had been damaged by abortion as a teenager -- her mother said she was too young, she'd never finish college, she'd wind up in poverty, and therefore if she didn't have an abortion, her mother would offer no support, financially or emotionally.

My kid went through a week of living hell. I listened nonstop, I told her how much I believed in her, I located someone we both loved who would gladly adopt the child and let us stay in its life. Eventually, however, she decided on abortion. And when it was time to go to the clinic, I went into the room with her while it was done.

I didn't want to. I didn't want to lose that future child, I didn't want to see how it is done, I wanted her to change her mind and have other choices. Still, you do what is asked of you as a parent. I held her hand through what is one of the worse memories of my life. Love and respect means you support someone's choices even if they are the polar opposite of your own.

Afterward, as my daughter slept at home in the arms of the boy who had failed her, I sat in my car and grieved with a friend, sure that I had also failed her. My friend, an abortion survivor herself, said "Abortion is never an easy choice. And on a fundamental level, it may not be the right choice. But it's sometimes the best choice." It helped to hear that.

Judy Grahn wrote
"we are the fat of our land, and
we all have our list of casualties
...wherever our meat hangs on our own bones
for our own use
your pot is so empty
death, ho death
you shall be poor"

I believe you when you tell me you are doing the best you can. And I support your right to choose.


letsdance said...

Maggie, you never fail to amaze me with your wisdom and your compassion.

kat said...

you're an amazing woman, but this shows me that you must be an even more amazing mother.