Thursday, July 15, 2004

Warning: Serious and Personal Post

Ok, this post is kind of heavy, so hold on to your hats.   I hate abortion. I hate thinking about it, I hate talking about it, I hate dealing with it. I even hate the word. Ah-bore-shun. I’m sick of hearing those three syllables slipping out of the television screen, sliding out of my radio, knocking around in my head. I wish I could substitute that word with something else entirely. Something soft and pleasant like…. Freesia. But calling abortion something else doesn’t make it something else. Abortion will never be soft or pleasant. Everything about it is difficult and tense and exhausting. Everyone is anti-abortion. There is no such thing as “pro-abortion.” No one wants abortion to be necessary because it’s icky and confusing and not fun. The doctors who perform the procedures would rather be doing almost anything else you can think of. The women who opt for the procedures, even more so. I get up at 7 a.m. on Saturday mornings to stand in front of Planned Parenthood and escort patients through the gaggle of protesters in front of the clinic. Believe me, I’d rather be home in bed. We all would. The doctor, the patient, the escort and the protester would all rather be home in bed. But we get up and we go to the clinic and every one of us does it because, for whatever reason, we are unable to turn away. A few weeks ago I went to a panel discussion on abortion politics at the Kennedy School Forum at Harvard University. The place was packed with college students on both sides of the issue and the panel was evenly split. One of the pro-choice panelists was Kate Michelman, the former president of The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. At one point during the discussion she said something that took me by surprise. “Every woman knows that abortion is the end of a life,” she said. “We are not stupid. We know that if we have an abortion a life will end. A person who would have been will not be.” She went on to speak about the value of a life – a woman’s life – and the value of freedom and privacy and empowerment. And all of that was true. But I was glad that Ms. Michelman didn’t shy away from that other truth. The truth that is harder to take.   I know many pro-choice activists who claim that a tiny bundle of cells on a uterine wall is not a life. That the notion that life begins at conception is false. Perhaps they feel that this makes their convictions easier to defend, but I disagree. Four cells may not look like life, but if left to their own devices, those four cells will likely become a person. That is life. And to claim that it isn’t does a disservice to every woman who is faced with the decision of whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. This is no coin toss. This is no should-I-take-the-bus-or-the-subway. This is a very big deal. I know an abortion-rights activist who is also a faculty member at a prestigious university in Boston. He told me a story from his days as a resident physician in the early seventies, before the advent of Roe v. Wade. A patient was brought into the ER one evening suffering from severe sepsis. Her dark brown skin had turned a lighter, purplish/mahogany color. Her lips and fingernails were a light, dusty blue. She was unconscious, slick with sweat and her abdomen was horribly distended. They knew immediately what was wrong with her. They had seen complications from botched illegal abortions before. With the severity of her condition, the only solution was a full hysterectomy. She was rushed into surgery. When they opened her up they found that her abdominal cavity was filled with pus from a punctured and infected uterus. They siphoned out the pus and removed the woman’s mangled reproductive organs. The operation was made more difficult by the fact that her tissues had developed the consistency of wet toilet paper. She was coming apart and the sutures would not hold. They did the best they could and, after nine hours, she was placed in a bed in post-operative intensive care. This man I know stopped by her room later that evening to check on her. He found the surgeon holding her hand as she lay comatose. The surgeon was still holding her hand, hours later, when she died. She was seventeen.   The bundle of cells that was removed from that girl’s womb was a life. But was it more valuable than her life? Women have proven time and time again that they will do horrifying, inhumane things to themselves in order to end a pregnancy that they do not want. If we humanize the fetus, we dehumanize the woman who carries it. But the messy part – the confusing part – is that if a fetus was not a life, abortion would not be an issue. If a pregnancy would result in a woman giving birth to a coffee maker or a grapefruit or a ribbon candy, she would never risk her life to stop it. No way that seventeen-year-old girl would have died for a grapefruit. It is precisely because it is a life that could become a person that abortion is such a volatile issue for both sides. Otherwise, none of us would give a damn.  I had an abortion in 1996 when I was twenty-one. During the short time that I was pregnant I did a lot of throwing up and a lot of crying and thinking. I knew that I was too young and too poor and too messed up to have a child. I knew that an abortion was the right decision for me. But that didn’t make it any easier. It was an awful, lonely time, those couple of weeks. And going to that clinic was one of the most difficult things I have ever chosen to do. But I did choose it. I chose an abortion and I have never once regretted that decision. Of course I have felt some whimsical twinges here and there over the years. Of course I have wondered fleetingly what that child would have looked like. But I have never wished that my life had taken a different path. I’m glad that I was pregnant and I’m glad that I had an abortion because it allowed me to feel empathy for other women who are faced with the same colossal experience. When I see the women who come to the clinic on Saturday mornings, wearing sweatpants and carrying pillows, I can almost smell their fear and I remember exactly what it felt like. Some of them are sick. Many of them are in tears. And I can place my hand on a woman’s back and tell her with absolute conviction that she is going to be alright, because I would know. I hate abortion. It is scary and painful and I wish I didn’t have to think about it. But a woman’s life is no trivial thing. She is not a bag of blood and nutrients. She is not an animal to be bred. She is a person whose rights and freedoms must be protected or she could die. That is the reason that I cannot turn away.