Abortion is such a hot-button issue that for the past year and a half of writing this blog, I've avoided it. But in this election climate, after hearing political figures talk about "legitimate rape," after realizing that women fought and won this battle nearly 40 years ago, and after watching the Republicans in Tampa and the Democrats in Charlotte, I think it's time.
When I was a young teenager, my mother sat me down and told me a story about a woman she knew. The woman, who I'll call Stella, had a daughter who'd become pregnant. In those days, abortion was illegal. Stella's daughter, desperate, made the only choice she thought she had. She chose to have what was commonly called a "back-woods abortion," performed by someone who maybe was a doctor, who maybe wasn't. I don't remember if my mother told me that part of the story, don't remember if my mother even knew. In the end it didn't matter. Stella's daughter died. The point of my mom telling me the story was this: she asked me not to have sex too soon, but said if I did, and if I got pregnant, to come to her and my father, that they would help me. She begged me not to get a back-woods abortion. She didn't beg because she wanted to save a grandchild not yet conceived; she begged because she wanted to save my life. Because in those days, opting for an abortion was a matter of life and death.
That sit-down with my mother never left me. I did in fact have sex sooner or later (specifically, in 1974 while in college), and was very careful about it. I made an appointment with Planned Parenthood, had my first gynecologic check-up, discussed sexual intercourse with my doctor, opted for birth control pills as my method of contraception, and waited four weeks (as instructed by the package insert) before my first encounter.
The year before, in 1973, the Roe v. Wade decision came down from the Supreme Court, making abortion legal with certain stipulations, those having to do with "viability" of the fetus. If I had gotten pregnant in those early days, there would have been no back-woods abortion for me. I could have gotten a legal abortion because the Supreme Court ruled that the right to privacy under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution extends to a woman's decision to have an abortion, again, balanced by the mother's health and the ability of the fetus to live on its own, albeit with artificial aid. My decision to be careful about getting pregnant had nothing to do with the law, however. I didn't get pregnant because my mother's words were there in my head. Still, that legal abortion was in the background, that I had a choice if my boyfriend and I made a mistake, was a positive. If I'd slipped up and gotten pregnant while a freshman in college, would I have had an abortion? I can't answer that question definitively, not now when the last ship of my fertile eggs has long since sailed. But in truth, if I'd been pregnant at 18? Probably. My choice. If I'd gotten pregnant at 35, and was healthy, and was set to have a healthy baby? Absolutely not. Again: my choice.
Getting older changes the way the mind works. I've become more conservative, I'm tough on welfare benefits and am frustrated when that system is abused, all the while understanding there are legitimate cases when the poor need help. I'm angry at the entitled young, who feel they're somehow too good to work at menial jobs, or who quit fine jobs because "they aren't having fun." I expect young people to do what I did: work hard even when it isn't fun, pay taxes, contribute to society, and carve out a future, like I did. That future of mine, as it turned out, didn't include children. Not an "oh how sad" situation, but another choice I made. When the big clock started to tick in my late thirties I realized I didn't have the maternal drive that many women do. Now, as a fifty-something sorta conservative non-mother, my opinion about abortion remains the same. It should be legal, with certain balancing stipulations. Because in America, women should have a choice.
I have never had an abortion and do not believe in it. I mean seriously, does anybody actually believe in abortion? What I do believe in my heart -- and know for a fact in many cases, as I have friends who have had abortions -- is that no woman takes lightly the decision to terminate a pregnancy. It's an agonizing option, for the 17-year-old bound for college, for the 30-year-old who can't afford a family, for the 42-year-old whose health is threatened by childbirth. These women are not "pro-abortion." They are women who have a legal right to make a decision about their own body and their own life. Is the mother's life and how she decides to live it not just as important as the collection of cells growing in the womb?
As a person who is pro-choice, I object to the concept of the so-called pro-life movement, which implies those of us who are pro-choice are somehow also pro-abortion or, worse, pro-death. Pro-lifers wave signs around bearing frightful photos of mangled babies. Politicians shriek that's those of us who are pro-choice are baby killers. Doctors who perform abortions have been shot dead...by those who proclaim to be pro-life and on whom the irony of such actions is lost. Smoking is a killer, but it's legal. Alcohol is a killer, but it's legal. Legal prescription drugs are killing people every day. To smoke or drink or take pills is also our choice, by law. And no one is waving signs about that. Some will say that's because smoking or drinking or pills are not a direct "murder" of the unborn. But that's just the point, isn't it? A fetus, and certainly one in the earliest stages, is unborn. And as a fertility doctor said to me years ago, life doesn't start at conception: it started millennia ago.
It has been only a few decades since medical science enabled us to "see" the fetus, and as technology progresses we can see even more clearly its early development -- the tiny head, a wee heartbeat. Interesting, yes. However, this collection of cells, no matter how microscopically fascinating, is just that: a collection of cells. I personally don't know any pro-choice person who subscribes to late-term abortions, when babies are viable on their own. In fact, I don't know any pro-choice person who subscribes to abortions at all. What we subscribe to -- and believe is our right -- is to have the choice to make the decision about a collection of cells that cannot live on its own, and about our own lives, which are important, too. Maybe more important, some might say.
Abortion is a complicated issue involving mothers and fathers and family and religion and politics and regret and frustration on all fronts. I'm happy I never had to make such a hard decision and feel sadness for those who have. Still, I cannot be convinced that it should not be a woman's choice, just as it is her choice to cut off a finger if she sees fit. Is having an abortion or cutting off a finger a good choice? Who can say? That's what choices are all about; they set us on a road that is all our own. And it is a slippery slope when politicians or churches or the rabid few begin to dictate what road we should travel.
As a final aside: I find that most of those who disagree with me about being pro-choice are men. I wonder what would happen if scientists were to discover that sperm contains a little heartbeat and tiny feet. I wonder...would these same men pass a law that masturbation...that biblical no-no of spilling one's seed upon the earth... should also be illegal?