Choices: The Road Not Taken
I once attended a small social gathering which included a woman who professed great skill in analyzing people through calculating the numbers in their names. Not one to ever really believe much in the "occult," yet always profoundly interested in anything concerning myself, I immediately asked her to read my numerological chart.
After going through what seemed to be complex mathematical convolutions, she arrived at the "fact" that my name culminated in the number 11 a "mystical power number." But beyond that, she told me she saw something in my chart that she had never seen before. Looking at me very seriously she said, "You area woman who will make money from war." The people around us laughed at what appeared to be an unlikely scenario, but I knew better. Because that is what my life and work is - a war. I live and work in a war zone. Because that is what abortion has become. It is a war between two specific political ideologies, between women and men, women and women, between and their own bodies, women and their fetuses, Americans with each other, organized religions, husbands and wives, parents and daughters, lovers and friends.
Deconstruct abortion and you find it is about life, death, sex, relationships, immortality, transcendence, God and ego. Abortion is a movement, an ideology, an act, a necessity, a mistake, a blessing and a business. Abortion is a war whose face wears many expressions and whose reality lives and breathes in my world.
In the beginning, before legalization, before the battles, before the word became flesh and translated into thousands of women's lives, abortion wore a dark and shadowed face, hidden, veiled. In that time, abortion was a word that was whispered, a shared secret knowledge among women - a lurking, beckoning danger that took its form and face from necessity.
Now displays of rage and disgust fill the television screens in 30-second sound bites -banners, chants, marches; legal decisions, street side debates, fetuses as props, placards of women butchered from illegal abortions, "rescues," clinic defense, strategic military maneuvers -again and again I feel my personal and political history repeat itself with each demonstration, each new challenge, every political gain and loss, a continual and enveloping sense of deja vu, of memory becoming both present and future. The true face of abortion has no contours, only emotional colors with an intensity that ebbs and flows with the singular reality it inhabits - the individual woman's life it defines; the places it fills, the spaces of love, doubt, survival, freedom and terror.
I have seen thousands of colors in thousands of faces - women whose eyes were wide with grief, anger, loneliness, and need - eyes locked tight with mine with an intensity that both filled and drained me. I can't remember how many hands I have held, how many heads I have caressed, gently stroking back wisps of hair that fell because of sweat and anxiety, how many times I have whispered into how many ears that "it will be all right -just breathe slowly." Extremely intimate connections full of power, poignancy and love. I was midwife to much pain, relief and gratitude. There was so much vulnerability; legs spread wide apart; the physician crouched between white, black, thin, heavy, but always trembling, thighs. The tube sucking out the fetal life from their bodies. "It'll be over soon, just take one more deep breath," and then the last thrust and pull of the catheter -and the gurgle that signaled the end of the abortion. What the gynecologists call the "uterine cry." So many times I had to talk them through it. So many endings have I witnessed. So many tentative beginnings. Years and years of thousands of women's lives - until I came upon my own.
Summer 1980. It was my first major national televised debate. My political debut. I was going into battle and had to use all my tools. My intellectual ability, my courage, my rage, my attractiveness. The weapon: Words, the fast bright retort, the facts, the statistics. I was anxious, excited, tremendously concerned that I should win, i.e. score points, speak brilliantly to the committed, because I inherently understood that debates were just that. One could never really convert or even help the other side understand. Debates were merely to rearticulate the issues in an ever higher and more conscious level so that the converted became disciples.
My debate was taped on a Friday. I had taken a pregnancy test that morning. Left my urine at CHOICES. I had never really expected to become pregnant. It was something I knew intellectually could happen - biologically, realistically, but not something I ever truly expected to actually happen to me. I was always very careful - almost obsessive. I never really thought of myself as a mother. I defined myself in other ways - not by having children. Even as a young girl, the role modeling never quite fit. My fantasy games with my friends centered around medieval knights and dragons rather than playing house or doctor.
As the debate continued, I remember an odd sort of splitting off. Responding to the gibes and questions of my opponent all the while thinking that I could be pregnant - am I pregnant? What if I am pregnant? Removed enough to appreciate the exquisite irony of the situation that this was a battle being waged on multi-tracks, performing politically for the cameras and debating emotionally with myself. My opponent made a point about aborting female fetuses. How could I call myself a feminist and support abortion rights when half the fetuses being aborted were female? It was not a new argument. None of it was, but this time it made me think of my mother. My mother with dreams deferred and denied.
In the closing argument I made a passionate plea for the importance of women's lives - for remembering that the abortion "issue" was ultimately about that. Thousands of individual stories, thousands of different reasons why. All culminating in one shared ambiguous reality - a reality I was beginning to enter.
I finished the taping - relieved and exhilarated for the moment until the anxiety returned. I asked to use the studio phone to call my office. The assistant stood next to me, engaging me in conversation, complimenting me. Of course, he said, she was also pro-choice. And I was talking, talking, laughing -eager to engage in the dialogue as if the talking can stop the thinking - can stop the possible reality - and I got on the phone and I spoke to my secretary and found out that the pregnancy test was positive. POSITIVE - and it took my breath away - it literally took my breath away.
By the time I came out of the building, I was breathing again. Sweating profusely wondered whether I had stained the outfit I purchased specifically for the debate. Calling a cab, flattening my back against the seat, consciously taking slow deep breaths. I thought that in the end, it was very much a matter of being able to breathe - feeling suffocated - so that the idea of abortion became a valve - an opening - a way to breathe. As we crossed the 59th Street bridge, I remember holding on to my stomach and saying out loud to no one in particular: "Sorry little one, it's just not time."
I managed to get through the rest of the day on automatic. The night was difficult. I thought of myself and my husband and of my life - and of the life within me. It was the ultimate hard place. My diary entry reads "For one night I am a mother."
I don't remember whether or not I slept the night before the abortion. I only remember the tiredness and the overriding sense of inevitability. I dressed unconsciously. There is a vague memory of a red and white suit. What does one wear to an abortion? There were no specific costumes like those for funerals or weddings. No ritual from one generation of women to another to guide you. Only functional considerations -you wear something that comes on and off quickly and easily.
In the clinic, the steps of the familiar process hit home hard. The blood tests, the images of the sonogram, the table, the stirrups - were all for me. Now I was joined to the commonality of my sex. To my sisters. Yet, as I lay down on the table that I had stood beside for so many others I felt ultimately and irrevocably alone. The eyes that surrounded me could only connect from a distance. The hands that touched and caressed my hair felt as if they moved through a dark porous divide that separated me from everything that I knew or was before. It was as if I were falling into a place from where there was no turning back, only moving forward. As I spread my legs I thought of my possible child -whose time was not now. Strange how I thought of the fetus as female, as if that shared gender gave me a more special connection.
There were no dreams. In the recovery room as I slowly awoke from the anesthesia I was immediately conscious of immense and overpowering feelings of love -non-specific, non-directed. Love, relief -then sadness. It was a toxically poignant mixture. And I thought of diaphragms. My diaphragm - the way it would catch up all the life. Stop it before it began - creamy, thick and wet. And I thought that sometimes people have diaphragms in their minds. Big rubber stoppers that say STOP - don't love -don't take risks - don't think - don't care, don't....
The reality of abortion is not defined so much by the loss of what is, as it is defined by the loss of what could be. The loss of possibility - the road not taken, the script not played. The mantra is called "if only" and it is a theme with a thousand variations.
In the recovery room I was surrounded by an unique and uncharted intimacy where all pretense is dropped and the women allowed themselves the luxury of rage, anger and sarcasm. Talking to each other about their lovers and husbands - vowing not to "give it to them anymore." The nurses would go over the post-abortion instructions: "No sex for three weeks" and the women would respond by saying things like "Oh baby, give me a doctor's note that says no sex for six months," "If he thinks he's got anything coming that's a whole other story," or "Oh, I've got such bad cramps, I don't think I'll feel in the mood for years." It was sadly jocular and each knew as she listened to the other that it was only talk -"girl talk," that, in fact, there would be no way, there hardly ever is, to say no to these men. The calls would come in two or three days later, concerned, upset, ashamed. "I had intercourse last night. I know I'm not supposed to, I know I shouldn't." "Will I get an infection?" "What will happen to me?" "He doesn't like me to use the pill." "He doesn't want to use a condom." "He doesn't believe in the diaphragm." He He He....
It was not their victimization so much that moved me. Although there was much of that. It was their consistent and often futile struggle against it.
I spent the rest of the day in the country quiet, relieved, uncomfortable and withdrawn reluctantly allowing my husband's need for closeness to draw me out of myself. Slowly, determinedly, eventually, the discomfort passed and my focus shifted to the rest of my life.
Shortly thereafter l found myself walking down the hall of the clinic and hearing loud wrenching sobs coming from the recovery room. A woman was slowly waking from the anesthesia and crying for her mother. I walked over to her bed, put down the side rails, held her close and gently tried to sooth her. As I was doing this, a woman from the next bed reached out her hand and pulled me towards her. As I bent down to her face she whispered in a halting Russian accent, "You're the only one I have now, I'm all alone. I was in love and he left me. I didn't want to do this, but it was necessary. I had to do this and God will insure that you and I will meet after death because you've saved my life by being here." I held the woman close, enormously moved, savoring the connection, powerfully reminded about what I was there for. It was as if there was no reason needed, no good or bad, no issue of choice. There was nothing more than the pure energy of survival, and women doing what they've been doing for centuries throughout history, what they've done for survival and love. The ambiguous gift of choice -terminating a potential life at this particular moment in time, in this individual woman's life, for this reason or that.
This reality is very harsh, very cold and very hard. It is the thing that people have so much difficulty with. What they deign to allow exception for - - rape or incest - - is only if sex is not chosen and she is a "victim." So many debates - - so many of the same themes - - "they" have convenience abortions - - "they" only want to look good in a bathing suit - "they" have selfish reasons - like wanting to finish school or wanting a bigger house - - they - they... For me, my reasons were mine and they were enough.
As I write, plans are being laid for the defense of the New York clinics against a massive onslaught from Operation Rescue scheduled for the Democratic National Convention. Thousands are expected to be down in front of clinic doors and thousands more expected to stop them. The political battles rage on and more and more warriors are recruited. Street actions engendering more civil disobedience. My fate replays itself again and again in the media, in the meetings, in the streets. But inside the clinic, beyond all the public struggles, there is the continuing ebb and flow of the colors of women's lives a neutral ground of sorts, a private place, a sacred place where mothers act out of love and survival, where women lay their bodies down in the hope of being able to breathe again with the determination of going on.
I think of the first patient who came to CHOICES in 1971 from New Jersey because abortion was illegal in that state. She was a mother of two small children, 24 years old, white, married, poor and terrified. I was young, just beginning in my world and also terrified but we helped each other. Hers was the first story I heard, the first hand that I held, hers the first eyes I met so intimately.
She is always with me, just as that other part -the road not taken - the child whose time was not then - is within me in all the places of my life, in all the battles, struggles and thoughts, but especially here, in this one, in this place.
Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women's Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.