Why I'm celebrating Roe v. Wade's 43rd anniversary
A few months ago, I volunteered to share a story as part of the local feminist storytelling group Gal Palace, which that night doubled as a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood. The theme was, naturally, “Unplanned.” Many of the women who took the stage shared hilarious tales of pregnancy averted or imagined, but when it was my turn to face the modest crowd, I started sweating uncontrollably in the dress I’d only previously worn at my college graduation. My voice trembled as I took the mic, and I eked out some half-hearted attempt at humor before finally spitting out, “My life right now would be totally different if it weren’t for Planned Parenthood and the abortion I had there.”
Today is the 43rd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, and it’s the first year that I’ve felt like celebrating it. Perhaps “celebrate” is too openly jubilant of a word, but when I think about the continued efforts to repeal, revoke, and restrict people’s access to reproductive healthcare, whether it be Texas effectively closing all but six clinics for all 268,820 square miles of the state or a “pro-life” shooter targeting employees and patients at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado, I want to laugh like a madwoman, a gut instinct that rises out of frustration in the face of misinformation and stigma and fear.
At least, the visibility of movements like #ShoutYourAbortion, storytelling movements like the one afforded to me by Gal Palace, and popular media depictions like Jenny Slate’s revelatory Obvious Child help demystify the private and oftentimes fraught decision-making processes that lead people to seek abortions, legally or illegally. Roe v. Wade, at the very least, makes the former possible. And on a personal level, it has allowed me to live the life I want.
I’ve written, obliquely and explicitly, about my pregnancy, its end, and the psychic aftermath of my abortion procedure. The first time I publicly shared any of what I went through was in this article, written in a blur of furiously unspooling emotions, but still not naming The Thing that I had undergone. Though my closest friends, as well as my boyfriend C, knew about and witnessed the weeks leading up to my abortion, most people didn’t have a clue — including my younger sister, who called me shortly after I shared the story on my Facebook: “I shouldn’t have to find out this way,” said both furiously and without malice. She was right, but I hadn’t had the courage or the heart to tell her at the time.
I got pregnant because both C and I believed (or rather, had been taught) that the week after my period was a “safe” week for those with a regular four-week cycle, rather than your peak conception period. I wasn’t on birth control because I hadn’t liked being on the Pill in high school and wasn’t sexually active for most of college. Then, I met and fell in love with a man I’ve now been dating for over two years; we started sleeping together regularly, carefully. The accident, when it happened, didn’t register as serious to either of us.
I went on vacation with my family (and wondered about the spotting I got in lieu of a full-blown period). After returning to my home at the time (a house I shared with nine other girls), I started my first post-college job. I was paid once a month; my first check came a month after I’d started work, disrupting my careful financial planning. I didn’t get overtime or benefits, though I’d oftentimes work both early and late and on weekends. But it was enough and, at the time, worth it: I was happy to be hustling to support myself, even without the later knowledge that my parents would’ve disowned me if I’d failed to get a job or moved back to the family home without one. I saved a quarter of my first paycheck and vowed to stay on track, financially, professionally, and in my personal life.
Until my breasts started hurting, until I watched Obvious Child and recognized too many of Donna’s symptoms in myself, until I sat down with a second pregnancy test (a previous one, done “just in case,” had ruled me in the clear) and, to my dismay, watched the blue plus fade into view. I must’ve joked about how time-consuming it’d be to get an abortion, even as I privately began to unravel.
My thoughts pinged between practical and hysterical: How was I going to break the news to my parents? Was I even going to tell them? If I didn’t, how would I be able to use my dad’s health insurance? Why did I agree to take a job that didn’t provide insurance of my own? How much would this cost out-of-pocket? Would I have to take off work for the procedure? How could this happen? How could this happen? How could this happen to meticulous, methodical, me? There was no hesitation in my decision to move forward with an abortion, but I still became overwhelmed with regret; not for what I was going to do, but that it had come to this at all, and that I was going to pay in every sense possible.
I wanted to vomit from the immensity of it all. That eventually happened, and in waves: Nothing but snot, spit, and stomach acid, morning sickness that left me subsisting on meager portions of saltine crackers and Sprite. I couldn’t get to work, as the public transportation I used left me so nauseated that I’d see stars. How was I supposed to tell my supervisors that I was violently ill because I was pregnant, but also that I soon wouldn’t be? Instead, I told them I had a stomach flu, but could still work from home that week. My immediate manager chastised me for not seeing a doctor sooner and urged me to be more responsible about my health. In that moment, I couldn’t have agreed more.
My abortion was scheduled for the end of the week, on July 5th.
I arrived at the Planned Parenthood clinic with cash in an envelope and a frog in my throat, a few loved ones in tow. C withdrew from a work camping trip to be with me, and his gentle presence kept me grounded, even when the lone protester posted outside the building tried to hand me a pamphlet. I had an early appointment; if there had been more people there, if they had yelled and cursed at me, I probably would’ve burst into tears.
My pre-operation consultation was relatively quick. I hadn’t expected the ultrasound jelly to be so cold, and gladly accepted a blanket to wear over my paper-thin gown. Because I was so dehydrated from a week of consuming barely anything, I was kept on a saline drip for what seemed like hours, watching fellow blanketed patients, as well as some who were there for other medical procedures, being called in and out of the waiting rooms. When the time came for my operation, someone — whom I now know was a volunteer — held my hand, smiling at me as the anesthesia took hold. When I woke up, I felt nothing; when I left the clinic, I was so dazzled by the sunlight outside that I thought I would go blind.
In the years since, I’ve begun to speak more about my abortion online and offline. That storytelling event was the first time I’d verbalized my experience to complete strangers; now, I compulsively signal-boost stories and movements about abortion rights and reproductive health, as well as regularly donate to and volunteer for Planned Parenthood. Reproductive justice isn’t an abstraction anymore, not that it ever truly was.
But still: I had the support and resources to secure an abortion, discretely and with little threat to me and mine, and I still went through an emotional and physical wringer, jumping through hoops in order to temper shame of both my own and society’s making. For many people, their decision would’ve been made for them as soon as they received that positive; for me to have made a choice, a truly independent choice, is something I don’t take for granted.
Roe v. Wade was supposed to change the state of women’s reproductive health in the nation, and it did. But the work to ensure safe and accessible abortions, as well to educate people about their bodies and birth control options in the first place, continues on. That part of the story, mine and those of countless other people in this country and around the world, shouldn’t, and doesn’t, end here.
(Image courtesy of A24)