All my life I’ve heard about how “emotionally destroyed” women are by their abortions. This is largely a Christian narrative, just as the rescinding of women’s human rights has been pushed since Roe v. Wade by the evangelical right
In fact, my abortion offered me a powerful and unexpected insight into the emotional connection between my body and mind that I haven’t experienced before or since.
In the winter of 1975, I was twenty-six, married, and a graduate student at Indiana University. I also had just left my husband. A friend and I were sharing an apartment during the Christmas holiday break, and as New Year’s Eve approached, we made a pact to celebrate being single. We’d go dancing at the only disco in town in the giddy hope of picking up men.
As I entered the club, “Get up off of that thing,” was booming. The heartbeat of the space was the dance floor with its checkerboard, multi-lit, flashing squares of light supporting the swaying, thrusting, bodies packed in tight. Beers were free for women; half price for the men.
The most remarkable thing about this place out in tiny Bloomington, Indiana, in the middle of a white, conservative, farming community was that the M.B.A. graduate student body was largely African. The white people in this club were the minority, and nobody gave a damn. Way above the heads of the dancers, suspended from the ceiling, was the obligatory mirrored ball, reflecting and spinning.
My attention was drawn to the man with the fluid hips. He danced by himself; eyes half-closed. He didn’t see me as I danced toward him, then he glanced at me for a second when I synced to his rhythm. His moves were tight and controlled, and tension coiled in me. And then he smiled at me. A sunburst.
* * *
Olio and I fought a lot. He provoked me, then I got angry, and he laughed. I stayed with Olio because he was handsome and I liked to look at him. We went dancing together. I loved the way he laughed. I stayed with him for the sex.
Then, one time, he lied to me. “I’ll pull out,” he said. It was the only time in my life that I’d had unprotected sex. I got pregnant.
I remember sitting alone, cross-legged on my bed, my hands on my “nesting” stomach in a state of amazement. So this is why women have babies! I felt fabulous. At the same time, I didn’t have one second of doubt about wanting an abortion. I sat in the experience of both things being true.
Flooded with feel good hormones, I walked around in a state of euphoria. I went ice skating at the local rink and as I sped along, going faster, making large, graceful circles, my body leaning into the curves, I was thinking—nothing. I’d been taken over by the pleasures of the physical. For once my analytical brain was quiet and just along for the ride.
That is until the second month when morning sickness kicked in. Nobody tells the uninitiated that “morning” sickness can last from one morning to the next. If I made a list of everything that was objectively wrong in my life: failed marriage, about to get an abortion, about to drop out of grad school, no means of supporting myself once I do, a completely unplanned future, and yet—I am joyous. Nausea and joy, and my witnessing mind, all connected together in one big integrated state of feeling alive.
The Planned Parenthood clinic in Indianapolis was bright and welcoming. I felt embraced by a family of smart, compassionate women. I was so grateful that I didn’t have to fear quacks that would take my money and leave me for dead. I didn’t have to have a child that I couldn’t afford and didn’t want.
I was offered a mild tranquilizer, and I sat in the waiting room with a friend who distracted me with her chatter until my name was called. I entered a typical gynecologist’s office with an examining table with stirrups. The tranquilizer was helping, but I was still nervous. Even going to the dentist for a cleaning made me feel tense and out of control.
I was introduced to a lovely, middle-aged woman with a nimbus of red hair. She said she would be there the whole time with me. She gently took my hand.
“Squeeze it as hard as you need to. Don’t worry about hurting me.” She gave me a warm, motherly smile while I looked up at her, my feet in the stirrups. I felt inexpressibly comforted.
The procedure was performed without any painkillers. I later learned from other women that their abortions, with the help of drugs, had been pain free. Why wasn’t mine? What I experienced was excruciating. This will never stop and I’ll die from my womb being sucked out of me. I squeezed this woman’s hand so hard that I must have been breaking bones, and I was screaming. But then, just as suddenly as the pain started, it stopped. Helped off the table, I felt like I was going to faint. But I didn’t. I was ushered into a recovery room and given a glass of orange juice. I was told to wear a pad and to expect cramping and bleeding for a few days, like I was having my period. Nothing to be alarmed about; it was normal.
I was in a mild state of shock and I don’t remember the drive back. I just remembered that I slept, and for a few days I felt completely exhausted. And my hormones went nuts. What happened? Where’s the baby? And so I cried. Not because I regretted what I did. I cried because all the happy hormones suddenly left. I never felt like I had removed a baby from my body. I had removed a collection of cells. My tears were not connected to remorse, or guilt, they were connected to the fact that I’d just gone cold turkey off my own internal drugs.
For the next month or two being alive was so intense. There was no filter between what I experienced and what I felt. I cried when moved, but then could laugh in the next moment at something I thought was hilarious. This wasn’t hysteria. I was just being present. I didn’t feel like my mind was constantly analyzing and distancing me from every emotional moment. It was heady, and I felt grateful for everything—the right to leave my marriage, the right to make mistakes with handsome men, and the right to be child-free and determine my future.
And now I live in Tennessee in a state that has made abortion illegal—again. It’s surreal to come full circle in my lifetime where the “Right to Choose” has been rescinded and women are made vulnerable, and will be harmed, and even die.
Once more, I’m feeling things intensely, only this chemical bath isn’t caused by hormones. I’m filled with rage and despair as my blinking mind tries to make sense of how one half of my species can be so dangerously privileged over the other.