Thursday, May 09, 2019


The news of the "heartbeat" abortion bill in Georgia filled me with a peculiar sense of rage. Peculiar because it felt more like sadness. Sometimes it's easier to shiver in the cold than keep a fire going. I don't know if there's a point to writing another abortion essay. Others have done it more skillfully and with more personal stories, yet here I am, remembering something a high school teacher said once, that "some issues, like abortion, are so personal and contentious you'll never change anybody's mind."

If you're reading this, you probably agree with me. I'm writing anyway because to demand an ear for my feelings as an adult woman feels like a small way to resist the notion that these feelings are trivial, secondary to serious, manly, discuss-over-steak-and-cigars-type issues, like The Economy.

Fuck the economy. I know people's fates rise and fall on those green lines shooting across CNBC screens like EKGs, but but there will always be another day for writing a hot take on finance capital. Focusing solely on economic issues at the cost of reproductive justice is a smoke and mirrors show that distracts from the denial of bodily autonomy as a threat to our equality. That's why it bothers me so much when progressive men dismiss abortion as a "women's issue," or say the problem with the Democratic Party is that we've failed to widen our tent by sticking to our guns on reproductive justice.

Next time someone says that I will ask, Do you think I'm a person? 

I'm one of the lucky ones. I haven't ever needed an abortion, and I've had access to inexpensive contraception. In college I got a small piece of plastic shoved into my uterus in an outpatient procedure widely described as "blindingly painful." They told me to take two ibuprofen pills. I lay back stiffly on crinkled paper, gripped my partner's hand, stared at the white light above my head, and took jagged breaths. It was searing for three seconds, my whole body transfixed with the wrongness of having something pushed in that place, and then it was done. The nurse practitioner left me with a maxi-pad and a juicebox. The second time, I was about to graduate and keen, after Trump's election, to get an IUD that would last 5 years. Bracing for it made it hurt less; later I nursed a crust of bread while curled up on the carpet groaning, and then I played a bad game of squash. It didn't matter; I felt victorious. The IUD has a 99% effectiveness rate. It is the gold standard of contraception. It could have hurt worse and I would have done it again. This was worth it to avoid pregnancy.

I asked for an IUD because of the effectiveness rate, but also because I wanted this physical investiture of my reproductive self-determination somewhere nobody could touch it. It provides me some comfort when I think about rape. I think about rape every day. That sounds terrible but feels ordinary. There were all those crime report printouts in my freshman year dorm lobby: "Sexual Assault at Fraternity," "Sexual Assault at Dormitory," "Groping At Student Union." The specter of latent violence has perched on my shoulder since I was three, when my mother taught me both my address if I got lost and to scream if someone tried to kidnap me. Later: "Let them rape you if they'll kill you otherwise, because the only thing you can't undo is death." There is no undoing rape, either, but our society is very good at letting silence masquerade as reversal. Better to be raped and alive than un-raped and dead. Women have thrown themselves into wells en masse over a different equation being drummed into their heads. It's about to be Mother's Day; should I tell my mom that this is the advice she's given me for which I am most grateful?

The hypothetical rapes play in my head, briefly and matter-of-factly, like natural disaster drills. Just as I don't vividly imagine the earthquake or the fire, only the before and the after, I mostly think about who to call after getting to the hospital and medical care (e.g., a rape kit that will probably go untested, prophylaxis against HIV). I wonder if it would be someone I know (3 out of 4 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim), and if so, if I would report. I worry much, much less about pregnancy, because of the IUD.

In this sense, I am lucky: I get to think about rape separate from pregnancy. It may be the closest I will ever get to feeling like a man. I wonder what it must be like to have your identity forged outside of constant reminders of your own violability. To walk down a dark street and think, maybe, about someone mugging you but not someone hurting you inside of yourself. I think of both things when a car drives too slowly beside me on the street. There's not much I can say about that except that it makes me feel small.

I was 15 when I started having sex. Too young to buy Plan B when a condom broke: where I lived, you needed a prescription if you were under 17. It would have been an awkward conversation with liberal parents (even then, I would have been luckier than most) and a last-minute doctor's appointment, but my then-partner was old enough. What a classic high school scene: a dark bend in a rural road, a backseat cacophony of "Wait, shit, shit, shit," driving in silence to a pharmacy and waiting in the passenger seat. Hands folded in my lap, I watched him out the window, Nikes tap-tapping on the asphalt of the parking lot until he was a drop of ink between automatic doors that slid open and let light pour out like water. When he came back I took the pill, and then I thanked him for not charging me.

So much could have gone wrong. I could have been with someone abusive; women are less likely to use contraception in violent relationships (Pacific Standard), often because their partners see reproductive health as an arena to exert control. I could have had parents who stigmatized sexuality, threatened punishment, and blocked my access to healthcare. I could have thrown up after taking the pills, too soon for them to take effect. Instead, I got a period that lasted two weeks. I went to the farmer's market and wrestling practice and stared down my AP Psych teacher's inspirational poster of Steve Prefontaine in a last-ditch effort to try not to fall asleep in class. Every one of those mundane moments a gift.

That's what choice is about: having the reins of your life in your hands. But I didn't. I was just lucky. And luck is not good enough when we live in a country where it's unevenly distributed. Not everyone has the means to fly to another state for an abortion (and if that's prosecuted, even rich folks are screwed). We talk about rape when we talk about abortion, comforting ourselves with the idea that maybe the restrictions are not so horrible: "Exceptions in case of rape or incest." But we know even that line is a movable one. Remember Missouri's Todd Akin: "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." With the intense stigma surrounding coming forward about sexual assault, plus behavior by police that can further victimize survivors, many people may not have their assaults documented as "legitimate." Subsequently, they'd be denied access to abortions.

We cannot pass laws that make every person with a uterus as helpless as that 15-year-old girl I once was, waiting at the window for him to come running with a pill.

It's not an accident that I'm thinking back to 15 now in such clarity. Restrictions on reproductive choice anywhere make me feel small. To the politicians who seek to control us: know that I am already scared enough. Know that living under the cloud of the constant possibility of sexual violence is like having a low-grade fever you can never cure. We give up so much, trying to wend routes around this shifting threat we can't contain: staying in at night, developing elaborate sets of precautions, leaning on safety in numbers at the cost of time spent blissfully alone.

Forced pregnancy is yet another violation of bodily autonomy that sows terror and limits our lives.

If you would protest in the streets about state-sponsored violence in the form of bullets, protest state-sponsored violence that seizes a person's womb and locks their hands behind their back. Across the United States, there are legislative proposals to effectively ban abortions. It's on all of us to fight for a day when this is the "land of the free and the home of the brave" for people with uteruses, too, liberated from the shadow of fear that our bodies are not our own.



Guttmacher Institute
Planned Parenthood
More listed on Wikipedia: "Pro-choice organizations in the United States"
If you're at Berkeley: Students United for Reproductive Justice


Post a Comment