One by one, red states launch their offensives. As of this week, with the passage of Alabama’s and Missouri’s legislation effectively banning abortion even in the case of rape or incest, the tide of the the current war is turning. It’s surging in favor of those who are convinced that compulsory pregnancy is a better option than letting women decide what happens to their own bodies and lives.
I’m old enough to remember the years before Roe v. Wade. I easily recall the terror my friends and I shared at the prospect of unwanted pregnancy. No doubt there are those who think that was a good thing, a force that promoted our virtue.
Did our terror keep us on the straight and narrow? As much as we feared winding up “in trouble,” we were also caught in the quandary of all women in an era of traditional, still-unquestioned sexual roles. Our emotional and social currency hinged on our acceptance and approval by men. We knew in our bones that if boys didn’t want us, we amounted to nothing. And if they did want us, we were in danger. It was up to us to learn the steps of an impossible dance, that of keeping a boy happy without giving it up — “it” being virginity. We didn’t see virginity as a virtue so much as our one link to safety. “Keep the V,” my girlfriends and I would say to each other when the weekend was coming up and one of us was facing a high-pressure date.
Never mind our own awakening desires. Those wouldn’t be up for discussion for at least a decade.
The frail link to safety could easily be broken, literally, through coercion, accident or simple ignorance. And then we were left playing Russian roulette, a game rigged by our youthful fecundity. When I was a freshman in high school, the head cheerleader and the football captain had to get married. He finished his senior year. She left school to have the baby and we never saw her again. There were other girls who were sent off to the institutions created to swallow up unwed mothers, girls whose fates became a topic of whispered gossip, whose futures were forgotten.
I never personally knew anybody that tried to “get rid of it” either on their own or through a back-alley operation. But we all heard the stories.
It was as it had been for generations. My mother told me a cautionary tale from her own adolescence. There was a cousin of hers, an older girl, whose disgrace had come to light when she tried to end her pregnancy by drinking turpentine. In small-town, depression-era Iowa, shame rippled through the extended family and splashed through the town. The boy, the “guilty party” as my mother put it, was brought to the girl’s house where the town fathers conducted a deathbed wedding. The girl died soon afterwards, in agony but with her family’s honor at least acknowledged, if not restored. The boy, said my mother in tones of wistful resentment, went on and lived his life.
I was the youngest of three sisters, all of us born years apart. Between my middle sister and me there was a miscarriage. The worst part, my mother told me, wasn’t lying in the Catholic hospital, weak and bleeding, worrying about her girls at home and waiting for my father to return from a business trip, although all of that was bad enough. The worst part was the heavy load of unspoken blame and suspicion she sensed from the nurses. Until her husband arrived to lend legitimacy to the event, she said, “they weren’t sure I hadn’t done that to myself.”
My childbearing years, my own danger zone, is behind me now. It lasted a long time. I was ten years old when I had my first menstrual period, and 56 when I crossed the final threshold of menopause. According to those on the other side of the abortion divide, now in the ascendent, it was up to me to perfectly govern my fertility, every month for 46 years. The consequences of any slip-ups would be mine to bear, literally, for the rest of my life.
But I came of age when Roe v. Wade was new, just as the Pill arrived on the scene. We heralded the dawn of a new era. Our freedom, our responsibility, our dignity, and our sovereignty over our own lives had at last been recognized.
We were sure the helplessness and terror had come to an end. We had won the right to make our own choices about what would have more impact on our lives, our partners’ lives, our other children’s lives, than anything else.
Today I am thinking about the teen girls I work with, emerging into a world where the rules are quickly stacking against them, where the gains their mothers and grandmothers fought for are being hacked out from under them. I think about my grandnieces and the doors that threaten to shut on their lives.
That is hard enough to think about. Harder still is to imagine the children born of the unwilling mothers, an inevitable result of the current campaign to overturn Roe v. Wade.
If we lose the war this time, they will be the most heartbreaking casualties.