Is it my fault?

My girlfriend had an abortion without my knowledge and it's tearing us apart.

Published January 6, 2003 8:10PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm sitting here numbed by shock. My girlfriend of two years has just told me that she had an abortion a couple of months ago without my knowledge, and her feelings of hurt, anger, loss and sin are tearing her (and us) apart.

Background: We are in a long-distance relationship. She is in a nearby Southeast Asian country where abortion is illegal. I went to see her in May for a month, and in the passion of the moment we made a fatal mistake and used the pullout method. Fast-forward four months later, and I visit her again for three weeks. She is withdrawn, doesn't enjoy sex (with a condom this time), won't tell me what is wrong. I grow angry at her for being so distant, and it's a miserable time all around.

Now jump to the grim present. She is supposed to visit me for two months, but as the time approaches for her to come, she grows increasingly hard to contact, distant on the phone, evasive. I suspect another guy. I suspect maybe she doesn't love me anymore. I suspect she doesn't want to come. I suspect everything but the truth: Tonight she told me in an e-mail (she didn't trust her emotions to tell me over the phone; she said she'd e-mail what was bothering her) that a week before our last meeting, she had just had an abortion. She went to an illegal clinic. They aborted the fetus. She looked down at its tiny first-trimester body. She said the baby smiled at her before dying, gasping on the table (it is irrelevant if a first trimester fetus is able to do any of that -- she saw the fetus, and that is what she feels she saw the child do). She gave the baby a name.

I've always been strongly pro-choice, but it has been an abstract issue for me until now. When I hear her story I want to rip out my hair in impotent rage. For me to even imagine what she went through. I am not upset that she chose to get the abortion per se (though I am wounded by her secrecy), but when I heard her story of what happened, I felt part and parcel to a monstrous sin, and I now feel like I inflicted so much suffering on her that I can't even stand to look at myself in the mirror.

As for her mental state, she is torn, both about the abortion and about how she now perceives me. I was an unknowing yet all too responsible agent in what happened to her. She is haunted daily by regret, feelings of sin, her heart torn asunder by what she witnessed and the choice she made. She hates herself deeply and would do anything to turn back the clock and undo the abortion. She made the choice, she tells me, because she knows I'm not at the point where I'm willing to think about marriage. So now I too am obsessed by feelings of shame, hurt, self-hatred -- I am the agent of her pain, and the product of my love will now be a stain on her soul that will follow her forever.

I want to comfort her, to help her somehow, some way, but I feel paralyzed -- since I was the one that brought so much pain on her, what can I do or say? I feel like even being around me will remind her of that awful day. She still wants to visit, but now she is asking that I marry her. I told her I can't, that our relationship isn't to that point where we could realistically talk about marriage. I feel to get married now simply to atone for what has happened will only lead to disaster in the future. She also says that if I'm not willing to marry her, she is still willing to be involved with me, but we won't have sex anymore because even with protection she doesn't want to open herself up to getting pregnant again (a stand I can understand, as much as a man can understand the trauma an abortion must cause, and a stand I accept and can live with).

My question to you is how do I try to heal the wound that this abortion has caused? Part of me says the best thing I can do is to vanish from her life so she won't be reminded of me and our unborn child. Another part of me tells me to marry her, to try to make up for what happened. Another part of me says that both are wild extremes, and that we should somehow try to grow past this event as a couple and see if there is a future for us together.

Ideally we would go to counseling together, but her English isn't that good (I am fluent in her tongue), so that rules out much help while she is visiting me. And the stigma of abortion and premarital sex is so great that she would never be willing to open up her secret to a counselor in her own country.

Any perspective or advice would be a godsend.

Guilty and Anguished

Dear Guilty and Anguished,

Your unenviable predicament was discussed at length over a dinner of roast goose, sweet and sour cabbage, green beans with toasted walnuts, and mashed potatoes in a goose gravy whose preparation required the patient reduction of two cups of a good merlot to a fragrant, unearthly nectar; the discussion continued straight through to the homemade coffee ice cream and remarkable little sugar-coated butter cookies. Opinions ran the gamut. The one thing everyone seemed to be sure of was that the guilt you feel is misplaced. You have done nothing wrong.

Your problem lies in your belief that you are "an unknowing yet all too responsible agent in what happened to her." You need to understand that you cannot be both unknowing and responsible. Responsibility requires knowledge. Since you didn't know, you are not responsible.

What you are is implicated or involved, but not responsible. Now, one might argue that had you not become involved with this woman, this never would have happened. And of course that is true. But it does not mean that you caused this, nor that you could have prevented it. She did this without your knowledge. She is responsible.

Surely it's only human to feel something -- regret, remorse -- when we do something innocent and bad things happen as a result. Say you invite your lover to meet you at the movies and on the way she is run down by a train. If you hadn't invited her, perhaps she would be alive today. And yet there was nothing sinister in your invitation, was there? Do you then search your mind for some evil intent? But how could you even have caused the train to run her over even if you had wanted it to? Could there be some psychic connection between some fleeting angry thought and this result? It's natural to feel complicity in her fate, because of your intimate connection. But your emotion must be tempered by an understanding of how limited your role is, and how limited is your power. If you feel that having sex with her was wrong, that's another thing. But my assumption is that you two felt OK about having sex -- that this was a technical failure, not a moral failure.

And then you must turn to the question of what to do. Don't abandon her. But don't marry her. At least not yet. As you say, "to get married now simply to atone for what has happened will only lead to disaster in the future." Be patient and loving. Give it some time. Maybe the two of you can find a way through this.

By Cary Tennis

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