My mother doesn't hide the fact that she had an abortion, but she also does not talk about it freely or with ease. I did not find out that she had an abortion until I was in my mid-20s. Asking her for permission to include her experience in this story was one of the more difficult conversations I've had with her in recent years, but I wanted to, because this conversation has become important to me, a fact I'll explain later.
The story goes like this: A year and a half after my mother and father welcomed my sister into the world, my mother found herself pregnant for the second time. Early in the pregnancy there were complications that put the health of the fetus and my mother at risk. After careful and difficult deliberation my mother and father chose to end the pregnancy. No one was happy about the choice, it was not approached in a cavalier fashion, but my mother and father decided it was the safest course of action, and the one that was in the best interest of the entire family.
A year later my mother was pregnant with me. In a weird way, I owe my life to an abortion. Not that I ever saw it that way, or gave it much thought at all. Strangely, the idea only occurred to me as I watched last year's Super Bowl, as Tim Tebow appeared in a pro-life ad to talk about how he owed his life to his mother not having an abortion. I thought: I am the Bizarro World Tim Tebow.
I grew up in idyllic '80s and '90s suburban Philadelphia, not giving a single thought to issues of women's health or reproductive rights, aside from the occasional unwelcome intrusion from my older sister (she's sorta into that kinda stuff). I spent a good deal of my high school thinking about females, but again, not very much of that thought had anything to do with actual reproduction. And because I was insecure, and handsy, and immature, I spent my high school years listening to my sexually active guy friends discussing their conquests and telling the occasional joke about how they had to go get "the swab" at the clinic. I was left to self-medicate with copious amounts of booze and ganja, both of which I would have gladly traded for the opportunity to need "the swab."
At 18, toward the end of my first year in college, my outlook changed dramatically. My girlfriend was a close friend, a few years older than me, and we started a physical relationship after I graduated high school. She was kind, and sensitive, and caring. I was self-involved, self-loathing and self-destructive, and while there wasn't a lot of room for much else in my life, I loved her with all the space that was available to me at the time.
She had battled health issues for most of her life, and growing up she had spent a great deal of time in the company of doctors. From an early age those doctors made it clear she would be unable to have children. So we were careless and stupid, although, truth be told, we probably would have been careless and stupid anyway. I got her pregnant, or she got pregnant, or we got her pregnant.
She was in her senior year at a college in a different city and she couldn't get ahold of me. I wasn't great about checking messages. It seems amazing that I once lived in a world where you could reasonably expect not to get ahold of someone for more than a week.
When she finally tracked me down she told me she had been pregnant and had gotten an abortion all in the same breath. The conversation was amazingly short. I reacted with all the petulance and anger of the messed-up child I was. I suddenly had a perfect excuse to remove whatever room I had made for anyone else in my life and make my self-absorption complete. This culminated in my dropping out of school and retreating to the safety of my sister's apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y., where I spent the following year hiding out.
With some distance, I see that how I responded to the news was Exhibit A for why I wasn't even close to being ready to take on the responsibility of a child. Exhibit B, C and D were that I was stoned and drunk out of my head all the time in those days. I was a wreck before the abortion, and I was wreck after she broke the news.
Not until years later, when I had dried out a little and grown up a lot, did I ever consider how difficult it must have been for her, or how terrible she must have felt about her own life and where she was; to give up what, to the best of her knowledge, could have been her only opportunity to have a child. It must have crushed her. It did crush her, I think, for a time. I would see her sporadically over the next several years, and from afar she seemed to be mirroring my path of self-punishment.
When I called her for permission to write this story, we had another short and difficult conversation, one that was 15 years in the making. She gave me her blessing and made two requests; the first was not to identify her, the second was that I make it clear that nothing about this choice was easy, or done without hurt, but that ultimately she still believes she made the right choice. Then she told me something that I hadn't given her the time to tell me 15 years ago; she had asked to see the sonogram before she had the abortion.
"I could see all the options in front of me and I knew where they would end, I couldn't bear to be pregnant one more day, it hurt too much."
Fifteen years later and half our conversation still consisted of trying to apologize to one another.
None of these choices are made easily, or without hurt.
Until recently, my family never knew any of this. I repressed it, even when I heard about my mother's abortion. I didn't want her to know I understood something about what she was talking about. So when I see my guy friends -- who are more than happy to wax philosophically for hours about the "conditions on the ground" in Libya and Bahrain (admittedly important), but who make nary a mention of issues that might directly and immediately impact them -- I wonder if their careful avoidance isn't born of a similar kind of embarrassment. I think this may be one of the reasons so many men have trouble talking about this issue. For me, it represents my low point as a human being and as a man: I was a failure, I couldn't take care of myself let alone a child, I couldn't provide for myself, or a wife, or family. My weakness and carelessness resulted in people hurting. I was not a man, I was something so much less than that. Why would anyone ever want to talk about something like that? I recognize that not every man out there has found himself in my situation specifically. I've been told a lot of pro-choice guys don't talk about "women's issues" for fear of saying the wrong thing. All I know is: We're not talking -- as if it doesn't have to do with us, as if it's "their" problem, not ours.
Half a country away and a few years earlier than the story of my college girlfriend, my wife was 18. She had been with her college boyfriend for about a year when she went to Planned Parenthood for her first gynecological exam. She had decided that she was about to start having sex. She had decided that she did not feel comfortable going to her parents with her decision (which I imagine is not an uncommon feeling among most humans. I wonder how many of us who don't live in an '80s sitcom have heart-to-hearts with our parents before we lose our virginity). But she felt she was ready for a physical relationship and she wanted to be as responsible about sex as possible.
Planned Parenthood gave her the ability to take personal responsibility for her body and her future. It also helped keep her safe and healthy at a point in most people's lives when those concerns are not yet a priority. That first visit to Planned Parenthood gave my wife a foundation of responsibility for her sexual health on which she ultimately built a future that included a husband (me) and two amazing children.
I owe Planned Parenthood an unqualified debt of gratitude.
I've quietly watched the debate around reproductive rights and women's health for most of my adult life and, frankly, most of it seems very foreign to me. It is spoken about in such simplistic ways. I don't understand how people can throw around the word "murder" and talk about taking lives. By the same token, I don't understand how some people can be so unconflicted about being pro-choice. Having experienced the second guessing, the what ifs, the sense of failure and the guilt, I don't find anything simple or unconflicted about it.
But mostly, I don't understand how these issues are still simply referred to as "women's issues." The destinies of men and women are intertwined by sex, and pregnancy, and childbirth. It is time for more men to sack up and start taking responsibility for their end of the conversation.
These "women's issues" have shaped my life: my birth, my adulthood and the children for which I am forever grateful. So yes, I support women's health programs and a woman's right to choose.
Even though I know that none of these choices are made easily or without hurt.