The South Dakota abortion ban and the issue of male reproductive fetal rights suggests we may soon be back into the Wire Coat Hanger debate as a nation. Morality is a personal choice that cannot be legislated from the courthouse or controlled from the pulpit. The abortion issue is, has, and shall always be, a force that rips apart families and pits men against women and governments against its citizens and churches against its believers.
When it comes to that kind of irrevocable change I prefer to turn inward for the intimate enlightening experience. About 18 years ago when I was 18, I dated a “good Catholic girl” who had five sisters and four brothers. Her church and family did not believe in birth control. She was sexually curious and active and the old, awful, chestnut that if you wanted to fool around as a horny young man, you only needed to find a sexually repressed Catholic girl and you each would find a pleasurable release together. I was not her first but she was mine.
I wore a condom during penetration but there were other times playing around naked when, we thought, no sort of protection was necessary. We dated for about a year and then broke up. Three months after the split she was back at my doorstep telling me she thought she was pregnant. I had no idea if I was the responsible party or not but her timeline seemed to mesh when we were supposedly exclusively dating — we broke up because of her infidelity — and I asked her if she had taken a pregnancy test.
She had not taken a test but, she told me, she had been “punching herself in the stomach” for the past month to try to “get rid of the baby.” She could not turn to her parents for help. They would have condemned her to motherhood. Her older sisters were highly religious and would not have helped her except to demand she keep the baby. My mother would not have been interested in helping except to just condemn us and my father was unavailable. I called Planned Parenthood and made an appointment for a pregnancy test the next day. She was pregnant.
The doctors thought she was nearing the end of her first trimester and if she wanted a local abortion in Omaha it had to be done immediately because if she waited even another week that meant it would be a second trimester abortion and we’d have to travel to Kansas City to have, as I remember it, the baby “burned out of her with saline solution in a hospital instead of a doctor’s office.
We left Planned Parenthood in tears with no one to trust or turn to but each other even though we no longer wanted each other. She told me she had her own life she wanted to lead and having a baby would tie her down to the same fate as her mother and father who were forced to marry because of an unplanned pregnancy. We knew we didn’t have a future together and bringing a child into our “forced family” that actually broke up around the time the child was conceived was an inconceivable notion for two frightened, but realistic, 18-year olds.
She refused to tolerate the public shame of nine month pregnancy that would last the rest of her life. She wanted an abortion. I called Omaha and set up an appointment. Two days later we were quietly heading to Omaha. We didn’t speak to each other the entire trip.
When we pulled into the parking lot of the doctors’ office I saw three, gleaming, Mercedes Benz convertibles with doctor license plates parked in a hidden area surrounded by trees. It looked like the abortion business was booming in conservative, Republican, Nebraska. I handed over $550 cash to the receptionist and I waited for the next four hours.
Every move I made — asking for an update, asking for the bathroom key, moving from one couch to another — earned me glares and bent lips from the entirely female medical staff. After the abortion we checked into a hotel to spend the night in case there was excessive bleeding or complications. Two hours after we arrived she decided she wanted to go home and rest there.
The drive back to Lincoln was silent except for a brief two minute conversation when we asked each other if I should drive the car into an overpass abutment and end it all right there so all three of us could die on the same day. We drove on without agreeing on a decision. I dropped her off at her aunt’s house. We stayed in touch by phone for another week. We never discussed the abortion again.
We drifted apart — no longer tethered by a beloved history or by the bleeding sinew of another living being — and we quietly finished our Freshman year in college as everything else in our lives that we had previously experienced offered no cure for the internal ripping of inner beliefs, yearnings and plans for the carefree lives we once led together. Several months after the abortion I was visiting a local natural history museum and one of the displays showed the development of a fetus in all its stages.
I stood there slack-jawed and horrified at the definition and the beauty of a three-month-old fetus. I always wonder how that display found me. I hadn’t gone into the museum looking for that kind of undeniably graphic display of the truth and chemistry of science and creation in action.
While I found that display arresting I also knew we had made the right decision for us. If we had not gone to Omaha that day my life would have been completely different and so would hers. I would never have gone to New York to attend graduate school at Columbia University and she never would have graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with an undergraduate degree in design.
We probably would have married and then lived the next 18 years in muted misery as mistakes and circumstance and not love or respect bound us together in someone else’s idea of “doing the right thing.”
Our births are vested in the autonomy of our own decisions but the vexing matter of getting there is tied to the conundrum of a life finding the light of birth. Knowing where one life ends so another may begin is something that will never be universally understood or publicly decided as one.
I still can’t help wondering when the mist rises in the meadow and the sunlight glimmers along the treetops what it would be like to have an 18-year old entering college at the same age I had to face the consequences of a decision that was never mine but was shared by me just as the body in her half belonged to me but with no hope of ever birthing half a life.