Last week's leak of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion on Roe v Wade took me back more than four decades, when, in the space of six months, I had two abortions. I hope my story will help people understand the right to an abortion isn't only a political or moral issue, but also one of kindness. After a day for honoring mothers, it's also important to honor those who had the courage to decide not to be mothers.
In 1976, I was 25, living in Vancouver, Canada, and in love with my then boyfriend, the man who has now been my husband for 44 years. The October afternoon I discovered I was pregnant, I asked myself if I should follow my body, if I was meant to have a baby. I knew intuitively the answer was no. I called Barry from the doctor's office to tell him and he picked me up. As I waited for him, I had no ambivalence; I'd get an abortion.
At the time, we were in no position to assume the responsibilities of raising a child. Barry was in the middle of protracted and messy divorce proceedings with his first wife. With 5-year-old twin daughters, who in later years I would grow to love deeply, he was working overtime to handle alimony and child support payments. Our relationship was still young and fragile, freighted with enough challenges without the complexity of another child. Marriage, three years in our future, was nowhere in sight then, and it didn't occur to me to raise a kid on my own. Single motherhood by choice was still rare at that time.
I got pregnant because my IUD failed, through no fault of its own. I must have known it had an expiration date (they typically last between three and 10 years) but I didn't know when it passed. Ever since, Barry has deeply regretted not paying more attention and asking about its expiration date. But I don't remember any doctor asking me about my IUD's lifespan, either, and there was no internet back then. We felt deceptively safe.
My abortion was not my only challenge during that period. Around the time I found out I was pregnant, my mother, a young 53, entered the hospital for undiagnosed pain, which turned out to be advanced pancreatic cancer. She died three weeks after my abortion. I remember weeping on the phone with Barry a day later. "What is it?" he asked sympathetically. "Are you crying because of the abortion?'
"No," I said, between sobs. "I'm crying because Daddy just called and told me Mother has terminal cancer."
Not long after her memorial service, in a strange juxtaposition of events, I made an appointment for a diaphragm. Convenient though the IUD was, I had heard too many scary stories about women experiencing complications with the devices.
The following spring, I was devastated to learn I was pregnant again. This time, it was because the diaphragm wasn't the right fit, as my uterus hadn't fully returned to its pre-pregnancy state. Though I can't understand how my gynecologist didn't know this, I still hold myself responsible. The diaphragm itself hadn't failed, as it did in my mother's case; my younger brother was a diaphragm baby.
At this point, my relationship with Barry was even more complicated. I had already decided to return to the U.S. to be closer to my family after Mother's death and Barry wasn't joining me. Even if he had wanted to make such a huge move, he couldn't, lacking a green card, and paying alimony and child support. We were still committed to each other but our future at that moment was uncertain.
Embarrassed as I was about my second abortion (one was bad enough, but two?), I was still more open about it 45 years ago than recently. At 70, I have to keep reminding myself that there's nothing wrong with the fact that I had them — and nothing wrong with saying I had them. Insidiously, without realizing it, I've been censoring myself.
Why? Have I internalized the shame fed by our current politics? Shame and silence are like siblings: They don't share the exact DNA but they're part of the same family. In our cultural conversation, abortion has been increasingly treated like a crime, even when perfectly legal.
I was trying to be responsible and most of the time I was, but I wasn't perfect. Clearly, neither of my abortions was a form of birth control. Am I not allowed to make an honest mistake without potentially tragic, lifelong consequences to myself, to Barry and to the future baby we chose not to have? Had I been forced to give birth, I'm not sure our relationship would have survived, so any child I had might well have grown up with a single mother (a status widely accepted now but certainly not in 1976) and worse, with a mom who didn't want them.
Not everyone is fit to be a parent and, at 25, I don't think I would have made a good mother. It's all very well to want to protect the life of what conservatives call "the unborn child" (even though most abortions are of embryos) but what about the quality of that life?
I'm a human being who made mistakes, as are other women who get pregnant accidentally. Even without guilt and shame, having an abortion is no joke. We who choose that option can feel confused and conflicted already by the emotional, hormonal, logistical and financial mess we're in. Even in the best of circumstances, when we can afford a safe and legal abortion and our families support us, it's a tough time. To me, looking back on my own history, denying women the option to terminate a pregnancy and legislation aimed at prosecuting ones who do is harsh, punitive, mean-spirited and unforgiving.
We deserve kindness, not retribution.
Louisa Rogers (she/her) is a leadership coach and writer who lives in Eureka and Guanajuato, Mexico.