BY D. ROSSI
I had an abortion some 16 ½ years ago. The climate was very different then: the anti-abortion movement was more fringe and radical, with less mainstream proselytizing, even here in Indiana. The protesters at the clinic numbered in the single digits, and they were confined to an area behind a chain-link fence that stood the entire building’s length from the patient parking lot and entrance. Their chant was audible, but not enough for me to make out the words.
Finding a provider in the yellow pages wasn’t easy: none advertised “abortion.” I figured Planned Parenthood was probably an option, but wasn’t it intended for poor women? With a little extra expense, I reasoned, I could have a better facility, a better doctor, a better experience. That’s the approach I took when I needed to have my gallbladder removed; why should this procedure be different?
It was after a few indignant, outraged hang-ups that my education began.
I ended up making an appointment with the Planned Parenthood on the far east side, in an industrial area composed mostly of warehouses. It was located only 15 minutes from my home — a benefit I can fully appreciate only now that I know the distances some women must travel.
I was among seven or eight women whose appointments were all at the same time, which we didn’t realize until after we had disrobed individually in a tiny bathroom and were then shepherded one by one into a bare, cold room with two hard benches facing each other. There we shivered in our cheap paper gowns, struggling to retain a modicum of decency, most of us with scruffy white bath towels wrapped tightly around our midsections. I felt a strong pang of sympathy for the obese woman across from me, whose gown covered only the front of her body, leaving her entire back exposed. The bath towel barely covered her buttocks. She sat stoically, with as much dignity as she could muster.
I was trying hard not to notice anyone, trying to respect their privacy in a way that this clinic made impossible, keeping my eyes cast toward the concrete floor. But every time the door opened, all of our eyes would automatically go there, hoping it was our turn to get this thing over with. Each time, we’d be greeted by yet another woman in a gown, her surprised eyes meeting ours, and we would immediately look away.
We represented multiple races (white, black, Hispanic) and ranged in age from mid-20s to late 30s or early 40s. I recognized one woman from the main waiting room, where she had been accompanied by another woman (a sister, probably) and three children under the age of 10 whose behavior made it clear she was their mother. She had an air of fatigue and resignation about her, and I would not have been surprised if she was a decade younger than I assumed. Another woman I couldn’t help but recognize from the waiting room, the youngest among us, had been sitting very close by a young man, their heads bowed and touching, their hands clasped tightly, he whispering to her in a reassuring tone.
Finally, a nurse opened the door and called for one of us to accompany her. It seemed like forever before she was back, calling out another name.
When it was my turn, she led me to the procedure room. Her manner was as cold as the gray slab she told me to lay upon before leaving the room. I inserted my legs into the stirrups and waited a much shorter time than is typical for doctors. He entered the room swiftly with the nurse and immediately sat down on the stool facing my vagina, without so much as a glance at my face. Very quickly, I felt cold metal entering me, followed by the sharpest pain I’ve felt in my life. Instinctively, my body jerked, and I let out an involuntary cry. Angrily, he chastised me: “You move like that during the procedure, and there will be permanent damage!” Petrified, I willed my body and my vocal chords to be still.
I remember almost nothing from that point on. A friend was waiting for me and helped me to the car. I’m not sure I spoke a single word on the drive home.
The physical pain would fade. The emotional assault would leave a permanent scar.
Having grown up in a middle-class neighborhood, graduated college, and held well-paying jobs, I had never before experienced this level of degradation. It dawned on me that this must be how disenfranchised women — be it for reasons of poverty, race, or immigration status — are treated all the time. On this day, I realized for the first time that I am a member of that downtrodden club. I realized that I am a woman first and a human being a distant second in the eyes of society.
Now, nearly 17 years of life experience later, I see clearly how superficial are the strides made by women in the past century. They provide but a thin veneer of respect and equality that pregnancy quickly strips away, exposing the ugly truth. Women the world over, from the first world to the third, are in a special class of their own, at the bottom of any caste system:
We are the breeder class.
For some women, this truth is nearly imperceptible, but it’s the truth all the same. How else to explain the treatment women continue to receive?
In the US and probably elsewhere, just about any woman who has ever been visibly pregnant will attest that the personal-space boundaries afforded her prior to pregnancy are trampled by complete strangers seeking to touch her belly (some simply reaching out and doing so without so much as a token request for permission).
How to explain this phenomenon other than accepting that In our collective subconscious, we identify her as a breeder, whose uterus now belongs to us?
Breeder treatment extends to non-pregnant but fertile women in the form of withholding contraception. Increasingly, pharmacists insist upon their right to practice their religious beliefs and deny women’s prescribed contraception. (Protesters of Indiana’s infamous Religious Freedom Restoration Act have focused on its potential protection for anti-gay behavior, but it can be used just as easily to allow the moralizing pharmacist’s anti-woman actions.)
This demeaning treatment can only be explained by the need to ensure that we women know our place in society: breeders.
Even people who believe that women have as much intellectual capacity as men and can do the same jobs as men share in behavior that keeps women in their place. I ask again: how to explain this phenomenon other than acknowledging the collective subconscious’s belief in a sub-class for women?
They will tell you that it’s all about “saving the children.” They will tell you that “life is sacred.” They demand that we “choose life!” Prevent an abortion (by murdering abortion providers, if necessary), and pat yourself on the back. A job well done!
And the job is done, as far as they’re concerned. But what about life after birth? At what point in their calculus does a birthed human’s life become less important than the life of a fetus? When a ten-year-old girl is forced to carry to term the spawn of her child-molesting stepfather or neighbor or male caretaker (a Google search spills out example after horrifying example), the message cannot be more clear: the unborn life is the only life they care about.
It appears obvious that the “save the children” rhetoric isn’t really about saving children, and “choose life” isn’t really about life at all.
It’s really about ensuring that females are kept in their place.
Why is this so? I have no idea. I can’t explain why a father in some cultures will sell his daughter into marriage, why an entire family will stone a daughter or sister to death for having her own will about the man she wants to be with (or is simply accused of having been in the company of a man). I can’t explain why otherwise privacy-respecting Americans believe that a pregnant belly belongs to the world and is in their right to touch and control, and freedom-loving Americans believe that a woman loses the right to decide her own fate when she becomes pregnant.
Sixteen and a half years ago, I faced a very difficult decision. That it was ultimately my decision to make was something I never doubted. It did not even occur to me to doubt it. The father agreed; I was an adult, not a minor; and whatever I chose to do was legal. Why would anyone else have a right or even a reason to weigh in?
And why — 25 years after Roe v. Wade — was I treated more like a criminal than a patient in my abortion experience?
The reasons behind my decision are not particularly relevant to the point I’m making. However, in the interest of reinforcing the fact that many valid reasons exist for a woman to seek an abortion, this is my story:
Six months prior to my unexpectedly becoming pregnant, I had attempted suicide, the culmination of a severe depressive condition I’d suffered since puberty. Over the course of those six months, I had worked hard to restore my life. My brain’s chemical balance was becoming more stable with antidepressants, and my emotional balance was shaky but improving with therapy. After so many years of questioning my existence and contemplating suicide, I felt that my life was finally on track. The notion of giving up the antidepressants during pregnancy, and even more so of the hormonal disruption pregnancy and childbirth would cause me, was terrifying. I was an excellent candidate for severe postpartum depression; would I end up in the kind of dark place that results in killing the baby and myself? I did not want to find out. I chose life — just not the way the “Choose Life”-ers intended.
I have never once regretted or second-guessed my decision. It was the right thing for me to do, and I was fortunate enough not to have been bullied into changing it.
I don’t place blame on Planned Parenthood for making my experience more of a punishment than a medical procedure. In most (all?) areas, they’re the only ones providing this service, and the staff they hire can only be as good as their very small candidate pool.
We live in a time where a legal medical procedure is hotly contested for political and ideological reasons and women are bombarded with the message that abortion is a crime against nature, if not (yet) a legal crime. Small wonder that the infrastructure around abortion is not as advanced as it is for, say, gallbladder removal.
To the conservatives in this country, the advent of the pill and the Roe v. Wade verdict were blips in the system, and we are now closer than ever to restoring the true and proper order.
I read somewhere that reactionaries regain power when the force of social change is too frightening for the “silent majority” and makes them want to return to the safety of the past, the good old days. But when the pendulum later swings from extreme conservatism back to moderation, the “middle” is typically a little more liberal and accepting than it was before.
I can only hope that with the next swing of the pendulum, the idea that women should have full control over their own bodies will be a little less radical and a lot less dangerous than it is now.
D. Rossi worked in the corporate software development sector for 20 years as a writer, editor, analyst, and product manager before striking out on her own as a writer-at-large earlier this year. She maintains a blog called Life among the Humans at http://drossi-citizen.blogspot.com/.