“The bathroom.” In a poll, this would emerge as the most common answer to the question: where were you when you learned you were pregnant? In a bathroom, watching a line of colour darken on a plastic stick. My bathroom was small and square, with a ceramic tile floor, a pedestal sink and, on the wall, a retro soap ad in which a little girl stood next to a wash basin, pinning dolls to a clothesline. I held the stick to the window. It’s a girl, I thought. Maybe she’ll like dolls. This surprised me. I always thought I would wish for a boy. For someone who wasn’t actively trying to become pregnant, I took to the idea of motherhood instantly. Then I went and told my partner the news: the stick had spoken.
It was 2002. I had just turned thirty; Carl was thirty-three. It was our fourth winter in a trendy Ottawa neighbourhood, and our sixth as a couple. Though we weren’t married, we had committed to one another in that spirit: we were in it for the long haul. But we had agreed that we were not ready for children, and had left uncertain the possibility of ever being so.
When the prospect of a real child was put before me, I thought: holy shit. But also: OK, we can do this. Carl concurred—at first. Within days he began doubting his readiness. Discussing the pregnancy stirred up other issues: he was unhappy, or at least uncertain, in our union. There were divisions between us that I hadn’t noticed, or had willfully ignored. As we talked late into the evenings, raising a child together seemed less and less tenable.
In those days, I worked for a museum downtown. I liked to walk the hour in: over the train tracks, through Little Italy, up the hill into Chinatown, then past the National War Memorial, across Major’s Hill Park and into the curatorial wing behind the grand, glass cathedral of art. I was in a fog, functioning under dual shock: my pregnancy, and my suddenly faulty relationship. During those long walks, I carried on a silent, one-way conversation with my tiny companion. Hey, I would say. I’m doing my best for you. I’m doing the best I can.
Carl didn’t think he could do it. In the midst of one of our late-night discussions, he said, “I just don’t want to become that guy who leaves.” That was when I twigged: sooner or later, I would find myself alone with this child. Never mind the future; I would be, in spirit, a single mother, pressing ahead on my own. These were not circumstances under which I felt equipped or willing to proceed. I thought hard, and mulled our options.
Between 1988, when the Supreme Court abolished Canada’s abortion law, and 2005, the last year Statistics Canada compiled data, 1.8 million abortions were performed in this country. In 2005, there were 28.3 abortions for every one hundred babies born—a ratio that has held steady since the early nineties. Put another way, each year since 1992, more than 20 percent of pregnancies (discounting miscarriages) have been aborted. Marital status, education levels or professions aren’t tracked, but we know 30 percent of abortions performed in 2005 were on women over thirty.
My point is that abortion is not rare. The right to choose an abortion may still be up for debate in the minds of many Canadians—one recent poll found that 47 percent believe abortion should be legal only in certain circumstances—but the choice exists nonetheless. It is available to pregnant women as a common course of action, which one in five will take.
For some, the decision of whether to continue or end a pregnancy will be a straightforward one—sometimes grounded in religious conviction, sometimes in basic survival. For others, uncertainty rears. However you define the fetus, there can be no dispute that a pregnant woman contains the early makings of an as-yet-unknown person engaged in slow but steady development. To opt for an abortion is to call a halt to these profound proceedings. What does it mean to turn away this new life? And how is this fundamental question obscured by the way “choice” has been politically cast in the modern debate as a woman’s “right”? The subtext is that the woman is putting herself first, and the general feeling is that she should have a good reason for doing so. But what is a “good reason” in your eyes? In mine? It’s one thing for Henry Morgentaler to assert: “Every child a wanted child. Every mother a willing mother.” It’s another to be lying on the bed beside your partner, staring at the ceiling and trying to talk it through, pee stick in your hand.
So if you have any doubts about how to proceed, as I did, you begin to understand all too clearly the flipside of choice: exercising it can be tough. It is here, wrestling with your own circumstances and feelings, where the more productive and necessary conversation lies.
I had seen many ultrasound images of babies in utero before I saw my own, some held by magnets to friends’ refrigerators, some as email attachments. Mine looked much like any other. Fuzzy and wobbly, tadpole-like, remarkable. The woman performing the procedure told me I was at eight or nine weeks. I closed my eyes, taking this in. I had been looking up the stages of fetal development online. So I knew that the being in that grainy image could move its limbs; most of its major organs would be partly formed; its heart would have begun to beat. It would be nearly two centimetres in length, almost the distance from the tip of my thumb to the knuckle. This would be as far as it would get, as large as it would grow.
It was a mid-morning Saturday in March. I was in the Morgentaler clinic on St. Joseph Boulevard in Montreal, where Carl and I had come because the wait in Ottawa was several weeks long. It cost $300 to go out-of-province, but we could afford it, and preferred to forego the wait, which would have put me near my second trimester. When my name was called, Carl and I rose together, but he was not permitted to follow. So here I was, on my own, looking on a screen at our child. Were I to change my mind, now would have been the time.
A few weeks earlier, I’d stood in the living room doorway and said, “Maybe we shouldn’t have it.” My words were almost inaudible. I hadn’t known I was going to say this. Carl didn’t respond right away, but his face, which had been tight for days, relaxed. He was relieved. Deep down, he did not want the child, and I did not want it without him on board.
Between then and now, I’d been watching myself, waiting for a change of heart. I’d felt an emotional attachment to the zygote—to the reality of an actual individual taking form, one that depended upon me for its survival. Was I really willing to let it go? Did I even believe this was OK? My feelings about abortion were muddy. I was raised by Catholic parents whose only overtly political stance was the one they held—and still do—against abortion. My dad kept a pro-life sticker on his dashboard, and the whole family once took part in an anti-Morgentaler march on Queen’s Park. That day, we walked past a woman in jeans on a stoop, a mug in her hands and a “pro-choice” sign propped beside her. I asked my mother what it meant. She told me it was a sneaky way of saying you were “for” abortion.
By my twenties, I’d veered far enough toward the woman on the stoop to believe that there were clearly circumstances in which a woman ought to have the right to terminate a pregnancy. But I also felt that there were times when such a course would seem to fall into the category of unnecessary evil, and I felt pretty sure that I myself would never require one. “I don’t think I’d ever do it,” I had said to friends during those conversations that take place in pubs, over pints, late at night, when everyone feels like a little frank talk could save the world. “But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be available for people who need it.”
By “people who need it” I meant those who, by virtue of their circumstances, might otherwise be compelled to seek an illegal, expensive or potentially dangerous procedure. When I began making phone calls to abortion clinics, I couldn’t help but notice that, in my case, none of those circumstances applied. I was not young. I was not poor. Health was not an issue, nor education, and I had not been raped. I was not even single (though that possibility seemed in the offing). I now understood “need” in a very different way. I also understood that, for a large number of Canadians—my parents included—my circumstances might not appear to justify what I was about to do. In this light, abortion was not “a way out” of a scary situation. It was profoundly frightening in its own right. Meanwhile, I had no way of predicting what the future would bring in terms of my judgment upon this act. Facing me were two unknowns: lonesome parenthood or potential demons.
I turned from the image on the ultrasound machine and followed a nurse into another room, where I was set up on a table naked from the waist down, covered in a sheet, my heels nesting in cool metal stirrups. A woman appeared, introduced herself as Dr. Such-and-Such, and explained what was about to happen. The nurse stayed beside me and held my hand while the doctor inserted a succession of needles, ever wider, into my cervix. Then there was a sudden sucking sound, which I felt in my abdomen like a jolt. I gasped. That quickly, the baby was gone—and with it, a part of me. There had been other such markers: my father’s heart attack when I was younger, and later, the death of a close friend. Here was a new before-and-after line. I had read that the procedure would hurt. It didn’t. But my cheeks were soaked with tears. And I was gripping the nurse’s hand as if for dear life.
Humanity has never been able to make up its mind about the practice of deliberately terminating pregnancies. The Pythagoreans and the Stoics in ancient Greece vigorously disagreed on the subject—in essence holding the pro-life and pro-choice stances of their day. In Victorian times, both in England and America, abortions conducted pre-quickening—before a fetus can be felt to move, which takes place somewhere between the fourth and sixth month—occurred without serious qualms. Even after abortion became illegal or strictly regulated in the US during the nineteenth century—a change that had more to do with physicians’ efforts to professionalize their trade than with widespread political or religious beliefs—abortions remained common, if discreet. And that discretion likely had more to do with sexual mores than with ethical concerns regarding the fetus.
I learned all of this in the months and years following my abortion. Thanks to the time and place in which I lived, I was able to have one without breaking the law. I didn’t have to ask a friend of a friend of a friend for the name of someone who would do the deed. And there was no panel of doctors before whom I had to present my case. Nobody made me justify my decision. For all of this, I am grateful. But I did have to justify my decision to myself. I thought often of an older cousin who had raised a child, single-handed. She would have been in her late twenties when she’d become pregnant, a little younger than I had been and, unlike me, definitely alone. I thought about her son, now a thoughtful and talented teen, and how we wouldn’t have known what we were missing if my cousin had chosen another path. Was she brave, and I a coward? I wondered. I wondered this a lot.
It is common for women who have had abortions to grieve; I did. At the same time, I found myself engaged in a years-long attempt to locate my decision on my moral compass. This became, in part, a research project. I picked up a solid history of fluctuating US abortion mores in sociologist Kristin Luker’s book Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood. I pored over whole sections of the legal ruling for Roe v. Wade, which includes its own history on attitudes and laws regarding abortion, including that in Roman times “it was resorted to without scruple.”
Online one night I listened several times in succession to a passionate, six-minute exchange between Morgentaler and a caller broadcast on CBC Radio’s “Double Take” in June 1970. The caller: “I think that you’re breaking your promise as a doctor. Instead of preserving life you’re trying to destroy life.” Morgentaler: “This whole argument that you’re killing a baby is just plain, unscientific nonsense.” And so on. God’s will comes up; the potential life inherent in spermatozoa; and the rights of fathers. I found myself inwardly cheering Morgentaler on as he asked, in several different ways, with increasing impatience, “Why do you want to impose your views on other women?” The caller’s final words were, “Well, I’m against it, anyway.”
An article on LifeSiteNews.com described abortion as “the systematized, institutionalized killing of millions of innocent human beings around the world.” On other pro-life websites, the plight of unexpectedly pregnant women was compared to that of the Virgin Mary, and young women claimed their parents “brainwashed” them into having abortions. I watched The Silent Scream—a classic pro-life video from 1984 that I’m fairly certain was shown to the entire student body of the Catholic high school I attended—astonished by its graphic nature and extremist tone. “And so for the first time,” says its narrator, Dr. Bernard N. Nathanson, “we are going to watch a child being torn apart, dismembered, disarticulated, crushed and destroyed by the unfeeling steel instruments of the abortionist.”
What was I doing? Testing the depths of any guilt I might have felt? Seeking absolution? Wallowing? Perhaps all of the above. But I was also on the hunt for ideas about abortion that weren’t grounded in religious doctrine or political rhetoric. I wanted something that felt like an honest attempt at understanding.
I watched and re-watched the film Vera Drake, about a 1950s British woman imprisoned for conducting illegal abortions. I found Alice Munro’s short story “Before the Change,” which tells of a twenty-four-year-old woman who discovers her father has been secretly performing illegal abortions. When the housekeeper (his accomplice) becomes ill, he enlists his daughter’s aid. We later learn that the daughter has dealt with her own surprise pregnancy by having and giving up the child. The revelation occurs when the narrator confesses that she refused to abort, though her boyfriend wanted her to. She was angry, hurt and disappointed—not considering the baby at all.
I thought about Munro’s story for weeks; I retold it to friends. The question she leaves for anyone who would presume to judge another’s actions is astounding: who is swimming in murky waters, morally speaking? The abortionists, the women partaking of their services, or the mother who bears a child at least partly out of spite? To truly determine right or wrong, to name motivation, may be impossible.
At the clinic, before the ultrasound, I was asked—without my partner present—whether this was what I wanted, and whether it was my own choice. I understood that I was really being asked whether I’d been pushed into an abortion against my will. I assured the woman seated across from me that the decision was my own, though it felt more complicated than that. My partner and I had made the call together in the same way we would have made the call to have a child together. Either “we” were doing this, or “we” weren’t. It wasn’t even exactly about what either of us “wanted.” It was about what seemed possible at that time, in our situation. That said, her question was exceedingly relevant. I was the one with the fetus inside me, and—just as I would have been the one giving birth—I was the one who would have to climb up on the table and allow the doctor to remove it.
Had abortion been prohibited, or less accessible, would Carl and I have just gulped and accepted our fate? Would we have become the broken family I’d foreseen? Whatever challenges we might have faced, it is human nature to succumb to existence: once someone wanders into our lives, it is next to impossible to contemplate the world without them. Obviously I would have loved my child, and would have rearranged my life around it.
Still, I had an abortion. I made the decision to have it, and to live with having done so.
Recently I watched the 2006 documentary Lake of Fire, a film twenty years in the making that tracks the American pro-life and pro-choice movements, giving each side equal say. The longer I watched, the more I could feel myself siding, almost militantly, with the abortion clinic nurses and doctors who were crossing protest lines on their way to work. Some of these people risked being shot, or had been, or had lost colleagues in this way. The work they do is not easy or pretty. Sally Tisdale, a former abortion clinic nurse, wrote about the experience in Harper’s in 1987. “We do abortions here; that is all we do,” her piece begins. “There are weary, grim moments when I think I cannot bear another basin of bloody remains, utter another kind phrase of reassurance.” I was reminded of the nurse who held my hand while my uterus was cleaned out, and who let me squeeze her fingers tight—and who probably had to clean up afterward. I wondered whether these moments cost her anything, and why I hadn’t thought about this before.
When I first spoke of my abortion, to an old friend I was visiting in Toronto, I felt as though I was confessing a dark secret. I broke down in her kitchen. I have since been surprised to learn how many of my friends and acquaintances also have abortions in their pasts. One friend, now in her seventies, was a young Englishwoman in Paris in the 1950s, where abortions were neither legal nor easy to come by. Her pregnancy would have cost her her job, the support of her relatives and, she told me, “any chance of making a decent match.”
Another, a fellow journalist in her fifties, told me of a weekend get-together she’d had with four old high-school friends. It emerged that all but one of this gang of five had undergone abortions. Yet another friend told me that his wife had one early in their relationship. Now, many years later, they have a son. Some of these people have mixed feelings about the choices they made; others don’t. One friend, pregnant at fifteen, was ushered through an abortion by her mother—no “choice” for her. She told me that she’s always aware, in the back of her mind, of how old that phantom child would be.
These conversations have been revelatory. It’s one thing to grasp statistics; it’s another to know real people who have wrestled with this decision and who also carry it with them—or who have made the choice without much wrestling at all. Once, on a long-haul train trip from Montreal to Moncton, I dined with an older woman who told me she’d had two abortions, the first back in the early 1970s in New York City, for what at the time equaled a month’s rent in Montreal. For her, there had been no quandary, and she had no regret: she was not mother material. She wouldn’t have done anyone any favours by having those kids. When I said many people feel they have the right to judge the decision to have an abortion, she turned fierce. “I live with this,” she said. “They have no idea what that’s like.”
I thought of this woman in particular a few months ago, when I came upon a head-spinning paragraph in a novel I’d picked up at a used bookstore. The book, The Hearts and Lives of Men, by British author Fay Weldon, was first printed in 1987, the year before abortion ceased to be illegal in Canada. The passage in question deals with the female protagonist, Helen: twentysomething, unexpectedly pregnant and terrified. We find her in the de Waldo Clinic, about to submit her fetus to the ministrations of Dr. Runcorn. Meanwhile, elsewhere, her lover’s fiendish ex-girlfriend is letting him in on what Helen is about to do. The text crackles with tension: Will Clifford try to stop Helen? Will they have the baby? Either way, will he forgive her this choice? Will she forgive herself?
Weldon writes, “Abortion is sometimes necessary, sometimes not, always sad. It is to the woman as war is to the man—a living sacrifice in a cause justified or not justified, as the observer may decide. It is the making of hard decisions—that this one must die so that one can live in honor and decency and comfort. Women have no leaders, of course; a woman’s conscience must be her General. There are no stirring songs to make the task of killing easier, no victory marches and medals handed around afterwards, merely a sense of loss.”
I was so astonished by these lines, I copied them out. By using the comparison she does, Weldon reminds us that abortion is a reality as ever-present as war has been in human history. In this, she lays bare a fundamental hypocrisy in the way society views men’s morally ambiguous actions as opposed to women’s. It’s as if she’s excavated a long-lost truth, or created one that eluded us all along. A woman facing an unplanned pregnancy must proceed decisively under intense pressure, amid troubling moral equations. Like a soldier, she deals in life and death, and walks, fundamentally alone, into an aftermath she has opened up, beneath whatever shadows may fall in that place.
Sometimes we make choices that bring us pain, pain that compels us to revisit the circumstances, thoughts and feelings that led to those decisions, all the while asking, “Could it have gone the other way? Was there some answer that I missed?” I knew my abortion was to be one of those choices. It would leave me with the ghost of an unrealized child, and that sorrow, after entering my life, would ebb and flow, but never disappear.
(See the rest of issue 35, Winter 2009 )