By Karene Horst, contributing editor – As a child I would daydream and fidget every Sunday morning while sitting, kneeling or standing in the pew at St. Monica’s with Mother and my five brothers. Mother would cradle the youngest in the crook of one arm while swatting and grabbing at a pair of my brothers as they poked each other in the ribs. I usually zoned out the sermon, but one in particular seared my memory. I stopped squirming as the priest howled and raged from the pulpit about “women and their bodies.” I can’t say for sure, but it must have been sometime in 1973.
I came of age in California in the ’70s. My best friend at the time had told me that virginity prevents the use of most forms of birth control, so I got rid of mine.
Then a family planning clinic a block from Venice Beach provided me my first diaphragm. I didn’t use it much. Messy, impractical, EMBARRASSING! When I did manage to shove it inside my teenage vagina, I had trouble checking to make sure it had slipped into the proper place over my cervix. Removing it proved a struggle as I dug around with my fingers while propping my right foot on the bathroom sink.
The anti-contraception movement dissuaded me from switching to The Pill, as the horror stories from side effects scared me away. The IUD was making headlines for ripping up women’s uteruses. Condoms? You try to talk an 18-year-old boy into slapping on one of those, especially after he has exhausted most of his skills working your panties down around your ankles.
I was blessed with irregular periods. I could go months. A blessing and a curse, as I was always late.
For the first few days, I would brush off any fear of an unwanted pregnancy. Then after a week, sometimes two, I’d start to fret. Fortunately, the same family planning clinic a block from Venice Beach provided me with a free pregnancy test and a thumbs up. Time after time after time.
I grew more lackadaisical. I ditched biology class enough to have mastered a weak understanding of reproduction, believing my least fertile days occurred the week immediately after my period ended. WRONG!
Then the waiting and worrying before I took the Number 2 Blue Bus south for my free and, thank God, always negative pregnancy test. While bouncing and jolting on the bus bench seat, I’d contemplate my options. Actually, I had no options. Abortion would be my only choice. Yes, I had a steady boyfriend. He usually had a job of sorts and sometimes even a van to haul his surfboard up and down the coast when he wasn’t in jail. But even young and dumb as I was, I understood our parenting potential. And I knew my parents. I could never come home pregnant. Drunk, yes, stoned, of course, and sometimes days later than expected, but never pregnant. That was not an option in our household.
But it was California in the late ’70s, before an avalanche of laws restricting access to abortion. For a teenager like me abortion would not only have been available, it would have been free, paid for by the government. No screeching anti-abortion protesters blocking the clinic entrance. No parental notification laws. No waiting periods. No problem.
Much to everyone’s surprise, I graduated high school on schedule. Dumped the loser boyfriend. Graduated from college. Married another loser. And despite my history of careless birth control practices, I never became pregnant until I wanted to be a mother. Lucky. Blessed. Many of my sisters were not so lucky.
I suffered through survivor’s guilt. Ever a silent supporter of abortion rights, I threw myself into pro-choice activism after the Supreme Court’s Webster decision in 1989. I marched on Washington, attended meetings, donated money, wrote angry letters to the editor and lobbied legislators. I prodded my coworkers, friends and family to take a stand, wasted my time arguing with hysterical religious zealots and pleaded with like-minded people to vote for candidates based on reproductive rights. I pinned buttons to my lapel and plastered bumper stickers to my car. Multiple pairs of eyes started glazing over when I opened my mouth. Women confided in me about their abortions, and I steamed over their political apathy. Men awkwardly whispered their support for my efforts.
I watched the anti-abortion movement gain traction and win elections. The laws restricting access spread like a virus across the country. The Planned Parenthood clinic in the university town in Missouri where I live stopped providing abortions. Now my state’s laws only allow publicly funded hospitals to provide an abortion in case the woman’s life is at stake. I gaze at my daughter and assure myself I can afford to take her to another state, to another country, if she ever needs an abortion.
Statistics indicate that one in three women in the United States has had an abortion. But every woman has a tale to tell about abortion. Maybe she scheduled the appointment then cancelled at the last minute. Held a friend’s hand and comforted her while she sobbed over her decision. Shuddered as protesters with pictures of dead fetuses hollered “baby killer” while she entered a Planned Parenthood clinic for her annual pap smear. Bitched out her daughter for getting knocked up. Volunteered to drive a woman across statelines or hours away to find a clinic still providing abortions.
We will always have our abortion stories. And no law or religious edict will ever change that.