A Birth and a Choice

Today marks two things: It is my son’s third birthday and it is the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade. I assume that at least one of my readers will be concerned that I connect those two events, but to me their link is crucial. For a long time I wasn’t sure what exactly made me decide to have my son. The other day I realized: I was free to choose to have a baby because I knew I didn’t have to.

Like almost half of the women in the United States who get pregnant, I did not plan to get pregnant. In fact, I went to considerable trouble and expense — $500 out of pocket and three visits to a clinic 30 miles from where I lived that was open only during the hours I worked — in order not to get pregnant. Like all birth control, though, mine had a failure rate, and I am one of its number. (That I did not ever get pregnant while using much less reliable methods of birth control, or pure blind luck, still strikes me as deeply ironic.) Look around you: half the women you see with children did not plan to have them (half the men, too, presumably). That is a lot. Look again: one in three of those women will have an abortion during her lifetime. That is a lot, too. I offer these statistics not as reasons to mourn or to celebrate. I offer them as facts, like the rocks beneath your feet that may trip you, like the water in which you will either sink or swim. What I hope for is not so much a change in any particular policy as a change in attitude, one where pregnancy is seen as what it is — something bestowed at random, just as frequently coming to those who hope to avoid it as it avoids those who seek it. (It is also not lost on me that the day I took a positive pregnancy test is also the day I read my friend’s story about IVF.)

Abortion rights are perhaps the most heavily euphemism-ridden of all modern political issues, so we end up with “pro-life” people fighting the “pro-choice” people. I tend to say I am pro-abortion rights, as I find it less dodgy than the pro-choice formulation, and, like most people, for many years I was uncomfortable with saying I was pro-abortion. I’ve changed my mind on that, though. I am pro-abortion. I am in favor of recognizing it as a reality, as a necessity, as an inalienable right.

Roe v. Wade was decided, according to my limited understanding of the law, as a matter of privacy — that a woman’s right to her body and to privacy in the decisions she made about it outweighed the state’s interest in her body and its offspring. That’s still a good argument, and it’s still the right one, but it positions abortion as a thing that must always be private, and what is private is often seen as shameful. I am on the side of those who fight shame with openness, and thus I greatly admire (among other things) the work of the Sea Change program and this excellent op-ed piece by Merritt Tierce (really, just go read it — it’s much better than anything I’ve written here). And thus I write this here.

There’s a picture of me on the history wall of the Emma Goldman Clinic here in Iowa City. I was standing near the front of a Roe v. Wade anniversary rally when I was fifteen, and some of the organizers knew me from the anti-war movement, so I was asked to hold the amplifier for the primitive PA system the speakers were using. I was standing right by the speakers, and thus my picture got in the paper with theirs. Twenty four years later I am living back in the same town with my son who is, as the former director of Emma said to me when she met him, “a chosen child.” I would choose him all over again, and I do, every day. But my independence and my ability to do so come, so much, from knowing that I have that choice.