As a high school freshman, I learned about abortion. I did not consider when a fetus becomes a baby – I simply wished to defend this vulnerable new human possibility and considered myself to be pro-life.
I had grown up with a mother who was born in 1925 and considered pre-marital sex and getting pregnant “out-of-wedlock” as shameful acts. She once said, “If you came home pregnant, I’d be so ashamed I wouldn’t know what to do!” For this reason, I was one of only two females that I knew who kept her legs closed until marriage. It also made me, in my adolescence, be judgmental, as in: If a female thinks she’s mature enough to have sex, then she’s old enough to take responsibility for the consequences – a very “either/or” way of thinking.
Slowly, shades of gray filtered into my frame of reference. I learned, for instance, that even after males became aware of the existence of condoms, circa 1920’s (sausage casings then), many men chose not to wear them, and women were forced to have so many children, often in impoverished conditions, with less advanced medical intervention when a problem arose, that birthing and/or rearing many children was sending females to early graves. (It should be noted that males not wanting to wear condoms is an issue that hasn’t completely abated.)
Also, my mother told me about her friend, Leona, who’d had an illegal abortion during the 1950’s, and how the back-alley procedure made it so that later, when married and ready to have children, she was unable to bear them.
Early in my teaching career, too, I received a narrative essay from an undergraduate student who wrote about how brave her biological mother was to carry her to term and put her up for adoption after having been raped by a car salesman. The student was grateful to be given a chance at life, yet she acknowledged that not every woman could have mentally and emotionally handled carrying a fetus to term that was a product of rape. It made me reflect on a friend who’d been raped by a stranger at gunpoint while walking to school one morning when she was a 16-year-old virgin. She did not become pregnant, thank goodness, but what if she had? She and our friend group were still so young and innocent then, with college plans ahead. Abortion was legal, but what if it hadn’t been? Being forcibly violated was horrific alone, but what if she’d had no choice but to have an everyday reminder of the assault for the next nine-ish months? What would that have done to her as a person?
The film, Cider House Rules, in which a young doctor comes to understand why his mentor performed illegal abortions, made me consider incest in an unwanted pregnancy. Much later, I watched a documentary that included reportage of a tween who was impregnated by her father. By the time that she was able to gather the resources – money and transportation – to make an exceedingly long journey to the nearest women’s center to have an abortion, it was too late in the pregnancy for it to be performed. I just wanted to weep and weep for that poor child.
I have since come to understand that there are myriad reasons why a woman would want an abortion. Her reasons are her business. There should never be judgment placed upon any woman for making any choice over her own body: to bring a baby into the world, to abort a fetus, or to never desire to become pregnant. Women’s lives and choices are our own. These reproductive rights must be viewed as human rights.
Having a baby is most life-changing for the woman – she who physically carries it to term, with all of the physical changes and risks associated with that responsibility; she who may breastfeed for a year or more, with physical changes and associated risks; she who, most of the time, is the main caregiver; and she who, most of the time, is the person who raises the child(ren) alone and sometimes solely finances upbringing in the instance of breakup or divorce in heterosexual relationships.
It is even more than that, though. As an activist, I have grown to understand about environmental justice – that children in marginalized communities are often carried to term (if miscarriage doesn’t result) and raised in toxic areas –with industrial emissions exceeding limits, with chemicals sprayed on crops still airborne, with lead or mercury in soil, with contaminated water – causing early deliveries, stillbirths, malformations, physical and learning disabilities, cancer, altered DNA, and much more – because throughout American history, corporations have viewed impoverished urban and rural landscapes as dumping grounds, as expendable. Often, BIPOC communities bear the brunt of this devaluation of life and must live with the devastating and immeasurable costs.
As a feminist, I’d become familiar with the term “reproductive rights,” but more recently, I was introduced to the term “reproductive justice,” of which environmental justice is only one component. I think of “reproductive justice” as being to “reproductive rights” as “womanism” is to “feminism.” Due to lack of intersectionality in former waves of the feminist movement, BIPOC and other marginalized females and allies understandably felt (and hopefully to a lesser extent, at least, still feel) the need for a more inclusive movement that better reflected issues relating to race and social class. Among them are the right to bear and raise children in areas that are not only environmentally healthy but also safe from violence as well as include access to and equity in sex education, reproductive healthcare, affordable childcare, and a living wage.
I live in Indiana, where the maternal mortality rate for Black females is disproportionately high, and that is only one tragic result in which race, social class, and access are significant factors.
I live in Indiana and am now the mother of a teenage daughter. It pains me that Roe v. Wade was overturned and our red state has voted to ban abortion (currently being challenged in court), and if the ban is reactivated or if she moves to another state in which abortion is prohibited, she could have fewer rights than I had as a teenager in the 1980’s. It pains me to see retired women at protests, lamenting, “I did this in the 70’s! Why do I have to do this again in 2022?”
Today, the United States should be focused on doing at least its share to overcome the climate crisis for humanity’s sake. Instead, conservatives are immersed in efforts to set women’s rights back to the mid-1900’s – still! The sad truth is that women and allies must fight against abortion bans, fight for reproductive justice, and never cease being vigilant. This must come in the forms of a blue tsunami this November 8th (as cliché as it sounds, every vote does count!) and activism – not just on this National Weekend of Action – but routinely, always.