When I had the first of three abortions I was twenty-seven. When I had the last of the three, I was twenty-eight. It was the year of unbidden metamorphoses and quick-bidden interruptions. I have never written about them because there is nothing new my anecdotes could say about abortion. I also have suspected that, in writing about my abortions, I risked turning them into the problems they have never been, that no matter how little they cost me both psychically and financially, I would pay for my abortions here on the page.
There is a rift between the way we can have abortions and the way we can write about them. The dominant discourse about abortion has few sanctioned personal narratives: among them the apologia, the confession, the therapeutic release. As forms, they force a supplicant position; a verdict inheres to them all. I had good abortions, but regardless of the events, the “bad experience” is structurally built into their telling. The woman who narrates her abortion will have to make decisions, she will equivocate, she will vacillate, she will think hard on words, she will say and unsay her mind, and so impose upon herself a replica of the struggle expected of women who abort.
I had my abortions at the Montreal Morgentaler clinic on boulevard St. Joseph. The clinic gave me an appointment right away, or rather, as soon as they could legally—you must be at least five weeks pregnant to have an abortion in Quebec. They did not require a doctor’s visit pre-procedure, nor a doctor’s referral, nor a blood test, nor a preliminary or trans-vaginal ultrasound. I prepared by not eating after midnight, as per the website instructions. In the morning my roommate and I walked to the clinic. We stopped at a gingko tree at the end of our block—part of a habit of hers that I loved so much to stop at trees and tell me their Latin names and why they were special and why I should love them. We rubbed the leaves for good luck as we had before, casually and in passing, and I wished that my abortion would be complete. I wished hard on the leaf between my fingers that no cells would be left behind to grow an anomaly in my uterus.
Doctors have always impressed me as somewhat skeptical gatekeepers of care, so the question, “Why abortion?,” seemed unavoidable. I was prepared to say that it was too soon. I went to the clinic with Faulkner’s Dewey Dell Bundren’s chorus on my lips, “too soon too soon too soon.” It wasn’t true, but it was what I was prepared to say. It wasn’t true because “too soon” suggests a future time that will not be too soon, a perpetual orientation towards a future of perfect timing. I cannot say I am not ready, as if my life were a getting ready to fulfill a biological and social destiny, as if my life, or all women’s lives, had reproductive readiness always waiting in a beckoning futurity. Dewey Dell prefaces her “too soon” with “it’s not that I wouldn’t or will not.” But we needn’t say a word of this.
Maybe I am as ready as I’ll ever be. Maybe I am very nurturing. Maybe my partner and I love each other. Maybe I have enough money. My pregnancies were not temporal problems: not yet. Nor were they social problems: not like this. I had only a desire to be unpregnant, to feel a silence in my body, to feel myself not overridden by a female biology—to interrupt a nauseating incorporation.
No one at all asked me why I was having an abortion. I filled out paperwork in the waiting room. I had an in-clinic ultrasound to determine the location and size of my pregnancy. The nurse performing the ultrasound said, “Keep your head turned towards the side, towards me.” The doctor aspirated my uterus. She spoke softly. Afterwards, I rested on a small bed in the recovery room for an hour while the narcotics wore off. I wore a pad the size of a brick. When I was awake enough, and the nurse had determined that I was not bleeding unusually, we walked home. There were and still are no fees for Quebec residents at the Morgentaler clinic.
I was attended to with compassion but without unnecessary sympathy. I was surrounded by women (there are no men on staff at the Morgentaler) who wanted nothing personal from me and who gave to me with their own impersonal kindness (impersonal because their care had nothing to do with who I was, what my decisions, struggles, or non-struggles had been) everything I needed on that day. I learned a lot from that. I have never felt like I should say, “I decided to have an abortion because,” or, “I had to have an abortion because.” I have only ever said, “I had an abortion.”
I didn’t decide to have an abortion, at least not in the way we usually think of making decisions. I had an abortion because I was pregnant—it was a matter of logical sequence for me. I don’t want to trivialize abortion—and I don’t think I am—I only want to destabilize the role and importance of “decision making” in the way we talk and write about abortion. Many women faced with an unplanned pregnancy would “decide” to have a child with as little deliberation as I decided to not have a child. Many women aren’t sure, and think hard, and weigh factors; and there are many women who, in this situation of deliberation, decide “no child,” but must have one anyway, and others who decide “child” and lose that child to coercion or the contingencies of the body. Decisions and their repercussions dominate stories about abortion. However, by taking the focus off the personal decision—How did she decide? Who helped her decide? When did she decide?—we lessen the power and prevalence of the question: Did she make the right decision?
The fact that I was able to choose “no child” and have the choice materialize into fulfillment, is evidence that I lived within an architecture, a landscape of care, that not only valued and protected women’s reproductive health but provided the infrastructure and points of access that made my choice and its effectuation uncomplicated. I told only one person of my pregnancy, and yet I was not wanting for support. All of the supports were already in place. I want to communicate two important points: the first is that I had good abortions—I received kind, accessible and affordable care, and the mere potential of my biology was not prioritized above my right to my body. This kind of reproductive health care is possible. The second is that somehow it is nevertheless difficult to write about abortion comfortably—narrating the abortion post-abortion, post-choice, is still navigating a minefield.
When abortion is framed, narrativized, and presented as an event exclusively about decision making, then the audience (a public) becomes a jury who will answer for themselves, Did she make the right decision? Yes, if she was young. No, if she was rich. Yes, if she was raped. No, if she was married. Yes, if she was as student. No, if she was healthy. Yes, if she was an addict. No, if she was reliable. Yes, if she was planning to have children later when she could offer them a better life, and more love. Each judged separately. Each removed from collectivity. The compulsion for the contextualization of choice circumscribes the freedom women have gained in their right to choose. Decision making is the narrative framework for the public consumption and adjudication of abortion as well as the apparently inherent good that anchors pro-choice ideals. The double work of “choice” makes thinking and writing about abortion problematic.
We have to figure abortion as about both less and more than choice.
Less, because women become supplicants unnecessarily, unjustly, when choice is the preoccupation of their vigilant public. There is no freedom in a verdict, even if the verdict is Not Guilty.
More, because choice is still only a hypothetical. It exists in the realm of possibility (and sometimes impossibility). Choice is not an abortion. It is potential, discarnate, indeterminate. Abortion is actual, biological, terminal. The abortion itself, as a logical outcome of choice, has to be valued as good in order to get around the difficulty of a representation tethered to the judgment of circumstances.
A narrative form adequate to abortion would be one that does not concede to choice’s contextualization, nor to its abstraction. A narrative form adequate to abortion would unconditionally locate the woman who aborts within a public rather than before one, within a collectivity and a history of women who have aborted. It would locate the abortion in the realm of the actual and the material, the realm in which abortions take place or don’t take place or can’t take place, the realm in which women fight for them, and in which women have died and die for them still. ♦
“Women Who Abort” is from our Sex Issue (winter 2014/2015)