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Quieter, Softer: A Journey Through the Abortion Debate

By
February 20, 2006

It’s the third week of January, 2001. President George Bush, as one of his first official acts as president of the United States, has just announced a plan to cut funding for International Planned Parenthood, objecting to the organization’s practical support of a woman’s right to choose. I watch the president announcing his decision on TV in my south Florida apartment. He smiles in his red tie and waves as the cameras flash, and I worry casually to my roommate about when he will be able to pass the same measures here in the US.

Then on Wednesday of that very same week, I’m sitting on a bench outside one of the coffee shops in City Place Mall in West Palm Beach, Florida, the state where President Bush’s brother Jeb serves as governor. City Place is an outdoor mall designed to make you feel as if you have been suddenly transported out of Florida’s neon heat and into a quaint European town like those in Southern France or Northern Italy. I’m sitting outside in the half-shade of one of the buildings, reading a newspaper article about a thirteen-year-old girl who gave birth to a baby boy in her parents’ home, promptly placed her son in a trash bag, and threw him over the fence into a neighbor’s yard.

I’m sitting in the heat, feeling goose bumps rise on my skin as I finish reading the article about this young girl who really might be charged with murder.

It’s during this same week that, at age nineteen, I come to think that I am pregnant.

I’m not married, not even close. My boyfriend and I have only been dating three months. Along with my family and everyone else intimate with my life, he is one thousand miles away, living in New Hampshire. I don’t know how he will react, and this isn’t exactly something I want to handle over the phone. (Hi sweetie, crackle crackle, did I mention I think I’m pregnant? Dead air .) I don’t want to make him worry before I’m even sure, even though I’m driving myself crazy keeping all of this trapped inside. But most importantly, I don’t think that I want to have this baby, and who knows what kind of ownership he might feel?

So because I read about that young girl earlier in the week, and since then I have seen her face on the news—the tired-sorry-sad brown eyes, sunken in, exhausted—I drive to the emergency room in the slightly smaller neighboring town of Wellington.

I know that I could take a home pregnancy test, but I want to be sure. I also don’t want anyone to know what I’m doing, what I’m afraid of. I’m terrified that if I find out on my own that I am pregnant in some public rest room or in the green port-a-can on the equestrian show grounds where I work, which reeks of fake cherry scent to cover over the odor of human excrement, I will not be able to stand. I worry that I will drive into a palm tree or drink a bottle of Clorox or use a blunt object on myself or engage in some other violent act. I have read somewhere that in the two decades before abortion was legal in the U.S., an estimated one million women per year sought out illegal abortions. Thousands died. Tens of thousands were mutilated. Treated as criminals in a criminal act.

I want to know what my options are. I want someone there to hold my hand, even if it’s the hand of a stranger. I want to know that I am not a criminal, even pregnant. I want to know for certain that I will not be hurt.

I sit in the ER waiting room of the Wellington Medical Center, watching the sleepy Sunday news programs flicker on the TV in the corner of the room, waiting for my turn in triage so that I can get blood drawn for a pregnancy test. I sit with my legs crossed, trying to pretend that I have not been bawling all morning and unable to sleep for the week. Beside me, a couple holds hands, wrapped in some private grief over their daughter-son-cousin-mother-uncle-friend who is behind closed doors being cared for by professionals. The woman bites her nails and stares at the opaque light of the mini-blinds. The man rubs his foot against his ankle. Across from me, a man in a white t-shirt smeared with blood leans against the soda machine. He anxiously glances back and forth between the room where his bleeding friend is being treated and the softly glowing exit sign. The doctors and nurses move in and out through the swinging doors in a harried sprint. With each entrance and exit, the sound of alarms echoes in from the back, making me jump and shift in my chair.

The rush of the place is somewhat frightening, but I have come to the emergency room with this sense of urgency, and my need to discover is paralleled with the urgency that surrounds what has become public debate—matters of life and death. Those giant posters of baby parts; a tiny arm next to a quarter—supposedly pictures of waste from an abortion clinic. The people who carry those awful posters: “God knows you are wrong, but I will pray for you.” The angry response from across the street: “Keep your religion off my vagina.”

How does this lonely moment in the ER fit into any of this?

I lean back against the soft, green leather and close my eyes. There is something remotely comforting about the air-conditioning as opposed to the sweltering heat outside and my small, cramped apartment, which smells like rotten eggs from the sulfur in the water and pig shit from the potbelly pig that lives in the poolroom adjacent to mine.

I stare at the tiled ceiling, thinking that I already know the results, and these scenes play out over and over again in my head–my options as I know them.

I see myself on my back with my legs splayed in a small, dark room of some clinic on a side street in downtown West Palm Beach. The cold metal of the stirrups against my heels, the quick cool splash of antiseptic as I stare up at the paneled ceiling. A tube no larger than the speculum they insert during an annual pap exam. What will the motor sound like when the doctor flips the switch? Will it be the loud whir of a house vacuum like the one I used to ride on the front of as my mother cleaned our carpets in the old house? Or will it be a soft whir, something almost silent, something closer to what I imagine as the solitary sound of a different kind of life passing by?

Then I see myself filling a prescription at a drug store and driving home with my pills in a little brown bag, sitting on the seat of my car beside me. I fill a glass of water, watch water drip from the faucet and swirl down into the drain–maybe I turn on the garbage disposal for the desired sound-effect. I tip my head back and swirl the pills around in the back of my throat, swallowing hard. Then I sit in the comfort of my living room with a heating pad on my stomach, watching Casablanca and the life I could have had slowly slips out onto the Maxi-pad lining my underwear.

I tell no one. No matter what.

What else do you do when you don’t know and there is no one to help you decide?

Just over 85,000 women will choose one of these options in the state of Florida during this year. I wonder what kinds of uncomfortable, tight spaces the thirteen-year-old girl in the paper found herself in. What other secrets she didn’t tell. How she must have hid her pregnancy from strict, angry parents with baggy T-shirts, the seams of her jeans pressing taut to bursting. How her peers at school taunted her. Fat bitch. Stupid whore. And how many times did she wish that she would stumble to the ground and fall on her stomach as the mocking group of girls shoved her while she walked past them out onto the playground tar? Did she stand in front during dodge ball, facing the firing squad—the line of eager, smirking boys ready to kick red rubber balls at her full force—praying, hoping they wouldn’t miss? Did she walk slope shouldered, trying to hide her new breasts in the hallways from creeping, groping fingers? Who knows—she was thirteen. How well do you know your body, yourself, at thirteen?

Maybe she had never even had her period. Maybe she had never known what to watch for until it was too late. Maybe she hadn’t even known she was pregnant until the small, sticky body slipped from her insides, and she put it in the trash bag and chucked it over the fence because what else do you do when you don’t know and there is no one to help you decide?

The nurse calls my name, and I step into her small office. I am thankful that it is a solid room with a large oak door and not a small cubicle with a thin, almost transparent curtain. She takes my blood pressure, heart rate, temperature. “What’s wrong?” she asks. Her voice is a soft, southern drawl. “What brings you here?”

“I want to know if I’m pregnant.” I start to cry again, and I look at the floor, embarrassed to be crying in front of a stranger.

“Oh, honey.” She grabs my hand across the desk and gives it a tight squeeze. I feel grateful that I have found her or been given her, this nurse who happened to be available when my name was at the top of the list.

“Do you know who the father might be? I mean, if you are pregnant?”

“Yes,” I nod. “He’s my boyfriend,” I explain. “A steady relationship.” I find myself justifying. “But he’s up in New Hampshire and I’m here for the next four months. I can’t tell him over the phone.”

“So you have no family here?”

“Not that I can count on.”

“It’s okay” she says. “We can deal with this. But a blood test will cost you $300. You can buy a pregnancy test over the counter. They are very accurate, you know.”

“I can’t. I can’t do this alone. It’s why I came here.”

“I understand,” she says. “You want options.”

I nod.

“Here’s what we’ll do. Go to the drugstore and buy a test and come back and take it here.” I like that she is taking charge, giving me instructions. It feels safe to no longer have to plot my movements on my own.

Before I leave, she bends down and slips her purse out from underneath the table and slides a business card out from her wallet. She writes a seven-digit number on a white sticky label and, above it, a doctor’s name.

“He’s good,” she says. “You know, just in case.”

Instinctively, I find my eyes drifting to her gold wedding band. But you’re married, I want to say, but I know this will sound full of judgment.

“We just weren’t ready, at the time, to have them. We have them now.”

I stand up and hug her, relieved to find a woman who might be an older version of myself to help me through all of this. I walk across the parking lot and crawl back up into my truck to drive the two blocks to the nearest drugstore.

The statistic I know states that approximately two women, ages fifteen to forty-four, out of every hundred have had an abortion. I don’t know if I know one hundred women, but I do have two close friends who have had abortions. One of them shrugs, says she did not want kids, didn’t think she would be a good mother, and doesn’t regret the decision. The other, unmarried at the time, says she dreams of her red-headed children every night. The girl from the newspaper, at thirteen, is not included in this statistic.

I do my best to hide my left hand as I pass the small blue box over the counter to the cashier in the drugstore. This could be a good thing, right? Having a child? How does the world know I’m an unwed woman in my third year of college? This could be the happiest day of my life, for all this curly-brown-haired woman knows in her red smock and Wallgreens nametag. One thing she does know for certain is that I am having sex.

I think of all the mixed messages that I’ve gotten about sex from childhood until now. The pornographic magazines I found under my father’s bed when I was five: a woman wearing nothing but a red telephone cord (Mommy, why does Daddy have these pictures that make fun of women?). Sex Ed in grammar school: sitting boy-girl-boy-girl with Mr. Agello pinching the fat fleshy part of his forearm and saying that was what the vulva felt like. Julia Garrison vowing in the middle of our kitchen that she would never get pregnant because wasn’t it like walking around announcing that you were having sex. My sister and our best friend camping out in the living room on the leather couches, giggling in the night-glow moonlight, wondering what it felt like to be touched. The wonder being shattered when my sister, my almost twin, was forced into sex at fourteen. I was drunk, she said. He was quick, she said. It hurt like hell. No laughter. My own sordid first attempt at sixteen with a boyfriend on an old mattress with John Mellencamp playing in the background to block out the sound. And the most recent, the stuff that felt good, great even, in love on the bathroom floor, the cool tile biting at the skin of my back.

Thirty-six states have laws requiring minors to either obtain parental consent and/or proof of parental notification before they can choose to have an abortion. Florida is one of them.

I think of Laura Bush standing beside her husband and her two children, staring out at a crowd of cameras in her knee-length blue suit-skirt, and I wonder what it took to conceive those two kids. I picture a young George and Laura in a top-down convertible parking at a roadside look-out with a view of the bright lights of Dallas, crickets chirping on a hot, dry, Texas night. I imagine them leaning into a desperate kiss. Then George pulls back and says, “Now Laura, all we are really doing here is a selfless, religious act in the name of God to proliferate his creation. This isn’t because I love you, and this has nothing at all to do with the heat.” Isn’t that what he’d like us to believe? Every sex act intended? Every pregnancy wanted, possible, planned?

And what about the other kinds of sex? Maybe the girl in the paper was raped by her father. Who wouldn’t want that memory thrown away? Wouldn’t it have been infinitely better to stop the thing before it really started? When it was a tiny mass of cells replicating and not a baby sucking its last bits of air through a plastic bag?

Thirty-six states have laws requiring minors to either obtain parental consent and/or proof of parental notification before they can choose to have an abortion. Florida is one of them.

I shuttle the test kit back to the ER and I find my nurse, whose warm fingers weave through mine as she leads me into the back and toward the bathroom. She curls her free arm around the doorframe and reaches for the switch just inside the door. She flicks on the yellow light and motions me gently forward. She says she will stand right outside. I think she is the one who closes the door behind me.

I squat over the stick and let my urine run all over the edges of my fingertips, making sure I’ve soaked the cotton tip of the test stick. I place the test flat on the back of the toilet and in the two minutes it takes for the symbols to come up, I list the reasons I’m not ready to have a child yet.

One, I have no means to support this life in this world. (In 2001, eighty-eight percent of women who have abortions list this as the main factor in their decision).

Two, I want to bring up my children in a loving, supportive home with a loving supportive father. I am not married, so how can this be possible?

Three, I want to graduate college. I’m not ready for the responsibility. I want to travel. I want to be skinny. I want to be athletic. I want to look nice in a wedding dress. I want a successful career. I want the sky to be the limit. I don’t want this to be the shape of my life. The ratty apartment, the forgotten and impossible dreams squashed. Squeezed into parenthood. Angry. Resentful.

These reasons feel hopelessly selfish and stubborn. Inexcusable. No less true. I add another reason to the list to feel righteous, more like a woman, a mother, maybe.

Four, I want to give my child a fighting chance at happiness. I am not the thirteen year old girl, helpless, but how with my limited means, my lack of support, can I do that now?

Still, if two blue lines come up instead of one, despite my nightmarish visions of single motherhood, I’m not sure if I will be able to call that doctor. If I won’t dream of the children I choose not to have. If someday I won’t regret this.

Then, I find myself thinking about the feel of a child, the little brown haired girl I used to baby-sit. The daughter of the woman who took care of me as a little girl. I remember the feel of her small, needy fingers grabbing up into the air. Pick me up. Pick me up. She reached for me and I bent and pulled her into my arms and sat her down with me in a rocking chair while her mother was in the back bedroom busy with her father who was dying of brain cancer. It hurts and she pointed to her belly only I thought she meant something else and I ran my hands over the small bones of her shoulder blades. Her fingers felt like moth breath as she wrapped then around my neck and then she vomited into my hair and I didn’t recoil. It felt like the most natural thing in the world for her to vomit right into my hair. The soft dependency she had on me, the need of another body, that kind of trust that only I could offer to her in that moment. It’s ok, baby. It’s ok. I kept rubbing my fingers down her back as we rocked.

Here I am on the real frontline and all of those war metaphors don’t seem to make any sense. It’s quieter than that, softer, and more sacred.

I’ve never really gotten it before this moment in the bathroom in sweaty south Florida—a woman’s right to choose. Despite all the NARAL meetings I’ve been to, the banners I’ve held up, the Democrats I’ve had to support because the other options threaten to take my choices away. All of these things were abstract. We use war metaphors in the abortion debate. We say we are fighting on the frontlines for Women’s Rights.

But here I am on the real frontline and all of those war metaphors—those large, loud groups—don’t seem to make any sense. It’s a small, private, internal battle. Even battle is the wrong word. It’s quieter than that, softer, and more sacred. The nurse told me that one way to know if you are pregnant is that your resting heart rate elevates a bit. I put my fingers to my wrist and try to count out my pulse.

This is my body, my body, my body we are talking about.

Later that afternoon, I’m sitting at City Place again at one of the outdoor tables watching the fountain with its automatic water show that goes off every thirty minutes or so. I watch the little children edge close to the fountain as streams of water hop like living things between each of the separate little cement ponds. I see a little girl with blonde-brown hair and hazel eyes just like mine spring into the air each time the water does. I can’t take my eyes off her. She walks by my table when the water show stops and she pauses with her finger in her mouth and looks up at me.

“Why is she crying, Daddy? Why is that woman crying?” She looks up at the tall man standing behind her.

“I don’t know, honey.” He reaches for her hand. “Why don’t we leave her alone?” And he pulls his little girl away.

We search for reason in the things that happen to us. We search so hard that it seems as if nothing ever comes as chance.

I pick up my cell phone and dial my boyfriend.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, in an almost-panic because he can hear me crying.

I start with the most abstract. “Did you hear,” I say through sobbing gasps, “that President Bush cut funding for International Planned Parenthood and soon he will try to take our right to choose away?”

“And that’s why you’re crying?”

He knows that I am slightly neurotic, over-passionate about things, like my mother. He seems to love me anyway.

“No. I’ve spent the last week afraid that I was pregnant. But thankfully, I’m not.”

I pause and let out a slow long breath, the one I feel like I’ve been holding in for the past week. Then, I relay my whole long, messy day, even the part about the too-young-mother and her trash bag.

“Why didn’t you tell me? I could have helped you. It would have been our problem.”

Right then and there, I know that I love him, that he would not have vanished, that he believes in what he says. I feel slightly guilty that I’ve not let him in on something that he has been a part of.

“I know. I’m sorry. I just didn’t want to tell you over the phone.”

“I love you,” he adds, “You wouldn’t have been alone in all this.”

“Okay,” I say because right then and there I don’t have the heart to tell him that he is wrong.

G

Judea Franck earned her MFA from Colorado State University. She lives, writes and works in Colorado. Her stories have appeared in Room of One’s Own and others. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.

Photos courtesy Vinh Luu

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