According to Wikipedia, “Roe v. Wade…was a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in which the Court ruled that the Constitution of the United States protects a pregnant woman’s liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction.”
In 1973, when that ruling was made, I was eighteen years old, graduating from high school, and looking forward to university. It seemed only natural that a woman should have the liberty to make a decision concerning her own body. I still feel that way, but what has changed over the forty-nine years since then is my understanding of the impact that such freedom has had on women (and men) I know personally.
While in graduate school in the 1980s, one day I was sitting in the women’s sauna when I heard a young woman talk about her multiple abortions. She was presenting abortion as a means of contraception, rather than a tough, thought-out decision about whether or not to bring a child into the world. That simple reference to “abortion as contraceptive” stopped me in my tracks.
I heard in that short, simple, seemingly flippant remark a hurt person. That was the inspiration for my novel Off-Island, a hoped-for possibility of providing healing. The book looks at three different generations of women and their encounter with abortion (or not).
My first editor told me that Off-Island took her by surprise. She relived several of her abortions, all of which were illegal, and after a dark night of the soul, she came out the other side with a sense of peace and self-understanding. “Off-island” is a term I first heard used on Martha’s Vineyard to mean literally going off the island to the mainland. In Off-Island it is a metaphor for those women, hurt by their abortion experience, who retreat from life—go on-island, so to speak, and isolate themselves.
The experience of abortion is not about the pros or cons of legislation, although I think some feel that because the experience is (or can be) traumatic it is a vote against that hard-won liberty of a woman’s right to choose. I am not a legislator, and I respect the rule of law, but where my heart lies is in helping women to navigate that tough choice, process a freedom of choice, that might be painful, before and after.
Even today, I am told, almost fifty years later, there is not much before or after care for women undergoing an abortion. In a recent documentary, most of the women interviewed, many very young, described how they had to make the decision on their own, even in the face of family or social disapproval, and they have had to weather the aftermath on their own: the recollection of a child that might have been. While it is for the most part a simple surgical procedure, it has, as almost every woman I know has expressed, mental, spiritual and physical ramifications—some short lived and some not.
The novel Off-Island, intending to be a healing journey, was turned down for traditional publication because “As you know, an important factor in the decision against…was the question of audience…couldn’t be marketed as a feminist novel because it is likely to be perceived (note that I’m saying perceived, not is) as anti-abortion. It’s kind of like PMS: there’s a strong impulse to deny its existence because it could be used as a weapon against women. So could this frank admission that abortion can be emotionally painful…”
While I think this was a travesty back in the ’80s, I think the reality is not so much different today. I think that women still whisper, if they say anything at all, about the painfulness, toughness, of abortion for fear of fueling a vote against a woman’s right to choose. As we have learned recently that Roe v. Wade may be overturned, I urge thoughtfulness. As one older woman shared with me while I was researching Off-Island, “Legalized or not, if a woman cannot have a child for reasons of her own, she will find a way, and better for it to be a safe, well lit, clean place where people know what they are doing, rather than a dingy, illegal room at the top of some backstairs in some back alley, where the practitioner may or may not know what they are doing.”
This lovely month, June, I offer you the possibility of digging deep, offering support to anyone you know who has weathered a tough, life-changing choice of whatever kind—no matter the passage of time. Pay attention, understand, embrace, identify. And if you happen to be the one in retreat, isolated, on an island of your own, pick up the phone, reach out. I, for one, am ready, able and willing to listen.
Photo by Verozara on Unsplash