A portrait of the author at twenty.
By Caroline Leavitt
Let’s start in the 1970s in Boston, where abortion is so illegal, it’s spoken of only in an appalled whisper. You’ve seen the photos, right? Young, naked women, crumpled like puppets, bleeding out on a floor, from coat hangers, from poisons, from desperation. Dead girls. Ruined girls. Only wealthy girls can get safe abortions if they fly somewhere, or know a doctor. And none of us is wealthy.
I’m 17, and my older sister is my best friend, my heroine, the person I most want to be. My sister has a charmed life. She’s in college and loves it. She’s so beautiful; photographers stop her on the street to ask to take her photo. Her whole life shines before her like a star she could wish upon. She’s going to get her degree, just one credit left, then she will work, and travel and live by the ocean and be a writer, something she’s already amazingly talented at. And, best of all, like always, she promises to take me with her when she does.
But suddenly, my sister begins locking herself in her room, sobbing, not even coming out for dinner. “She’s got a stomach ache,” my mother tells me. When I know on my sister’s door, she doesn’t answer. One day, I just open the door, and there she is, curled into a comma on her bed, sobbing. ”What’s wrong?” I keep asking, but she just cries harder, and when I ask my mother, she shakes her head and says sharply, “It’s not your business.”
But I love my sister and that makes it my business. She’s always taken care of me, made sure I was okay after a dance when the boy I liked danced with my best friend, given me her coolest, hippest clothes when she’s done with them, and even taken me to the local clubs that would never let me in otherwise. “Let me help,” I beg her and she turns over so her back is to me. “What could possibly be so terrible?” I ask, “What is it? Tell me so I can help,” I beg her, and then she turns around and sits up and I see the misery mapped in her face.
“I’m pregnant,” she says.
I sink down on the bed. I know she has a boyfriend, but I don’t much like him because he’s condescending, telling her how she looks better in tailored clothes than the hip Indian prints she prefers, giving her a list of books he thinks she ought to know, even though she reads all the time and doesn’t seem to much like the titles he gives her. But my parents like him, especially my mother, who keeps telling my sister that if she “plays her cards right,” she could be married and settled by next year. She could be taken care of. “She can take care of herself,” I say, but my mother ignores me. “A woman needs a man,” she says.
I don’t think that’s true, but even if it was, where is he? Since my sister’s begun crying, he hasn’t been by our house or even called her. Shouldn’t he be with her now? I know enough not to ask her that question, to make her sadder. Instead, I ask “What are you going to do?” and she swipes at her eyes. “I can’t have a baby now,” she says.
But my mother, and Deb, my sister’s boyfriend’s mother know what to do. They take over. Deb lives in Baltimore, where abortion, under certain circumstances, is legal. “I know people,” she tells my mom. The two of them plan it all out, while I creep into the far bedroom and listen in on the extension, holding my breath so they won’t know I’m there. And then finally, my sister gets on the line and I hear the plan and it all makes me want to scream, though my sister is so silent that my mom has to say, “Are you still there? Are you hearing all this?” My sister will have to prove that she’s abandoned by the father and by her own family. She will have to say that she has no recourse, that she is becoming psychotic and will kill herself if she cannot get rid of this baby she doesn’t want. She should scrape a razor across her wrists, not the right way, the vertical way that can kill you, but horizontal, just enough so it will look like she means business. Maybe she could even say she has no idea who the father is. I listen to them talking, practicing and when my mother hangs up, and then my sister, I quickly move to my room, bumping into my mother.
“I know what’s going on,” I say and my mom stiffens. “I heard,” I say.
“They only had sex once, you know,” my mother blurts, and I blink at her astonished that that is the one thing she chooses to tell me now. At 17, I actually know about lust because I’ve been lying all summer about working at a day camp, and instead hightailing it to my boyfriend’s empty house so we can have sex all day long, using the condoms he steals from his older brother. “When is she having the abortion?” I ask and my mother’s mouth becomes a line.
“It’s not an abortion,” she snaps. “Don’t call it that. It’s a D & C.” She enunciates the letters carefully, as if she wants me to memorize them.
Everything changes then. My parents don’t talk about it. My sister won’t talk about it, no matter how much I plead and when I ask what I can do, she says, “You can leave me the fuck alone.”
I don’t get to go to Baltimore with my parents and my sister, though I desperately want to. When she and my parents come home, everyone is silent and angry, and my sister goes back to her bed and I go into her room to get whatever story she’s willing to tell me.
It’s a horror story. Her boyfriend had stayed in Boston, living his life, finishing college in the city, working, and my parents stay in a hotel, she goes all by herself to a doctor’s office in a strange town she doesn’t know all by herself. She has to talk about how alone she is, how she has no money, how she is hearing voices, even now, because of the stress, but she isn’t sure the doctor believes her. She shows him her wrists, which she scraped with a razor that morning so it might look as if she tried to kill herself, but the doctor looks mildly at her wrists and says that looks superficial. “So I smashed my head against the wall,” she tells me. “Then he said yes to me.”
Alone and young and terrified, she’s let into the hospital, the girl who has no one and nothing, they think, though my parents and Deb are just a half hour away, busy plotting her future. She’s put under and gets the D & C, which of course, is really an abortion. She wakes up and the first thing she does is put her hands on her belly. A handsome young doctor comes in and sits beside her all night, talking, then flirting, and half of her hopes he will ask her out and whisk her away to another country with him, and the other half is so shamed, she wishes for a blindfold. He leaves and then a nurse briskly comes in and tells my sister that some day, maybe a year later, maybe sooner, my sister will think of this day and wonder what her baby would have been like, and that is when my sister screams and screams and screams.
My sister goes back to her old life, but not really. It still has to be a secret, a “tell no one” moment, and she’s changed, as if her skin has hardened into a shell. She doesn’t want to walk to Belmont and take a subway to shop in the city with me. Movies with me are out of the question. “You can go back to your old life,” I tell her. I hope she’s going to break up with her boyfriend. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” I tell her. “It was the right choice.”
But she looks miserable, and my parents act as though my sister still has to somehow pay, as if the abortion isn’t a necessary freedom; instead, it’s a kind of punishment for having sex, for wanting to have it. “You’ve had your fun,” my mother tells her.
“Get birth control,” I advise and my mother repeats that my sister and her boyfriend only had sex once. “You don’t plan on it!” she says, as if it is something terrible. For my sister, it is. She drops out of school. My parents push her to marry this boyfriend. “But why?” I say. “She doesn’t have to! There’s no baby!”
My sister is so different. Something was lost here. Not just a pregnancy, but something deeper in my sister. She marries the boyfriend I don’t like and I cry at her wedding because I keep thinking: you don’t have to do this. You have a choice. But, she seems happier now. She’s moving forward.
The next day, I go to a doctor and get fitted for an IUD.
Then, it’s twenty-some years later. Hurray! Abortion is legal. Birth control is plentiful and everyone I know is on it because we all happily want to have sex with whomever we please, when we please, and we all want to decide if or when we want to have kids. Still no birth control is 100% and a few of my friends get pregnant, and because they are alone, or they have no money, or any number of reasons, they have abortions. Safe, clean abortions from private doctors. From Planned Parenthood. No one dies. Lives resume for them.
Still, It’s never easy. I watch relationships break up because the woman is too broken afterwards to sustain a relationship. Because the father feels guilty or changed his mind, or maybe because he realizes that it is not his decision to make at all, it’s hers.
So what about me, how do I fit into this? What’s my abortion or not abortion story?
I’m happily married, pregnant with our first child. We have a home and jobs we love and enough money, we hope. I sing to the baby. I keep my hands on my belly and I eat only fruits, vegetables and grains. (Giving up chocolate is hard.) I sail past the third month when everything is supposed to be fine, and I tell everyone, even strangers. One woman at the job where I am working, who knows I am pro-abortion, says quietly, “Bet you think different about abortion now, don’t you? Bet you felt that baby was a person the second you knew you were pregnant, didn’t you?”
I stare at her and then I tell her that I think that women really give birth twice, the first time you claim the baby inside of you—if you ever claim it and want it–and when it arrives.
“Rightttt,” she says in disbelief.
I’m four months pregnant, just before the amnio, getting a sonogram, when my doctor goes quiet. “What’s wrong?” I ask and that’s when I see the flat line.
Of course I fall apart. This baby was wanted. Needed, maybe my last chance because I am older, a high-risk mom. My doctor is kind. He tells me I can deliver if I want, (a dead birth!) but he suggests that I don’t. Instead, he wants to give me a kind of D and C, put me under as if I am dreaming, and when I hear that word, I think of my sister and her abortion that my mother would only call a D& C, the soak of shame in our household.
It’s still a choice for me, and this time it isn’t about sex at all.. I can deliver a dead fetus induced, or I can have a D & C. I chose the D & C.
They do the operation the next day, and for two weeks afterwards, I cannot get out of bed. I cannot eat. Jeff sits besides me holding my hand, telling me it is going to be all right. I’ve never felt a loss like this, a wound that keeps opening.
And then we get the autopsy results. My baby had so many problems that even if it had managed to live and be born, it wouldn’t have survived more than two months. The baby had faulty lungs, a badly damaged heart, and Down syndrome. Jeff and I curl up on the bed and hold each other. If the baby had lived, if we had known about the damage, would we have opted for abortion? How could we have gotten rid of the baby? But how could we have not? The baby would have suffered. The baby would not have lived. We would have depleted all our savings in medical care. I think about choice, how impossibly difficult it would have been to decide, how impossibly difficult to say yes to all that misery, how impossibly difficult to say no, too. But it would have been a choice. My choice.
Years pass. I have a son (!) Roe vs. Wade is on the chopping block, already bleeding. I can’t help but think that this time, abortion isn’t about sex or controlling our own body. This time it’s about fear of women because they hold power, because they can make choices now. But out lives are not a story that men—or anyone else but us—should get to tell.
So here is mine.
Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times Bestselling author of Pictures of You, Is This Tomorrow, Cruel Beautiful World and an as yet untitled novel, which should be out around 2019 if she is lucky. She is a book critic for People, The San Francisco Chronicle, and the Boston Globe and she finally got a film agent and has written a pilot and two scripts Visit her at www.carolineleavitt.com