The year I graduated from high school, eight young women I knew had to drop out because they became pregnant. Some of them were careless, a few of them probably had no idea what they were doing, and all of them were unlucky. The year was 1969, before access to reliable birth control and before Roe v. Wade showed up to rescue us from the life-changing consequence of our youthful urges. Everything was about to change, but not in time to rescue my friends.
Until then, it was a girl’s responsibility to make sure sex didn’t happen, and it was a boy’s obligation to make sure it did. It’s a system of conflicting agendas as ancient, unreliable, and enduring as it is unjust. Some things never change.
Quick weddings were arranged to appease the angry fathers and mortified mothers. None of the young men who caused these unexpected pregnancies was expected to quit high school. Their lives, their college plans, and their future careers were too important to be cut short by a foolish, hormone-fueled decision. No, the unavoidable consequences of that same decision were born instead by the young women. The blame and shame always fell harder on them. As one friend angrily observed to me about her sister’s plight: “Boys will be boys, and girls will be blamed. And now she’s expected to marry that jerk.”
During my freshman year at the University of Washington, five young women I knew became pregnant. Three of them had enough money to travel to California where the Therapeutic Abortion Act (TAA) allowed a woman to terminate a pregnancy if carrying a baby to term would damage her physical or mental health. In other words, if you could demonstrate a convincing level of psychological despair – not difficult given the life-altering consequences of bearing a child – you were awarded the opportunity to resume your college career. But while they were off in California taking care of the problem, their boyfriends remained in school. Biology is a bitch.
The TAA was signed into law by Governor Ronald Reagan, one of a long line of morally flexible Republicans who have always managed to bend their beliefs whenever it became politically expedient. Years later, Reagan exercised his right to be morally flexible again when he became a champion of the “right-to-life” movement. Ironically, abortion was legalized in Washington state, two years before Roe v Wade, thanks in part to the support of Joel Pritchard and Dan Evans, two members of a noble but now extinct species known as moderate Republicans who possessed political principles and weren’t afraid to stand up for them.
When I went off to the UW, my parents insisted that I join a sorority. They figured it would be the safest and most morally rigorous living environment I could find at a big university in the big city. Shows what they knew! I thought I would hate it, and I did, much of the time. But not completely. Sorority life was a strange, sometimes surreal, but always illuminating experience. I felt like Jane Eyre in the orphanage: trapped but fascinated.
In the year that I lived there, I made a few lifetime friends, and mastered the arts of insubordination and passive resistance – both of which came in handy when I snuck out to join anti-war protests. To this day, I believe that every institution of higher learning should give an automatic three credits in sociology to anyone who spends at least one year living inside the weird world of fraternities and sororities.
There was a mating ritual in the Greek world that was called the “exchange.” Every third Friday evening, my “sisters” and I would present ourselves at a fraternity where each of us would get paired off with a “date,” and then we’d all embark on a group social outing.
Exchanges weren’t always awful. I remember one where we piled into a rented bus that took us to see Easy Rider at one of the downtown movie theaters. During the ride, the genial jock who was my “date” taught me how to bounce an orange off my bicep, which remained my favorite party trick for many years. On parting, I wished him luck in his upcoming football game against Stanford and went off to join my self-selected tribe of self-styled bohemians, who were drinking espresso, writing poetry, and plotting revolution at The Last Exit coffeehouse. Did I ever admit to any of those people that I lived in a sorority? Hell no.
There was another exchange early in spring quarter, where several sororities were invited to a party at the same frat house. I spent the required three hours there chatting with friends, arguing with a couple of pre-law eggheads, and partaking politely but judiciously of the repellent spiked punch, which was available to anyone and everyone, no matter their age or ability to hold their liquor. As usual, I left early, so I never learned until the next morning that one of my friends had drunk way too much, passed out, and was carried upstairs to a room where she was sexually assaulted by a handful of the bros.
Sexual consent is murky and difficult to define, because no two people involved in a dispute over it will ever agree about where consent ends and coercion begins. Abortion is equally murky and difficult to define. Is it a crime or is it a legitimate remedy? When does it cross over the line from being one thing and become another? The truth is that it always comes down to opinion and point of view. Given our inability to determine the answer with certainty, we are obligated to exercise and extend tolerance rather than mete out punishment when it comes to remedying unwanted pregnancies, because the two people involved pay very different costs for making the same mistake.
My unfortunate friend was left to find her own way home the next morning. The story about what “she did” quickly spread. No one was held accountable for what happened to her except for her. It was her fault for getting drunk in such a predatory environment. That was the way things worked back then, and as far as I can tell, things haven’t changed very much since then.
To add insult to criminality, the fraternity in question barred her from attending any of their future soirées. The next day, I vented my displeasure in person, with vivid enthusiasm, to the fraternity president. “Really? You banned her? Are you kidding? Here I was assuming that you and your “brothers” would be sending her sincere handwritten notes thanking her for the wonderful time they enjoyed at her expense while she was out cold. But instead, you’re condemning her. Imagine my disappointment, you pious asshole.”
That little speech got me banned as well, which, as you might imagine, didn’t break my heart.
The young victim’s parents showed up a few days later and took her home. I never heard what happened to her. In any case, she was done with life on Greek row, and so was I. When I returned to Seattle for my sophomore year, I moved into an apartment with some friends. A few months later, Referendum 20 passed, legalizing abortion, and the world changed for me and for all the other women who were lucky enough to live in Washington state in late 1970.
Six months after Referendum 20, I went through my first pregnancy scare on (or off) the heels of my first sexual encounter. My boyfriend and I were both 20, so by the sexual standards of the era, we were a pair of geriatric virgins. I thought I was safe because our little sexual adventure took place a day before my period was due. When it failed to arrive after three days, I made an appointment with a doctor, who prescribed what was then called the morning-after pill – along with a stern warning and a prescription for birth control pills – and sent me on my way, a relieved, happy, and sexually liberated human being.
My second unwanted pregnancy didn’t happen until a decade later. I was in a committed relationship, but no longer on the pill. My partner and I had been using a combination of two barrier methods – a system that worked well until it didn’t. I scheduled and paid for an abortion at a local clinic. It wasn’t a picnic in the park—abortion never is—but it was safe and legal, and my life went on. My partner and I eventually married and decided that we wanted to have children.
My pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, but the next one produced my first daughter. Two years later, I had another miscarriage. While lying in a hospital bed recovering from the inevitable sadness and disappointment, I realized something that was so obvious that I couldn’t believe it had taken me this long to figure it out: The female body doesn’t care about the legal rights or alleged personhood of fetuses. Sometimes she brings them to full term, and sometimes she spontaneously aborts them. (An obstetrician once described this to me as the body’s quality-control system.)
The female body does this without regard for what anyone, including the expectant mother or some random, clueless Congressman on the other side of the country believes. It doesn’t make sense to us, but the body doesn’t give a damn what any of us thinks. She doesn’t have to. She’s in control. She owns and operates the womb, so it’s her decision.
Maybe the body just likes to remind us that life is mysterious, and no matter how smart we think we are, we will never fully understand it. But this much I do understand, after having two intentional abortions, two spontaneous abortions and two daughters: Aborting a fetus – whether that decision is made by the body or the brain – is a morally neutral act.
Given that it’s impossible to determine with absolute certainty the exact point when a fetus is a person, arbitrary criminalization of abortion is a fundamentally inhumane act. Abortion is never always right and it’s never always wrong. If we consider ourselves civilized, wise, and compassionate people, then we must accept that truth. Which means we must always allow every woman to decide what will or will not happen inside her own body.
Try this thought experiment. Imagine we’re living in Mike Pence World, where abortion is always a crime. In that world, if a woman had an abortion and her partner supported her decision, wouldn’t he be subject to the same prosecution and penalties? If not, then why not? And isn’t it also possible that an angry or vengeful woman could lie about her partner’s support of her decision to end her pregnancy, thus subjecting him to wrongful conviction for aiding and abetting the crime? Just like with legal disputes over sexual coercion and rape, it would be her word against his. In which case, every fertile man would have to start asking himself the same question every fertile woman asks herself every time she has sex: “Do I feel lucky?”
And, of course, because Pence is such a standup guy, every man who fathers a child would be financially and legally responsible for raising it to adulthood. Describe how happy you would be living in that world. Limit your essay to two pages, double-spaced, and please refrain from profanity or whining.
If unwanted pregnancies happened in men’s bodies, immediate, safe, and probably government subsidized abortion would be easily available as one remedy to the problem. This is so obvious it hardly bears saying. I can’t think of an example in human history where the people on top have willingly given up their own liberty or personal autonomy for the betterment of society. But they never seem to have trouble asking the people on the bottom to make that sacrifice.
We’re all grownups; it’s time to stop kidding ourselves. The anti-choice argument is not about morality, it’s about power. The morality claim gets pushed to the front of the parade as a justification for commodifying women as if they were livestock. I’m saying that men are not qualified to make decisions about who gets an abortion and why. Grow a uterus, come back, and then we can talk.
In the meantime, we need to stop ranting and bloviating about how sinful and dangerous it is to allow women to decide whether they should bring children into the world. It’s a shamefully cheap and easy way to claim the moral high ground. Especially given the fact that, from Uvalde to Ukraine, we do such a lousy job of keeping children safe and alive after they’re born. Maybe it’s time for us to focus more of our time, resources, and energy on getting better at that.