My upcoming birthday brings with the usual set of mixed emotions: happiness as I reflect on all that filled this last year, and all that may be in next; trepidation, as I recognize that the steps I have left to walk have become fewer. This year, however, it carries a greater weight, as I think back to where I was last August. When I came home from Switzerland three weeks after my birthday last year, the last thing I wanted to hear was talked from family and friends about a belated celebration, or anything of birth. My birthday had been spent alone overseas with the suspicion that I was pregnant. I had been suspecting this for weeks, but didn’t have the time to take care of it one way or another before I left the country. I would be getting an abortion anyhow, and not knowing much about the procedure, figured it wouldn’t make a difference if I waited the month until I returned.
My suspicions were confirmed the following day. The next week was a whirlwind for me. A few pregnancy tests later the pharmacist stopped me to ask what was going on. I explained I needed to be certain, though I already was. By the time she confirmed this for me I had already been undergoing a change of heart. Apathy toward an imminent abortion developed into excitement—I decided I would do what to me had been the unthinkable and would undergo the pregnancy and raise my child.
I immediately fell into the comfort of carefully selecting my food, cutting out alcohol and substances, and preserving not just myself but this new creature as well. There were disagreements with the man involved as we talked on the phone for over an hour about what we would do, but at that point I knew the only “we” I would let be involved would be the child and I, and I did not worry.
It wasn’t long before I felt that something had gone wrong. I knew what I was: I had broken one of the promises I had made to it, smoking half a cigarette during the hectic phone call the night before, and I was being punished. I left class early to hurry back to my room, unsure if I was talking to it or the stars but assuring it, or someone, that it could not leave. Of course, it didn’t work. In the morning it was gone. I looked at it, flushed the toilet, and immediately walked to class. The mechanicalness of those actions still haunts me; the casual “good mornings.” I couldn’t tell anyone of what had just happened. Telling acquaintances of what your body expels down a toilet isn’t often a subject one brings up in small talk.
The man involved- I’m reluctant to use the word “father,” as I’m sure I would be even if the pregnancy had not been terminated- did not call me back that night. After all, it was done with. No big deal. What was there to say, anyway? There isn’t much to remember of the rest of my time abroad except embarrassing myself by crying when I’d see babies, or children in general.
Back home, some of the friends I told would initially laugh, thinking I was joking—after all, I was a feminist! And not just someone who dabbled in pop feminism, but a Real Feminist! What would I want a baby for? Wouldn’t I have proudly gotten my abortion and never looked back?
Others told me it was probably for the best as I sipped on my beer; if I was going to be so emotional about the loss, maybe I wasn’t strong enough to be a mother. Additionally, I was just beginning grad school, and you can’t be a student and a mother, they implied, ignoring the achievements of so many women who do balance both, and perpetuating our norms of what a mother is and is not supposed to be.
If abortion was something I “was supposed to” get, I questioned how much of a “choice” it really was; immediately feeling disheartened not just because I realized that wasn’t much of a choice for me, but because it suddenly became clear that the “choice” many women make to get an abortion is the result of being situated in a society that does not accommodate them, let alone any children they would have. Is abortion really a choice when it is the result of not being able to afford the costs of childcare? When I began to pull myself together I knew I would have to look beyond myself and that summer; as someone who is well aware of not just the privileges she has lacked but the privileges she has held, I knew this feeling of isolation and distance from pop feminism’s platform on reproductive rights was far from being specific to me. I was sadly correct.
I quickly felt abandoned by the feminism I had known.
“Can you afford a large family?” If not, your choice is to go without.
The abortion question was not the only one I encountered in reflecting upon what happened. In the month after the loss, there were moments when I would finally do something besides smoke a cigarette in my bed, and it was during this time that I would sleuth the internet for some answer as to what I did wrong. The hope was, I suppose, that finding this out would additionally allow me to step back, fix my error, and undo the loss. There were a number of possibilities I came across. Maybe I had a hormonal imbalance. Maybe a gluten allergy. Maybe I didn’t deserve it. Maybe it was my improper (sporadic) use of hormonal contraceptives.
As someone who has spent most of her years since development off of hormonal contraceptives, I have been inundated with pressure to go on the pill nearly every time I enter a doctor’s office, even for care unrelated to my reproductive system. This in itself is not something that concerns me; in fact, the access to these methods of birth control still remains important to me as a feminist. What does alarm me, however, is the utter lack of information that has come with each of these offers to write me a prescription. There is never a mention of other birth control methods, such as the IUD, and there is never any discussion regarding the numerous side effects oral contraceptives have.
Though I will never be certain why things turned as they did, a pharmacist I spoke with was shocked when I suggested that it could have been from the oral contraceptives. He told me that there were plenty of stories of women who had taken the pill improperly and found themselves with a child nine months later, and that once pregnant, the pill had no effect on the outcome of the pregnancy.
This is in part true, but fails to take into account what happens to the womb itself. Hormonal contraceptives generally prevent the fertilization of an egg, but should this go awry there remains little in the womb for the fertilized egg to implant itself into. Of course, every body operates differently, which is why some may have difficulties in conceiving one year after going off the pill while others will give birth to a healthy child having only missed two pills in their pack. But in a time when we have pregnancy tests that detect a pregnancy even a week before the missed period, one might think there would be more information available on the matter to appease at least part of the stress that comes with discovering a pregnancy and a miscarriage only a few weeks, or even days, of each other.
I don’t believe these doctors and pharmacists to be corrupt individuals taking bribes from the pharmaceutical industry, but part of something far more potent; capitalism’s effects on both hegemonic feminism and the healthcare industry has led to a widespread ideology in which the questioning of what few reproductive rights we have is seen as an affront to women’s rights.
“That kind of hormonal birth control isn’t part of the reproductive justice movement,” a feminist scholar and advocate of reproductive justice once told me, startled that I had brought it up alongside the generally accepted critique of Norplant, administered by the state to women of color and often leading to infertility. My critique of the former, however, was not even of the health complications it too can cause (though certainly of an entirely different nature than Norplant), but only that there are many intricacies that come with the pill that women are not educated upon when prescribed it. Does it go against feminism to call into question a push for pill access that has come without a corresponding motion to educate its users of its many effects?
Women should be educated upon the pill’s effectiveness in family planning, as we generally are, as well as how it can clear one’s skin, reduce cramps, or lessen the effects of menopause. We need to know it can cause blood clots, increase the risk of some cancers, and decrease the risk of others. It can enlarge breasts and enlarge the waistline. We should be administered the pill only upon learning of those who have fought for its accessibility and the Puerto Rican women who served as lab rats for the pharmaceutical industry at its dawn. We need to know it can leave the walls of a uterus too weak to uphold a fertilized egg. It can, as pregnancy tests become more advanced, lead to a positive test of what is certain to lead to a menstruation that appears no different than any other. For some women, there would be no difference or loss here; the same goes for how many may perceive abortion, particularly when induced via pill. This is a valid belief so long as it is a woman’s own belief about her own body. The beliefs of the woman who defines the zygote as child in her own body, however, and who has already bridged a connection with it, are also valid. If autonomy is what we feminists are striving for, why does the latter remain taboo?
We must stop viewing her choices about her body—and lack thereof—as threats to a political momentum, and please, we must stop with the taunting. Laughing at photographs of sonograms only belittles the joy so many have felt when conceiving a child—what they define as child for themselves is a personal connection, not one that must be adopted by ever woman and legal statute. Similarly, belittling motherhood or any women’s work is a far cry from where our feminisms should be. If being both a student or professional and a mother is a challenge, perhaps the answer isn’t to preach against the latter but to fight against this mutual exclusivity. This would not be to pressure women to do both but to give us something we are too often stripped up: choice. It is often argued that the self-proclaimed “pro-life” movement does nothing for life, only birth. While I agree with this claim I also question how much mainstream feminism does for choice.
As the recent Hobby Lobby case demonstrated, women’s reproductive choices are under perpetual attack. What it also showed us, however, was that the corporate sponsored feminism at the forefront of the battle believes itself to have the capability of determining what is and is not life or loss. To claim that there is no loss in the loss of an embryo is not empowering even to those of us who may agree; it is stripping us of the option to define our bodies and our emotions for ourselves.
Similarly, we must not suppress the voices of women who do choose to get abortion with some trepidation, or who later reflect on the experience with some degree of sorrow. Instead of admitting that the religious right’s notion of a “post abortion stress syndrome” may echo the truth of some women’s experiences, though certainly not all, the pro-choice movement turns to “science” and a panel of “experts” to say this is not the case. While feminist thought often questions such notions of “objectivity,” apparently it can be used when political gain may be had. Further, these experts went on to say that “women are hypersensitive to the political climate,” as psychotherapist Dana Dovitch claimed in a 2001 Ms. article, impressively making an argument that both uses stereotypes of women and implies that everything will be alright if we uphold and fortify certain legislation. Apparently these poor, hypersensitive women are less aware of their feelings than these experts, who seem to operate in a society in which women are not pressured to abort but make the choice because they “want to.”
Admitting and embracing that abortion may be a painful experience should not be seen as a slap in the face to the movement to maintain decriminalization; life is chockfull of sorrowful moments and tough decisions, and to admit this has nothing to do with our legislature. A disavowal of the multitude of women’s experiences in favor of an exclusive political agenda is a maneuver of the very ideology feminism should be weary of, not staunchly advocating. While writing this I found myself wanting to preface and end each paragraph with a statement of my dedication to ensuring decriminalized and accessible abortion, as well as accessible birth control. The portrayal of the mainstream stance of reproductive rights has become so rigidly enforced that to dare questioning any aspect of it could be mistaken for complete disbandment.
Even more common than abortion, it is estimated that half of pregnancies end in miscarriage. While the majority of these take place before the 12-week mark, and often before a period is even missed, for every pregnancy you have witnessed how many miscarriages have been spoken of? Even accounting for the unknown miscarriages, or the miscarriages women felt no emotional connection to, or the miscarriages that weren’t really miscarriages because the women did not define them as such, we must remember that we likely know at least one person who has grieved over such a loss.
As I began writing this I questioned what pen name I should use, or how to disguise my identity. Confessionalism is not something new to me, but breaking the silence surrounding miscarriage is. While I’m not the first woman to do so I am certainly one of a very few. Even still, nearly a year later, and again, as a staunch feminist, there is a deep-rooted shame that stays with me. It comes from feeling your body kill something even as you try to stop it, only to find you have no control. It comes from the proximity of it being just two gametes mingling in utero, the proximity to the sexual act, something inappropriate. It comes from the idea that it wasn’t really a child so early on, so there was no real loss.
My personal experiences are just that, and in no way represent the movement for reproductive justice as a whole, if at all. Women of Color such as Dorothy Roberts and Andrea Smith have been critiquing the pro-choice movement long before I knew anything of it, and through them there exists a wealth of knowledge as to the systemic oppressions on reproductive choice not just by way of gender, but its intersections with race, class, and ability. I will likely never be sterilized, be portrayed as a “welfare queen,” be shackled when giving birth, or see embryos aborted for being like me as the disabled community continues to witness. I have, however, found a refuge in their feminisms that hegemonic feminism could not offer me, and with it comes a sense of both comfort and urgency as there is much work left to be done.
So how can we move forward in the everyday? Compassion. Don’t be afraid to speak up, and more importantly, don’t be afraid to listen. When stepping aside from mainstream reproductive issues, it may initially feel hopeless; what can an outsider do to stop sterilizations, or the shackling of female inmates giving birth in prisons? Reproductive choices and non-choices are complicated, and will continue to be so even as we maintain legislative action in our favor. What we can do in the meantime, however, is create safe spaces for women to honestly talk about their experiences; even if not all women will have the option of true reproductive choice in the imminent future, the least we can do is to strive for women to have the choice to vocalize their experiences without stigma or shame from within our feminist communities.