Just about the time George Bush donned the National Guard uniform that bought him a reprieve from combat in a war that he claimed to support, I found myself pregnant.
A smart, sophisticated New York private school girl, I misread a purloined copy of a 1940s book on marriage that my parents had relegated to a remote shelf in my father’s study. Its author–a physician, I recall, with a distinctly Germanic name–presented the details of the “rhythm method” with the precision and disinterested authority of a Mercedes repair manual. I struggled and failed to determine the correspondence between the terra incognita of my adolescent body and the ideal described by the learned doctor.
At the time, there was a gaping chasm between the hype of the “sexual revolution” and information about or access to contraception. I had one brave classmate who ventured downtown to the Margaret Sanger Clinic, terrified that her visit there would brand her with an indelible sign of wantonness, but she was the exception. My decidedly laissez-faire parents assumed that if I were to engage in the unnameable, I was too smart to get pregnant. The “fog of sex” obscured the obvious fact that knowing the names of Louis XIV’s cabinet ministers does little to prevent the coupling of sperm and egg.
The moment I told my parents that I was pregnant (a story in itself), it was clear that their goal was to undo what had been done as quickly as possible so that I might retain my place in line. In the pre-Roe 1960s, if a woman wanted an abortion, she had two “choices”: She could burrow underground searching for an illegal abortion or she could present herself to a hospital review board for a “therapeutic” abortion. The former was a terrifying and dangerous process. The latter was a carefully guarded and cautiously administered policy, in which the patient was required to show that carrying the pregnancy to term would endanger her mental or physical health.
I hate to think what it took for my father to call his longtime friend and former roommate at Harvard, Dr. N., who was by then the head of OB/GYN at a major hospital in the Midwest. My first trip ever west of New Jersey landed me in a hospital bed in his maternity ward. Dr. N. informed me that I would be interviewed by two psychiatrists, to whom I must report suicidal feelings about having a baby. Primed by my mother, I dutifully answered “yes” to the questions that would open the door to the operating room.
I had my abortion; we flew home the next day. I can’t say that I resumed the life my parents had saved me for gracefully. Nevertheless, I was armed with a prescription for birth-control pills from my mother’s European-born doctor, who deemed the fog of sex a peculiarly American hypocrisy.
Unlike many of my contemporaries, I did not end up butchered in a back alley or consigned to early single motherhood. Nor did I have to endure the pain and shame of a sequestered pregnancy only to turn over the child I had borne to a nameless, faceless future. My place in the upper-class pantheon remained secure because favors were done, slates were wiped clean, the fog ushered back in.
Going through my mother’s papers after her death last winter, I found a condolence letter sent to her by Dr. N. on my father’s death fourteen years ago. After paying tribute to my father’s intelligent goodness, Dr. N. confessed that over the years he had come to regret the favor he had done for my father. It was not a matter of the morality of abortion itself. Rather, Dr. N., now in his 80s, had concluded that allowing me to have an abortion had further compromised his position as gatekeeper in a system that was itself compromised.
The favor Dr. N. did for my father required that he, in turn, ask others to compromise. It wasn’t just that the psychiatrists and other members of the hospital staff were asked to treat mine as a legitimate abortion when they knew that it wasn’t. What really troubled him was that, because therapeutic abortions were meted out according to an implicit quota system, the abortion I had was an abortion that another woman–perhaps a mother whose body could not bear another child or a woman with precarious mental health–did not have. Women whose fathers or husbands or boyfriends did not have a gatekeeper willing to do them a favor were forced to risk their lives or their health in order simply to survive.
Dr. N. did not suggest that my fate should have relegated me to the back alley or enforced motherhood. Rather, he expressed his moral disquietude about a long-ago decision that traded on class status. He had rescued me but left some other pregnant woman adrift.
Ben Barnes, the Texas pol who did a favor for another father, recently confessed (on that doomed 60 Minutes segment) his own regrets about insuring that our current President serve stateside duty while his less-favored contemporaries were placed in the line of fire. The perspective afforded by the passage of time enabled Barnes to see the unfairness in his decision to load the dice in an upper-crust craps game staged on the backs of vulnerable young men. Like Dr. N., Ben Barnes (whatever his motives) was moved to come clean about his complicity in maintaining the fog of class. At the very least, the President should join me in acknowledging that we were its beneficiaries.