Adapted from Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, by Katha Pollitt, © 2014 by Katha Pollitt. Published October 14, 2014, by Picador USA. All rights reserved.
I never had an abortion, but my mother did. She didn’t tell me about it, but from what I pieced together after her death from a line in her FBI file—which my father, the old radical, had requested along with his own—it was in 1960, so like almost all abortions back then, it was illegal. The agent who kept her file wrote that she was in the care of a physician for gynecological problems that spring, which I like to think was his chivalrous way of protecting her from further investigation, but perhaps he too was in the dark and only put down what he knew. For a while I was angry at her, the way one is angry at the dead for keeping their secrets till it is too late to ask questions, and the way one can be angry at one’s mother for having a life outside her child’s ken. I thought she owed me this bit of woman-to-woman realism and honesty, instead of, or at least in addition to, tales of the nine marriage proposals she had received by the time she met my father, and falling in love with him at first sight, and eloping with him three months later when she had just turned 21. Knowing about her abortion might have helped me. It might have given me a truer sense of life as a young, very romantic woman who had no idea what was what.
When I ask myself why I have been so preoccupied with abortion rights for so long, I wonder if learning about my mother’s abortion—its illegality, the fact that she didn’t tell my father, the unknowability of her reasons or her feelings or the experience itself—is part of the answer. I find myself wondering: Was whoever performed the procedure a real doctor? Was he kind to her? Respectful? Did he do his best not to cause pain? Did she take someone with her? I remember her talking with her friend Judy about how another woman they knew had “had a D&C,” which was often a euphemism for abortion back then, so maybe her circle of women steered her to a good practitioner. Maybe her friend Judy sat in the waiting room—if there was a waiting room—and took her home in a taxi afterward and made her a cup of tea. I hope so. It would have been so wrong if my tender, fragile mother had had to go through that all by herself.
What did it mean that my mother had to break the law to end a pregnancy? It meant that America basically said to her: It’s the twentieth century, so we’re going to let you vote and go to college, and have a family and a job—not a great job, not the one you wanted, because unfortunately that job is for men—and your own charge accounts at Bonwit’s and Altman’s and your own subscription to the Heritage Book Club, but underneath all that normal, forward-looking, mid-twentieth-century middle-class New York life is the secret underground life of women, and that you must manage outside the law. If you are injured or die or are trapped by the police, you’ll only have yourself to blame, because the real reason you are here on Earth is to produce children, and you shirk that duty at your peril.