In 1962, Sherri Finkbine, a star of TV’s Romper Room and a mild-mannered, thirty-year-old mother of four, found herself at the center of a maelstrom around abortion. Her doctor told her, pregnant with her fifth child, that the baby would very likely be severely deformed because she had taken thalidomide during her pregnancy. He recommended a “therapeutic” abortion, then done quietly by many doctors and hospitals following this kind of diagnosis.
Hoping to warn women about the dangers of this drug and help others in her position, Finkbine went public with her story. That was her first mistake. The doctors could operate freely only under the cover of silence, so her abortion had to be a secret. Now, in the light of day, a media firestorm provoked death threats against her and her family. The hospital, fearing the controversy, canceled her procedure. On August 17, 1962, Sheri Finkbine traveled to Sweden; the next day, she underwent her therapeutic abortion.
Finkbine was one of the first significant instances of a woman’s going on record to say, “I had an abortion.” That simple declaration is one of the hardest, most vulnerable things a person can utter. Over time, women’s speaking up and out about their own abortions has played a pivotal role in changing the law and the world as we know it today. For these women, the personal was political. I would one day find myself among them.
Abortion – legal or illegal, dirty or clean – has long magnetized women to feminism. In the early days of the women’s liberation movement, ladies found each other and the movement by telling the truth about their abortions. Even Gloria Steinem didn’t realize she was a feminist until she attended a hearing in a church basement where women were testifying about their own abortions. That historic event on March 21, 1969 was staged by the New York-based feminist group, Redstockings. To give you an idea of what they were up against in that era, a previous hearing the Redstockings had disrupted featured a panel of twelve men and one woman – a nun. These young feminists declared themselves the “real experts” on abortion because, as women, they were in danger of unwanted pregnancy and had actually experienced abortion.
Rosalyn Baxandall spoke first. She was terrified. When she got home, her grandmother called, having seen Ros on the news, and said, “You’ve had an abortion?” As Ros confirmed the information and braced herself to be scolded, her grandmother said, “Well, I have had six!” By April 1970, New York state passed the most liberal abortion laws in the country, beating Roe v. Wade by nearly three years.
On April 5, 1971, the French weekly newsmagazine Le Nouvel Observateur published the “Manifesto of the 343,” a petition of 343 French women, including Simone de Beauvoir, Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau, and Monique Wittig, declaring that they had all had abortions. A year later, Ms. Magazine‘s debut issue featured a similar “I Had an Abortion” petition, signed by 53 well-known women, including Gloria Steinem and Billie Jean King.
Less than a year after the Ms. petition, on January 22, 1973, Roe v. Wade was handed down, legalizing abortion through the first trimester (and with restrictions in the second) in all states. On January 22, 2003, the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Patricia Beninato was so frustrated that every time she turned on the television, she saw anti-choicers claiming that having an abortion leads directly to clinical depression that she decided to create ImNotSorry.net – a space for women to say that they’ve had abortions and aren’t going to apologize for it.
In the fall of 2003, I found Beninato and Baxandall – and all the women before them who had the courage to share their abortion experience – very inspiring. I’d never even been pregnant, but on January 22, 2004, feeling emboldened, I launched the I Had an Abortion Project. The first step was distributing T-shirts printed with the words I HAD AN ABORTION. At an event at the feminist bookstore Bluestockings, I invited women and men to come out about their abortion experiences. My friend, the filmmaker Gillian Aldrich, and I began interviewing women who’d had abortions for a film called I Had an Abortion. I wanted to destigmatize the experience, to point out that women who’ve had abortions aren’t awful women we don’t know; they are our mothers, sisters, aunts, friends, wives, and selves.
The next month, I was pregnant with my first son, and by the time Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge publicized the fact that Planned Parentood was selling the T-shirt, I was seven months along. The publicity (Limbaugh and Drudge led to Fox, CNN, and dozens of other outlets) provoked both a run on the shirts (hundreds sold overnight) and a painful debate over whether the shirt was brave and important or callous and cheap. (I think the shirt is potentially quite brave and important; certainly I advocate using casual “everyday” spaces to discuss critical and silenced issues.)
I was inundated with stories from women about their abortions and their lives. I heard mainly from people who were grateful to have something to honor an experience they were told they had to keep secret. Women on Waves, Dutch doctor Rebecca Gomperts’s radical project to provide abortions in international waters, created its own I HAD AN ABORTION T-shirts and bulletproof dresses as part of a larger art project about abortion. The project’s mission statement declared its hope that by “making the reality of abortion visible, change will be catalyzed.”
Our I Had an Abortion film debuted on the Roe v. Wade anniversary in 2005. The film featured ten women and ten funny, sad, frank, and complex stories of having a reproductive system and being female. I learned how diverse women’s experiences of abortion are – depending on many factors, including where they are in their lives when the pregnancy occurs. In 2007, two other documentaries, Silent Choices (Faith Pennick’s film about black women’s abortion experiences) and The Abortion Diaries (Penny Lane’s short centering on her own abortion as a teenager), began screening around the country, to great acclaim and gratitude from women and men.
And then the political became personal for me.
On March 22, 2010, three months after Angie Jackson, a twenty-seven-year-old mother in Florida, live-tweeted her abortion with RU-486 (causing another media firestorm), I bought a pregnancy test. My son Magnus was almost eight months; Skuli was five and a half. I would be forty in two months and was just getting my brain back and a handle on my responsibilities since I’d gotten knocked up seventeen months earlier.
I felt trepidacious. My period, which normally came about every three weeks, was late. I was a little edgy. My sense of smell was extra strong. I felt dizzy sitting on the couch watching the Tiger Woods South Park with my boyfriend. I wasn’t sure when the right time was to take a test, given that I knew I probably would not want to continue with the pregnancy. It was really the pregnancy more than anything else, I realized, that weighed on me. I could pretty happily imagine a little daughter named Effie gamboling around at age two in a ruffled dress, but I couldn’t imagine spending the next eight months feeling alternatingly nauseous and like a whale, followed by the rigors of birth, and then sleep deprivation as we got to know our newborn.
Maybe I’m just late, I thought to myself as I bought the test. And it’s better to know so I can be relieved and marvel at how paranoid I am – or figure this out. So, around 6:00 PM on a Sunday, while my boyfriend, BD, made bratwursts and salad and I showered Skuli and got Magpie into his PJs, I found time to pee on the stick. “Is that a tampon?” asked Skuli, in the bathroom with me, as always. “Gross.”
Within seconds, the little boxes began showing their Polaroid news: a little +. Positive. Pregnant. Normally, I considered that positive. This time, it felt wrong – not devastatingly sad or tragic, just something I couldn’t bear doing right then in my life.
The conversation with BD was wistful; he’d like more children. I was already having trouble meeting my obligations at work and with Skuli and Magnus. I didn’t want to offer my body to that process again.
I called my OB’s office at 9:00 AM, Monday. The nurse, Sally, called back to tell me “no one in the practice performs abortions.” This surprised me. Had I never inquired whether my doctor was pro-choice? Then Dr. G, my actual doctor, called back to say that actually Dr. K, who delivered Magnus and who was in their practice, did do abortions. Suddenly, I remembered a conversation I’d had with Dr. K right after Magnus came out. She had asked me what I did, and I’d said I mainly wrote about abortion; she’d said she did them and was really committed to providing them.
I made an appointment with Dr. K for Friday, March 26. That day, I went to her office at 1:00 PM and filled out paperwork. The receptionist was warm. I went into the examining room, was weighed, and had my blood pressure taken. Dr. K examined my uterus and did a pap culture and an internal sonogram. Back in her office, surrounded by drawings by her daughters, she gave me Mifeprex, otherwise known as RU-486 -the “abortion pill.” I swallowed the pill and felt … totally fine. Dr. K told me I would be good to go all night – no need to change my plans. “Really?” I asked, assuming I should lie in bed and read Play It as It Lays. “You’ll feel how you feel right now,” she said. “Tomorrow’s the bad part.”
I went to the pharmacy to get Vicodin, an antibiotic, and misoprostol, which, taken the next day, would start the contractions that would expel the contents of my uterus. The pharmacist – I don’t think I imagined this – glared at me and dropped the misoprostol on the counter. “That’s for that woman in trouble,” she muttered to her colleague. “What?” I said, feeling like I almost wanted to fight with her.
That night, I went out to dinner with friends and to a Spoon concert at Radio City. The next morning, I took the misoprostol. My plan had been to go hear Susan Faludi and Jack Halberstam speak at The New School and then take the pills, but I decided to get it over with earlier in the day. Until early 2006, women could take this drug vaginally, but due to increased instances of infection, it was now administered buccally. I dissolved the six pills in my cheeks for an hour and then swallowed the mess down with water. I took a Vicodin and got in bed.
Then came hours of contractions muted by painkillers, lots of blood and tissue, and the sweetness of getting to sleep during the day. By dinnertime, I was up and showered. A few days later, most of the blood had passed, though the bleeding lingered for nearly two weeks, like an extra-long period. After many years of connecting to complex emotions around ending a pregnancy, I wondered if I might have regret. I was surprised and relieved by how simple – emotionally and physically – the abortion had been.
“We have to give women healthy spaces to talk about their abortions,” Steph Herold, a twenty-something reproductive justice activist, told me in the fall of 2010. She had just launched the hashtag #ihadanabortion on Twitter, and the media was once again fanning the flames of controversy. Was Twitter an appropriate medium in which to talk about something so serious? Wasn’t this need to talk about one’s abortion simply a sign of a generation devoted to oversharing? Herold answered no, and smartly placed her own decision to speak out within a history of speaking out.
Today, women and men who share their abortion experiences do so in a different environment. Abortion is legal, so it doesn’t have the same historic impact that Sherri Finkbine’s or the Redstockings’ speak-outs had. Yet after several decades of speak-outs and attempts to come out about abortion, the stigma remains, proving that the high emotions around this issue aren’t neutralized so easily. Despite this difficulty, a profound purpose remains in speaking out. When each of us does so, abortion history transforms into a beautiful and rich collective memoir.
“I had an abortion” is important for me to say because I stand shoulder to shoulder with other women, people who believe in the right of all human beings to make decisions about their bodies and lives. Most important, I say I had an abortion out loud because my life is no shameful secret.
Excerpted, with permission, from F’em!: Goo Goo, Gaga, and Some Thoughts on Balls (Seal Press, 2011), by Jennifer Baumgardner.