To Weep, Wholeheartedly : Abortion Rally Awakens Long-Suppressed Feelings

From The New Yorker

A woman we know writes:

On the way down to Washington to attend the march for abortion rights, I passed through Elizabeth, N.J., where more than 20 years ago I had an illegal abortion. I won't go into the details of my situation then except to say that I had been forced to make a choice, and did, but it was a choice made on a sea of helplessness. It was not something I could talk about at the time, and I went through the experience silently and alone.

On Sunday morning, I walked to the Washington Monument, where the rally before the march was held, and my first impression on seeing hundreds of thousands of people gathered there was of the continuing emergence of women from decades of silence and isolation. My second impression was that there must have been thousands of individual stories comparable to mine which had brought people there. I felt an extraordinary comfort as my story took its place among them. The authority that day lay not with the speakers but with the listeners, in their inwardness and variousness. There were many men in the crowd, and they were welcome, but the main people that day, it seemed to me, were the women.

In the normal course of life, a woman's body is invaded and used and used up in a way that has to do directly with her reproductive system. In her childbearing years, a woman's bodily life is always pressing on her consciousness, through menstruation, and through the ever-present possibility of pregnancy, if not pregnancy in fact. It's a matter of course for a woman to have a special doctor, whom she visits regularly, to look after her reproductive system and the many small problems that can arise there--not to mention the large ones. The life of a woman's body is written in stretch marks, missing breasts, a scarred uterus, the scar of a Cesarean birth, of a hysterectomy. And there are dark experiences like incest, rape, and my own illegal abortion, which for many make up a shadow history. All this experience was present on the Mall. What that presence was saying, it seems to me, is that abortion is an issue of bodily sovereignty. The jurisdiction of the government ends at the boundary of my body. Within that boundary I am the sovereign. I choose what values govern there. I can say, as many say, that within my kingdom a fetus has unconditional protection. I can say, as I do say, that abortion represents an irreplaceable human loss but that there are times in my kingdom when that loss must be endured. I do not say, as the most radical feminists do, that an abortion has the same significance as a tonsillectomy, or even less--that it is a form of birth control, no different from using a diaphragm or a contraceptive pill. Such a position puzzles me, because it seems to defy both the facts and the emotional truth as I have experienced it. Yet in my view the women who say this have an absolute right to do so, for every woman must be allowed to reign over her own body. And for the federal government the radical-feminist position is the correct one; for the government, that is, an abortion and a tonsillectomy should be equivalent, in the sense that the government should have no more right to deprive a woman of one than of the other. To me, there is some difference, but not much, between a government that says you can't have an abortion and a government, like China's, that in certain cases says you must.

The abortion issue relates to deeply personal levels of life which are rarely brought into the political arena. But the requirements of maintaining political momentum have tended to block those layers of feeling from which the issue arises in the first place. There was a small counter-demonstration at the Washington rally which deployed a kind of fetal pornography--pictures of aborted fetuses--and placards expressing paranoia and hate. There were also women praying. They were, I believe, really praying. Their gesture was incongruous with the rah-rah aspect of the march, and yet this praying arose from a level of feeling appropriate to the largeness of this issue. I disagreed with these women politically, but I also felt that they, and the sentiments they were expressing, belonged with us marchers, and not against us. I felt that their feelings, too, arose out of the female bodily experience. In fact, I was more comfortable with their sentiments than I was with some of the pro-choice rhetoric--especially the militant assertion that a woman's rights override the rights of a fetus. Full-grown, healthy human beings cheering for their precedence over the most vulnerable form of human life did not seem to me to be a glorious triumph. For me, the special meaning of the day, of my history in common with other women, was that I was able that evening to relive my experience in Elizabeth, N.J.--to remember the fierce, despairing love that I had felt for the vague half-being forming within me as I was driven blindfolded and alone to a motel; to remember how the men in attendance were lewd and flippant; to remember disappearing into the darkness of the anesthetic--and, remembering these things, to weep wholeheartedly for the first time.

"Notes and Comment" from Talk of the Town. The New Yorker, April 24, 1989. Reprinted by permission.

1989 The New Yorker Magazine Inc.

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