Wed Feb 22, 2012 at 04:42 PM PST
I’m much more of a commenter than a blogger on Kos, but the issues surrounding women’s health, birth control and abortion have been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve refrained from writing a diary because I didn’t feel I had anything to say that someone else hadn’t already said better and more forcefully. However, I’ve realized over the past few weeks that the history of women’s lives before and after legal birth control and abortion is worth recounting.
When I was in college, I was part of a group of women who maintained access at women’s clinics when anti-abortion protesters were trying to block women seeking abortion, contraception and, ironically, pre-natal care, from the clinics. We would go to any of the Los Angeles area clinics where we heard the anti-abortion protestors were. We were different ages and from different parts of the city, but standing outside, putting our bodies between the protestors and the women patients,we got to know each other very well. Judy’s story has always haunted me. With her permission, I’ll recount it.
Judy was born in 1950 to an east coast Irish Catholic family. Her father worked outside the home. Her mother, with six children, kept house and raised the children. Her extended family was huge. When she was 12, her mother’s brother, 10 years older than Judy, began to molest her.
Like a lot of girls of that time, Judy didn’t really understand what sex was, let alone what was happening to her. She liked the attention but also felt very ashamed and had no way of talking to her mother about what was going on. At 13 she started getting sick, not just in the mornings, but all day long. Her mother took her to the doctor who examined her and realized that Judy, who had not yet actually gotten her first period yet, was pregnant.
The doctor and her mother questioned her and the truth of what Judy’s uncle was doing with her came out. Judy remembers the doctor being very kind to her and telling the nurse to “talk to her mother.” He left the room and the nurse made it clear that there was an option other than childbirth should they want it. Judy recounted how her mother said she thought that would be the right thing, but that they would have to pray about it.
From the doctor’s office, Judy and her mother went to their parish priest. Her mother tearfully recounted what the doctor had said and what Judy had said happened. Her mother was afraid that if her husband found out that he would kill her brother. She told the priest about the “other option” the nurse had told them was possible.
At this point, the priest, who had been kind and comforting up to this point became cold and harsh. He said what the nurse had been alluding to was an abortion which was both illegal (this was 1963) and a mortal sin. There was no way it could be considered. He told Judy she was not to tell her father how she got pregnant, that if she did, she would be responsible for her father hurting or even killing her uncle. Judy would be sent to St. Anne’s, a Catholic maternity home for unwed mothers in a city about fifty miles away, have her baby and the child would be put up for adoption.
Judy didn’t understand everything that her mother and the priest were discussing, but she knew she didn’t want to be sent away, didn’t want to have a baby and was terrified. She cried and begged her mother to do anything to let her stay at home. The priest told her and her mother there was nothing else they could do, assured them both it would be alright.
Judy was upstairs when her mother told her father she was pregnant and wouldn’t say how it had happened. Judy’s father yelled at her mother but never demanded Judy tell him how she had gotten pregnant at 13. When she was telling me the story, she said she didn’t know how she would have answered him had he asked — it just wasn’t a conversation she could imagine them ever having and besides, she wasn’t entirely sure how she had gotten pregnant, her body and sex were outside her understanding.
Judy did know, however, with a burning passion, that she didn’t want to have a baby and didn’t want to be sent away from her mother. She kept pleading with her mother to take her back to the nurse, that the nurse had promised to help. When that failed, Judy tried to kill herself and / or the baby by throwing herself down the stairs. She succeeded only in breaking her arm. At that point she was sent away to St Anne’s where she lived until her baby was born.
Because she was suicidal, she was watched all the time and not allowed above the ground floor. She was not allowed to be alone with anything long or sharp, but did try, after talking with some of the other unmarried girls, to self-abort by pushing her hand as far inside herself as she could. When she was caught she was made to sleep tied down to the bed. Judy was sick throughout her pregnancy and kept in bed for most of the last two months of it.
The birth itself was an agony. Her mother wasn’t there — she was among strangers. The pain was so terrible she screamed until the doctor finally had her put under. When she woke up, the baby was gone. She was told the child was a boy. She told the nurses she didn’t want to see him. He was taken away and she was told he had been adopted.
After she recovered and was sent home, her pregnancy and the baby were never spoken about by anyone. She said she never felt close to her mother again. Judy left home the week she graduated from high school and moved across the country from her family, as far away as she could get. She never went home again and never spoke to anyone in her family, didn’t go home even for her parents’ funerals. In the 1980s, her son tried to contact her through an attorney, but she refused the contact, not wanting to tell him he was the product of child rape, incest and forced child birth. As Judy said, whatever he thinks can’t be as bad at the truth.
When we talked about why abortion had to be kept legal and accessible to all women (and girls too), Judy told us that as terrible as being molested had been, being forced to be pregnant and give birth against her will was far worse. It was something, she believed, she’d never get over.
This is what the anti-abortion forces want. They want women and girls to have to go through pregnancy and childbirth against their will. We don’t need to read Margaret Atwood to know what that might be like. There’s living memory of 13 year old girls who were tied to beds to keep them from killing themselves or aborting when they didn’t want to carry.
As Judy told me 20 some years ago, never, ever again.