Writing Roe, Writing Myself
Writing post-abortion is like a patchwork quilt. There is nothing to make sense of, and a reader unwilling to hold contradictions or unproductive conclusions may not make it to the end.
Roe v. Access
Norma McCorvey, aka Jane Roe, never had an abortion. She was raped by her mom’s cousin as a child; by her first husband as a teenager; and most probably by others. She had a number of unplanned pregnancies. She became a lesbian (or arguably always was one). She had an extremely broken and abusive relationship with her mother, who was an alcoholic, and their relationship never healed.
She was born three years before my mother, in Louisiana, and she died just over two years ago, in Texas. She was 69 when she died of heart failure. I think of my mom, 69 now. She had breast cancer, but is still living. My grandmother had ovarian cancer, and is also still living. I think of how all three of these organs are life giving organs, and two are a direct link to a child. I don’t see a coincidence in any sex, reproductive or relational related pain producing an equivalent illness, within any of the three of their lives.
When Norma McCorvey was pregnant with her third child and seeking an abortion, she was referred to two lawyers to be represented in the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case. She awaited trial as she awaited an abortion for her third pregnancy – and the abortion never came. She gave birth while the case was still in its proceedings. Eventually, she stated that she felt she was a pawn for the Roe v. Wade lawyers.
With all three of her children, she was scarcely the care provider; each was placed for adoption as a baby, the first without her consent. Toward the end of her life, she was recruited by the Catholic church to denounce abortion publicly and claim forgiveness for her sin of becoming involved in the pro-choice movement. She also denounced lesbianism at this time, having had a long-term relationship with a woman after she gave birth to her third child.
There is much to dig into in Norma McCorvey’s story. But for our current purposes, what Norma McCorvey, Jane Roe, can represent is a grand complexity of experience (largely abuse) and lack of choice, in which nothing less than a frank discussion of all of the uncomfortable factors that lead her to arrive at “wanting” an abortion would suffice. I don’t believe that abortion, though sought, would necesssarily have represented freedom in her context; in other words, it simply would have been the end to a pregnancy, and still remain a part of the legacy of abuse and trauma in her life. Arguably, I am wrong, and it would have produced feelings of empowerment and control over her life outcomes. Either way, however, I don’t believe that Roe’s story supports the access movement as it currently stands: a casual, celebrated, uncomplicated attitude toward a decision that is often none of the three.
Roe v. The Climate
Writing of the Arawak people, I quote Howard Zinn, historian and author of A People’s History of the United States, quoting Las Casas, a Catholic yet critical missionary at the time of Columbus:
“Marriage laws are non-existent: men and women alike choose their mates and leave them as they please, without offense, jealousy or anger. They multiply in great abundance; pregnant women work to the last minute and give birth almost painlessly; up the next day; they bathe in the river and are as clean and healthy as before giving birth. If they tire of their men, they give themselves abortions with herbs that force stillbirths, covering their shameful parts with leaves or cotton cloth; although on the whole, Indian men and women look upon total nakedness with as much casualness as we look upon a man’s head or at his hands.” (A People’s History of the United States, page 5).
Arguably, a vision of reproductive justice is described here: freedom of choice; healthy outcomes; gender equality. And it existed pre-capitalism. It is a stretch to imagine what true reproductive freedom would look like within our current system.
Within our current system, our minds and hearts are constrained. Like our uterus and surrounding, suspending ligaments – our pelvic floor muscles, our hip bones – we are tight and unable to expand and contract in an easy childbirth, because it is not easy. Decisions made within a context lacking freedom, full of economic pressure and mass-produced expectations, are not decisions at all – they are mental torture, they are unsolvable puzzles and unwinnable games of solitude and uncertain outcomes. Do I have enough money. Can/will/does my partner support me. Am I the right age. Am I mature enough or do I have a support system. Do I have somewhere to live. Can I do this and keep my job. (Not to mention, will my child be able to breathe or drink the water in ten years?) Putting A, B and C together are an unthinkable conquest that most pregnant people feel surprised or proud to accomplish, if they ever do. But nowhere in this system are we free.
Swallowing mifepristone pills of which we don’t understand the chemical makeup and may be against our deepest will – for the better, for her good, making the best decision for my child, thinking of her future, thinking of mine, being brave, being strong (but I don’t want any of this) – possibly, we don’t feel like we’re making an empowered and free choice. Possibly, we feel stripped of our strength; we hold death inside of us; our chest is surely crushed now; and it’s so hard to stand under collapse.
Gone are the days of the river, maybe romanticized, of the easy birth, of the self-administered herbal abortion, of free partnership, of communities.
On neither side are we free. Legal abortion or pro-life forced births and uncared for adoptions.
This world doesn’t understand me, and it doesn’t understand my grandmother, and it certainly doesn’t understand Roe.
Roe v. Generational Trauma
In my family, I am not the first woman to end a pregnancy, but rather one in a line of many. But how many of us made our own decisions? Where were we forced and where must we take responsibility? Or better asked, where were we repeating the trauma of our mothers and grandmothers and where were we making our own choices? In my attempt to break the cycle – of broken mother-daughter relationships – I repeated the cycle of pregnancy interruption – and before abortion was legal – of coerced adoption. Arguably, in an attempt to care for my prospective mother-daughter relationship, I broke a mother-daughter relationship. But also, I brought light to it. About one year after my very painful decision was made, family members started to drop hints about what my grandmother had shared, while high on pain pills, about giving birth to a son so many years ago – her first child – and placing him for adoption.
I shined light on this, on the weak and painful parts that needed to be examined; I called this painful legacy to come forth.
Roe v. My Grandmother
My grandmother is really what this piece is about.
My mom was born in 1945 and she was my Grandmother’s second child. I found this out through the grapevine – the fact that she had a first child, who was not with her; not my grandfather’s; not a part of the family. And I found it out not too long ago. While I was in México, about six months ago, all the pieces of the importance of it finally came together into my consciousness. I don’t know what age she was when she first got pregnant, and I don’t know if she would ever acknowledge it in her right mind. It may have been in high school or shortly after. I don’t remember and a comprehensible stream of information is hard to come by.
When I am told the story, never by her, who I can barely get to stay on the phone with me, I am told that my grandmother was always sneaking out with boys and that she was sent to a place for “wayward girls” after she got pregnant. I am told this by my mother, and by my uncles, who make insensitive complaints about having a brother, whom they do not know. My mom states simply – placing full, uncomplicated responsibility on my grandmother and erasing the possibility of her pain – that “she didn’t want to take care of it” and cannot tell me whether or not it was in fact her choice.
In all of this, I hear echoes of what I experienced as my mother’s daughter and during my pregnancy, when I was searching for a way, for evidence of support, and was told heartlessly after never having asked that “I’m not going to raise your baby, if that’s what you think.” I can imagine a situation similar to Roe. And I can imagine what my grandmother must have felt like.
Intergenerational trauma, also called transgenerational trauma or simply generational trauma, is many things. It is complex and perhaps not fully understood. “Unresolved emotions and thoughts about a traumatic event. Negative repeated patterns of behavior including beliefs about parenting” (www.acamh.org); “legacies of loss” (Social Work Today); “trauma… transferred from the first generation of trauma survivors to the second and further generations of offspring of the survivors via complex post-traumatic stress disorder mechanisms” (Wikipedia).
My mother gave birth to only two children, but she had an abortion with her first pregnancy. Just like my grandmother and me, she had a first pregnancy that did not result in parenting. Maybe her response was automatic, which I sometimes feel about mine, based in middle class values and beliefs. Maybe it was an empowered choice. Maybe it was part of my grandmother’s pattern – an unspoken trauma – playing out in her daughter’s life. Maybe it was necessary.
When my grandmother was sent to the place for “wayward girls,” I am told, she gave birth there and then put her (son) up for adoption. “But did she want to do that? Was she forced?” I ask, again and again. And when I do, I understand my own feelings when I felt that I had no choice, and when I blame my mother for not being able to figure out how to make it work.
Similarly, Norma McCorvey had very few choices. I would argue that she had next to none. Many would take this further to defend access, and advance that if abortion had been legal… But in the fight to make it so, it is quite possible that the lawyers, who should be the heroes of the story, were predatory and self-interested. It is quite possible that they wanted to warp Roe’s story to fit their agenda. I feel quite the same, today, with pro-choice movements. And so I stay away from them.
Often, in fact, I feel that I have more common with pro-lifers than I do those fighting for access – just like Norma McCorvey may have eventually felt – because in the latter community the difficulty, the pain, the trauma, the abuse, the complexity and often the simple un-wantedness of abortion just seem too inconvenient to acknowledge.
Roe & Exhale pro-voice
This is where Susan Chorley comes in.
When I first began to relate to Exhale, I was distinctly suspicious and irritated by their decision not to proclaim to be pro-choice. Looking back, I felt furious that they might not agree with my decision – because people agreeing with my decision was something that was important to me at the time. Now, though, I relate quite differently to Exhale and the concept of a pro-voice space and community. I feel at home in knowing that maybe we’re not fighting for access right now because what we went through was so extremely painful, but that also doesn’t mean that we want to live in a world where abortion isn’t possible; where life and death and the gatekeeping powers of women are not acknowledged or honored; and where we rob people of essential responsibility, privacy and human rights.
Choice relating to womb is private. It should remain private – uninterrupted even by family. At least this is my stance. The popular stance is to shout your abortion. To interrupt public space with the privacy of it. But I don’t want to shout mine. Or even whisper it, unless I’m angry and backed into a corner. I want to keep it close to my heart and inside of my body – the only place where something so vulnerable, tender and alive can exist.
Norma McCorvey’s life, in a lot of ways, was unfathomable. Our lives can feel similar when we have an abortion. When something that tragic and traumatic happens to us and we have to come out on the other side of death and keep living, present to people as if we can still function, find ways to move on, life can feel unfathomable. Beating our trauma, which arguably choice and access movements unspokenly set out to accomplish and advocate, can seem unfathomable. And really, I think it is, at least on some days. Beating our trauma is a strong but desperate and somewhat inauthentic stance. Working to become aware of our legacies and context, we can learn how to make space for ourselves within them. Maybe we also have a chance at changing the systems that cause them.
I’ll leave you with an image, of which I often think. It struck me for the first time sitting in a bus in Oaxaca, México. I watched as a pregnant woman boarded the rumbling, steel, diesel-driven monster and began to pay the inevitably machista driver. I thought of how her body was a complete ecosystem and how we are so royally fucking it up:
She is a complete but highly vulnerable package – a human body, within an equally delicate ecosystem. A pain so physical is like that. A tender muscle. A muscle that hurts to release or to move. A milk duct, connected and influenced by a web of a thousand matter. A perfectly crafted organic hormone that is disturbed by chemicals in the environment. A human body: womb, navel, food, nipple, back, strapped, feet, walk, carrying her child.