TWELVE YEARS AGO, when I was preparing to leave for college, my mother took me to her gynecologist to be fitted for a diaphragm. On the way home, she told me that if I ever became pregnant she wanted to be the first to know. She also said that my father, a doctor, would arrange a prompt, safe abortion.
My parents' motives were clear to me. Before our family moved to a semi-rural area, my father had been on the staff of a large metropolitan hospital. I remember days when he came home with a look of weary pain on his face. Often those were the days when poor (and mostly black) women died from botched, illegal abortions.
My father well understood that anti-abortion laws led to the deaths of thousands of women. He also understood that the comfortable or connected could easily obtain abortions under proper conditions. It was rumored that a medical school classmate of his risked his livilihood for any woman who wanted an abortion, regardless of her ability to pay.
The summer after my freshman year I came home sporting a large red-and-white button that said, "Abortion: A Woman's Right to Choose." (I had declared myself a feminist after my junior high school principal informed me that I could not take shop.) I soon got into a long argument with Annie, my best friend. Annie tried hard to convince me that abortion and murder were the same.
But a year ago, Annie, now married and the mother of three, phoned with the startling news that she had terminated her fourth pregnancy. "Laura and the boys are old enough not to need me so much, and I want to finish my masters. I can't be what I should be to another child," said Annie, a loving, attentive parent. Her husband agreed with her, and the abortion took place as planned.
Annie and I didn't talk about it much. I did not want to risk unearthing Annie's old feelings; the less conflict she had about the abortion, the better. I was afraid, for her sake, and for my own, to hear her doubts.
Early in August this year, a long- awaited visit from another old friend took place. He was passing through town on his way to Southeast Asia. We had always taken pride in the pure, platonic nature of our bond, but this visit was different. Three weeks later I learned I was pregnant.
I was not surprised. My body has always behaved predictably, and although some of my symptoms might have been caused by the recent death of my adored grandfather, my pregnancy test confirmed what my body had been telling me.
When I phoned the lab and heard the results, I expected to be relieved. I immediately and calmly arranged for an abortion at the earliest possible date. I then hung up the phone and wept. I sat on the edge of my bed, desperately wanting my mother. I decided against telling her. Her father had just died, and she has spent the past year seeing my father recover from a near-fatal illness.
I turned instead to friends. "What you must do, over and over," Annie said, "is remind yourself that you are doing the right thing, and call me when you need me."
I slept badly and had a difficult time with my work. I tried to make the distinction between murder and stopping a life from beginning, and I was amazed by the emotional depths my politics had earlier denied. Although only three weeks pregnant, my breasts had begun to swell and I had a constant physical awareness of a potential life I was going to stop.
I had thoughts best set aside. I imagined a beautiful child with my lover's long legs and hazel eyes. I considered having the baby and retreating to a convent to teach. I recalled late-night conversations with social activists when the phrase, "For the future of our children" came up. "Choose life," were words I heard often in antinuclear circles, and I was not going to choose life.
I was not going to choose life because I could not give a child a proper life. My situation is satisfying, but it is financially precarious. I also believe that a child deserves two parents and decent care. I am not now in the position to be the good mother I hope someday to be. And yet, soon after I learned I was pregnant, I wrote in my journal, "I live in mortal terror that I will not be able to go through with this."
A few days later, I woke up very early and tried to get some work done. I couldn't concentrate, so I showered and dressed and headed to meet a friend who had had a recent abortion. I told her of a book review I'd read the day before about a heroine who flees an abortionist at the last minute and raises a daughter alone. I wondered if I could do such a thing. "Don't even think about it," she advised. I walked home slowly, sadly, wanting my conflicts to end.
As I boiled water for tea, I started to cramp horribly, and to bleed. My hands shook as I called a friend with a car. I did not yet understand what was happening, but I knew something was very wrong. Sarah arrived in 10 minutes, and we drove to the emergency room. "How are you doing?' she asked. "There's a merciful God,"I answered almost without thinking. "I'm sure this is it, that I'm being let off easy."
After a short wait, a nurse took my temperature and blood pressure and left me in a small cubicle. A few minutes later a tall doctor about my age opened the door. He examined me and said it was hard to tell so soon whether the pregnancy was going to end. "If it's a miscarriage, it's just begun. There is a chance the pregnancy will continue."
"The abortion was scheduled for next week," I said quietly as I began to shake again.
It is definitely all over now. After two days of intermittently fierce pain, and exhaustion from the bleeding, my doctor gave me a clean bill of health. Out of danger, I called my mother, whose first words were, "I wish I could be with you right now."
A neighbor tells me that the ethical wrestling I went through was a luxury women did not have when abortion was illegal. "We thought only of getting through it alive."
What happened to me was the result of a private, intimate act. But the aftermath is bigger than the act itself. I grieve for the life that I carried for so short a time, and had I gone through with the abortion, I am certain I would be grieving more. These feelings connot be set aside. Nor should they be.
But I am more convinced than ever that the right to act on the decision I made is a right that must remain intact. American conservatives have so polarized the abortion issue that feminists have, in the words of a writer I know, "really been pushed to the wall," feeling uncomfortable about even discussing the ambiguities and anguish surrounding freedom of choice.
I know many women have chosen abortion without nearly so much struggle as I had, and my own decision, however difficult, carried with it enormous privileges of class and education. But what must be understood is that those who choose abortion do not do so lightly, and that those who consider abortion a causual method of birth control are very much in a minority.