The Way it Was

Nearly 33 years ago, New York became the first state in the country to repeal its laws against abortion. California and a few other states soon followed suit. But the vast majority of women in the United States lived in states where abortion was still punishable as a criminal act until 1973, when the Supreme Court upheld a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy during the first trimester. The case was Roe v. Wade; it was argued by Sarah Weddington, who as a law student had herself undergone an illegal abortion across the Mexican border from Eagle Pass. In her book, A Question of Choice, she remembers hoping for only two things as she lay in a shabby doctor’s office on a dirt street in Piedras Negras in 1967: that she would not die, and that no one would ever find out what she had done.

By the time Roe v. Wade was decided, New York City had become the terminus of an underground railroad used exclusively by pregnant women, most of them from the 44 states where abortion remained a crime. Between 1970 and 1972 an estimated 350,000 women traveled to New York to end their pregnancies. They slipped in and out of the city quickly, unnoticed and unremarked. Though the sexual revolution was on an upward trajectory, shame still lent a furtive urgency to these countless hegiras—oddly no different in that respect than before the loosening of legal sanctions against abortion.

If that struck you as ironic when you made your own secret journey to New York as a young woman, you no longer recall. Nor do you know precisely why you never spoke of it. Never once in all these years. Isn’t that funny? All the secrets you shared, gave up willingly. But that one you kept. And in the keeping it grew hard and lucent, an amber lump in the corner of your mind. Even now you see the road you traveled with absolute clarity. Every step you took. Like it was yesterday.

First you go to the student center at one of the churches near the university—Protestant, of course—the same place where your boyfriend paid good money for advice on dodging the draft. Now you’re on a similar costly mission, intent on avoiding another kind of conscription. You see a minister named Bob who has the names of the clinics—typewritten, single-spaced—and the phone numbers. But first he wants to talk to you; to gauge, perhaps, whether you deserve this precious information. There’s a clandestine aura to this exchange, as if conspirators are passing a secret code. You feel embarrassed, more than a little stupid. How did you let yourself get in this fix?

Bob asks you questions in his earnest way, which you answer perfunctorily. He slowly opens a folder on his desk and takes out a single sheet of paper and holds it just beyond your reach. In the end, you practically snatch it from his hand. You go home, dial the number in New York City, make the appointment at the clinic. You’ll have to wait six more weeks to travel there during the Christmas holidays. Six weeks. You make some fast calculations—you’ll be borderline by then. The clinic prefers patients no further along than eight weeks, so when they ask you the date of your last menstrual period, you lie. And every hour of every day for the next six weeks, you think about what is happening in your body, and what is about to happen.

You spend Christmas with your family, giving no hint of anything amiss. On December 26, you wave goodbye to your parents at the airport in Abilene, where you are supposed to board a plane going back to the city where you live. But you’re not going there. You fly to Newark instead. For the next 36 hours no one will know where you are, nor why. Not your family, not the man you live with, not your friends nor the people at work nor your former lover. Not even your brother, who lent you the money and never asked what it was for. You enter a secret limbo of your own construction, and you take it methodically, doggedly, one step at a time.

At Newark airport you find a bus to Penn Station. By the time you get to the dreary midtown hotel for women, it’s nearly midnight. You’re shown to a minuscule room with worn metal furniture, like a detention cell. That seems appropriate. The bathroom is down the hall and bantering female voices echo from it, a reminder that now you are truly, abjectly alone. You lie in your narrow bed like a zombie, waiting for sleep that never comes.

In the dim light of early morning, you haul your red suitcase—a high-school graduation gift from your dear aunt—down a flight of stairs and ask the desk clerk to call a cab. When it arrives, you nervously tell the driver the address. He nods, and you know he knows why you’re going there. It must be emblazoned on your chest, like the scarlet letter “A.” You watch the meter because you’re worried about the money. The city is bathed in a depressing shade of gray. Though this is your first trip to New York, you have no curiosity about the streets or the buildings or the occasional people walking past with quick, purposeful strides. All your attention, all your energy, is focused on the task ahead. That, and getting yourself out of the city six hours from now.

At the clinic, there are other women in the waiting room, anxious women like you, except most are younger. Just girls, really. One is sitting with her mother, who wears a tight, stoic look. Another, a college student from the Midwest, says she rode the bus all night getting here. A staff member comes out to tell her that she flunked her pregnancy exam: 12 weeks of gestation, too far gone. We can’t help you now. Here’s the name of another place—try them. The girl looks stunned, as if someone had slapped her in the face.

Twelve weeks. That means a different “procedure” altogether: induced labor, a rapidly forming fetus to expel, a hospital stay, more money. It will take time to set up and so much time has gone by already. You think of the long bus ride going back to Illinois or Ohio, nothing resolved, and you feel her panic rising in your own throat, like bile. Self-consciously you pull in your stomach; you will your insides to shrink up, your swollen uterus to contract into a little nut. If you ever get through this, you’ll never have sex again. You’ll never smile again, laugh again. Life as you knew it is already over. You’re just going through the last, fatal motions.

The next few hours are a blur. You repeat the lie about your last period and manage to pass the physical exam, although the doctor takes a long time and frowns. A lengthy session with a counselor follows, but you hear almost nothing she says. You want to push the fast-forward button, get it over with. You’re a fox caught in a trap and you will chew your leg off and lick the stump dry to get out of here, and leave this pregnancy behind.

When it finally happens, you’re surprised by the physical force involved. Every molecule of your body recoils at this invasion, but it would be stupid to cry out. You deserve this pain. You get off the table, put on the large sanitary pad you were instructed to bring with you and walk unsteadily into the recovery room.

All around you are the still forms of other women lying in two rows of cots, thin blankets pulled over their hunched shoulders. No one talks. You curl up on one of the cots like a wounded animal. Someone takes your pulse and temperature and gives you a sip of juice and you listen to the muffled sounds around you. A cough, a moan. No one cries. By the time you make it to this place, the tears have already been wrung out of you. A woman puts on her clothes and leaves, another one comes in. In 45 minutes, you leave, too, acutely aware of a warm steady trickle between your legs.

You pick up your suitcase and walk out the door. It’s even heavier than it was this morning. A fading winter sun casts long shadows in the streets. You feel weak and not the least bit hungry, though you haven’t eaten since yesterday. There’s a diner on the corner a block away, which is just about as far as you figure you can walk without sitting down to rest. You can tell by the tiny extra space people give you on the sidewalk that you must look like hell. So you keep your eyes on your feet all the way inside the restaurant, to a table in the corner. You order a hamburger and surprise yourself by eating it all, every bite.

You don’t remember if it tasted good. But you do remember, and remember distinctly, that a huge wave of relief washed over you as you ate. It washed away the sadness that had dogged every step for so many weeks; the suffocating despair that cut short every breath. Your sentence is reprieved; your pardon granted; the doors of the prison flung open. Sitting in that no-name restaurant, a stranger in a city of strangers nearly two thousand miles from home, you begin to feel alive again.

Eighteen hours after arriving in New York, you leave. You change sanitary pads in the airport restroom and again on the plane. They’re soaked with bright red blood, full of oxygen, purging the life it fed. Perhaps you will feel guilty about that some day. Later, in fact, you do, though it’s all tangled up in your trenchant regret for the missteps that led you to this sorry pass. For now there is just relief, pure and unsullied by any more complex emotion.

Decades later a friend reveals that in addition to the children you knew she had, there is another, secret child, born after her high-school boyfriend’s inept attempt to arrange an abortion in Nuevo Laredo failed. Adopted at birth, that baby is now 34 years old, and though she wishes him well, she has no desire to meet him. It took years to crawl out from under the psychic wreckage of that troubled time in her life. She gives money religiously to Planned Parenthood; other than that, there is something to be said for leaving the past behind.

You think of your own unspoken past, and her story fills you with a peculiar admiration. At the age of 18, still a child, she stood up and faced the dreadful consequences of unmarried pregnancy, while you—a grown woman and college graduate, gainfully employed—were desperate to avoid them. In the modern light of the new millenium, that desperation seems overwrought now. During the last two decades, the censure and terror attached to unwed motherhood has almost vanished; this seems good. If Jodie Foster can pull it off, why not everyone else?

But as the social stigma faded, more teenage girls decided to keep babies that they were ill-prepared to care for. Harrassment of abortion clinics became widespread, and their services less available. Today 87 percent of all counties in the United States have no known abortion provider. You remember the way it was in 1971, paying hundreds of dollars and traveling thousands of miles for a doctor who could help you. Is that good, too?

You wonder about the mysterious selectivity by which public mores are recalibrated. Take, for instance, all those men who shirked their patriotic duty and avoided military service during the Vietnam War. Their number is legion—they are most of the men you know. In earlier generations, no one ever forgot who the shirkers were; your father could name them to his dying day. The men of your generation carry no such stigma. Are any of them ashamed of those college deferments and rigged 1-Y classifications? Do they—except for certain politicians—recoil from their own history, as we do?

So many women, so many secrets. If a story is never told, what happens in the silence that follows? Does it lose its power over us? Or gain too much, like a hand clapped across the mouth? Notice the first-person accounts of experiences like your own, and how many women still—still!—cannot bear to sign their names. Does collective silence stay the hand that throws the stone—or does it lay up the store of rocks? Who speaks for the numberless sisters sub rosa? Who presumes to judge? What say you?

Bravery, after all, was never your forte in this matter. It was fear and dread that drove you on that clandestine journey to the city, dragging a baroque burden of shame along with your red suitcase. That experience was hard enough. What if you had been forced to run a gantlet of righteous accusers and screamers and the occasional murderous rifleman? Would you have risked the hidden bomb, the summary judgment of well-placed explosive devices?

But of course you know the answer. Your leg quivers in the trap. For a second you can almost taste that bile in your throat again.

That’s the way it was. You’re finally telling it here, and now.

Brenda Bell grew up in Texas. She now lives, writes, and teaches in the Seattle area. George Michaels was the courageous legislator who changed his vote in April 1970 and broke the tie in the New York State Assembly, allowing passage of the bill decriminalizing abortion. A Democrat serving his fifth term in a conservative, largely Catholic upstate district, he was nearly run out of town. His law partner dismantled their firm; the Democrats refused to renominate him. Michaels ran anyway and lost—and never held public office again.

Brenda Bell is an Austin journalist and a former reporter at the Austin American-Statesman.

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Published at 12:00 am CST