And So I Choose
by Allison Crews
A version of this essay appears in the second edition of the book Listen Up! Voices From The Next Feminist Generation, edited by Barbra Findlen.
As the editor of a small website designed by and for empowered, feminist teen mothers, I sometimes wonder how to attract the amount traffic that the site needs. In a desperate attempt to gather a few more hits for our counter, I decided to leave fliers in the waiting room of a "crisis pregnancy center." My fliers were promptly picked up and handed back to me. I was not allowed to advertise there, I was curtly told, by a woman who identified herself as the center's director. I asked this Bible-carrying woman 'why'? This website was, after all, designed for the very girls who frequented her facility. We could offer them support, encouragement and friendship, I told her.
"Is your website PRO-LIFE?" the woman demanded.
"Well, no. We really don't have an official opinion on abortion. We just intend to support young mothers," I quickly replied.
It was suggested to me that I put up some testimonials about abortion, perhaps some information about fetal development and post-abortion syndrome. The center, I was told, had a purpose. When asked what that purpose was, the center director answered, to end abortion. I left soon after, but was reminded, as I walked to the door, that the Center would be more likely to advertise for my site if I added more facts about abortion, and made our site's purpose clear.
The next day, I received two emails. One was from an anti-abortion mother, who was angry at our site's silence about abortion issues. We needed to DO something to stop the horrors," she thought. The second email came from a mother of a 3 year-old who had recently had an abortion, and she too wished we had more information about abortion on our site. She felt we needed a support forum for mothers who have elected to have abortions as well as raise children.
Young mothers need to be supported in their choices, whatever they may be. Whether they elect to abort a pregnancy, to place a child for adoption or to raise their children, resources to help them make these choices, and then cope with those choices, need to be readily available. Mothers must speak boldly and proudly of their choices, so that other women feel safe in making their own.
I doubt that many of us, feminists born to women of the Second Wave, remember a time when our freedom of reproductive choice was virtually nonexistent. I doubt that many of us, conceived after Roe vs. Wade became law, remember a time when birth control pills had yet to be invented and diaphragms and condoms were not readily available to unmarried women. A time when our only options were to risk mutilating our bodies and possibly facing death or giving birth, if faced with an unplanned pregnancy. Even after giving birth, most unwed, young women were forced to give their children away to anonymous strangers, or face a life of domestic slavery, with no chance to educate themselves or begin a career. Even if you were raped, even when you thought you were protected, even if you were afflicted with a condition that prevented you from safely carrying a pregnancy to term, even when revealing your pregnancy meant facing violence and abuse, you had no legal option other than to give birth to a child. All teenage mothers, like myself, have faced making a choice between abortion and motherhood. Even those mothers who are staunchly anti-abortion know what it is like to make this vital choice, whether they choose to acknowledge it or not. The children whom they carry in their arms, or within their wombs, are there because they made the choice to be a mother.
I was raised in a pro-life home, and lost many of my mother's weekends to Operation Rescue events and Life Chains. I had model fetuses as toys. MODEL FETUSES. Pregnant teenagers filled my home, girls my mother met through the crisis pregnancy center where she worked and had brought home to feed and clothe. I fought with pro-choice women in front of abortion clinics before I was ten, arguing the anti-abortion points that had been burned into my mind.
One fall morning, when I was 12, I stood with my mother and her fellow activists in front of our local Planned Parenthood. Into the chilly air above my head I held a picture of a man's fingers, with two tiny feet (supposedly belonging to a 10 week old aborted fetus) pinched between them. That morning, I watched a girl, probably only a few years older than myself, drive up to the clinic with her mother. A crowd of women escorted her from her car to the clinic doors. All wore blue T-shirts, and were locked arm-in-arm while they huddled around the girl, like a living protective force field. Several hours later, after the clinic escorts had gone home, after the girls procedure was over, she reemerged from the clinic doors. Her mother held her as she shook, the same way that I would shake three and a half years later, after my son's birth. Her face was pale and her eyes down cast. A man behind me began to shout. Ask for forgiveness, the blood is on your hands!! You know what you did, only God can wash the blood away!
The girl looked up, and her gaze met mine. I smiled at her, because I didn't know what else to do. I saw no blood on her hands, but the pain I saw on her face was unmistakable. She looked at the large, laminated sign that I held in my hands and she began to cry. The shouting stopped. A woman called I will pray for you. The girl's mother gathered her into her arms, and she walked away. I watched as they pulled themselves into their small white car; I watched as they sat for a moment, their lips still, and hung their heads together, touched foreheads and sobbed. They drove past me, once again, and the girl stared intently at me. Heavy tears hung in her eyes, threatening to fall down her scarlet cheeks. Her lips quivered as she looked at me. I never forgot her face.
I never protested with my mother again. I knew that whatever pain that small woman felt, walking away from her choice, it was only intensified by the protest I had participated in. I wished, for her sake, that the escorts who had helped her inside the building had been there to help her out; I wished that I had been able to help them to protect her. She had a right to feel protected, a right to feel safe. She had the right to make a choice for herself and her future without being harassed and intimidated. And her rights were ignored, because she was young, she was female, and she was pregnant. Three afflictions that, to the protesters outside of the clinic, meant that she had no rights at all.
Three years later, I was a sophomore in high school; I was now pregnant, and I was scared. I had become one of the girls that had once filled my home with their empty sadness; the girls that I had heard, when I listened through the crack of my bedroom door, crying on my mother's shoulder. I scheduled 3 consecutive abortion appointments and systematically canceled each one. With each new appointment, my due date grew closer, the price of the abortion grew higher, and the distance that I would have had to travel for the procedure grew longer.
Yet, I never ended up venturing out of my hometown. Something kept me from following through with that choice promptly, and to this day I cannot pin point what it was. Several possible reasons come to mind. Lack of transportation, as I did not drive and the clinic would not allow you to leave without a ride. Lack of money, and the thousands of hoops I had to jump through to sign up for Medicare, as well as ensure my confidentiality. I had 4 additional appointments at the social services office to secure that my parents did not find out about my dirty little secret.
When I called that same clinic I had once protested in front of, to schedule my own abortion, I remembered that girl. I was now the about age that she was when I had seen her, walking to and from those doors. I prayed to a god that I wasn't sure existed any more, that I would not encounter any of my mother's friends as I walked inside. I prayed that when I went to this appointment, the women who had helped that girl walk through the clinic doors would be there to walk with me. I prayed that someone would be there to listen to me cry; I prayed for a place to be able to cry and a place to feel safe.
Whatever the reasons, whether they were beyond my control or self-created, I did not abort my pregnancy. Perhaps because I was not sure of the choice to abort, I delayed my appointments at Planned Parenthood. Perhaps because I was scared I was making the wrong choice, I purposely showed up late to appointments at the social services office, knowing that I would then need to re-schedule. I could not allow myself to make a choice that I knew would not be the best for me. And to abort my pregnancy was not the choice I felt best.And, after much prayer and divination, many tears, and several horrible poems, I made a choice to bear a child.
I tried to find solace in parts of the feminist, pro-choice online community. Surely, these women would understand my choice. These women had fought, in various ways, for my right to make this choice. They would not condemn me for having wanted an abortion, or even for being a pregnant teenager. Instead, I was sure, they would support my right to choose, support my right to become a mother; surely, they would support me. But, in many of these places, I encountered a similar response to the ones that pregnant girls receive from anti-abortionists when revealing their choice to abort. I was questioned and I was made fun of. I was told that girls like me were almost completely responsible for the backsliding of the feminist movement. I opened my email each morning, only to find message proclaiming me an irresponsible teenager and a hopeless breeder. I was told that it wasnt to late to abort and that I should save myself before its too late. Judgment and anti-mother rhetoric spewed from my computer screen, leaving me feeling hopelessly alone and disconnected. I painlessly cut all ties with this community. I was not safe there, as I had hoped to be. While many of these women professed to be pro-choice, I quickly learned that, for them, the only choice that it is acceptable for one to make is the choice that they have deemed right.
The pressure to give my forming child up for adoption soon became immeasurable and emotionally crushing. Counselors, family members, strangers, nurses; it seemed as if everyone I encountered felt that they had a right to forcfully give me their opinion about what they had decided would be the best choice for my child's future. And this was almost exclusively to give him up for adoption. I was told that I did not deserve my child, that there was no way I could ever be an adequate mother, by both the anti-abortion and pro-abortion communities. Somedays I woke up, and felt as if my body were imploding. I struggled for breath, my son's feet digging into my rib cage, his body crowding my organs. Tears and snot dried onto my face like makeup. My soul felt as confined as my tiny son's body must have been, trapped inside my womb. My spirit was being crushed. Slowly, methodically, effectively, they picked at me. It felt as if those I held closest to me, those I trusted with my medical care, those who were paid to counsel me, were all trying to knock the very ground I stood on out from under me; attempting to take away my choices by dissolving the last shreds of hope and confidence that I clung to like a life-raft.
A couple was chosen to adopt my child, before I was even allowed to utter a word of permission. A nursery was decorated for him, clothes were chosen, and a baby shower was thrown for a woman who did not even carry a child in her womb. I was a passive stander-by, watching the story unfold before me. I was alone, unable to make the choices that I wanted to, unable to express my grief, denied the right to speak my mind and control my own life. All because I was too young to know any better. My rights as a woman being torn away from me, ripped from inside of me with my child. I was denied the right to mother, denied to right to choose, denied the right to feel. I was told, over and over and over again, that teenage girls are immature, they are selfish, they can't possibly decide what is best. So others must step in and make these choices for them. This broken record replayed itself in my mind, and became my unintended, living mantra. A mantra that nourished the self-doubt and fear that grew within me, like my son's shadow twin.
Months slipped away from me, as I struggled tirelessly to regain control over my own life and my child's future. For every inch I gained, I was pushed back twice as far; for every length of rope I pulled myself up, I slipped another yard.
I cried to my mother, and she counseled me, as she had been trained to do years before. Somehow, my parents remained solidly in support of me. I felt disconnected from my mother at times, wary of and scared by her alliance with the woman who wished to adopt my son. What she had in common with this other woman was far greater than what I thought she shared with me. With my younger sister having been adopted, my mother knew all the ropes. She joked with the "other mother", she shared advice and information. I couldn't see what she, a pro-life activist and adoptive mother, could have had in common with me, a pro-choice and pregnant teenager. This disconnection I felt from my mother intensified my feelings of lonliness. She felt distant, even when I talked with her. She seemed to be coming from a faraway place, with no concept of the turmoil that boiled inside of me. But, I realized later, she had been there for me all along. And as testament to her spirit, one rich with compassion and love, she did support me wholly, even when she did not agree with the choices that I made.
When it came time for me to give birth, not one person believed that I was capable of birthing on my own. I was, after all, only a 16-year-old girl. There was no way I could deliver a child without a tube full of chemicals being driven into my spine. I asked my doctor about the possibilty of birthing in my home, and he laughed at me. There was no way I could handle the pain and horror of childbirth alone, in my bedroom and sanctuary, as I wished to do. I needed a man, trained to care for women, (who are inherently capable of caring for themselves), to see me through my labor. I needed to be monitored, strapped to a bed, cleaned from the inside, shaven smooth and knocked out cold. I was a little girl and delivering babies is a man's job.
As my labor quickly approached, I reached my outer emotional limits. I could not physically or psychologically handle any more pressure, any more shame, any more negative expectations. I was tired of people, who seemed to come at me from every angle and direction, trying to deny me my right to reproductive freedom. I was tired of being treated poorly because of my age, tired of being pushed around, tired of feebly defending my rights. There were only two things that I could now do. I could finally break under the pressure that had stood above me for the past 9 1/2 months, give up all hope, and lose my child to another woman. Or I could spit truth into the faces that scorned me, deflect the lies that they hurled at me, and turn and run in the other direction, strong, with my child in my arms.
So, I labored for 5 hours, and I birthed naturally, with little intervention from the doctors who had doubted me. I roared like a lioness and pushed my son from my body in a matter of minutes. He slid from my body, slimey and new, screaming the kitten cries that only a fresh infant can make. And as he emerged, I was reborn. I birthed like a goddess, and regained the power and freedom that I felt had been stolen away from me. I felt that power radiate from within me, touching my son, and bringing me joy. Through giving birth, I loudly and publicly proclaimed my freedom of choice.
I latched my tired son onto my swollen breast, and I ordered everyone to leave my room as I held him. He was my choice, and, finally, this was my life. And I felt at peace with myself, after feeling torn and alone for so long. I had grown in a way that I had not thought possible, and found a happiness that I had once only hoped existed. My choices allowed me this. And I refused to let another person deny me this joy ever again. No one would again deny me the right to choose, I promised myself, while I sat on lochia-stained sheets, cradling my sleeping child.
Being pro-woman, being pro-choice means being supportive of any reproductive choice a women makes for herself. Women, of any age, in any social situation have the right to bear children. We have the right to choose when, where, with whom and how we bear children. We have the right to abort a pregnancy, for whatever reason we may have. If we have no money, if we have no support, if we wish to continue our education or career uninterrupted, if we are being abused, if we were raped, it is our right to not bear a child. If we become pregnant, through any circumstance, we have the right to birth the way we want to. We have the right to elect to have our child removed by cesarean section on a convenient date. We have the right to choose to deliver alone in our homes, catching our babies with our own hands. We have the right to be respected as mothers, to be seen as the responsible, hardworking parents that we are. We have the right to remain child-free forever, to find fulfillment through our careers and personal adventures. We have the right to bear as many children as our body will allow, and to be fulfilled through the nurturing of our children. We have the right to nourish and nurture our children at our breasts, for as many years as they may need to and we allow. We have the right to keep our body to ourselves once we give birth, if we cannot handle the physical or emotional aspects of breastfeeding, and feed our children artificial breast milk. We have the right to chose to become parents and the right to delay parenting. We have the right to share a bed with our children, and we have the right to put them to sleep in beds of their own. We have the right to mother the way we want to, to ignore other's advice and criticisms. We have the right to an education, no matter how old we are and what grade we are in when we give birth. We have the right to a career, to daycare, to financial aid. We have the right to stay home and postpone a career until our children are grown. Our bodies are our own, our futures are ours to mold. No one should be allowed to interfere with them. Whatever our reproductive choices may be, nobody ever can deny us our right to them. And this is what being pro-choice means to me.