Monday, August 02, 2004

Speaking Up about Our Abortions in Public

Barbara Ehrenreich criticized the corporate media's portrayal of abortion:
Abortion is legal -- it's just not supposed to be mentioned or acknowledged as an acceptable option. An article in The Times on Sunday, "Television's Most Persistent Taboo," reported that a Viacom-owned channel is refusing to run the episodes of a soap opera in which the teenage heroine chooses to abort. Even "Six Feet Under," which is fearless in its treatment of sexual diversity, burdens abortion with terrible guilt. Where are those "liberal media" when you need them? ("Owning Up to Abortion," New York Times, July 22, 2004)
Given the corporate media's insistence that women feel "terrible guilt" about our abortions, is it any wonder that a number of Americans react with fury to women who have abortions and do not express proper emotions -- guilt, grief, sadness, depression, and so forth -- about them?

As it so happened, the New York Times Magazine ran an article about Amy Richards' personal experience about abortion (with an obnoxious "Editor's Note" attached to it on the web) before the Ehrenreich column:
I grew up in a working-class family in Pennsylvania not knowing my father. I have never missed not having him. I firmly believe that, but for much of my life I felt that what I probably would have gained was economic security and with that societal security. Growing up with a single mother, I was always buying into the myth that I was going to be seduced in the back of a pickup truck and become pregnant when I was 16. I had friends when I was in school who were helping to rear nieces and nephews, because their siblings, who were not much older, were having babies. I had friends from all over the class spectrum: I saw the nieces and nephews on the one hand and country-club memberships and station wagons on the other. I felt I was in the middle. I had this fear: What would it take for me to just slip?

Now I'm 34. My boyfriend, Peter, and I have been together three years. I'm old enough to presume that I wasn't going to have an easy time becoming pregnant. I was tired of being on the pill, because it made me moody. Before I went off it, Peter and I talked about what would happen if I became pregnant, and we both agreed that we would have the child.

I found out I was having triplets when I went to my obstetrician. The doctor had just finished telling me I was going to have a low-risk pregnancy. She turned on the sonogram machine. There was a long pause, then she said, ''Are you sure you didn't take fertility drugs?'' I said, ''I'm positive.'' Peter and I were very shocked when she said there were three. ''You know, this changes everything,'' she said. ''You'll have to see a specialist.''

My immediate response was, I cannot have triplets. I was not married; I lived in a five-story walk-up in the East Village; I worked freelance; and I would have to go on bed rest in March. I lecture at colleges, and my biggest months are March and April. I would have to give up my main income for the rest of the year. There was a part of me that was sure I could work around that. But it was a matter of, Do I want to?

I looked at Peter and asked the doctor: ''Is it possible to get rid of one of them? Or two of them?'' The obstetrician wasn't an expert in selective reduction, but she knew that with a shot of potassium chloride you could eliminate one or more.

Having felt physically fine up to this point, I got on the subway afterward, and all of a sudden, I felt ill. I didn't want to eat anything. What I was going through seemed like a very unnatural experience. On the subway, Peter asked, ''Shouldn't we consider having triplets?'' And I had this adverse reaction: ''This is why they say it's the woman's choice, because you think I could just carry triplets. That's easy for you to say, but I'd have to give up my life.'' Not only would I have to be on bed rest at 20 weeks, I wouldn't be able to fly after 15. I was already at eight weeks. When I found out about the triplets, I felt like: It's not the back of a pickup at 16, but now I'm going to have to move to Staten Island. I'll never leave my house because I'll have to care for these children. I'll have to start shopping only at Costco and buying big jars of mayonnaise. Even in my moments of thinking about having three, I don't think that deep down I was ever considering it.

The specialist called me back at 10 p.m. I had just finished watching a Boston Pops concert at Symphony Hall. As everybody burst into applause, I watched my cellphone vibrating, grabbed it and ran into the lobby. He told me that he does a detailed sonogram before doing a selective reduction to see if one fetus appears to be struggling. The procedure involves a shot of potassium chloride to the heart of the fetus. There are a lot more complications when a woman carries multiples. And so, from the doctor's perspective, it's a matter of trying to save the woman this trauma. After I talked to the specialist, I told Peter, ''That's what I'm going to do.'' He replied, ''What we're going to do.'' He respected what I was going through, but at a certain point, he felt that this was a decision we were making. I agreed.

When we saw the specialist, we found out that I was carrying identical twins and a stand alone. My doctors thought the stand alone was three days older. There was something psychologically comforting about that, since I wanted to have just one. Before the procedure, I was focused on relaxing. But Peter was staring at the sonogram screen thinking: Oh, my gosh, there are three heartbeats. I can't believe we're about to make two disappear. The doctor came in, and then Peter was asked to leave. I said, ''Can Peter stay?'' The doctor said no. I know Peter was offended by that.

Two days after the procedure, smells no longer set me off and I no longer wanted to eat nothing but sour-apple gum. I went on to have a pretty seamless pregnancy. But I had a recurring feeling that this was going to come back and haunt me. Was I going to have a stillbirth or miscarry late in my pregnancy?

I had a boy, and everything is fine. But thinking about becoming pregnant again is terrifying. Am I going to have quintuplets? I would do the same thing if I had triplets again, but if I had twins, I would probably have twins. Then again, I don't know.

Editors' Note: July 28, 2004, Wednesday

The Lives column in The Times Magazine on July 18 gave a firstperson account of the experience of Amy Richards, who had been pregnant with triplets and decided to abort two of the fetuses. Ms. Richards, who told her story to a freelance Times Magazine contributor, Amy Barrett, discussed her anxiety about having triplets, the procedure to terminate two of the pregnancies and the healthy baby she eventually delivered; she expressed no regret about her decision.

The column identified Ms. Richards as a freelancer at the time of her pregnancy but should have also disclosed that she is an abortion rights advocate who has worked with Planned Parenthood, as well as a co-founder of a feminist organization, the Third Wave Foundation, which has financed abortions. That background, which would have shed light on her mind-set, was incorporated in an early draft, but it was omitted when an editor condensed the article. (Amy Richards as told to Amy Barrett, "When One Is Enough," New York Times, July 18, 2004)
Here are letters to the editor that the New York Times Magazine printed yesterday:
I sat in stunned silence after reading the Lives column about Amy Richards (as told to Amy Barrett, July 18).

The casualness of Richards's decision to decide which fetus to keep was heartbreaking beyond words. The surviving child is the doomed one.

Thea Roeser

I have always been pro-choice. What I realized after wrestling with my disturbance at your article is that "pro-choice" seems to preclude any choice but one. If the freedom to choose removes a sense of awe from the realm of human possibilities, is it freedom or a cruel burden?

Elaine A. Zimbel

Of all the reasons for having an abortion, I never thought that the prospect of living in Staten Island and shopping at Costco would be among them.

Elizabeth Cosenza
Coram, N.Y.

I would suggest that "one is too many" for a woman who risks unwanted pregnancies by not taking the pill because it makes her moody, who is not married and who is willing to eliminate innocent offspring out of inconvenience.

My compassion goes to those infertile readers of this horrible and horribly cavalier story.

Laura Schlessinger
Los Angeles

Kudos for daring to print this. For better or worse, your readership needs to know that such women exist, that such things occur and why they do. The story from Peter's point of view would be well worth a follow-up.

Bruce Bender
Oceanside, Calif.

Richards's decision brought back memories of "Sophie's Choice." How does one "choose" which of her children will live and which will not? A woman's right to choose is a never-ending moral and legal debate. A woman's right to "select," as Richards did, must certainly be divisive within the pro-choice movement.

David Vermylen
Lake Forest, Ill.

I was frozen by the coolness and apparent indifference of Amy Richards toward the twin babies she found would complicate her life.

Upon concluding her essay, I wondered how many new members she brought to the ranks of the pro-life movement and, on a positive note, how many women's minds were changed among those who were pondering an abortion in their own lives.
Robert R. Farley
Elizaville, N.Y.

I am speechless. As the mother of multiples (identical twin daughters), I was hoping there would be a different ending. I used to think I was pro-choice. Not anymore. Not after reading that Richards wanted to "get rid of one of them. Or two of them."

Margaret Cate
Ocean Grove, N.J.

This is perhaps the bravest story I have ever heard. I am sure that it will cause a barrage of hate mail from those who will mourn the lives of the unborn children, and it is sad that there are so many who would impose their morality.

The issue of having children, how many and the choice of when and even if one bears them once conceived is among the toughest an individual will ever make. There will always be those who say the rules in life are simple and inflexible, but life really isn't that way.

David J. Melvin
Chester, N.J.

Though I respect Richards's right to choose -- and she obviously has a keen awareness of that right -- I find it surprising that she seems to have neglected adoption as one of her possible choices. There are people who would have been thrilled to raise her twins. I suspect that the joy of helping someone start a family might ease the burden of a difficult pregnancy.

Dave Smith
Blauvelt, N.Y. ("Letters: When One Is Enough," New York Times, August 1, 2004)
Some of the readers' responses to Richards are good examples of how individual men and women adopt the dominant ideology as their own and try to enforce it on others who don't.

The hold of the dominant ideology on abortion can be broken only by millions of women actually speaking up about their abortions in public. Amy Richards' personal experience, Barbara Ehrenreich's proposal that women own up to our abortions, Planned Parenthood's "I Had an Abortion" T-shirts, and Jennifer Baumgardner's documentary film in progress I Had an Abortion are precisely the sort of challenges to the dominant ideology that all feminists should support.

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