Abortion was a rite of passage for most of the girls I knew in the small Southern town where I spent my teenage years. If you knew about it, the Pill was available at the local health department but you had to drive two towns over, which required a car and a good excuse for disappearing after school.
Even if you knew about the health department, where the mother of one of our most popular football players worked, there was the whole issue of admitting to having sex. Only whores went on dates planning to do it. Many of us were saving ourselves for marriage and, if that didn’t work out, we could always ask for forgiveness. But birth control was a premeditated sin.
Some boys may have carried condoms but I suspect many of them thought having one might insult the girl’s virtue.
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So teenagers did what teenagers have been doing forever, they pulled out. Since teenage boys aren’t known for great restraint, most girls I knew ended up pregnant at some point.
Back then teenage pregnancy wasn’t a glorified star-studded alternative. Despite the suffocating milieu, many of the girls I knew had dreams of college. They wanted more than what our town offered. So they made the trip toBirminghamto have an abortion and get their first prescription for birth control pills. No dreams deferred.
Abortion was legal but it still seemed clandestine in many ways. Young women did what they needed to do to get the money, went to Birmingham or Atlanta and then returned to life as normal. Having an abortion gave these women their lives back but, unlike other civil rights, the secrecy surrounding it meant that it was rarely a point of pride or a reason to vote.
I’ll never forget one shopping trip in 1984. We were circling around the Limited’s sales rack, searching for deals and talking politics. It was an election year and we’d all just turned 18. I said, “Ronald Reagan is against abortion.” One of my Reagan loving friends, who had an abortion at 16, and who was blissfully shopping for cute shorts before going off to college, turned and said to me with the roll of an eye, “That’s just one issue.” I longed to ask what issue mattered more.
Of course, hypocrisy knows no boundaries. The year I moved to New York City for graduate school, I was assigned a Roman Catholic suitemate. She told me she’d marched for life in DC and written her undergraduate thesis against abortion. She was in law school, living her second generation immigrant family’s dream.
One night she came to my room and said her period was late. She told me emphatically that she was not giving up school. She and her boyfriend had decided to have an abortion. In fact, they had already been through this before. They got pregnant as undergraduates and chose abortion then. I don’t know if she had the abortion before the March for Life or after the anti-choice college thesis but she managed to work it in.
She got her period the next day and told me that it must have been the confession.
I suppose she believed it but her confession was as maddening as my friends who voted for Reagan.
Abortion is a life-giving, life-saving, dream-granting, mistake-forgiving medical procedure. No one likes being told what they should be grateful for but I don’t know anything more life-changing or central as the right to decide when to have a child.
Years later most of the young women I knew growing up became mothers. They have children they adore. They are better parents for having waited. Yet, few of them see abortion as I do, as a cornerstone of the life they’ve built for themselves.
I might fault them if I hadn’t been there but I’ll never forget the day in 11th grade when our biology teacher went down the row asking each girl to say what she would do if she got pregnant. Would she have an abortion or have the baby?
I knew what I would do. I would never give up my dream of escaping that town but I sat nervously waiting to see what everyone else said. When the most popular girl in our class, a straight-A student beloved by all teachers, said she’d have an abortion, I felt my fears fade. I knew I wasn’t alone. I knew it was okay for me to say my life mattered, too.
Paige Johnson is the Vice President for Public Policy at Planned Parenthood Central North Carolina. This is adapted from an article appearing in the Fall 2011 issue of Because, the Ipas magazine that connects U.S. readers to women around the world, highlighting reproductive health and rights and making connections between U.S. policy and global health. For a free subscription to Because, click here.