Though you have done nothing shameful, they will want you to be ashamed. They will want you to kneel and weep and say you should have been like them. And once you say you are ashamed, reading the page they hold out to you, then such light as you have made in your history will leave you. They will no longer need to pursue you. You will pursue them, begging forgiveness. They will not forgive you. There is no power against them. It is only candor that is aloof from them, only an inward clarity, unashamed, that they cannot reach. Be ready. When their light has picked you out and their questions are asked, say to them: "I am not ashamed." A sure horizon will come around you. The heron will begin his evening flight from the hilltop. From "Do Not Be Ashamed" by Wendell Barry
When I was 17 years old I decided to have sex with my first serious boyfriend, who was very nice Catholic boy at my public high school. He was sweet and we were in love. My parents, a doctor and the daughter of a doctor and a nurse, were really cool and had been quite open with me about reproduction and sex since I was about 3, but I still didn’t want them to know. It wasn’t really their business. I was going to have sex and I knew the consequences. I didn’t want to get pregnant and I didn’t want to contract a disease, so we were going to use contraception. We did what lots of my peers did. We went down to Planned Parenthood for free contraception, which we got after going through some mandatory sex education classes. We had to wait about a week, I guess, in order to get started. We waited. We protected ourselves most of the time. But we were in love and heat and so we slipped once or twice.
My mother was the one who figured it out. I had been throwing up in the mornings for a couple of days, and she announced, in a matter-of-fact and slightly disgusted voice: “you’re pregnant.” Of course I was going to have an abortion. My parents were certainly not going to let me have a baby, and I knew I wasn’t ready. I had taken care of my sister since she was born and had a very good grasp of how much work, money, and commitment was involved, and I knew I wasn’t old enough to take it on by myself. Being pregnant felt a lot like being infected with a horrible disease. I was sick and wanted the source of the nausea out, fast. I didn’t think I had a “baby” inside of me. I knew very well that, at about six weeks, what was growing was a mass of cells about 1/6 of an inch long and presently much more like an insect or a worm than a human being.
My parents were Seventh-Day Adventists from a medical family who themselves had come from pragmatic farm folk. An abortion of a human fetus in the first trimester was not a lot different from the abortion of an unwanted litter of kittens: regrettable and sad, but necessary. Unfortunate, not tragic. My parents made me and my boyfriend pay for the procedure to teach us to be more careful in the future.
I was, for the most part. But I was also extremely fertile, I guess, because I got pregnant again, at college, with my second serious boyfriend. That time, I recognized the symptoms all by myself and escaped the serious disapproval and lectures that would have come from my mother and father. They would not have berated me for having sex, or for having to get another abortion, but rather for being careless and stupid. They didn’t need to scold me about this, because I had already internalized them well enough to lambast myself. I felt that I had been reckless, irresponsible, and foolish, not just with my own life but also with life itself, with the potential life growing within me. I did not choose lightly or cavalierly, but also did not think that I had been immoral or that it terminating it was anything like murder. I had been thinking a lot about infanticide, ironically, since I was currently reading all of Euripides and had become especially enthralled with Medea. I toyed romantically and self-destructively with the idea of myself as a Medea but never really believed my own hype.
My problem was that I was broke. I had the luxury of attending school full-time without having to take a job for expenses, but my parents sent me only the bare minimum that I needed for books, pens, paper, and food. So I had to figure out a way to pay for the abortion without having to tell my parents. I was really, really lucky. My scientifically minded, pro-choice Republicans parents would have excoriated me for my idiocy and made me feel a lot worse than I already did, but they weren’t going to disown me or treat me as a pariah, as many much more conservative parents would have done. Also, in California during the early 1980s it was still possible to get a state-funded abortion if you could prove that you had financial need. I did. The State paid and I went on with my life. I found the procedure somewhat grisly, and emotionally exhausting and very, very sad, but I really didn’t think I had done anything particularly evil. It would have been far worse to give birth to a child and release him or her into the uncertain fate of adoption, or try to take care of a kid that I resented and wasn’t mature or economically steady enough to support in a positive and wholesome environment.
I’m really lucky. No one shamed me. No monsters stood outside the clinic and screamed names at me. No judge forced me to develop a fertilized egg that I didn’t want in my body. No one wrote nasty letters or emails to me. No one denounced me. No one made me feel bad about myself for taking what I knew was the most responsible and ethical decision for me at the time. No one threatened to kill me or the doctor who performed the operation.
The next time I got pregnant I meant to. I got really sick again–but it was, as a dear friend and ob-gyn told me, “a good sick.” I did not enjoy being pregnant. I felt invaded by an alien life form. I had been invaded by an alien life form, albeit one who shared some of my genes. But I choose to bring it to term, and I was very lucky that he turned out to be healthy and beautiful and himself. I was ready for him–although it still seemed too soon.
If you have had an abortion, please do not feel ashamed. You have done nothing wrong. Do not listen to those who would take your light away.