This week, the Supreme Court will hear the oral arguments in Dobbs v Jackson, the most direct challenge to Roe v Wade we’ve seen in decades. The future of abortion hangs in the balance, and activists on both sides are galvanized and anxious.
When I was 17, I got my first girlfriend pregnant. She was not quite 16. I was a few months away from graduating high school, and had already been accepted at Cal, but I indulged the fantasy of marrying April and raising this baby together – perhaps with the help of two relatively young grandmothers. As I wrote in an account of this first abortion, “One of the small and repeated unkindnesses of my life has been forcing the women I love to be practical in the face of my optimistic fantasies. April was a wise 15 (she is a wise 52 now, a tenured professor of psychology in the South), and though she let herself daydream for a moment, she knew before I did that there was only one possible decision.”
April had the abortion in the late spring of 1985. I went with her to the doctor’s office, and sat in the waiting room next to her mother, with whom I made conversation that was as awkward as you would imagine. Afterwards, we drove April home, tucked her into bed, and I brought her the Jack in the Box strawberry milkshake she asked for.
My own foolish reveries aside, I have never doubted we made the right decision. I have grieved the loss of the unborn child for years. (Doing those calculations OB/GYNs do, the doctor told us that April’s due date was February 7, 1986 – and over 35 years, it has been a rare February 7 when I do not think of what that child might have been or become. And yes, that child would be older than my wife – something that might amuse or discomfit both if the former had been born.) Grief, though, is not the same as regret; we can be sad about things that happened without believing they ought to have happened differently. That’s true of many things, like breakups and divorces, and it strikes me that it’s true of abortion as well.
I have gone on many political peregrinations over the years before settling into my current state of curmudgeonly libertarianism, but I have generally remained staunchly pro-choice. I am the son of a feminist activist, and come from a family that has volunteered with and donated to Planned Parenthood since it was known as the Birth Control League. We are reverent about individual autonomy, and I’ve always sensed that that deep respect for others’ sovereignty is connected to my family’s roots in the American West, a topic for another newsletter. Something about cowboys not liking to be told what to do, and so forth.
I am a member of a private email list for conservatives, founded and managed by a man who has been a source of advice, comfort, and inspiration to me over these past very hard years. I don’t share the ideological commitments of most of the members of this community, but I honor their insights and am strengthened by their kindness. Two weeks ago, a fellow posted that his 16-year-old daughter had told him she was pregnant, and that she would be keeping the pregnancy.
This man was shaken – he comes from a world in which premarital sex is seen as falling well short of the mark. He is also a longtime anti-abortion activist, and a devout Christian. As he wrote, whatever disappointment he might feel in his daughter’s choice to have sex was cancelled by his commitment not only to forgive her and her boyfriend, but to help them in every possible way to rise to the challenge they had set for themselves. One hears anecdotal stories of pro-lifers arranging for quiet abortions for their own daughters, unwilling to practice what they preach; those stories no doubt are true, but plenty of folks on the religious right are not hypocrites. They are willing to live out their faith even when it’s hard. The wisest among them expect to be both tested and surprised, and those expectations are generally met.
On the list-serv, congratulations poured in for this man who is to become a grandfather sooner than he expected. There were prayers of thanksgiving for the daughter’s decision to “choose life,” and many offers of both financial assistance and prayers. I added my own best wishes, and restrained myself from saying something partisan and unkind about how nice it was that his daughter had a choice in the first place.
I did give oblique but heartfelt thanks for a family in which a daughter could tell her parents she was pregnant without fear of their rage. April and I each told our mothers almost as soon as we found out. They knew we were having sex, and had no trouble with that, but were disappointed that we hadn’t been more careful. Crucially, both April’s mother and mine supported April’s decision to have the abortion. Both mothers also made it clear that abortion was the better choice under the circumstances, though they would – with reluctance and worry – accept a different decision should April make it.
April’s abortion was the first for which I was responsible. I know with certainty I am responsible for at least three more – and given the exuberant recklessness with which I lived for so long, it is not implausible that there are more still. To some of my pro-life Christian friends, these are grave sins that ought to weigh upon me more heavily. (I always reply with a grin that I am tormented by so many bad decisions that these various unborn souls will need to take a number and sit in the waiting room. One is very busy, and one has so many causes for self-hatred, I can’t quite add the recriminations of four potential babies to the schedule!) On the other hand, most of my secular friends find these statistics to be distasteful evidence of de facto misogyny on my part; a real male feminist would surely have been more assiduous about using contraception. There is room for condemnation from all sides.
I will note that in every instance where I got a woman pregnant after April, I offered to marry her and help raise the baby. And in each instance, I was met with an eyeroll and some variation on “Don’t be ridiculous. I need your support, and for you to pay for half of the abortion, but your tardy chivalry is more annoying than helpful.”
I do not have the energy or the intellect to debate when life begins. I make just above minimum wage in the grocery store, so now I really can say, quite honestly, that these matters are far above my pay grade.
I do know that I have held the hand of a woman I loved as our babies slipped into the world. I was there in the operating room when Heloise was born via C-section, and I was there when David was born via VBAC, and I saw – as well as any man can see – what pregnancy, labor, and delivery do to a woman’s body. I was pro-choice before my children were born, but twice as resolute in being so afterwards – not because I had no affection for tiny babies, but because of my reverence for what women endure. Nothing like watching a 40-hour labor to convince you that this is not something that any woman should be compelled to undergo against her will.
I think of Eira’s exhausted, overjoyed face when I first put Heloise next to her. I remember helping my wife into the car the next day, her body in tremendous pain post C-section, and telling her that we would be home soon, and I would take care of her.
I think too of that morning in June 1985, when the nurse told me I could go in and see April after a vacuum aspiration abortion in the doctor’s office. “She’s still a little high from the drugs,” the nurse warned; “she was nervous, so we gave her plenty.”
April lay on the recovery bed, and I sat next to her, and squeezed her hand. She turned to me, and grinned. I asked her how she felt. “I feel loopy,” she said, “but it’s done. It’s so good it’s done.”
I told her I was proud of her, and she laughed. “You should be,” she said. “You should be.”
I think of April, and I think of Eira, and I think of all the women I know who have endured so much more than I can imagine. And I think that in the end, all that a man like me can and should offer on so momentous a subject is the promise to be there, no matter what, and no matter what is chosen.
Lori McKenna, one of our great singer-songwriters, has released an album of original Americana Christmas songs. This one is very, very fine.