February 11th, 2012

Three ancient tales of unwed pregnancies

[NOTE: Every now and then I may repost something from the past that might seem relevant or interesting. Here's something I originally wrote in 2008.]

I grew up in an era in which abortion was both difficult to obtain and physically dangerous. Today’s commonplace alternative of raising the child as an unwed single mother was socially unacceptable in the extreme. Effective birth control was nowhere near as easy to find as it is now, either. But the lure of sex was just as great (last time I checked, that hasn’t changed).

My enormous public New York high school had a mostly working class demographic. But the two girls in my acquaintance who became visibly pregnant were from the “better” families. Although it sounds like the script of a movie, one was the captain of the cheerleading squad and one the head of the baton twirlers.

They were not my friends, and so I was not taken into their confidence about their lives. But by strange coincidence, my gym locker was directly across a tiny aisle from that of the first girl (whom I’ll call “Sally”) during our sophomore year, and similarly from that of the second (whom I’ll call “Linda”) when we were both juniors.

In those days we were required to go to gym class every day, and to suit up in hideous little one-piece blue cotton outfits with bloomer shorts. Nobody, but nobody, looked good in those things. But at least the boys never saw us, since gym class was strictly segregated by gender.

Sophomore year I noticed the formerly svelte and very attractive Sally gaining weight. I thought little about it—she had started out so thin that the weight gain still didn’t make her fat. But she also began to keep her gym suit unbelted.

Huge mohair sweaters were in style that year, and so for a while I thought little of it as I saw her changing back into her regular clothes after gym class. But her normally happy face grew sadder and sadder every day, and her native vivaciousness was replaced by a subdued demeanor.

Then one day she simply disappeared. The rumor—correct, it turns out—was that she’d been sent to one of those “homes” to have her baby and give it away. She returned a few months later with her body looking exactly as it had before any of this had happened. But there was a different aura about her, an expression in her eyes that told of dark adult experiences we didn’t share.

Junior year, when I started to observe across the way that Linda was fastening her sheath skirt with a safety pin under her sweater because the button could no longer reach the buttonhole, I was wiser. As the small safety pin was replaced by larger and larger ones, I watched and wondered what Linda would do.

Her disappearance, when it came, was briefer than Sally’s. The rumor (also true) was that her parents were raising the baby. She and her boyfriend continued to date right through college, although birth control presumably came into the picture because they managed to avoid another pregnancy. When they graduated from the university they married and reclaimed their now five-year-old child, and then went on to have several more—and to stay married, when last I heard.

Marilyn was a friend of mine during my junior year of college. Perhaps “friend” is too strong a word; she was one of four girls I shared an apartment with for a single semester. Marilyn was neither popular nor especially attractive, and her affect was what I would now call depressed. But I didn’t bother to give a name to it then.

When Marilyn began to have stomach problems—throwing up several times a day, and feeling nauseated much of the rest of the time—I didn’t suspect pregnancy at first. She was the sort of person who ordinarily was very open about all her troubles, of which she had many, and she never mentioned it as a possibility. She didn’t have a boyfriend and hadn’t been on a date in months, which also seemed to preclude a baby. And she kept asking me questions about nausea: what sort of illness might cause the kind of symptoms she was feeling? I hadn’t a clue.

This went on for a week or two before she told us: she was pregnant, after all. In those days there were no kits to be had in the drugstore or the Walmart (there was no Walmart). But there were doctors to whom one could go, and that’s what Marilyn had done.

If she had been depressed before, she was in anguish now. She couldn’t sleep and she didn’t eat. Her main activity—aside from throwing up, which occupied the bulk of her time—was crying. Her face seemed permanently puffy, her eyes a sickly pink, and so swollen they were almost shut.

The mystery of who the father might be was cleared up when she told us, with great shame, that she’d been visiting a friend at another college a few weekends earlier and had gotten drunk one night and had sex with a guy she barely knew. She wasn’t even sure how to reach him, but in any event she had no intention of doing so.

What Marilyn did intend to do was to have an abortion. But nobody knew where to go to obtain one.

Marilyn’s best friend Helen, the girl with whom she shared a bedroom in our two-bedroom-four-girl apartment, asked around. Her boyfriend knew a friend who knew a friend who knew a friend who knew…and thus it was set up. Eight hundred dollars cash was the price, a large sum in those days. The address was in the inner city. The date was next week.

Marilyn didn’t have that kind of money. And her parents were the kind she couldn’t confide in, or so she thought. So all of us gave a little bit, and we asked around for contributions. Somehow the sum was raised, and when the day came Helen went with her in the morning to the assignation.

They returned that evening. Marilyn was still crying nonstop. I’ve forgotten most of the details of the story they told, but it was harrowing. The “office” had been no office at all, just a dirty room in a foul part of town, with a lookout with a gun standing guard in the next room. The “doctor” was probably not a medical man, and he had little to say. There was no anesthetic. It had been terribly painful. At least they had the decency, and the knowledge, to tell her to take her temperature regularly for a week or two and to go immediately for medical help if she developed a fever.

Marilyn spent the next two weeks in the apartment with a thermometer in her mouth. She removed it only to eat and sleep, and to look at it at intervals to see the reading. Her crying began to taper off, as did the bleeding (the nausea was now gone), and slowly things went back to business as usual.

Marilyn had always looked sad. But now there was an extra depth of sorrow in her eyes, although her relief was palpable. I kept in touch with her for only a few years after that, and her life wasn’t going too well. But Marilyn had always had troubles, and I’m not so sure it would have gone a whole lot better even without the pregnancy and abortion.

As time went on abortion became legal. Still, I was always profoundly happy that I managed to avoid an unwanted pregnancy and the attendant terrible decisions that I never wanted to face. But I learned that many of my friends did confront them—at least half had unwanted pregnancies (often through contraceptive failure, particularly IUDs), and chose to abort. Some of them seemed to breeze through the experience with little anguish, while others feel deeply guilty to this day.

The variety is almost endless, the decisions tough. The possibility of unwanted pregnancy is something every actively heterosexual woman must face, except those who know they are infertile (and they face other sorrows). All of these women did the best they could in difficult circumstances. I leave judgment to others; I prefer to have compassion for them all.

23 Responses to “Three ancient tales of unwed pregnancies”

  1. George Pal Says:

    There is little of this a man could understand if he’s not exposed to it directly. My personal conversion to compassion came in seeing the movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. The story takes place in Ceausescu’s Romania – two female university students, one of whom gets pregnant and manipulates her friend into helping her get an (illegal) abortion. The abortion is shown without clinical detail; yet the chain of events and dialogue made a harrowing impression. Although I remain pro-life I am not so without acknowledging the hell that back-alley abortions must be for women.

  2. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    A tale that brings up a few memories. In my tiny high school only one girl that I knew of became pregnant. She disappeared for about six months and returned a chastened and sad young woman. There was of course much gossip about who the father was and what became of the baby. The most likely story being that an aunt and uncle had taken custody of the child until the poor young woman could eventually undertake raising the child herself. Considering it was a small, gossipy town, the secrecy surrounding this pregnancy was amazing. Of course I was just in junior high. Many adults may have known the whole story, but withheld it from we younguns.

    For me it was a cautionary tale. I wanted to get out of the gossipy small town and my life of gentile poverty. In other words I had ambitions and I knew getting a girl pregnant was going to end those ambitions right quick. Maybe not a very noble reason for restraining my hormonal urges, but it worked. Those were the days when the girl set the limits on a sexual relationship. When she said, “NO!” that was it as far as I was concerned. But on a couple of occasions when the girl didn’t bring a halt when things were too hot and heavy, I managed to step back. A high school girl’s unwanted preganancy had provided me with a reason to remain chaste. Not noble, just practical.

  3. neo-neocon Says:

    J.J.: I assume you meant “genteel” poverty.

    Although there is gentile poverty as well.

  4. Sgt. Mom Says:

    I see that we are about in the same generation, although I may be a year or two younger, Neo. I remember the rumors about certain girls in my high school class who ‘vanished’ – visting an aunt in another city for several months at a time, although abortions had been made legal and birth-control somewhat easier to obtain by the time I had finished college.
    I will never forget a conversation that I had in the women’s barracks, during my first hitch in the Air Force – which would have been about 1978 or so. There were six of us taking part: IIRC, the youngest was 19 or 20, the oldest nearly 30: five unmarried, the oldest of us divorced twice. And out of us, four had abortions – and the divorced troop had three, for medical reasons – she couldn’t carry a child safely and the military OB-Gyn’s wouldn’t tie her tubes. I was actually rather horrified – four out of six.
    Of the two who hadn’t had abortions, one was me, and the other my best friend. My friend got married, then almost immediately divorced – and pregnant. She chose an abortion – the military hospital where we were overseas referred her to a clinic downtown. Ironically, by that time I was raising a child as a single parent. I got pregnant by my then-boyfriend, whom I loved very much, but unfortunately he was not … well, he wasn’t what I had thought he was, even though we had both rather overconfidently assumed we would marry eventually. He vanished in a cloud of dust … leaving me to cope with it all. And there was a lot to cope with, having let my parents down, probably screwed my chances for a commission as an officer, and caused my supervisors to loose a whole lot of confidence in me. Not a fun time in my life – although it did give me my daughter, a gift for whom I remain everlastingly grateful.
    When I went in to the clinic to get the final word on the results of the test on the ‘sample’ I had dropped off, I had no idea at all about what I would do, if I turned out to be pregnant. But as soon as the nurse-practitioner said that I was, and that knowing of my situation, they could arrange to send me to the clinic downtown – I said instantly, “Oh,no, I’m going to keep the baby.” I didn’t even know my own mind, until she said the words. I’ve always been grateful for having been able to make the choice.
    I do not think abortion is a good thing – I would not want my daughter, or any woman that I cared for to have one. It stops a beating heart, et cetera, et cetera… (although birth control and morning-after pills and all that are perfectly OK and a good thing as far as I am concerned.) But I also would not want abortions to be made illegal again. I know how hard it was for me to raise a child alone, and I had all the advantages of being in good health, in my 20s, with a college education, and a supportive family and friends.It was still hard. Ambivilance? You bet. I’ve been there; I had a free choice; I chose what most people I associate with approved of, as hard as it was.
    A woman who is pregnant and doesn’t want to be pregnant, for whatever reason, good or bad, justifiable or not – she has a problem, and a bigger problem than can be solved by bumper-sticker slogans from people outside her situation.

  5. neo-neocon Says:

    Sgt. Mom: I’m so glad it worked out so well for you and your daughter.

    Either way it’s an incredibly hard decision, and it does bother me when people are so glib about it.

    Also, I agree that the abortion rate is sky-high. At least, it used to be. I don’t know too much about young people. I’m eternally grateful that I never had to make the decision.

  6. rickl Says:

    I don’t have much to say about this, except that I was adopted.

    I was born in 1958, so there’s a good chance that I was a child of one of those high school girls that “disappeared”.

  7. expat Says:

    What bothers me most about the pro-choice voices today is that they try to make abortion seem like no big deal, no matter how late it is done. The phrase safe, legal, and rare in fact doesn’t focus much on how to make it rare. I worked with doctors who supported legal abortion because they had treated, or tried to treat, women that had had backroom abortions that killed or severely them. There were very sincere efforts to prevent unwanted pregnancies by offering contraceptives. This was undoubted helpful to some women, especially those who already had children without fathers to help raise them.

    But as I mentioned the other day, there are teens who knowingly want to get pregnant; there are women who hope a child will cement a relationship; and there are many who just forget to take their pills rather than make a conscious decision. I don’t see much success in helping this very vulnerable group avoid pregnancy. Instead it is almost treated as no big deal. We seem to fail by ignoring the responsibilties of motherhood and the importance of building mature relationships. I think the message should be that abortion is not OK and it’s horrible for anyone who feels she must choose it. I’m glad that girls no longer have to disappear for months during high school while the tongues wag, but have we tilted too far toward making these girls into heroines?

  8. Curtis Says:

    In the days before the Committee, many people sufferred needlessly. Now that we know the soul and free will are an illusion, there is no reason to prolong pain. A simple Check can determine if the balance point has been exceeded and if so an easy and painless death relieves the person and community of pain. No one should be forced to endure life (we learned this through Margaret Sanger) and this basic human right, only recently recognized, promises to deliver a better society. It is hard to conceive how any other thinking could prevail, but it did, mostly due to the American constitution, which thanks to the great Ginsburg, was properly subdued and modified to include the understanding that positive rights are superior and enforceable and have resulted in men and women not afraid of death.

  9. Curtis Says:

    But there was a different aura about her, an expression in her eyes that told of dark adult experiences we didn’t share.

    Many powerful and absorbing sentences in this piece. Too many and too good to be anything other than creation.

  10. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    Neo, it was both a gentile and genteel poverty. Thanks for pointing out my error. Good for a laugh. My ancient brain seems to be missing a few more cells every day.

  11. Curtis Says:

    Your ancient brain is a treasure!

    Never forget that.

  12. Occam's Beard Says:

    Your ancient brain is a treasure!

    Never forget that.

    Let’s see, there was something I wasn’t supposed to forget … hmmmmm. Gimme time – it’ll come to me.

  13. James Drake Says:

    Was there no thought of carrying the babies to term and giving them up for adoption? Locally there used to be a home for unwed mothers, and there are many couples waiting to adopt.

  14. Curtis Says:

    Your’s too, OC.

    where the hell would we without you?

    If the older generation doesn’t hang on and march to war, we’re lost. The young and younger generation, having been confused and led astry by the pied piper, cannot be counted upon. But there is a critical remnant, which you must support and teach, which will make all the difference. Each individual soul, each individual act, each indvidual contribution by the “boomer’ generation, which has activated and come alive, is our salvation.

    There’s an atonement brewing.

  15. neo-neocon Says:

    James Drake: did you not read the essay? That’s exactly what happened in case one, and in case two the girl’s parents raised the child for a few years and then the biological parents married and raised the child. It was only the third girl who had the abortion.

  16. Beverly Says:

    I was in high school when Roe v. Wade was decided. There was a great exhale of relief, even amongst us virgins.

    When I was in the 7th grade, a few of the little colored girls, as they were then called, started to disappear: 12 years old. One kid was rumored to have been knocked up by her uncle. It was scary, actually: I had the feeling then that all of my Leave It to Beaver world was just a knife edge away from the nightmare world of those girls who could get impregnated as children by their fathers or uncles. Those days, the schools didn’t allow visibly pregnant girls to attend school: they were a bad influence on the rest of us, it was thought. I remember thinking it sucked that the boys didn’t have to pay a penalty, too. None of those girls ever came back.

    I don’t remember any of the white girls being caught in that situation, at least not that young.

    In college, almost no one I knew had abortions, though some of us were crazy in the chances we took. Planned Parenthood actually did a service to many of us: they had free or low-cost birth control for students.

    But one girl we knew, who seemed completely insouciant about it all, had had Four abortions by age 21. We were appalled by it, and I remember one time we sorta corralled her and asked her what birth control, if any, she was using. She said she was on the pill, but so what? if she got knocked up, she could just get an abortion. My best friend exclaimed, “You can’t just keep doing that! Why don’t you get an IUD or something you won’t forget to take?” but she just laughed and shrugged it off.

    She was the only female I ever knew who took it so (apparently) lightly.

  17. Mac Says:

    “I leave judgment to others; I prefer to have compassion for them all.”

    Appearances generated by the way controversies are treated in the press to the contrary, I think the vast majority of “pro-lifers”, among whom I count myself, agree with this. One can recognize that a certain act is objectively wrong while empathizing with the person who does it. That’s certainly the approach of, for instance, the crisis pregnancy center run by my parish.

    Anyway, these are moving stories, and I have many of my own. I had a blog post a while back called “Sex is just a problem and that’s all there is to it.” There simply is no good once-and-for-all solution to the problem of the discrepancy between our sexual desires and our willingness and ability to cope with the natural result of normal sexual activity. That’s something Americans have a hard time accepting.

    (I put “pro-lifers” in quotes above because I’ve never been happy with it. It invites all those arguments along the lines of “well, being for free health care is pro-life, too!!” People who are anti-war don’t mind putting it that way, and I don’t mind saying I’m anti-abortion.)

  18. F Says:

    A good — and moving — discussion, Neo. I know a handful of women who had abortions, some when they were not yet married, some after several children and reaching the conclusion they (or their husband) did not want more. I haven’t met one who took the decision easily and all suffered some level of regret afterward.

    I also know two who married hurriedly when pregnant, only to have the marriage end in bitter divorce.

    One of the above was a young woman who turned down my suggestion to have an abortion, married the father, and had a wonderful daughter with whom I am still in contact — and who is a good addition to society. I look at her sometimes and think that if her mother had taken my advice, this young woman would not exist. Not a pretty thought. The irony is that the daughter has had several abortions and seems not to think twice about what she is doing.

    For a long time I was comfortably in favor of easily-available abortion. Then I was confronted by a man of strong religious faith who called abortion “murder.” That was a difficult image to get around and I think a lot of Americans do so by pretending the fetus is not a human being. I began to reconsider my own position and have now reached the conclusion that men should not play a large role in the decision unless it is their own child, and even then perhaps not. For the women who are faced with this difficult decision, abortion should not be a back-alley procedure, nor should it leave them wracked with regret afterward.

    I wonder if we in America will ever reach accommodation with this difficult question?

  19. Mac Says:

    One of the core elements of conservatism is recognition that it is not in our power to remove tragedy completely from life, and that often the best we can do is to try to ameliorate its effects.

  20. RandomThoughts Says:

    Mac, words of wisdom there.

    And this I wholeheartedly echo: “One can recognize that a certain act is objectively wrong while empathizing with the person who does it.”

    I’ve always felt that every abortion has two victims, the child and the child’s mother.

  21. Ed Bonderenka Says:

    I once asked a friend who was “personally opposed to abortion, but pro-choice”, why he was personally opposed.
    He looked at me, started to answer and then stopped. Checkmate.
    But it’s not a game.
    Either that’s a human life in there or it isn’t.
    If it is, protect it. If it is not, do what you will.
    Can there be any other question?
    Personal trauma cannot justify the taking of a life.
    Sure I’m a guy, and I will never have to face that trauma.
    But it doesn’t disqualify me from protecting human life.

  22. JJ Says:

    I was one of “those girls” in high school. Coincidentally, also my junior year. I chose not to abort, not because I had support (I didn’t) or because of my circumstances. I did it because just the year before I had learned, in a basic human biology class, about the development of a fetus. I knew about its DNA, chromosomes, genetics- all that jazz. I knew how it was conceived, I knew how it grew. I knew that the fetus was human and that it was alive. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that if I had an abortion, I’d be killing it.

    In the end, the choice WAS about me. I knew I couldn’t kill another human being, no matter how hard that human would make life for me, and no matter how much I was encouraged to do so.

    I have no regrets.

  23. JuliB Says:

    I cannot accept that the death of a pre-born baby is ever the correct answer. Several years before I became a Catholic (from being an atheist), I stumbled upon a website of a transgendered lesbian (or something of the sort) libertarian who was pro-life. (S)he had linked to a graphic anti-abortion site which had warnings on it – that some of the pictures could be upsetting.

    I blithely went in, knowing that nothing would change my mind.

    It changed my mind. I was rabidly pro-choice before that encounter. But after that, no way. I was horrified to be on the same side as icky religious people and set out to find other atheists who were pro-life. I found Nat Henthoff, who although a lefty, had some great thoughts on bio-ethics.

    The more I reviewed the arguments on the pro-life side, the more I realized that both sides were arguing based on different assumptions of what was more important, and what the main issue really was. So it was easier to come to grips with my new thoughts. After converting, the religious arguments have been the frosting on the cake, but it really didn’t strengthen my feelings on it.

    So that’s one of my big change stories…

    With the exception of ‘double effect’ (in which aborting the baby is an unavoidable side effect of a life saving medical treatment), I am 100% anti-abortion. And yes, I consider myself empathetic anyway.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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