[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.