I gained my attitudes and values about women’s issues not from the rhetoric of others, but because of the realities of what was going on around me starting in early childhood. It feels as if I was primed at a young age.
Thinking back on that time now, I realize that my perspective on women’s reproductive rights came from my mother’s words and actions. I remember overhearing (perhaps eavesdropping) hushed conversations between my mother and one of my aunts who had at least two illegal abortions. In the 1940s and early 1950s, there were few good ways to control reproduction. The Comstock Act of 1873 had made it a federal offense to sell, lend, or distribute information about birth control or abortion. This law was not repealed until 1965. So, for ninety years it held sway over women’s lives.
My aunt, who was in an abusive marriage and a fraught family situation, would tearfully tell my mom that she was pregnant. My mother would listen with understanding and go with her to an undercover doctor in support of her decision to terminate. My mom wasn’t an activist. She didn’t lobby or demonstrate for women’s rights, but her life experience exposed her to the damaging ramifications of unwanted pregnancies. She became adamant: “No one has the right to tell a woman what to do with her body!” Her passionate words seeped into my still-developing, young consciousness.
On the paternal side of my family, I learned that in the early twentieth century, my grandmother gave herself at least one abortion with a hat pin. She too, was under the dark presence of the Comstock law along with attitudes and practices that diminished the status of women. A hat pin! What a terrifying image!
My mom made me aware, but like her, I wasn’t particularly pro-active in the pro-choice movement. Yet, when Roe Vs Wade was passed in 1973, I quickly signed up to be a telephone counselor for Planned Parenthood and subsequently worked at an abortion clinic that trained me to help women (sometimes girls as young as twelve) understand the decision they were making, what they could expect during a procedure, and, most importantly, validate that they were making a choice on their own and not under pressure from anyone else.
Others, far braver than I, marched in the streets and put themselves at risk to promote and protect this new legislation which gave a pregnant woman the freedom to choose an abortion without unwarranted government interference. There were strong feelings on both sides of the issue. In December 1974, an abortion opponent walked into two clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts, fatally shot two people, and wounded five others. Brookline is the next town over from me.
I firmly believe that those who oppose a woman’s right to choose are entitled to their opinions and their choices. But I decry their belief that they have the right and the power to dictate my views and actions. Over these many years, I have not wavered in my perspective. Yes, it is truly unfortunate that a woman may be faced with deciding to keep or terminate a pregnancy. But I am deeply assured and gratified that safe and legal options are available.