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Abortion: The Tragic, Forgotten Reality

Behind the political debate are hard choices--and the grief of real people.


When I listen to politicians debate abortion, I wince at what happens: Applause lines replace true experiences. Applause lines skim the surface. They allow us to forget about human grief and hard choices.

Here--so you won't forget--are a pair of stories:

The first happened in the mid-1960s. The young woman was two months pregnant when she finally got the phone number of a man who performed illegal abortions in his home, outside city limits. One night, she took the phone into the closet of her parents' house, so she wouldn't be heard, and made an appointment. She was given directions to a house, told to not drive up to it, but instead to have a friend drop her off at the roadside and wait for her there.

She was frightened, and horribly sad that she would never know the baby that was growing inside her. Later I'll be a mother, she thought. When I'm older, I'll be pregnant again and be happy about it. At the moment, she just needed to fix the mistake she had made. She was 16.

Two days later, her boyfriend drove her to the remote location she had been given. He pulled over to the side of the road and they looked across a wide field choked with weeds and stared at a dilapidated shack. That's it? she remembered thinking. But she didn't feel like she had a choice. Fear, youth, the certain knowledge that she was incapable of properly raising and caring for a baby, and the fact that abortions were illegal had brought her here--where a man whose name she would never know would take the $400 her boyfriend had scraped together and then take the fetus from her womb.

She trudged across the field and knocked on the wooden door. The man--in jeans and a faded blue work shirt--answered, furtively looked behind her, making sure she was alone. He held out his hand for the money and then pointed to a table set up in his kitchen. She remembered that he said so little, she would never be able to fully recall the sound of his voice. But she would remember the hard table, lying down on it half-naked, and the apron he put on that looked like a cooking apron, and the sound of clanking instruments that she hoped were clean. The pain was horrible. The sound of her sobbing filled the small room, tears blurred her vision. Still, he said nothing.

When it was over, he handed her two Kotex pads and turned his back while she got dressed. She walked back across the field with blood soaking through the pads. She was dizzy, nauseated, and the field seemed twice as wide. Her boyfriend looked terrified when he saw her. I'll be fine, she said, but she felt like something violent had been done to her insides. They drove away and a mile down the road, saw that police cars were arriving.

In the following days, she would learn that the man who she had last seen peeling off a blood-stained apron was arrested that afternoon.

A few hours later, her mother found her on the floor of the bathroom, hemorrhaging. She was rushed to the hospital, where the verdict on her future crashed in on her--miles away from the splintery kitchen and the man who had pried her legs apart and lashed her ankles to two metal rings on either side of the table.

The doctors had no choice but to remove one of her ovaries. The wounds to her uterus would leave scarring, it was difficult to say how much. It was difficult to say if she would ever be able to have a child, with only one ovary and a scarred uterus. She and her mother cradled each other and wept.

Years later, she would tell me this story. By then, she was in her 20s and had accepted that she probably never would be able to get pregnant. We worked together at a summer job. She was one of those people who come into your life for a short while, drift out of it, but never fade from your memory.

It's her face I see when I listen to politicians debate abortion. It's her voice I hear, recounting her story in that dry, even tone people use when they have no more tears left to cry. Her voice reminds me of the cruelty of those who choose to not remember what those years were like, when stories like my friend's were all too common.

The second story comes back every time I hear a politician try to reduce the phrase "late-term abortion" to a simple idea.

This one happened in the '80s. The woman, 40, and a cancer survivor, was married. She and her husband were devastated when an amniocentesis in the second trimester revealed that their baby would be seriously and irreversibly retarded.

They did not make an instant decision. They visited couples who had chosen to have a child. They asked difficult, heartbreaking questions. They stood beside the cribs of children who would never truly grow into adulthood, who would forever be locked in infancy. They also visited couples who had decided to terminate a pregnancy when they got the same kind of news after an amnio.

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