DENVER — Irene Vilar's house, a charming old place on a leafy block outside Denver, is a monument to her mothering. Half the downstairs has been transformed into a preschool, with picture books, educational toys and art supplies in organized disarray.
Outside, her little girls, 3-year-old Lolita and 5-year-old Loretta, are decorating the walkway with brown-eyed susans plucked from the garden. It is a scene of almost magical domesticity.
Inside, their mother, a striking 40-year-old literary agent with big, brown eyes, long, straight hair and a Spanish-inflected lilt that gives away her Puerto Rican roots, is describing how, from the age of 16 to 33, she could neither stop herself from conceiving, nor from terminating her pregnancies. Fifteen of them.
She explores her history in a brutally frank new memoir, "Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict."
Even before it was published last week, Vilar's story unleashed a wave of emotion in the anti-abortion community. Reactions have included pity and -- at least in one blogger's case -- a call to put her behind bars.
On the abortion rights side, reaction has been muted.
"The majority of pro-choicers -- and I don't blame them -- are somewhat confused," said Vilar. Vilar believes that access to legal abortion saved her life because she would have found a way to end her pregnancies no matter what.
"Abortion exists everywhere, legal or not," she said. Latin America, she noted, has a relatively high abortion rate and stringent anti-abortion laws. Most abortions in the region are considered "unsafe" by health authorities, who estimate that up to 5,000 women in the region die each year from abortions.
Vilar, whose pregnancies were punctuated by several suicide attempts, is aware of the horrific reaction her story may inspire. (Worried about the safety of her family, she asked that her neighborhood not be identified.)
She describes her abortions as part of a misguided quest to free herself from the burdens of a complicated and tragic family, then as part of an immensely dysfunctional dynamic with her first husband, a professor of Latin American literature whom she met at Syracuse University when she was 16 and he was 50.
"We could be a couple as long as I relinquished my desire for children," she said of her husband, "a disturbingly handsome man" who taught her that "families are nests of suffering" and informed her that he preferred young women because they are "unformed . . . unfinished, with not too many wounds." Children, he told her, were incompatible with freedom. (Her ex-husband, Pedro Cuperman, did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment.)
Again and again during their 11-year relationship, she rebelled: "Forgetting" her birth control pills, she would get pregnant, feel the thrill of self-determination, then panic that she would lose her husband, seek an abortion and collapse in relief and despair.
"Of course, this did not mean I wanted to do it again and again," she said. "A druggie also wants to stop every time."
"Her story is just so tragic," said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life. "It really underscores everything we always say in the pro-life movement -- that abortion is part of a very sad story for women." For proponents of legal abortion, who often invoke the Clinton-era mantra that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare," Vilar's story raises uncomfortable, and perhaps unanswerable, questions about the use of abortion as a first-line tool of birth control.
"I can completely understand the discomfort that some feminists feel," said feminist author Robin Morgan, who wrote the book's foreword. "There is a perfectly human tendency to say we can't afford ambiguity, we can't afford nuance. I am afraid it comes from years of being pummeled by the extreme, anti-choice right. The truth is that it's a complicated issue."
Morgan wondered while reading the book: Had the women's movement somehow failed Vilar?
Not at all, Vilar said. "My feeling was that I let them down. They risked their lives to give me this, and I abused that right. But thanks to that right, I'm alive."
Vilar places her story in the context of a multi-generational fight for self-determination, both personal and political, originating in the unique circumstances of her Puerto Rican homeland.
Vilar's maternal grandmother is the famous Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebron, who left Vilar's mother as an infant with relatives and moved to New York. In 1954, Lebron and three other nationalists shot up the U.S. House of Representatives, wounding five congressmen. Convicted of attempting to overthrow the U.S. government, Lebron spent 25 years in prison, and was pardoned by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. She is now 89 and in ill health.