On the stories that make history.
Abortion stories ARE integral to "this Nation's history and tradition," in fact.
1 | ON THE STORIES THAT MAKE HISTORY
Here is the bit of the leaked draft opinion that infuriates me the most (except for, of course, all of it).
Alito challenges Roe v. Wade for its reliance on the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prevents state governments from infringing on individuals’ rights, like privacy, that aren’t otherwise directly noted in the Constitution. (Contraceptive use, interracial marriage, gay marriage — these national legalizations, like that of abortion, depend on this same clause’s protection of private personal choices.)
But the clause is meant to safeguard rights that are “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition,” argues Alito, and “the right to an abortion does not fall within this category.”
I understand what he’s trying to say here. I do. Abortion rights aren’t “deeply rooted” in the same way that disability rights aren’t “deeply rooted,” in the same way that laws against sexual harassment aren’t “deeply rooted.” You know that the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a mental illness until 1973? That lynching wasn’t deemed a federal hate crime until this literal year of 2022?1
Racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia — yes, these atrocities are deeply rooted, kind of like the worst garden weeds that anchor themselves several feet into the soil and then spread profusely, devouring nutrients and suffocating all the vegetables, making themselves nearly impossible to extract. We do not want these deep roots. They destroy us. We want to nurture a lush, healthy garden.
Abortion rights might be more freshly sown in “this Nation’s history and tradition,” but they are planted within its history and tradition all the same. If we’re going to use the language of roots, we must remember that this country is, in fact, a living ecosystem that is supposed to grow; the growth is the history. And every story is a seed — the stories that came before Roe v. Wade and that informed and necessitated its ruling, and the ones that have happened since, thanks to its protections. There are so many stories. There are so, so many, despite so few safe audiences to receive them.
And “traditions” are just the seedlings we choose to tend, so they may be sustained and passed down from one generation to the next. The inherited gifts of abortion access — all the lineages that abortions have saved and created — are abundantly clear.
Let’s spend a moment with the stories. Let’s talk about the traditions. Let’s remember, together, what’s true, and why the telling matters.
There is no one way to have an abortion, and no one reason. We need the stories because they show us all the hows and whys, each one offering its own embodied data.
In a piece published on Tuesday, Tina Vásquez admits “no complicated feelings about accessing abortion care—even having grown up in a traditional home with heavy Catholic overtones and a machista father.” Instead, what she felt after her long-ago abortion was a mix of “relief and elation” in the wake of terror, agony, and abuse. In her essay, she equates the abortion, and the choosing of it, with freedom:
“I unapologetically chose myself. Every word I have written, every story I have told, every ounce of joy I’ve experienced is because I had the ability to shape my life the way I wanted. As a journalist, I know we create the public record, and I want the record to show that abortion is freedom.”
The emotional landscape was different for EJ Dickson, who wrote for Rolling Stone about finding herself pregnant at a time when she actively (and “desperately”) wanted another child, but wasn’t equipped to carry her pregnancy to term:
“The desire to have another child, to clean spit-up and squeeze chubby legs and feel a tiny warm body fall asleep atop my chest, consumed my every waking moment, to the point that moms on the street were probably wary of how much attention I gave to their babies. But my desire to have a baby coincided with the advent of the pandemic, which had absolutely fucking wrecked my mental health; I spent most of my time sanitizing groceries, worrying about my then-3-year-old son; and calling my father sobbing because he had made a surreptitious trip to the grocery store. My OCD had gone into overdrive, and I also developed an intense vomit phobia, which led to me refusing to eat anything except for buttered toast and ginger ale. I was neither eating nor sleeping and I was in such a state of constant, unrelenting anxiety…I went back into intensive therapy [and] went on an extensive cocktail of medications for OCD, anxiety, and depression, all of which were incompatible with pregnancy. When I accidentally got pregnant in early 2021, I was still on those meds.
I did not want to have an abortion. I wanted to become a mother again. I wanted to carry my pregnancy to term. But I also knew that I could not.”
And this language, “could not,” is intentional:
“Abortion rights advocates like to frame the conversation around reproductive rights as a choice, but for me, there very clearly was not one.”
Two abortions, two starkly disparate narratives. To be capable of creating and nurturing a life within the belly of your own life — this can go as many ways as there are lives. These are just two of boundless American abortion stories, all different in their characters and conflicts, but set in a shared context of American culture from which they cannot be disentangled. In fact, abortion often serves a necessary function specifically because of the capitalist, racist, patriarchal context that makes unintended (and oftentimes unwanted) pregnancy a common occurrence, while simultaneously making it very, very, very hard to safely birth and raise a child.
Rooted just as inextricably in this country’s narrative plot: the abortions that never were. In “The Abortion I Didn’t Have,” Merritt Tierce describes — with searing emotion — her non-choice to have a child at age 20, because religion had rendered abortion all but unfathomable. Her son is over 20 years old now, and of course, she adores him. She explains, “the tenderness I feel toward my son is explicitly related to the knowledge that he was an earthquake in my life, and I’m glad he’s here.”
She repeats this one sentence throughout the essay, though, grappling with the truth of it, which is not the whole truth: “it’s all fine.” It is all fine, and yet:
“I love my son, and I am not at peace with the sacrifice I was required to make. I look at him at 20, the age I was when he was born, and I love him so much I would never think of telling him he must have children now. There is no universe in which I could ever love someone I don’t know yet more than I love him; there is no universe in which I would ever pressure him to take on the responsibility of loving a child at this point in his life…When I had to have a baby before I was ready to, it felt as if my family was saying to me: Your time’s up. On to the next. Be the vessel, open your body and give us something more valuable than you. No one asked if I was ready to be a mother or a wife. No one asked if I was ready to disappear.
I know I should have thought of that before I — what? Before I didn’t use birth control? That’s not the right question; it goes further back than that. It’s not even a linear chain of events. It’s a complicated web of forces and consequences that no one person could be responsible for. I should have thought of that before I grew up in a state that preaches abstinence, instead of teaching any sex ed? Before I grew up in a family that didn’t teach me anything about sex either or make absolutely sure I understood that I too, as a human female, could become pregnant? Before I didn’t choose the culture I was raised in? Before I didn’t choose the patriarchal religion that warped my mind so much that I still, in my 40s, often feel a gaping void where a self should be?”
See how thorny it gets, this concept of “history?” Tierce continues:
“I should have known that if I didn’t use birth control, I would probably get pregnant? As if people are rational.
They aren’t, which is why they get swept up in the romance of the baby…But to imagine that the innocence of the baby is enough, on its own, to always and completely turn an unready person into a different person who can overcome all challenging circumstances is taking a mighty risk with two people’s entire lives.”
As if people are rational. As if childbearing choices aren’t far too complicated to possibly regulate on a whole population’s behalf; as if the messy emotions and varying implications won’t always slip and slide and seep beyond the tidy bounds of laws that are hopelessly oriented around control. In stories like these, where we stop looking for rationality and logic and some sort of false arithmetic that will never add up, we find humanity instead.
There are valuable perspectives, too, that come not from the pregnant people themselves, but from folks intimate with abortion in other ways, like the medical professionals who perform the essential act. This week was the first time I found and read this essay from a 1987 issue of Harper’s Magazine, written by Sallie Tisdale, a nurse in an abortion clinic. It is complicated and brutal. There is blood in the second sentence. There is pain, and there is also this confounding joy:
“In describing this work, I find it difficult to explain how much I enjoy it most of the time. We laugh a lot here, as friends and as professional peers. It's nice to be with women all day. I like the sudden transient bonds I forge with some clients: moments when I am in my strength, remembering weakness, and a woman in weakness reaches out for my strength. What I offer is not power, but solidness, offered almost eagerly. Certain clients waken in me every tender urge I have—others make we wince and bite my tongue. Both challenge me to find a balance. It is a sweet brutality we practice here, a stark and loving dispassion.”
When I read Tisdale’s essay, I thought of the nurses and physicians tasked with the brutal responsibilities of medical practice throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, battling to heal their patients even when governmental forces (along with ordinary citizens) have both overtly and covertly thwarted efforts towards collective health. What is this commitment to delivering care, within a national system that refuses to prioritize it or provide equitable access to it, if not a crucial tradition?
Since we’re talking about history and tradition, let’s look at how we got here in the first place. This New Yorker article2 explains the ways that Black feminists defined abortion rights in the 1960s, ensuring that poor and working-class women of color weren’t abandoned in the fight for reproductive rights and reproductive justice:
“The chasm between middle-class white women’s demands and aspirations and those of poor and working-class women of color began to be addressed by the emergence of Black feminists in the late sixties. These women, who included Toni Cade Bambara, Frances Beal, Alice Walker, and Barbara Smith, argued that real equality could be achieved only by expanding the parameters of what constituted ‘reproductive justice’ to include the entire context within which decisions about having or not having children were made. Organizations like now mobilized predominately white women to fight for abortion rights, but they often ignored or minimized the glaring issue of coerced or forced sterilizations, which was critical to women of color. According to a national study conducted by Princeton University in 1970, twenty-one per cent of married Black women had been sterilized. As the legal scholar Dorothy Roberts has observed, ‘The dominant women’s movement has focussed myopically on abortion rights at the expense of other aspects of reproductive freedom, including the right to bear children, and has misunderstood criticism of coercive birth-control policies.’”
In other words, this is not just about abortion, and it never was:
“For [Frances] Beal, a single mother of two children, and other Black feminists, reproductive freedom, including access to birth control and abortion and the right to have children on their terms, was the most basic element of self-determination in a society where their choices were heavily circumscribed by racism, gender, and class position. As a result, Black women activists not only took up the immediate questions concerning reproduction but they also raised issues about child care, employment, welfare, and the other material necessities that could help women take care of their children and choose to bring them into the world. By focussing on the plight of poor women, they made it easier to see that the struggle for abortion and reproductive freedom was about equality, not just privacy or even ‘choice.’ Their insights into the ways that poverty and other forms of oppression limited their life chances compelled them to demand reproductive justice—which also involved the right to raise children in healthy environments where their and their parents’ basic needs could be met.”
Ah. And there, of course, is the history that Alito — among so many awful others — wants to erase.
It’s not that the stories will save us, that they will prevent the kinds of calamities that the powers-that-be will incite. They may not protect us like the law should, though they will, for sure, make us feel less alone in our pain and our fear.
If nothing else, the stories serve to refuse erasure. They insist on what’s gorgeously hideous and tenderly nuanced and ruthlessly true, on what we’ve been growing this whole time, all these decades. Our garden, too. You may strip away the rights, but you cannot rip out the stories; they will find other ways to grow. That is what stories do.
2 | A QUOTE TO KEEP CLOSE
“I think it’s quite telling that one of the first things Trump did was try to slash the support for artists. Because artists, when political times get intense, leave the safe spaces and start to get involved in protests and movements. They become activists and build the resistance.
I think that the exercise is resistance and definitely creating a new language. That becomes so important because whoever creates the language is the one leading the conversation. The only way to counteract the conversation that is happening at the White House is to create a resistance that starts with a narrative that makes space for other people to enter. And on the other hand, it cannot only be about resistance, because the thing that fires up people’s minds is a vision of what is possible—an imagination of what is coming.
Right now there is no exit point from a neoliberal view of the world. It seems to be reality with a capital R, when that’s actually not true. I have a feeling that the formulation of a different set of possibilities can come from the creative world. The question is: ‘How do we start bringing back utopia?’ Not necessarily as a permanent space, but as a way to explore other ways of being in the world. That is, what I think, the role of artists should be.”
— Gabriella Gómez-Mont in conversation with Uli Beutter Cohen (November 2020)
3 | A PROMPT YOU CAN USE
What’s your personal story about abortion and/or reproductive justice? If you think you don’t have one, you’re wrong. You do. We all do.
I’ve cited more direct sources here, but Brene Brown gathered these ideas together in this Instagram post.
And while we’re talking about things found on social media this week, btw:
And also, this beautiful reply: