The Personal is Historical
An Imperfect Abortion Story

An Imperfect Abortion Story

Carrie Adkins

It’s probably not normal to fantasize about a better, less complicated abortion story, but since the current politics of sexual health and reproductive freedom are pretty much a colossal shitshow of complete insanity, let’s start there anyway.

Here’s the abortion story I wish were mine:

I wish I had been a carefree teenager or an adventurous college student or an independent young woman. I wish I’d had a healthy sex life that made me happy, and then one day, when I discovered I was accidentally pregnant, I made an appointment and got an abortion. And most of all, I wish I’d felt both relieved and empowered before swiftly moving on with the rest of my life.

What really happened was this: When I was sixteen, one of my mother’s boyfriends came into my room at night, and I froze, and what happened happened. I’d never even had sex at that point, and so when my period never came, I had no idea what to do. This was 1995, not 1955, but still — I couldn’t just Google “abortion laws in my state.” I wasn’t even sure if I was allowed to get one without one of my parents signing the forms. I did know that I absolutely could not tell my mom.

Part of me wants to write this story in a way that feels kinder to Mom. She loved me, and in many ways, she had a hard life; she wasn’t some monster who wanted me to suffer. But the ugly, unavoidable truth is that I wasn’t 100% sure whose “side” she would be on if she found out, whose fault she would think the whole thing was. Even now, twenty-five years later, I still don’t know. So I did the only other thing I could think of, which was to arrange a visit to my dad, who lived in another state.

And here’s the thing: Plan A, for sixteen-year-old me in 1995, was “maybe – maybe – Dad will help me.” Plan B was to kill myself. There was no Plan C.

Dad and I weren’t close at the time, and I didn’t know how he would react, but I remember saying something to him like “I’m pregnant. I’m sorry. I can’t stay pregnant. I’m sorry. Please will you help me,” followed by probably 150 more apologies. And for whatever reason — maybe he just saw how desperate I was — he did help me. He didn’t ask any questions, and he made me an appointment, and I had an abortion, and the last thing he ever said to me about it was “don’t ever tell anyone.”

And I didn’t, not for years and years. I erased it. I didn’t tell my friends. I didn’t tell any other family members. I didn’t tell any of my high school boyfriends or anyone I met in college. I lied repeatedly to doctors about my medical history — “nope, never been pregnant” — and didn’t even fully process, not consciously, that I was lying. I didn’t tell my own husband until we’d been married for a decade and had two kids, at which point both of my parents were gone. For the rest of my teens and for all of my twenties, I locked that experience tightly away. It stayed unexamined for all those years, and so it stayed frozen in time, exactly the way I thought of it at age sixteen – a tangled ball of fear and guilt and shame, something I’d been forced to do to fix the terrifying and humiliating thing that had happened.

Now, this wasn’t stellar parenting on my father’s part, I know — asking no questions, getting me the medical procedure I needed, and then sending me right back where I came from, to a place that wasn’t safe. But I was grateful beyond words at the time. And I’m still genuinely grateful now.

I got the abortion, so I lived. I’m now the age that Dad was back then. For forty-one-year-old me, in 2020, everything is different. I’m a feminist. I’m proudly pro-choice. I studied gender history and medical history to get my PhD. During graduate school, I taught courses on the history of American women and on the history of sex. My dissertation was about gynecology. I co-founded Nursing Clio! I am, I want to be clear, no longer ashamed of my abortion. I’m not.

I do hate my personal abortion story with pretty much every fiber of my being. But it’s not because I believe I did anything wrong as a teenage girl. It’s because I realize now just how wrong it was for me to even be in that situation in the first place, and thinking about it fills me with a rage so intense that it frightens me. It’s also because I don’t want anyone to say that my abortion was valid “because I was so young,” or “because I was a survivor of sexual violence,” or for any other reason related to the specifics of my circumstances.

The girls and women who truly have the abortion story that I wish for – their abortions were valid too. Just as valid.

My story is my story, though. I can’t change it, and now seems like an important time to tell it, given the current political scene, the precarious situation in the Supreme Court, and the increasingly terrifying legislation being passed in places like Ohio and Georgia and Alabama. Make no mistake: these laws will damage women with stories like mine. They will also damage women with stories that are more empowering, more like the abortion story I wish I could tell. More than anything, they will damage women whose stories involve poverty or abuse or physical or mental health issues.

In the face of this awful Handmaid’s-Tale-come-to-life situation, there are, of course, some things we can do. We can donate to Planned Parenthood, to local abortion funds, to the ACLU, and to other organizations committed to securing reproductive rights. We can throw ourselves into political campaigns that matter; we can support candidates who care about women and see reproductive freedom as crucial for everyone. And we can continue to tell our stories. We can tell people we know in real life, people we know online. We can shout our abortions. I’m not optimistic about the political climate right now (god, how can I be? What an epic disaster this is.), but I have to hope that sharing our stories is accomplishing something.

I’ve shared mine. If you want to, if you’re ready, join in the comments — share yours too.

Featured image caption: Contemplation. (Courtesy Jeff P./Flickr)

Carrie Adkins earned her Ph.D. in U.S. History from the University of Oregon in 2013. Her specific scholarly interests include gender, sexuality, race, and medicine in American history.

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