“Someone I know and love has had an abortion.” This is the phrase that women – and men -should get used to speaking out loud when they hear others perpetuating stigma and shame about the medical procedure that gives families the choice of planning when to have a family, according to Mary Pollock, Michigan National Organization for Women (NOW) Legislative Vice President.
She and others shared their stories on May 10 at the “It’s Not an Easy Choice” program put on by Oakland/MacombNOW in partnership with Planned Parenthood Affiliates of Michigan and Northland Family Planning Centers.
“If you don’t pay attention, we will go back,” she said. “The mainstream media isn’t telling you about what’s happening.”
Pollock explained that as laws in multiple states are being passed to over-regulate abortion services out of business, the media and society are quiet except for the well-funded anti-abortion activists who thrive on judging others.
She said that despite abortion being legally protected, legislatures look for backdoor approaches to limiting them in their states, and that nationwide over a thousand anti-choice bills have been introduced in the past year, and 39 in Michigan alone. Examples include making it criminal for doctors to use medicine for anything other than its strict FDA guidelines, requiring removed tissue to be given a proper burial or cremation, requiring abortion providers to operate with the code requirements of a surgical facility which are more than a medical office, requiring them to see patients and then give them a waiting period before the procedure, requiring the patient to view pro-life propaganda, requiring an ultrasound to be described to them, and other legislation that affects licensing or the ability to hold doctors liable if a woman says she changed her mind or did not consent once on the doctor’s table. “Laws like this make it expensive and risky to be an abortion provider. That’s how these conservative lawmakers push to shut them down,” Pollock said.
“It’s Not an Easy Choice” had a before and after theme. Ferndale resident Kim Beebe is the President of Oakland/MacombNOW, and one of the organizers of the event.
“Before Roe v. Wade there were women who put their lives at risk to get an abortion. The image we have of coat hangers is true. When a woman has an unplanned pregnancy, and knows that she cannot keep and raise a baby, she will do what she needs to. Women have used coat hangers. They’ve thrown themselves down stairs. They’ve had their friends kick them in the stomach. And they’ve put their lives in the hands of strangers to get illegal abortions… The stories tonight show the difference between an abortion before Roe and a safe, legal abortion after.”
Northland Family Planning Centers founder Renee Chelian was fifteen years old when she got pregnant by her sixteen year old boyfriend. She was to be sent to live with an aunt to have the baby in secret and the boy would be allowed to finish high school. She was packed and ready to go when her mother had another solution. The boy’s parents found a connection that would help her get an illegal abortion.
She described in great detail the terrifying series of events. Her boyfriend was sent off to camp so he wouldn’t be around. “He had no idea what was going on, and he was scared of what was happening to me. At camp he tried to kill himself,” she said. But at the time she did not know this. In 1970 there were no cell phones, and the house phone was on a community line, meaning others could listen in. When the call came in, instructions were vague. Her mother was to send her fifteen year old daughter to a parking lot to be picked up by a stranger and taken to the doctor’s office.
She and her father got into the car with the stranger who blindfolded them for the ride. Once inside what was supposed to be the doctor’s office, Chelian was put in an area full of folding chairs and pregnant women.
“I was afraid to look up because if I saw anyone’s face we might be sent away. I kept my eyes down and I remember seeing all these shoes,” she said.
It wasn’t actually a doctor’s office, but a mechanical shop of some sort. One after another like an assembly line the women were placed on a greasy dirty table and their uteruses were packed with gauze to cause the body to reject the growing tissue inside. In a great deal of pain, she was blindfolded and sent home.
Days later nothing had happened. Frantically they waited for another phone call. This time the “doctor” sent over some Quinine, which despite popular rumor, is not an abortifacient. Finally another trip to the “doctor’s office” was needed, where an even more invasive labor-inducing technique was used. After this last blindfolded trip to the filthy machine shop, Chelian experienced infection and sickness.
At great risk to his freedom and medical license, another local doctor and nurse helped her to complete the abortion.
The doctor who helped her recover had lost his sister to an illegal abortion in Columbia. Chelian went to work in his doctor’s office and when abortion became legal in New York, she helped him establish an office in Buffalo just to provide this service. They would work all week in Michigan providing regular medical care, and then fly in a private jet to Buffalo to do abortions on the weekends. She said that a hundred women a day would come to the clinic, from all over the country. Many had hitchhiked there and had no way home. For most, every penny that they had was going towards stopping their pregnancy. The pilot helped and a couple that owned a cab also pitched in, letting women sleep at their home and giving them low-cost rides.
“This was women taking care of women,” she said. “That time period was the beginning of the women’s movement. I wish I could say I was part of it, but I was working about an 80 hour workweek and my classroom was working in Buffalo. …Since the beginning of time women have been taking care of women through abortions, through miscarriages, through delivery, through the start of menstruation. It was The Red Tent Story. All I knew through my heart and my soul was that I was becoming stronger and better and part of something way bigger than me that I can still barely explain. The one thing these women knew for sure was if they stayed home, they were having a baby.”
She explained that after Roe everything changed. She went on to own the Northland Family Planning Centers, which now has three SE Michigan locations. And while her life is sometimes at risk and she struggles against conservative regulations and other pressures, she is enriched by the work she does, and the difference it makes in women’s lives.
Other women shared stories of their abortions, including a married social worker who always knew she did not want to have children. When she got married she had an IUD put in, and when the device failed and she became pregnant, she asked her doctor for an abortion. And then in a clean and sterile medical facility, in the hands of a trusted physician, the relatively simple abortion procedure was done. No blindfolding. No dangerous mis-prescribed medicines. Little risk of infection, and plenty of nurturing aftercare. The way most legal medical procedures should be.
Pollock too had a story of how she got on the path to Freedom of Choice activism. In 1967 while she was a residence hall adviser, a student returned from a trip to Puerto Rico for an abortion and had the flight attendant call Pollock because the student was hemorrhaging badly. In those days women who went to the hospital with bleeding and infections were often questioned by police. They could be arrested and imprisoned for having had an illegal abortion.
She called on a friendly doctor at the university for help, and ended up on the path to abortion access advocacy. She worked on connecting women with loan money, and with a referral system that connected college women to abortion providers.
Another woman of the same era had managed to stay a virgin until she was almost done with college. Once it looked like intercourse might be imminent she asked her doctor to put her on the pill, but the doctor refused because she wasn’t married. Her third time having sex she got pregnant. She’d heard about this doctor in Philadelphia that would help women in her position, so she sent a letter to the office requesting an appointment and waited by the phone.
“I was told that if anyone stopped me or asked, to just say that I was there for an appointment,” she said. “Everyone in town knew what was going on. Everyone at the hotel knew and all these girls would stay there. The police knew, everyone knew. But they supported it.” The woman went on to finish college and start a family when she was ready for it emotionally and financially.
A 31 year old women spoke about her procedure of when she was 18 and had a legal abortion. “My mom was always paranoid about my getting pregnant so she put me on the pill as soon as I started menstruating,” she said. Despite being on the pill, the young lady got pregnant. “My mom tried to beat the child out of me,” she said. “She’s the one that told me I should get an abortion. It was a hard decision. My fear was of destroying my relationship with God, but I know I made the right decision and that God will not forsake me.” The bright young woman is working hard at an internship and struggling to make something of her own life before bringing a child into the world. But she said she still wrestles with guilt and sadness, not at missing the child, but for having failed God by getting pregnant in the first place.
The guilt and shame felt by women who have had abortions is a relatively new social problem, according to Chelian. “There was a time when there wasn’t an anti-abortion movement and women were not afraid to speak up. It was very different because your community of friends was supportive. You could tell your friend ‘I’m pregnant and I don’t know what to do,’ and they’d help you get an abortion. There were networks of people helping and supporting each other.” She explained that the conservatives who picket clinics and condemn others are making progress because people don’t advocate for abortion or support their friends and loved ones through the process.
One-third of women will have an abortion during their childbearing years. But even those who don’t, and wouldn’t, can still be pro-choice advocates. Talking about what choice means with others can be a great place to start, especially in situations where someone is being judgmental. As Chelian pointed out “Being pro-choice does not make you pro-abortion. It means that you recognize that you do not have the right to make that choice for someone else.”
The sharing of so many stories is a start in reminding women that they are not alone. And for now, abortion is still legally their choice.
For more information about Oakland Macomb NOW go to http://oaklandcountynow.blogspot.com/p/about.html.
For more on Planned Parenthood go to http://www.plannedparenthood.org/midsouthmi/.
For more on Northland Family Planning Centers go to http://www.northlandfamilyplanning.com/.