Such was the tried-and-true motto I claimed as my own when I graduated from high school a semester early during my senior year. It was 1987, and I dreamed of nothing more than to kick off the dust of small-town Iowa to start my grown-up life in Iowa City, the artsy hub of the Midwest, where I planned to wait tables and save money for fall semester classes at the University of Iowa. What did I want? Who would I be? How would I live? The choices were exhilarating.
At 17, I was both proud of, and careless with, my newfound independence. My hometown boyfriend drove to Iowa City to spend most weekends with me, and I obtained a fake ID that made it easy to drink in bars with my legal-aged coworkers almost every night of the week. Drinking too much and eating poorly, I did not lead a healthful lifestyle and wasn’t too concerned when I missed a few periods that summer. Not until my 18th birthday had come and gone and I was an official college freshman did it occur to me that I was gaining weight and might actually be pregnant.
Conveniently for me as a female student at the U of I, the Emma Goldman Clinic was situated just a block off campus, next door to a sorority house, and directly across the street from my apartment. Access to women’s health care couldn’t have been easier. At my next-day appointment, I answered a few questions, took a pregnancy test and was informed that I was approximately three months pregnant. A clinic worker explained the three outcomes of this scenario: plan to keep “it,” give “it” up for adoption after birth or have an abortion before “it” developed any further. Since I was a legal adult and responsible for my own actions, no parental advice or consent would be needed if I chose to terminate the pregnancy.
I wish I could say I agonized over what to do about my unplanned pregnancy. The truth was, I knew right then and there that I would choose abortion and had no intention of sharing the situation with anyone other than my boyfriend. The justifications were numerous. Neither my boyfriend nor I had any interest in getting married or being parents at the time. Even had he suggested otherwise, I wanted only to consider my own future. Choosing abortion seemed to me — a late teen of the 1980s and the daughter of divorced baby boomers — like a rite of passage into modern womanhood. Why, having an abortion was my right as a woman, part and parcel of female independence. Wouldn’t having a baby mean living with my mother and stepfather in the sticks, being on welfare and never finishing college? Furthermore, I couldn’t think of any women, let alone men, in my personal circle who would have offered congratulations and encouraged me to sacrifice my education and future career for the sake of unborn “it.”
Given these notions and presumptions, I returned to the Emma Goldman Clinic in mid-October firmly resolved to terminate my pregnancy. There, as I lay exposed on the exam table and felt the cramping pressure of “it” being extracted into a machine that sounded like a vacuum, I was overcome by a crying fit and a flood of emotions I could not understand. What was there to cry about? Wasn’t I only rejecting the dead-end lifestyle of small-town motherhood? What else was there to consider? After all, weren’t abortions just routine medical procedures scheduled and performed daily by doctors and nurses in tidy clinics like the one in my own neighborhood?
As a pregnant 18-year-old girl, it did not occur to me that some future day, after years of feeling inexplicably broken in so many areas of my life, I would be drawn to Entering Canaan, a ministry through Project Rachel that would help me trace the brokenness back to that fateful October day on the table. It did not occur to me that I would eventually have to process the inevitable physical and emotional trauma resulting from abortion, and the intense shame in my heart — at the irresponsibility of getting pregnant in the first place, at the selfishness of choosing abortion so that I could be “free” to live my life as it pleased me on any given day, at the realization that I had rejected not just a lifestyle but an actual life, the life of my first baby.
No, my abortion story cannot appeal to the sympathies of the unfortunate young girl or woman whose unplanned pregnancy was the result of rape or incest. I am deeply saddened by her plight, and I pray that she will be surrounded by the hands-on support and counseling she needs to move forward from the rape and incest itself, let alone the complexity of her “choice.”
My abortion story is for all the rest of us who become pregnant at an inconvenient time in our lives. Whether we like it or not, pregnancy is a risk we all take as women when we choose to become sexually active. This means, of course, that if we say no to that lifestyle, we avert the risk entirely and will never have to make the choice to keep, give up or abort the life we helped create with the man with whom we may or may not share a commitment.
Just say no to sex? In our self-serving, indulgent culture, that’s viewed as a pretty ridiculous and religious-extremist notion. I mean, it takes a lot of self-control to say no to our material wants and physical desires, especially when we’re overrun by hormones as teenagers. And yet that is all it takes: some self-control.
Imagine, for a moment, a world in which people regularly exercised self-control in response to their emotional and physical impulses. It’s my body, my life, and I have the freedom to say no to sex or any other action with perennial consequences. That sounds a whole lot like the peace and freedom — and women’s reproductive “rights” — we all claim to stand for.
Lani McDonald is a wife and mom who writes news articles and literary nonfiction from a new-feminist, wholistic Catholic perspective. Her work has appeared in newspapers, poetry journals, and various business and diocesan publications. Follow Lani on Twitter @catholicchick13 and on Facebook, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.