Those Pesky Sexy Details

I, who had only a single pregnancy and never wanted another, am far from one to talk. But there was a girl in my college class who went to New York for an abortion. In the details I heard, it had all the hallmarks of a classic case: a climb up a dark stairway, entry into what looked like an apartment, a meeting with a doctor (was he weary, leering, efficient?), the passing of hundreds of dollars, the procedure which inevitably left her bleeding and cramping–almost unable to walk. And her halting return down the stairs and onto the street.

She survived. It was the right decision–she was a college student with a fine mind and even in the 1960s, opportunities ahead of her. She wasn’t ready for motherhood, nor was the boy who impregnated her ready for fatherhood. But it was not easy. She had the abortion alone, sneaking away from our college in Baltimore, afraid as she climbed those dark steps. The referral had come from a college friend, a native of New York. My friend took the train back to Baltimore, in pain and fear.

One of the most compelling essays in an anthology I often use with college students is an excerpt from Margaret Sanger’s 1938 autobiography: lifting a line from Mathew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach,” the excerpt is titled “The Turbid Ebb and Flow of Human Misery.” It is set in 1912 among the immigrant tenements of New York’s lower East Side. As a public health nurse, Sanger was often called to treat impoverished immigrant women who’d had abortions. She recounts one case, “a small, slight Russian Jewess, about twenty-eight…of the special cast of feature to which suffering lends a madonna-like expression.” Up three flights of stairs, with no running water or toilet facilities, the apartment was crammed with children and boarders. After three weeks of nursing, the tiny woman recovered, looked into Mrs. Sanger’s face and said,”Another baby will finish me, I suppose.”

She begs for the secret: how to prevent pregnancy. The doctor in attendance looks at her and shakes his finger: “Any more capers, young woman, and they’ll be no need to send for me….Tell [your husband] to sleep on the roof.” This response touches the root of the problem: it is the woman’s fault, and she is amusing herself, plus husbands are difficult to “put off.”

These days, we know better, don’t we? Yet, unwanted pregnancy is surely at its root a woman’s problem–hers the body that carries the child; hers the health which suffers from uncontrolled pregnancies or abortions. But the family as a whole and society at large can be weighted to the ground by huge numbers of children whose nurturing a family can’t provide. Margaret Sanger devoted the rest of her career to championing the need for birth control. Through her efforts, laws legalizing the dissemination (notice the word) of birth control information were passed around the country. She herself opened in 1916 the nation’s the first family-planning clinic, in Brooklyn.

I have few friends left from my highschool class in South Carolina. The only one I’ve recently renewed came to my father’s funeral, which touched me quite a bit. We met a few times and enjoyed laughing over our high school selves. Then there began to appear email messages from her: she had a huge list to whom she sent political tracts. I deleted the first, but I read the second: it claimed that the Kinsey reports were responsible for rampant sexuality among young people. It deplored sex outside of marriage and castigated family planning clinics. I drew a long breath: the Kinsey reports, Sexuality in the Human Male (1948) and Sexuality in the Human Female (1953) shocked the nation, especially the second book, based on interviews with 6000 women. Their sexual behavior surprised many readers who supposed that women were prim, proper, and devoid of sexual urges.

We’re beyond that now, right? How else to view TV and magazine ads that display so much of women’s flesh? Far from Victorian prudery. And those are not mannikins, either. Yet, yet, there was my high school friend denouncing teenage sexuality, championing sex only within marriage. I didn’t want to find out she would say about birth control or abortions.

We are truly a culture in love with paradox. Not the only one, worldwide, surely, but with our own loveable, deplorable brand of excess and shoot-from-the-hip passions. (Hmm, interesting metaphor, given the subject.) I have decided that fascination with repression is the flip side of fascination with expression. That behind every die-hard anti-abortionist lies a woman who has somehow suffered vis-a-vis her own sexuality, childbirth, family life. No one who’s ever experienced an abortion suggests that it is easy: not an easy choice, an easy procedure to undergo, or an easy aftermath to live with. Prevention is far, far preferable. I practiced prevention with an assiduity I have reserved for almost nothing else. According to statistics I read recently, Planned Parenthood’s work is a little less than 95% devoted to helping poor women find workable alternatives to abortion. Their clients include college students or teens who are afraid to see their family doctor.

After two pregnancy scares, one when I was a senior in high school and one as a freshman in college, I asked my somewhat older roommate for a referral to a doctor in Baltimore. I went by myself, taking the bus into downtown Baltimore from my suburban campus. The doctor looked at me sternly: “Do your parents know you are doing this?” When I remember now how I quaked under his stern, unfamiliar gaze, I am appalled at his invasion of my privacy. But this was the early 1960s! I took the only choice open to me: I lied: “Oh yes,” I assured him. “I’m engaged to be married.” I wasn’t. In fact, I would break up with my young man within a month. He was six years older than I and not willing to “wait” for me. “Oh yes,” I repeated. “We’re getting married in a month.”

I never looked back. That diaphragm became one of my best friends.

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