I spent a lot of my teenage years on a pay phone in the lobby of my high school, calling Planned Parenthood, going through the details of my sex life, and then saying, “So, do you think I might be pregnant?” There was no “sex talk” in my house outside of the directive that I should avoid pregnancy. My grandmother got married at 17 and became pregnant about three minutes after that, and she felt quite confident that being a mother ruined her life. (She was, as I’ve written about before, quite the character.) So, while other people’s mothers would warn them to watch how they crossed the street or not to drink or to simply “be careful,” my grandmother’s departing words were always “Don’t get pregnant!” Once, she forgot to say it before I left the apartment. I was halfway down the block when she stuck her head out of a third-floor window and bellowed it out for the whole street to hear.
My grandmother wanted me to be able to do anything and everything I wanted. She hoped I would be middle-class, go to college, and maybe get married and maybe have kids if I wanted—but only when I wanted to. And I wanted that for myself, too. My grandmother was a devout Catholic, and I was a devout believer in Planned Parenthood. So, I went about my business and kept some money in a sock drawer “just in case,” well, you know.
Thanks to dumb luck and decent contraception, I never got pregnant. But plenty of girls around me did. Getting an abortion was never something the girls I grew up with were proud of—it was sad and hard and scary—but nobody judged anybody. I think about the abusive boys they would have been tied to and the enraged parents they would have had to deal with, to say nothing of the dreams deferred—for a time or altogether.
I am on the board of the Lower Eastside Girls Club, where every day we tell lower-income young women of color that they can have whatever life they want. I joined the board because I was just like those girls, and it felt easy for me to tell them that, because I believed that it was true. I don’t know how I can say that with a straight face now—not, at least, without standing at the doorway and screaming out, “Don’t get pregnant!”
I know it’s more complicated than that. I know that in fact, many women who have abortions are well into adulthood and already have children, not teens fretting over their pregnancy in a high-school lobby. But what I also know is that they know their lives, and that a pregnancy would not make those lives better—for them or the zygote inside of them. And what I also know is that they no longer have the right to better lives. Republicans wrap themselves in the American flag and pontificate about the American dream, and I am here to tell you, women, that dream is dead to us now.
Welcome to my militant womanist phase.