Commusings: Abortion Stories in Greyscale by Schuyler GrantAug 20, 2022
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Hello Commune Community,
Our last few articles have had a light-hearted, summery lilt to them. This week – less so. As today’s essayist, my wife Schuyler, glibly remarked, “It would be so easy for you, Jeff, to say nothing about this issue.” Alas, after 35 years, she knows how to goad me.
There are few political issues that pull the ends of our frayed cultural shoelace more than abortion. The bunched edges are precariously held together by a tenuous single strand – the last vestige of a diminishing middle.
Both “sides” of the abortion debate tend to look down their nose at one another with moral indignation. My friend, Sue, considers her pro-life stance a deeply ethical one and castigates pro-choicers as morally bereft in their disregard for the sanctity of human life. And, of course, my pro-reproductive freedom community fumes against the opposition for their disrespect of a woman’s right to control her own body. We’re often screaming across an ever-widening chasm. And you can set your watch to the party affiliations of these positions.
The media only fans the flames of polarization by presenting a zero-sum, binary, black and white reality. But has there ever been an issue more morally gray than abortion? Sure, there are those utterly convicted, dug in on the margins. But are we really as divided as we are led to believe?
In today’s essay and accompanying podcast, Schuyler tackles this thorny matter through story. Story has nuance. The sharing of story helps us navigate the moral marine layer because we so often see part of our own story in the stories of others, even those with whom we disagree. Story takes hollow polemics and fills them with humanity. And through humanizing our incendiary societal issues, we can perhaps take a step on to the bridge back toward each other and maybe toward compromise.
Through story, we move beyond the invective and ask the questions behind the question: For example, what are the ground conditions that exist within a woman’s life that would lead her to consider aborting her fetus? Whatever your political beliefs, there is compassion to be found in answering this type of inquiry.
Here at [email protected] and hopelessly middle-aged on IG @jeffkrasno. I appreciate the opportunity that the Commune community provides to have these tough conversations.
In love, include me,
• • •
Abortion Stories in Greyscale
by Schuyler Grant
What is identity, and collective family identity, but a collation of stories? A fluid narrative of heroism, loss, passion, betrayal, unrequited love, perseverance, disaffection, solidarity. Stories about abortion are filed in the library of most families — legal, illegal, secret, tinged with relief or with regret. They certainly are in mine.
The night that Phoebe, our first, was conceived I had a sense – both physical and psycho-emotional – that I had gotten pregnant. It’s hard to explain, but I truly felt it. And she was indeed born on her due date, pegged to that night. So you’d think, after a few pregnancies and a generally well-developed awareness of my body, that I’d have cultivated an instinct about being pregnant. Not so for round 3. I was feeling fluish for a few weeks when a friend suggested I might be knocked up. I assured her that was impossible, unless I was a most unlikely candidate for mothering the next baby Jesus. (I was still nursing, hadn’t yet had a period, and frankly, neither Jeff nor I could remember engaging in the one activity required for conception.)
But a few weeks later, when my symptoms persisted, I peed on the stick. Not only pregnant but, as we soon deduced, not just a little pregnant – 20 weeks at least. Shocked, appalled. No plans and no room for a 3rd baby. Logistically unsound with our two business, Williamsburg loft, and travel-heavy lifestyle. Never mind being environmentally irresponsible to go beyond sum zero procreation.
Of course, I didn’t relish the prospect of an abortion and had always felt inordinately lucky that I’d made it to 40 with a very spotty record of contraception use and no unintended pregnancies. But it was the sane choice, and my mother made me enough of a practical farm girl so as not to feel squeamish at the prospect of aborting an unwanted fetus. Appointment made, the day came… and went. From one day to the next, I would sometimes quip afterward, I became a right to lifer.
That joke has now soured.
• • •
Kit, my great grandmother on my father’s side, bent the arc of our family identity. She was a passionate suffragette and Socialist who co-founded the organization that would become Planned Parenthood of Connecticut alongside Margaret Sanger. (Sanger has taken a thrashing recently for the eugenic slant of her life-long struggle for women’s rights, but to me this only confirms the complexity of identity and heroism.) Kit bequeathed such a potent dose of feminism to our bloodline that even successive generations who leaned Republican remained staunchly pro-choice. When the Dobbs decision was handed down, one of my first thoughts was of her fury from the beyond.
My mother's political pedigree is less burnished, but she is no less passionate a supporter of women’s autonomy, in a scrappy, nurse-your-kids-‘til-they’re-5 kind of way. She is, of course, of the generation that bled for their right to abortion, while I’ve had the blithe attitude of someone who assumed women’s bodily autonomy was settled law.
I’ve known the story of my mom’s first abortion for as long as I can remember, in all its lurid detail. It has always left me with the deep knowing that the issue is not black or white, and yet somehow the takeaway is still clear.
Here is Ann’s story, in her own words:
My first abortion could have gone badly — but didn’t. I was 24 at the time; it was after the birth of our first child, so this must have been 1968. He was very young, still crawling. As I am now 76, looking back it feels like a long time ago. It was a dangerous time to be getting an abortion. I was lucky with that abortion. As I say, it could have gone sour:
I fly into New York City from Florida, where my husband, Jack, and I are teaching at an alternative school. I had been assured by the staff at the school that this New York City abortionist was safe.
I arrive from the airport to the house of a friend. I will be spending the night at his house. But first, off to the abortionist. I take the bus there. I remember walking up the stairs of her modest apartment building. There were kids’ bikes in the foyer. She shows me into her bedroom. There’s a clean white towel on the bed with some instruments beside it. I really don’t notice what they are but, thinking back, probably a speculum and some sort of stainless-steel poking thing. She asks me to lie on my back at the edge of the bed, knees up and spread. I feel the speculum going in; I know this feeling. What does she do? I don’t feel any pain. I suspect she punctured the cervical plug. She tells me to get home as quickly as I can.
I ride the bus back to the friend’s house. Halfway through the bus ride, I am cramping badly. I get to his house; it must have been late afternoon but I’m not remembering this. I’m remembering only that the cramps are bad, worse than the contractions I’d had with the first child. Yes. Definitely worse. That child, Jason, is with me. Why ever did I bring him? I suppose I must have been nursing him, and therefore could not leave him behind. My memory is faulty here… The friend, John, must have been caring for Jason while I was getting the abortion.
John is completely useless to me, apart from the child-minding, of course. Worse than useless, as he has the idea we might get it on that evening. He always had a thing for me, starting down there at the school in Florida, where he too had been a teacher. But I really have no time to be fussed about his lechery, as I am having these intense contractions and... they go on all night or close to it. I do not sleep but pace back and forth in his apartment. And then in the very early morning, leaning over hard, I push out a ... baby. Truly, a baby. Very red, glistening, very tiny. The baby moved, squirmed, and I could see, yes: a boy. Then ... still.
I am in shock, staring down. I had not expected this. Maybe a blob of tissue? But ... and fortunately, for me, that first child, Jason, came crawling toward the glisten and I scooped him up. He wanted to nurse, and I always did love nursing him.
Perhaps the nursing helped the placenta to detach cleanly from the uterine wall. I don’t remember any placenta coming out but there had to have been one.
I wanted to take the baby back to the school and bury it. But Jack really didn’t want that to happen. Now, in retrospect, I don’t blame him. A dead baby in a suitcase at the airport? But... I so didn’t want this little being to be thrown in the trash. A dilemma. The Horny Cipher proved useful in the end. He taught high school biology there in NYC and said he’d put it in formaldehyde, and it would be an exhibit. The baby would easily fit in a two-quart Mason jar. OK...
This first abortion could have been so much worse: The woman knew what she was doing. No infection. (But did she know how far along I was? No, probably not. But not her concern.) She did not puncture my uterus. The cramps were manageable on the bus ride. I didn’t find myself in an emergency room, perforated. Jason, my nursling, was there to put a perspective on things. All in all, a happy ending. We did not want another child at that time. We were living on a boat. Close quarters, scant income.
I had the second abortion about four and a half years after the first one. Schuyler, our second child, had been born. Jack and I were going through a “rough patch.” Pregnant again!!?? And the rough patch? They don’t mix very well. We were on the Kaiser/Permanente insurance plan. Off to the hospital. White walls/gurney/nurses. I have opted to have my tubes tied as well, since they’ll be in there doing things. I am 29, young to say yes to sterility, but I don’t trust this fertile but foolish couple we appear to be. And I know deep in my bones that I could never go through another abortion.
• • •
Nothing neat and tidy there. I’ve often wondered if my change of heart stemmed in part from my mom’s experience. That her complicated story helped beget our 3rd child.
Micah knows she was an unwanted pregnancy. We can joke about it because there’s no question she is profoundly loved. And of course, I can’t fathom having aborted the fetus that grew into our daughter. But I also can’t imagine the heartbreak of having been forced by any outside authority to reach that decision.
Non-binary, that current cultural buzzword, applies so aptly to the issue of abortion. There is nothing black or white about this issue that has so roiled our country for the past half-century, exploding like a wildfire in this brittle summer in American.
No matter the law, abortions will happen. So where do we go from here? How do we come to consensus around an issue that is so emotional, so deeply personal, and yet so hyper-politicized?
Just like individual and familial identity, our national story is a tapestry of narratives we tell ourselves about ‘who we are.’ One thing that makes the dismantling of Roe so profoundly unsettling for the majority of Americans is that it rends a core story we tell about ourselves: That our country, for all its many imperfections, is on a steady trajectory toward instantiating rights and protections for the once disenfranchised. What the Dobbs decision reveals about this fraught current moment is larger than the issue of abortion because there is not another example in the last hundred years – since Prohibition to be precise – when a majority have lost a fundamental right. A right that is so tightly interwoven into our country’s narrative that it is taken for granted.
Of course, at the heart of the abortion debate are nuances of language and meaning, and careful manipulation in the way each side ‘tells’ its story. Pro-this or anti-that. As for me – I am absolutely in support of the affirmation of life: Pro-life, you might say, at all stages of life. This includes everything from universal health care, extended maternity and paternity support, the right to die with dignity, and of abortion being ‘safe, legal and RARE.’
This long-held tagline has fallen out of favor in the pro-choice movement, which, to me, exemplifies everything that’s wrong with performative politics. To support fewer abortions hardly shames women who have opted for the procedure. It is an appeal for holistic health care that leads to fewer unwanted pregnancies. No one wants to have an abortion. There can’t be a single woman in human history who has intentionally gotten pregnant because she relishes the prospect of abortion by any means. So why doesn’t the Left appeal to common sense? Tolerance over absolutism.
Meanwhile, I am doing my best to recognize that there are millions of well-meaning people behind the politics I so profoundly disagree with. Even if you believe, as I do, that a woman should have a right to choose an abortion at any stage of pregnancy, it’s important to engage in debate that acknowledges there are well-meaning people who believe there are competing moral claims between the woman and the fetus. But it’s far simpler to be a movement that is ‘pro-life’ than it is to be ‘anti-liberty.’
Post-Roe, to ensure that state governments and the courts enforce abortion restrictions, the right-to-life movement must pivot from activism to enforcement. They have to persuade the public to accept the criminalization of something a majority of Americans have long taken for granted as a foundation of our modern democracy. As a result, many Americans voters are looking for political safe-haven right now.
Pro-life Democrats find no home in their party, and as the pro-choice movement takes on messaging that is increasingly uncompromising it leaves no room for the large swath of the electorate that has nuanced views on how far into pregnancy abortion rights should extend. Pro-choice Republican voters haven't entirely ceased to exist either, and this could become a problem for their party as the pro-life agenda becomes increasingly radical. Pollsters gauge that a little over a third of Republicans disagree with their party on whether to outlaw abortion, while about a quarter of Democrats disagree with their party platform. Where do these voters go for representation — or even civil debate? Either party having a litmus test regarding any particular issue is unhealthy for a functioning democracy.
I can’t help but hope that there might be a coalition built of pro-life, pro-choice people. That we can lean into compromise together. Though it’s against my principles to restrict choice at any stage of pregnancy, I would be willing to accept some sane restrictions on abortion, joining most of the other developed countries around the world who use health care as the guiding principle of the issue — above religion and politics.
Perhaps out of this hot mess we’re in, the best we can hope for is a collective embrace of the fact that the abortion issue will always be painted in greyscale. If we are to save our imperfect union, we can hold a holy respect for women’s bodily autonomy, while also acknowledging that a baby starts as a mass of cells and grows very slowly over 9 months, but it is indeed a baby – a precious human life – in the making. We will never arrive at a shared set of ‘facts,’ but we can aspire to share in the project of a cohesive and functional society.
Fully embracing the fact that civil society is non-binary – or “not relating to, composed of, or involving just two things” – allows for degrees of truth, degrees of being, to coexist. If not peacefully then at least in a delicate truce. Our work is to reknit our national story into something more durable. Something that inspires compromise. In service of liberty, justice and yes, even happiness — for all.
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