I was 18 years old and standing at the pay phone in my freshman dorm. The campus gynecologist was on the line with my results. For days, my appetite had been under siege: All I could eat were dried apricots and bologna slices. A hippie friend who'd had three abortions told me, "You are definitely pregnant. Look in the mirror; see if you see a darkening above your left nipple." I looked in the mirror and there it was, darkening in front of my eyes. Still, I didn't want to believe it. I was a wimpy little thing, prone to crying jags, and an abortion seemed too much for me to handle.
"Your test is positive, Ms. White," the gynecologist said in a robot voice. The hallway smelled like shampoo, like girls getting ready for something.
"Well, I guess I need to find out about... about..."
"Termination?" he said. Then I started to cry. "It's all right, Ms. White, we will bring you in for a termination next week."
My hippie friend said, almost excitedly, "I knew it!" She approached her abortions with a confident attitude: Keep your laws off my body, this sort of thing. I was not well versed in feminism yet, and I didn't know the medical details of pregnancy. Anyway, I was depressed and homesick. So that week the pregnancy became a baby in my mind. I wrote poems addressed to the baby with lines like "this is your birthday, this is the end of the world." I had vivid dreams in which the child and I were lying in an open field, and birds were circling around us, waiting for us to die. (I was a perfect candidate for antidepressants, but I didn't know about them yet.)
The cycles of fertility were as foreign to me as the French I could not translate, even when the teacher spoke slowly right into my ear. I'd been sleeping around and wasn't sure who the father was, and anyway the father never entered my dreams—this was part of the generic selfishness of adolescence, I think, that I turned it into a little pageant of loneliness between me and the multiplying cells that had possessed my appetite. Later my ex-boyfriend confided in me that he knew the exact moment when he'd impregnated me. "Thanks for telling me," I said, furious. Then a few weeks later I fucked him again.
Do I need to say I wasn't thinking clearly? Do I need to say that teenagers do not think clearly, generally? That they live in a space halfway between childhood and adulthood, so eager to be transformed into something or someone that they might make grave and life-altering mistakes? I would hope I wouldn't need to say such things, but these are dark times, and maybe the obvious bears repeating.
The passage of the South Dakota abortion ban is a radical development in the history of abortion law, and it is clear that soon dozens of other states will follow suit. The law—which doesn't make exceptions for rape or incest, as other laws have—is being passed in a red, red state where an abortion is already extremely difficult to obtain, so perhaps it should come as no surprise. Yet if you look at the law in the context of a country run by a religious ideologue who abuses power as regularly as he rides his mountain bike, and when you consider how the Supreme Court is shifting, and how far away 2008 is, well, it gets a little scary. It feels like the beginning of something.
It would not be accurate to say we are returning to the days of "back-alley abortions," wire hangers, and the like. Our society is too sophisticated for that, and the internet makes it possible for an underground of abortion activists to mobilize—they are mobilizing even as I write this. On a blog called Molly Saves the Day, a woman has posted a do-it-yourself abortion manual. "I understand that you're probably really angry right now," writes Molly to the women of South Dakota. "Maybe you're anxiously wondering where the nearest abortion clinic is, now that you will have to leave the state to get to one. If you have a serious medical condition, you might be doubling up on birth control methods, leading to a lot of worry and possibly negative side effects. But what you need right now isn't the righteous anger the rest of the blogosphere will give you. You need more."
Molly then explains how to do a dilation and extraction procedure.
Despite this industrious approach, it is likely the girls and women of South Dakota will mostly escape to other states for abortions—boarding buses and trains the way women did in the pre-Roe days, disappearing and then reappearing with an illegal secret.
I saw some footage of the men who were advocating for this bill. They had liver-spotted hands and puffy faces, a look of ill health and meanness about them—also a look of arrogant triumph. Like the kind of father you might want to board a train just to get away from. South Dakota Senator Bill Napoli went so far as to use the phrase "simple rape," as in, if it's a simple rape, a woman should not have access to abortion. Only in cases where a raped girl "was a virgin... was religious... planned on saving her virginity until she was married... was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated," should the law make an exception. But the law Napoli helped pass makes no exceptions.
When South Dakota's governor signed the ban into law, he spoke of protecting our "most vulnerable citizens," but here is how South Dakota values those lives, once they are out and breathing and in need:
"The three worst counties for child poverty were all in South Dakota, according to the Children's Defense Fund. Buffalo County, home to the Crow Creek Indian Reservation, was dead last" (New York Times editorial page, March 12).
As the date for my "termination" approached I missed classes and meals, lying around in bed waiting to vomit, the nausea always triggered by a memory of egg rolls eaten two weeks earlier in the college cafeteria. The hippie friend told a bunch of her Deadhead girlfriends about my predicament, and they all gathered around me and brought me flowers, in the same way as when we were tripping on acid and we would check each other and say, "Are you okay?" Because they were Deadheads there was a sheen of caretaking over everything, even though we barely knew each other and would soon lose track of each other.
At the clinic, the girls pulled me out of the car, and when it came time to pay the $250, I realized I hadn't brought any cash, so they all went out to the cash machine and came back with the loot. I was ashamed of being so passive, buffeted around by this thing, but they said, "It's okay." Once I was spread out on the table I couldn't stop crying, even through the laughing gas. I asked the robotic doctor, "Can I see it? Can I see it?" He was about to show me when a wise nurse (over time I have found there are many of them) said, "Don't show it to her." She sounded like she hated the robot doctor, too.
And so there it went, the small, bloody thing. The thing that, if it had survived in my body (20 percent of pregnancies miscarry), would today be 21 years old, an adult. An adult born of a sad girl who did not know what she was doing, and didn't love (often almost hated) the man (men) she was doing it with. I know for certain if I'd mothered the kid, it would've been a walking disaster. And adoption—that brave and selfless choice that is part of "pro-choice"—probably wouldn't have presented itself as an option for me. I couldn't even get myself together to go to the cash machine—how would I have handled something as momentous as giving a kid up for adoption?
Seventeen months ago my daughter was born, and this time the baby was wanted, planned for, greeted like a kind of savior. It had taken my husband and me a long time to get pregnant, and there was no question that the baby would come into the world, if she made it. I knew I was pregnant this time when my appetite rebelled and I had to spit a hard-boiled egg into the sink. My throat started to close against certain foods, just as it had in the college cafeteria, and for nine unreal months I was possessed by her.
After the labor I said to my husband, "Now I realize why women don't go to war. They can bring on the most painful event imaginable just by fucking." It was the first time I wondered if, on some intuitive level, women know more about pure physical violence than men do. My husband said, "How could anyone try to make abortion illegal, and make a woman go through that who doesn't want to go through it?" As he asked me this essential question, a question we should all be asking right now, the skin around my eyes was black and blue, and burst blood vessels had turned the whites of my eyes bright red. I looked like I'd been in a bad car crash, a pileup. My black eyes were the product of something called face-pushing, where you push with your face instead of your abdomen. It was not something I had ever heard of, but a nurse said, "It happens all the time." When I stood up, I pissed myself. The pain of birth lasted for weeks—the kind of generalized pain that is everywhere and nowhere. I wondered if I was going to become a Vicodin addict. But little by little the pain and then the memory of the pain subsided, or were repressed. Just as the abortion had, the pain of birth became a bright, bloody knowledge right at the corner of consciousness.
I watch the news unfold in South Dakota as I clean the hardened cream of wheat off the highchair cushions, the brown banana deposits, stronger than superglue. I watch the phrase "abortion ban" becoming easier and easier for the news anchors to say. I wonder how we came to this place where there are girls out there whose lives will be taken from them because of a moment of unruly and destructive desire, a moment of falling asleep at the wheel. I wonder if instead of "abortion ban" we could use a phrase like "fate police" because the girls living in South Dakota are living in a state where fucking determines your fate (gay men know more about this than anybody), and every random boyfriend is Father.
As a journalist I know we need to seek out the girls in South Dakota. We need to interview them and profile them in the coming months as the ban takes effect. The only problem is, you can't interview teenagers without parental consent. The girls we most need to find are the ones who are hidden from us, staring into bathroom mirrors, wondering what they are going to do, wondering if this is a life inside them, or a sickness, a punishment.
When you have a kid, on some essential level you disappear and fate takes over. Your internal life fragments and you are unrecognizable to yourself. You become focused on this creature (that is, if you are not a narcissist or a sociopath). This disappearance of the self is a key to the real truth about the right-to-life movement: It's not really a matter of protecting the unborn; it's a matter of making girls and women disappear. For the right-to-lifers, sexual women need to be stopped, erased, reconfigured, terminated.
So it is strangely appropriate that the one ray of light in the South Dakota story comes from a population also targeted for termination by white men. In March, Cecilia Fire Thunder, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation, announced that she would open a Planned Parenthood clinic within the boundaries of the reservation, a place the law can't touch. Stretching 11,000 square miles on the southwestern edge of the state, the Pine Ridge Reservation is a place with a 45 percent unemployment rate. Yet if Cecilia Fire Thunder opens her clinic, it will be the only place in South Dakota to get a safe and legal abortion. It's quite an image to contemplate: all kinds of females, even rich white girls from the suburbs, traveling into the poverty of reservation land so they can take control of their fate. Maybe it would seem ironic if it weren't so ominous.