The last time I was party to an abortion was in the early 1990s at Yakima’s Feminist Women’s Health Center in Washington state. The cost was $260, paid in cash. My partner already had two daughters and I had one; our families were complete, and the decision to terminate this pregnancy was made quickly by my partner, who also paid for the procedure.
Back then as now, it was no small feat to get an abortion in the inner West, or in most of the US. Roe v Wade guaranteed the right to abortion, but it never guaranteed easy access.
This health clinic in Yakima was under siege; a modern-day Alamo of cinder blocks, bomb threats, and tight security. A child-care center also operated out of the clinic, an unfortunate circumstance. When the children were harassed by the pro-life mob, clinic staff called local television crews to show it to the community. The direct harassment – of children at least – ended.
However, this time around, the harassment was directed toward us. The picketers were mostly men. We parked far away to avoid their mischief, but there was no escaping their professional wrath. We tried to become invisible, but to no avail.
A couple left the clinic hurriedly, their heads bowed, with the pack of protestors in close pursuit. A tall man, apparently the leader, shrieked, “Relationships never last after something like this!”
He then turned his attention toward us, shouting in what sounded like religious tongues. I screamed back, “Go crawl in a hole!” He became all mouth, edging closer so his breath became mine; his eyes white and wild, his neck veins a thick, angry red. In the small parking lot there was no room for compromise. The threat of violence filled every space.
A woman suddenly materialized, grabbed my arm and said, “Don’t look at them. Don’t talk to them. Just keep walking.” She was smiling, but pushed us urgently ahead toward the clinic, toward safety. She wore a bib apron with large letters reading “Clinic Staff”, and after she left us at the door we would never see her again. If she hadn’t appeared, I might have attacked the ringleader.
The steel door closed like a cage, a staff member secured several locks, and we found ourselves in a small waiting room with a half dozen people. They looked up without speaking, then buried their eyes in the disguise of reading magazines. We were too scared to acknowledge each other or offer smiles of comfort. On the walls were bilingual posters about AIDS, clean needles, the WIC program, nutrition. Each time the door opened with new arrivals, I heard the taunts of the mob ebb and flow with the push of cold air.
This would be my third experience with abortion. The two previous ones were with my ex-wife. In between we had a beautiful daughter, who ultimately provided us with more joy than the marriage would.
I have no regrets. I lose absolutely not one minute of sleep over that part of my history. Without those abortions I would have had four children, and given my lack of job skills at the time, I would have struggled to provide them with adequate futures.
What I regret is that through my own foolishness, it took me much longer than most of my peers to finish my university degree and find a decent job with good benefits. I had depended on food stamps, desperately pawned whatever I could, and even spent a long night in a California jail after neglecting to take care of a “fix-it” ticket that went to warrant. And for five tough years, I was a single parent.
Ultimately those abortions were not up to me. The women made the decisions. As it should be. My job was to support them in their choice, and I did.
No matter what is transpiring in Texas and elsewhere today, no matter how hard conservative white men try to control women’s bodies regarding pregnancy and birth control through questionable legislation, and no matter what happens in a stacked and frankly mediocre United States Supreme Court, women will continue, as they have done since time immemorial, to terminate pregnancies if they so wish.
Yet the same question remains: will they seek help in a safe, medically-approved facility or in a makeshift back-alley hovel, as was the case prior to 1973?
As we left the health center in Yakima that afternoon nearly three decades ago, my partner shared with me a theory. She said the spirits of babies are called back to Heaven when it is not their time to come down to Earth.
I remember her words today as I think back on that long day. I can still hear the echo of the mob’s anger. I picture the man screaming at me. Yet the mob was not screaming for an end to teenage pregnancy; nor were they advocating for women’s health care or equal access to medicine for the poor. Instead it was, and still is, a fight to the finish over an undefined glob of tissue – a fight that women, and men, are losing.
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of five books of essays and journalism, including “Going Driftless” and “West of East.”