It's a Powerful Thing

Earlier this week, in the context of another conversation, one of our users at Scarleteen mentioned that her feelings on abortion had changed to a negative when she learned that her mother's pregnancy had been unplanned, and that her mother considered abortion. She said that upset her, because she really liked existing. She did say she was still pro-choice, but her sentiment bothered me all the same. Some of why it bothered me was political, and also about the work that I do and have done. But in thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that the ways it bothered me most were intensely personal.

The truth is, I envy her. A lot. I envy she was able to have a discussion in which her mother made clear she had the right to choose and she chose to remain pregnant and parent her. She wasn't forced, she wasn't pressured, she didn't do what she did because it was the only thing she could do without risking her life, her health, being locked away or hidden or committing a crime. She chose. She had the freedom to choose. My mother did not.

It's a powerful thing, this choice, any choice; this freedom, any freedom.

I can't express how much I wish I was born under those circumstances myself. I wish I could've had that conversation with my own mother. I wish I had not grown up knowing my mother didn't have the right to choose, including a lack of access to contraception to choose to try and prevent becoming pregnant in the first place. I wish my own mother had not been denied the right and the freedom to make a choice so critical to her own life, first, and mine, secondarily. I wish that the relationship between my mother and I had not been, and will not always be, tainted and strained by the fact that I was effectively forced upon her and not a part of her life that she chose or, at the time, wanted. I can't express how much I wish the relationship between my mother and I had been elective for her.

I envy this user on my own behalf. I envy her clear, unquestioning knowledge that she was wanted and chosen; that her mother chose to be her mother. If she, unlike me, grew up without overhearing or knowing about conversations and comments family members had or made about her being a punishment, a consequence, a sin made only slightly less terrible by being born, then I envy her. If she, unlike me, grew up without seeing the ways not having that choice unraveled or stymied the lives of people she loved, or brought about pain, abuse or neglect in her own upbringing, I envy her.

Even more, I envy her mother on my mother's behalf. However difficult and painful so much of my relationship with my own mother has been, I love her ferociously. The fact that she was denied the right to such a massive choice hurts me tremendously, as would any basic human right denied to anyone I loved -- anyone at all -- would. That's not what I would want for my mother: for anyone's mother.

Now, I don't feel certain as this user does, and so many people seem to, that if my mother had the right to choose and had terminated that I'd not exist. I have no idea what the deal is with how and if any of us wind up here in life. I think it's possible that if I was meant to be on this earth, I'd be here no matter whose womb I came through, no matter who my biological mother was. But not only can I not know what would have happened in that respect, I find it irrelevant, because the fact of the matter is that my mother was a whole person before I was, one separate from me; my mother had a life before me and a life she wanted before and without me, and my mother's life and her dreams mattered then, matter now, and I know for a fact it would have been radically different for her, and better for her (and me), if she had had the freedom and right to choose for herself. I know her life would have been radically different even if she hadn't have had a choice to make but simply grew up with the knowledge and confidence that she had those choices and freedoms. I know because I talk to young women like she was then who do have those choices, but also to those who don't. They are markedly different, in ways impossible to ignore.

As the years go by, I increasingly realize how like so many young women in or just out of their teens my mother was. It ever staggers and upsets me to realize I'm counseling someone who is the age she was, who knows as little as she did, who is as overwhelmed and unsupported as she was, who still doesn't have the agency she also didn't have. I can't possibly think of myself first before her and young women like her. To do that, I'd have to stop listening, stop feeling, stop understanding. To do that, I'd have to ignore, dehumanize or objectify the person sitting right in front of me or writing to me, and focus instead on someone who may or may not ever exist, even if a given person chooses to remain pregnant. To do that, I'd have to deny the privilege I had and have that my mother didn't and some young women still don't. I also often talk to a young woman who, instead, is in a place my mother could have been if she'd had information, choice and agency she did not. While listening to and talking with the young woman my mother could have been is often far more pleasant and hopeful, in another respect, it is painful and bitter, because this is what I would have wanted for her. This is what anyone who loved her and respected her and who cared about the quality of anyone's life, especially hers, should have wanted for her. But didn't.

If it is so that my own agency must be at the expense of someone else, especially the person who was already here and whole before I was even an idea, let alone a person, the person had to labor to bring me into this world, no less, I have a hard time seeing that as any kind of gift at all, nor as any kind of agency for anyone, including me. If I could turn back the clock and give my mother the choices she should have had, and she had chosen to terminate and that did mean she got to have the life she wanted and I didn't get this one at all, I'm good with that. Better that than the alternative. I love my mother, and all women, too much, and know too much about the life of my mother, and the lives of all women, to enjoy the conceit that is thinking my life and my agency are more valuable or meaningful than hers or that of anyone else.

It's a powerful thing, this choice, any choice; this freedom, any freedom.

The older I get, the more I find reproductive rights, justice and choice run a million red, pulsing threads through my life and my heart. I have cared deeply about the right to choose for as far back as I can remember, and with every year that passes -- even as it becomes highly unlikely given my age that I will ever make another major reproductive choice myself -- I care more and more deeply. Even as reproductive choice becomes less about me personally and more about others, it impacts me and influences me deeply, and perhaps even more so because of that fact.

I cared from the get-go because of the circumstances of my own life and family. I cared early because of my own reproductive and sexual choices, including those I was denied myself, and those I witnessed around me, and because when I got to the point in my life where I had those choices to make, I was acutely aware I had access to a level of choice other women had not or did not. I cared early on because I cared about human rights; because I cared about people having power and agency in and for their own lives. Then I cared more because of working as a teacher, and seeing the diversity of the lives of children and young people; how much of an impact parents have, both for good and for ill. Then I cared some more because of working in sex education, sexual health and with young people just starting to try and navigate all of these choices, as well as all the other choices in their lives; I cared even more working with young people who didn't have all the same choices others do. Then I cared even more when working in abortion directly. I keep caring for all of those reasons, and my care continues to amplify, deepen, diversify and cement. So does my sadness and my anger; so does my awareness of all of what having real choices can mean and what not having them can mean, too.

When I was working at the clinic, sometimes we had to tell women they didn't have choices they wanted to have; they should have had. We had to tell them it took them too long to save up the money or get the support to terminate, that they were now past the time when they could. We had to tell them there was nothing we could do to help them access more money to pay for an abortion procedure, and tell them that knowing a woman without enough money to pay for an abortion doesn't have close to the resources she needs to raise a child, even if she wanted to. Sometimes providers have to tell them that even though they have more children than they can care for, because of money, timing or some other restriction that unless they can arrange an adoption, they're going to have to try and parent one more, even if they know they don't want to and can't serve a child well. Sometimes providers have to tell them that without someone else's permission, because of their age or other reduced status in the world, they are not allowed to make their own choices.

No one ever wanted to be the bearer of this news, including me. Sitting down with someone and opening a conversation by telling them they do not have a choice they should have is one of the worst things in my life I have ever had to do. Watching someone who feels trapped in something no one should ever be trapped in is soul-crushing. I had to once give that news to a 15-year-old girl who had come all the way from Canada. She had to go the long way back home knowing that once she got there, she was going to get kicked out with nowhere to go and I couldn't stop crying or picturing her so alone in the world for my two hour commute on the bus home. Even though it wasn't my fault she was in that spot, and there was nothing I could have done to change things for her, I cried all the more because I had to be part of denying someone something I would never, ever want to deny them.

At Scarleteen, particularly when talking to young women who live outside nations or areas where they have the right to choose or have full freedom in choosing, we've had to tell some women they don't have the legal right to make a choice, or counsel young women feeling suicidal because of a possible pregnancy because they already know that if they become pregnant, it will have to mean they remain pregnant which they do not want to be. We've had to talk young people out of trying to terminate their own pregnancies, talk them out of using things so many people don't realize some people even still think about or try: coat hangers, coke bottles, pencils, knitting needles, drug overdoses, getting in car accidents on purpose.

On the flip side, one of my favorite parts of the work I do has been providing all-options counseling and support for all reproductive choices. The days that I get to do that work, no matter how difficult it can be, how challenging for myself and the women involved, are always some of my best days. To be able to start a conversation by telling a person, especially a young person, that she has choices is powerful for both of us. Being able to tell a woman that she has these vital choices and freedoms, that you support any of them she feels is most right for her, and that you will do your best to provide support for those choices now and whenever else she should need it is one of the most wonderful statements to be able to make to someone else. Sadly, the reaction one often gets to a statement like that also so often makes it clear how rare it still is, how unusual an experience it is for many women to find themselves in the position of being unilaterally supported, particularly around their bodies and reproduction. It can also tell us how tenuous those rights still feel for so many women, mostly likely because they are.

These conversations, and these choices in life, period, no matter what choice a woman makes, often make way for many other powerful lightbulbs and choices. When you work with women around reproduction and have unconditionally supportive conversations at these crucial times you have to ask and talk about the whole of their lives, and the context of their lives is part of all of this. So you're often part of decisions like leaving unhealthy or abusive relationships, choosing to put more energy into pursuing life goals and dreams, changing family or community in a way to be surrounded by more people who are supportive, changing how any one woman sees and understands all other women, sometimes even the women she has the hardest time understanding or sympathizing with. And if and when someone is freely able to choose to be someone's parent, fully able to choose, you see a person going into that endeavor in a radically different way than someone who does not have a choice, and you know their life and the life of any of their children will always be all the better for it.

Without choice and freedom, we don't get to own and truly claim our lives; neither do our mothers, sisters, daughters, friends. Without them, we can't say we made a choice at all, nor can we, or others, get to take real pride in or responsibility for our choices. There's a critical difference between making the best of your circumstances when you didn't have a choice and making the circumstances yourself that are best for yourself. Both are laudable, and yet we can only take real ownership of the latter. I am proud of my mother for all that she was able to do and has done given her circumstances, and I know she is proud of herself, but I hate that my mother was denied the privilege to be as proud of herself as she could be had she been allowed to truly own and make her own choices; I hate that I have that power while my mother did not.

Without choice and freedom -- and without having to engage in any fantasy or speculation about whether I'd be here or not -- I know my life would not be like my life at all. It would have likely been more like some of the worst parts of my mother's life. With them, her life could have been a lot more like the very best parts of mine. People chose to deny her that freedom; people can and do still choose to deny or try to deny it to some people still. People chose to allow me that freedom and to allow and protect it for many of you; people can and do still choose to do their -- hopefully our -- damnedest to allow it to and protect it for all people.

It's a powerful thing, this choice, any choice; this freedom, any freedom.


What a phenomenal essay. Thank you Heather. Thank you.
I am part of a sex positive group in Los Angeles, and this couldn't have reached me at a better time in our current political climate with many Republicans in offices in many states attempting to roll back many rights- civil rights, rights for women and men.

When does life begin and if your mother chose to terminate, how would you know if you hadn't been here in the first place? I used to believe these were private questions of faith and religion (not only reserved for Christian religions!) but now I see that we can't keep our private ideas and beliefs private anymore if we are going to defend womens -and mens!- rights to reproductive freedom, health and the choice to not bear children.
The theme of how are young women's entire lives are affected by unwanted pregnancy has been so major for me and you talk about it so eloquently.... Thank you. Thank you. I will be sharing this far and wide.