Dispatches from Abortionland

Today’s post, the final is our Roe v. Wade series, is by guest contributor Sarah Cohen, who worked at the National Abortion Federation hotline for several years and currently lives in Philadelphia with her husband and their cat.

Once you move to abortionland, there’s no moving back. Once you start thinking hard about abortion, it touches everything—it’s like a new lens that you see the world through. I can turn any conversation into a conversation about abortion. I see the links to it everywhere—in poverty, the social safety net (or lack thereof), education levels, unemployment, race, urban-rural divides, gender relations, religion, and just about every other dimension of modern life.

I moved to abortionland almost five years ago, when I began working on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline. I’d been pro-choice my whole life, and I’d been interested in abortion politics for a long time, but this was brand new. I did options counseling, I looked up clinics and gave out their phone numbers, I talked about money with all kinds of women. I stayed after my shift ended almost every day, thinking I could take just a few more calls and help just a few more women before going home.

I’m proud that the National Abortion Federation has the word “abortion” in its name. It doesn’t hide behind words like rights or choice or freedom, even thought it believes in all those things, too. I like the way the first two letters are the same as how the alphabet starts, and how it has two O’s. Also, it has a -tion, which is an interesting set of letters. Construction, information, determination, abortion.

* * *

It’s a gorgeous day in 2009. My boyfriend, Jeff, calls. I am annoyed. We’ve already talked three times so far today; I declined to go out for falafel, wanting a burrito instead. I ate my chips and salsa at the high counter inside the window in Chipotle, swinging my feet and watching families enjoy the mild spring weather. No sooner do I walk into my apartment than the phone rings. I think of not answering it—what could he possibly have to say now?—but I answer anyway.

“Sarah, have you seen the news today?”

“No, I’ve been watching Law & Order reruns and talking to you every 90 minutes.”

“Are you sitting down?”

“No, I just walked in with my burrito.” [Subtext: “It’s too late for you to change my mind about lunch.”]

“You might want to sit down.”

“What?”  [Thinking he was going to say something like, “This is the best falafel I’ve ever had.” He’s deadpan like that sometimes.]

“Dr. Tiller’s been shot. Sarah, Dr. Tiller’s dead.”

I laugh. “Right. Now what’s really going on?”

“I’m not kidding. Sarah, I’m so sorry.” It must be a mistake, I think. George Tiller has been under threat for years; he survived getting shot in both arms and was back at his clinic the next day. I tell Jeff to hang on while I refresh my home page, the New York Times. A single line just to the right of center: Abortion Doctor Killed in Church. I start breathing hard.

This can’t be happening, I say, and Jeff says, “I’m coming right over.” I turn on CNN. Nothing. Headline News. Nothing. I check MSNBC, even Fox News. Nothing. I race back to my laptop and click on the headline. Sketchy details. I start doing laps around my tiny apartment, saying, no, no, no. This can’t be right. I think I’m hyperventilating. I call Sarah, a friend from work. No answer. Do you leave this news in a voicemail? I leave a message asking her to call me. She’ll hear that I’m upset from my voice. I call her husband. He’s better about answering his phone than she is, but I have to leave another message. I call my boss. Miraculously, she answers and says she’ll call me right back. I call my mom. Message. My dad. Message. I keep refreshing the webpage. Still nothing. People outside my window are still walking around like nothing has happened. How can they not be stopping to check the news?

Jeff arrives. I stop pacing and fling myself at him. I knew Dr. Tiller—not well, just from a visit he made to our office the previous year—and when he shook my hand and looked in my eyes, I felt like I was the only person he was concerned with for that brief moment. His patients are so lucky, I had thought. Finally CNN has a breaking news segment featuring footage of a black body bag on a gurney being wheeled out of some brick building. The sun is shining in Wichita. I start sobbing hysterically.

Dr. Tiller was going to do my abortion, I say to Jeff.  I’m not pregnant and never have been, but in my line of work, every woman has a clinic pre-selected just in case. I will never get to see Kansas now. It’s flatter than a pancake, I say to Jeff.

Sarah calls me back. She hasn’t heard. I tell her. She’s stunned. I’m stunned. CNN is not stunned and keeps breezing through other news of the day. There’s never been anything as big as this in abortionland.

* * *

A few weeks later, I find the Carhart v. Gonzales Supreme Court opinions in my resource binder.The binder started out equally divided among contraception, abortion, teen pregnancy, parenting, crisis pregnancy centers, sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS, and queer issues, but I think abortion needs its own binder now. I read Carhart again; it makes more sense to me now than it did when it came out, in 2007. Anthony Kennedy talks about mothers and abortion doctors and unborn children. They are women and abortion providers and fetuses, I think. I have to look up “shibboleth” in the dictionary. Ruth Bader Ginsberg went above and beyond the call of duty in her dissent. Words mean everything in this battle.

I put Carhart away and print out Roe, Doe, and Casey at work the next day. I want to read the primary documents. I want to start my understanding of the legal landscape from scratch. The fact that Congress can simply decree that there are no medical reasons for an intact dilation and evacuation procedure, and that the Supreme Court accepts this finding on its face, scares me. Members of Congress are not doctors; they don’t practice abortion care; they can’t possibly know every single woman’s circumstances, but they think they know better anyway.

            * * *

I’ve come to believe that abortion is far more complex than anyone acknowledges. Some women do have abortions instead of using contraception. Some women fail to realize they are pregnant until it is almost too late for them to have an abortion. I don’t understand but I want them to have their abortions anyway. It would be so much worse if abortion were illegal again. Oops—I mean, when abortion is illegal again. By being so pessimistic, I can see every abortion completed, every desperate woman comforted, every patient who makes it past the protesters as a victory. Otherwise, unhappily pregnant women would take matters into their own hands. As convinced as I am that the current state of abortion politics is untenable, my heart is gladdened to see women succeed at jumping through the hoops that we as a society have placed in front of them.

A woman who wants an abortion will do anything she can to get one.  Sometimes she travels for hours, several days in a row, and gathers enormous amounts of money that simply didn’t seem possible at first. She shouldn’t have to endure the obstacles, but as long as anyone will, there will be people who recognize that, whatever our feelings, we simply can never know what is best for any other human being. I might handle the situation differently, and that is what’s beautiful—that I have that freedom, and so does everyone else. For now.

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