An examination of my pro-choice beliefs, and how my feelings about abortion were changed by pregnancy. This essay appeared in the most recent issue of The Harvard Review, and in the anthology Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, & Abortion.
Nina gives an overview of the book:
By Nina de Gramont
Every year in Wilmington, North Carolina pro-life activists stage a silent protest. For a single day they stand on either side of Oleander, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, holding up neatly lettered placards. It’s a harbinger of autumn, and I know that the long, southern months of Indian summer have arrived when the quiet chain appears. It goes on for miles – solemn and plaintive faces of all ages. Last year there were nearly two thousand of them, their lips sealed in self-restraint as passing motorists hurled eggs from car windows. The eggs didn’t hit anyone, just splattered angrily at their feet, slowly cooking on the still-hot pavement.
Oleander is a road I drive down often, and in the three years I’ve lived here I’ve always managed to stumble upon the so-called Life Chain. The first time, in the moment I recognized the nature of the demonstration (words steadily hanging in the air: "Abortion Kills Children"), I started to make a reflexive gesture at the protesters, who stared – insistent and inquisitive – through every windshield. It wouldn’t have been a hostile gesture, nothing obscene. Just an exaggerated frown, a dramatic shake of my head, perhaps accompanied by a raised and wagging finger, to let them know how vehemently I disagreed.
But somehow, returning the protesters’ unspeaking gaze, I couldn’t manage an expression of disapproval. As a teenager, I had been deeply involved in protesting nuclear weapons, and took intensive courses in civil disobedience and non-violent protest. That long river of silence struck an admiring chord. It impressed me and it moved me. If I didn’t agree with their politics, I could still appreciate the poetry of the gesture, and the undeniable power of silent numbers.
I have a friend who’s opposed to abortion. Recently, she asked me if I’d ever had one.
"No," I answered truthfully.
"Would you have?" she asked. "When you were single?"
"I guess so," I said. "It was always my contingency plan."
As a single woman – from my teens and into my twenties – I was assiduously careful about birth control. The closest I ever came to an unplanned pregnancy was one drunken night on Nantucket, with a good-looking and cocky boy who’d never read The Catcher in the Rye.
"I don’t really like to read," he’d told me, back at the Chicken Box, the only bar that would accept our fake IDs. I remember sipping my sea breeze and feeling sad for the boy, who didn’t realize he’d just blown his chances.
Several hours and several sea breezes later, literary credentials didn’t seem so important. As we made out on a deserted beach with no birth control in sight, I remember having a very specific, very drunken thought: that if I got pregnant, the subsequent abortion would be another life experience, like getting lost on the London tube or drinking wine with homeless sailors on the docks at Key West. Perfectly in tune with my youth, the trauma would make me a deeper, more fully realized person. These ideas, or something close to them, actually formed in my foggy head.
Luckily, a weeping friend interrupted our embrace, distraught over an altercation with her boyfriend. The boy who didn’t like to read disappeared into the night – as surely as he would have had the evening proceeded to its inevitable drunken conclusion.
I used to know a girl who became pregnant during a similar encounter. Describing her
subsequent abortion, she’d said, "I wanted it out of my body as fast as possible."
If I’d become pregnant on Nantucket: by a boy I barely knew and didn’t even like: never mind my conscious decision – in the supposed heat of passion – to take my chances. I would have felt precisely the same way.
At the southern university where I teach English students are not so cavalier about premarital sex, let alone abortion. Many of them come from deeply Christian backgrounds, and I regularly receive passionate and well-written papers about love for Jesus, the importance of chastity, the evils of abortion. During classroom discussions on the topic of abortion, the pro-life students speak fervently, their spines straight and certain, while the pro-choice students slump apologetically in their chairs. Once, when I asked students to separate into groups and discuss the issue of abortion, a group of young men – athletes, mostly – came back with the conclusion that they had no opinion either way. "It’s none of our business," they explained. "It’s something for women to decide."
A student who had already identified herself as pro-life turned around in her chair with an assertive snap of her ponytail. "That’s pro-choice," she informed them, and then turned back toward me, her chin raised in self-assured defiance. When I was not much older than she, I volunteered for NARAL’s phone banks and escorted women across picket lines into abortion clinics. I would never have associated with someone who felt the way she did.
But the passage of time has made it hard for me to see the world in absolutes. I liked seeing a teenaged woman confident enough to challenge a group of handsome men. When she looked at me for approval, I couldn’t help but smile at her.
My first pregnancy was accidental but certainly not catastrophic. I was thirty-five and married. After I took the test, my husband David and I stared at that faint, pink line – leaning over the bathroom sink, our heads moving closer to the stick in a comic, disbelieving double- take. Our astonishment soon gave way to an odd kind of euphoria. I’ve always been slow to make life-changing decisions. An accidental pregnancy was probably the only way I’d ever have a child.
And the chances of getting pregnant at that particular juncture seemed slim, not just because of my indecision, or ambivalence. I was past my most fertile years. My husband had undergone an orchiectomy as treatment for testicular cancer. I’d been using birth control.
All of which convinced me: the child I carried was uniquely devoted to her own existence.
Still, I did feel that pregnancy had been sprung on me. On the phone with my friend Danae – the mother of two – I admitted that I hadn’t stopped taking my daily runs.
"You have to change your thinking right now," she cautioned. "Your body doesn’t belong to you anymore."
"This baby’s going to adapt to our lifestyle," I told her. "Not the other way around."
We lived on Cape Cod at the time, and in the growing heat of New England spring, I stuck to my minimum twenty miles a week. The needle on my scale barely rose, a fact that secretly pleased me.
None of this meant I wasn’t excited about the baby. Every day the surprise joy of expectation mounted. While I ran, I would think about my child. The dogwoods had started to bloom, and the countryside blurred in fragrant pixels of pink and white. Certain I carried a girl, I would list names in my head. I liked Genevieve. Suddenly, my future seemed rolled out before me in a more serious, more permanent way. I would be somebody’s mother. I might even be a grandmother one day.
Meanwhile, Danae signed me up for newsletters from a website called babycenter.com. Once a week, I received an e-mail updating me on what was taking place inside my body. The first one came when I was five weeks pregnant. "Deep in your uterus," it told me, "your embryo is growing at a furious pace. At this point he’s about the size of a sesame seed, and he looks more like a tiny tadpole than a human." I disliked this description, conflicting as it did with the image I’d already constructed of a fat and pink-cheeked baby, gurgling inside me contentedly, already aware – somehow – of my love and good wishes. I longed for the nine-week mark, when my baby would graduate from embryo to fetus.
At my eight-week checkup, the nurse warned me that we might not pick up a heartbeat. "A lot of people don’t this early," she said, pressing the fetal Doppler to my still-flat stomach. In an instant, the room filled with pounding, rapid drumbeats. The nurse and I burst out laughing.
The percussion of my own child’s heartbeat: I carried it everywhere. According to contemporary etiquette, it was too early to announce my pregnancy. But I couldn’t help boasting about that heartbeat’s strength, its resonance, its insistence on being heard. I told everyone I knew.
The week after that doctor’s appointment, I went to New Jersey to visit my parents. As I lay alone in my childhood bed, I felt acutely aware of the other being in the room with me. Inside my body. The strangest feeling, being two people: a definite and welcome haunting. When I touched my stomach now, it was with the protecting and attentive hands of a mother. The energy between my fingertips and my belly – what lay within my belly – felt sacred and palpable.
It was hot that June in New Jersey. Never one to mind the midday heat, I did a favorite old run – up Next Day Hill, one of the steepest in Englewood. I ran past the playground at Flatrock Brook, imagining the day when I’d push Genevieve on the swings there. When I came home sweating, my mother scolded me. For running in the heat. For not eating enough. For not slowing down.
I ignored her, smiling to myself as I chugged a glass of water. I was six days past the awaited nine week mark, when the baby graduates from embryo to fetus. According to babycenter.com, Genevieve’s vital organs – lungs, kidneys, intestines, and brain – had all begun to function. She had spinal nerves, fingernails. Her elbows bent. Her legs kicked.
My pregnancy had announced itself against the odds. It had broken down my maternal ambivalence with the force and spirit of a Hun. The life I carried seemed so insistent, I didn’t believe anything could halt its arc.
The first blood appeared two days later, back on Cape Cod. It started as light brown spotting. "Nothing to worry about," my OB assured me, over the phone. "Just try to take it easy." I knew such spotting was commonplace during pregnancy, so I wasn’t particularly worried. I even went to a barbecue at a friend’s house, my version of taking it easy sitting rather than standing while I told people about our impending parenthood.
What happened over the next twenty-four hours occurred in a sequence of indelible moments. First my cat, bringing a sparrow through our open window and releasing it in our bedroom. My eyes fluttered open in concert with the bird’s frantic wings and a sharp, stabbing pain in my abdomen. While David chased down the bird, I limped to the bathroom and felt a brief moment of gratitude over the clean pantyliner before a thick stream of blood released itself into the toilet.
Standing at the admit desk at Cape Cod Hospital while David parked the car, I was too wracked with sobs to tell the nurse what had happened. The security guard – probably thinking I’d been attacked – came over to help her make heads or tail out of what I was trying to say. "Miscarriage," he finally interpreted, from my unintelligible gurgling and frantic gestures toward my belly. I could see both pairs of shoulders relax, in sympathetic relief that nothing more terrible had happened to me.
My blood pressure was through the roof, a dangerous situation for a pregnant woman, regardless of the viability of the pregnancy itself. They couldn’t perform an ultrasound before the radiology department opened in the morning, so the primary medical business became getting me through the night in an non-hysterical state while – still hoping for the life of the fetus – I refused any sort of sedative.
"This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re miscarrying," the ER doctor promised, his latex gloves bright red with blood from my examination.
"What about the cramps?" I asked.
After a long pause, he admitted, "The cramps are worrisome."
Still, I was willing to cling to the line of hope they offered me. I wasn’t able to sleep, but I remember a deep and calming fondness at the sight of David napping on the gynecological exam table, his long legs draped over the stirrups. By morning, my main concern became the overwhelming need to urinate, which they wouldn’t let me do before the ultrasound. Although I was only at ten weeks and had gained barely three pounds, recalling this scene I envision myself as hugely pregnant. I know this image is flatly incorrect and yet it persists. I see myself waddling from the bathroom after the radiation technician allowed me to pee just a little bit, and joking with her about the inhumane practice of making a pregnant woman hold her bladder. I picture my stomach making a tent of the thin hospital gown, as if I were just about to deliver.
But the most pivotal image was the one I never saw. The ultrasound screen discretely and pointedly faced the technician, but I could read everything I needed in her blank expression as she clicked away at the screen. I knew that if the fetus were alive, she would have turned that screen toward me.
"Just tell me," I said.
And in a harrowing experience marked by the compassion of my caretakers, she did the most compassionate thing yet. She told me the truth.
"There’s no heartbeat," she said.
After my D&C, David brought me back to his mother’s house to rest. She was standing by her garden in the bright sunlight, a tangle of weeds in one hand. Before David had a chance to come around to open my car door, I got out myself, and stumbled up the hill toward her. It was a terrible moment, the pending admission that would make my grief real, and the knowledge of how the news would disappoint her – the lost grandchild.
"It’s gone," I said. And fell into her arms. She held me tight. Having lost two pregnancies herself – one in the fifth month – she knew the road I’d just traveled all too well.
"Poor baby," she said, thumping my back. "Poor baby." For a split, dizzy second, I wasn’t sure if she meant me or the child I’d miscarried
- Nina de Gramont is the author of the short story collection Of Cats and Men, which was a Book Sense selection and won a Discovery Award from the New England Booksellers Association. She is also the co-editor of an anthology called Choice: True Stories of...
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