“Everybody’s a teacher if you listen.” — Doris Roberts; actress, author, and philanthropist.
When I posted, “My Abortion Story + Jury Service Pt 2,” I neglected to tell you something important; were it not for Kathy Garland’s courageous and honest blog post that you’ll find below, I might not have published it. (Her account first appeared at PULPMag on Feb. 13, 2020.)
(For an audio version of this post, click H-E-R-E.)
Below, she mentions Planned Parenthood. Funding for the organization was signed into law by President Richard Nixon who decreed, “no American woman should be denied access to family planning assistance because of her economic condition.” Planned Parenthood provides far more than abortions. The agency is committed to giving affordable reproductive health care to all genders, all ages, all over the world. They offer sex education, cervical cancer screenings, contraception including vasectomies, and help with sexually transmitted infections.
Kathy has taught English for 25 years, which makes perfect sense, given how she inspires all who read her posts. A wife and mother, she lives in Jacksonville, Florida. Her award-winning work is featured in anthologies and many other places. For info about the three books she’s published and to contact her, check out her personal blog. In addition, she hosts a site to normalize conversations about menopause…
“What it Actually Means to be Pro-Choice” by Kathy Garland
My father taught me about sex when I started my period. We sat on the loveseat, where he explained how menstruation worked, a banana balanced on his thigh. I suspected this was my mother’s idea, although she and I never discussed sex or women’s bodies.
My father explained bleeding meant I could now get pregnant, if I ever had sex, and that it was my responsibility to avoid such circumstances. A condom would do the trick. He pulled one out of his pocket, ripped open the small package, and showed me how to put it on the banana, a mock penis. I suppose he thought it appropriate to cram three separate topics — sex, safe-sex, and periods — into one conversation, because we never revisited either again. But at ten years old, I couldn’t comprehend what fake penises and condoms had to do with the pain in my lower abdomen or the blood that soaked the pad I’d just learned to wear. I wanted the conversation to end so I could finish playing with my dolls.
Six years later, my mother suddenly died from kidney disease. My maternal grandmother was an expert at pushing emotions aside and had advised me to do the same.
“Don’t cry,” she said, “you’ve had your Mama for a long time. Sixteen years is a long time.”
So, I followed her lead and stifled the pain.
My father physically moved on by dating a new woman a week after my mother’s burial. He spent my junior year, courting his newfound love and ignoring me. Taking care of a teenage daughter seemed to be too much for him. The following year, he sent me to live with my grandparents in a small Michigan town called Covert. I was angry. There were more students in my former Chicago high school than in the entire township. I was saddened by how quickly my father discarded me and our relationship. But I’d learned to suppress and ignore all negative emotions. My plan was to keep to myself, graduate, and apply to colleges.
School began the day after Labor Day. It was hard not to be noticed in a class of sixteen seniors, but I tried. Even when I knew the answer, I remained as quiet as possible in English IV, hoping no one would speak to me. In typing class, I hid my nervousness behind intermittent pops of pink Bubble Yum; maybe my aloofness would repel others. Conversations were sparse until I went to computer class. That’s where I met him. He was a junior. He cracked my feigned exterior by making me laugh. He helped me bury my mother’s death. He helped me forget why I was living in Covert in the first place. His name was Eddie.
Our long phone conversations turned into afternoons at Eddie’s home where we sat on his family’s brown sectional and watched movies on their floor model TV. His mother was rarely home. Watching movies turned into tongue kissing and sex, sometimes on the couch or floor, other times in his room.
We became a couple and I’d forgotten about the talk my father and I had seven years prior. I’m not sure what Eddie’s safe sex lessons entailed. By the first day of fall, my period hadn’t come, so I asked his mother what she thought that meant.
She inhaled a long drag of her cigarette, blew a thin, cloudy stream out of the corner of her mouth, looked at me, and said, “Either you late, or you pregnant. And if you pregnant, you need to talk to Eddie.”
I knew I could trust my senior English teacher, a brown, petite, no-nonsense lady. Her church dresses and high heels felt like home. The day I confided in her, she asked if I could tell my grandmother. I assured her I could not. Expectations were high in my family, especially my mother’s side. My grandfather had been president of the school board for several years. My grandmother was an important figure at the local civic center. A seventeen-year-old pregnant granddaughter was outside of their equation.
My English teacher neatly wrote the name, Planned Parenthood on a sheet of paper and underneath it, a phone number.
For my initial visit to the clinic, I called into my work-study job and made the 36-mile-drive alone in the car my grandparents had lent me. The appointment was scheduled to ensure I was, indeed, pregnant. Once confirmed, I’d have to return on a separate day for the actual procedure. A nurse told me what I should bring: a change of clothes, socks, pads, and a person to drive me there and back. I also had to commit to a form of birth control. I opted for the pill.
Eddie drove us to the clinic in his mother’s blue Chevy. We sat in the waiting room and watched daytime television with other women of varied ages, until they called my name.
After recovering, we returned to Eddie’s house. His mother had allowed me to hide my car in her garage, so that passersby wouldn’t know I was there. I lay on the brown sofa for several hours, fading in and out of sleep. His mother encouraged me to eat her homemade meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and gravy. The meal warmed and comforted my spirit.
When it was time to leave their home, I hid the paper bag full of antibiotics and pain meds in my backpack and left around eight at night just in time to arrive at my grandparents’ house, as if I’d been working all evening.
Though physically painful, the days following my abortion were liberating. I not only escaped shame, but also teen motherhood. I didn’t want to be a part of the statistically low numbers of adolescent mothers, who never attended or finished college. An abortion ensured I never was.
Thirty years ago, having an abortion offered me a real choice, with no restrictions, followed by a birth control option.
But this isn’t the case in 2020.
In some states, women are currently faced with the strictest abortion regulations to date. Fetal heartbeat laws restrict abortions after six weeks, which is typically the timeframe for confirming a pregnancy and the earliest that abortions can be completed. My teenage self would’ve had no choice but to prepare for birth. Furthermore, states like Missouri that have one abortion clinic, limit access and add stress to an already stressful situation. Also, as it stands now, the national dialogue is centered on extreme cases. Questions like what if a woman is raped or what if the woman might die tend to exaggerate and cloud the idea of choice. While I agree that these are valid reasons for having an abortion, any situation is reasonable.
When we focus on the need to prove rape or death, we create a hierarchy of reasons. When we begin ranking rationale, we also implicitly say, you don’t have the right to choose. The state will choose for you. And that is not pro-choice. That is punishment sanctioned by someone else’s idea of morality.
When I reflect on my senior year in Covert, I know it was best not to bring a baby into my world of anger and resentment. Furthermore, Eddie and I said we’d be together forever, but like many teenage relationships, ours didn’t last. We broke up by the beginning of my second year of college. Although conditions are never perfect, raising a baby with a sixteen-year-old boy in a high-poverty environment, while delaying my education wasn’t ideal. It wasn’t time.
But politicians dismiss stories like mine. Even though a study showed that women who have abortions do so because it would “interfere with their education, work or ability to care for their dependents, or they could not afford a baby at the time,” the current political climate ignores these as valid reasons to terminate a pregnancy.
Governments have successfully reframed the pro-choice narrative to only include situations like rape, incest, or a mother’s impending death. These are not pro-choice examples. These are abortion bans intended to punish women and teenage girls for not having protected sex.
I’m grateful I was able to drive a safe distance to a Planned Parenthood within the state and I’m thankful I didn’t have to involve my grandparents by having them sign an informed consent form, which is current Michigan law. I’m glad I was able to make a choice that was best for me. This procedure allowed me to complete high school, and subsequently college with ease, which in part have contributed to the life I live today as a wife, mother, and professional with a terminal degree. I want the same choice offered for other women, who, for different reasons may become pregnant, but not want to birth a baby. I want our country to return to a true definition of pro-choice, one where women can safely decide the outcome of their situations, without their state’s interference.
To contact K E Garland and for more of her writing, visit her personal blog, or her site that normalizes conversations about menopause.
When were you challenged to make a pivotal decision only you ought to have decided?