The story that's taken ten years to tell: On abortion, race and the power of story

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Originally posted at Crunk Feminist Collective on Jan 22, 2013
by Shanelle Matthews

By Favianna Rodriguez,

“Are you in college?” The doctor could tell from my face I wasn’t at all interested in having a conversation. “You speak well. I mean, you’re articulate.” The wrinkles in my forehead deepened. I wrung my fingers tightly around the scratchy, blue exam gown and briefly thought about the woman who wore it before me; what was she like? I looked at him, desperately wanting to not have to actually speak, wishing he could just read my mind. “Yes. I’m in college,” I responded shortly. I was really thinking, “That’s none of your business and really, is this the time to make small talk? When your elbow is deep in my vagina?” But I was grateful for him so I frowned and looked away.

The room didn’t feel particularly uncomfortable. I mostly gazed at the ceiling tiles, counting square by square. Occasionally I peeked down. Over the long sheet that draped my knees I could see my feet, not really manicured, resting awkwardly in the titanium stirrups, straddling the doctor’s full head of curly hair. “We’re just about done.” I sighed out a breath of relief. My abortion was almost over.

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My abortion experience isn’t the kind that might be featured in a Lifetime movie. By that I mean I was 18, technically an adult. I consented to having sex, although I had never learned how to really protect myself. I lived in California, which is a state that provides emergency Medicaid for women who need financial assistance to help cover the costs of abortion care. The circumstances in which I found myself were not particularly difficult but only because at the time I didn’t know any better.

I was 6 months out of high school, a full-time student-athlete living away from home. I was privileged enough to be going to college and receiving some scholarship money to do so. One day during practice I found myself violently ill. Workouts were hard and often induced vomiting but not like this. I counted the days since my last period and realized I may be pregnant.

I was dating my teammate who was several years older than me. He was sexually experienced and while I wasn’t a virgin, I had dated mostly women and not been very sexually involved with men. He said he used protection. I believed him.

Upon receiving my pregnancy test results at the student health center the nurse searchingly said “Congratulations?” Her quizzical tone confused me. I gave her the side eye and told her that I was on the track team and wouldn’t be celebrating this pregnancy. She pointed me in the direction of Planned Parenthood.

I walked and sobbed. I could hear my dad’s harsh, deep voice. “Keep your legs closed! Boys only want one thing from you!” My parents meant well but in my home sex education was a combination of scare tactics, none of which taught me how to effectively and safely prepare for sex. I can’t remember learning in school the importance of contraception or the implications of becoming pregnant or getting an STD. I do vaguely remember coming to school some days and someone would be missing. The hallways were filled with whispers that “she’d gotten knocked up and sent to the school for pregnant girls.” In hindsight, how fucked up is that?

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Abortions are expensive. I didn’t have any money and even though I knew my parents would probably help me, I was scared to tell them. They’d be so disappointed. Planned Parenthood sent me to see if I qualified for emergency Medicaid. I did. The office was bustling with people desperate to get financial assistance for themselves and their sick family members. The clerk was helpful but blunt. She couldn’t be bothered with details and why should she have to be?

I had to lie to my coaches. I couldn’t tell them I had an abortion. What would they think of me? I kept it from all but one or two of my teammates. I felt a lot of shame about my decision. Not because I thought it was morally wrong but because I had to hide it from so many people in my life. The stigma around abortion meant that I had to lie to people because telling them opened me up to unnecessarily punitive judgment. The hardest part about having an abortion was the stigmatizing environment in which I was having it. I knew it was the only decision for me and even though I didn’t know a lot of women who had them, I knew they were ashamed—so I was ashamed too. We’ve created a culture in which we’ve attached a certain set of feelings to a specific set of circumstances. I was ashamed and grieving out of obligation when all I really felt was relief.

Ten years later there is so much about my abortion story that’s more fucked up than I could understand then. The shame that is associated with abortion and other difficult reproductive health decisions forces women to display an act of grieving whether they feel that way or not. The alternative meaning you’re entirely morally bankrupt. The doctor’s comment about my being articulate meant he had made some assumptions about me, (and other women who sat straddling his head full of curls). What the implications of those assumptions are I didn’t know but it felt unnerving. Every day I work in reproductive justice trying to compel other people to be brave and share their stories but it has taken me a decade to tell this story and that’s because even within the “movement” there is stigma.

I identify as a Black, queer woman. My Blackness makes my story all the more problematic for some people. The assumptions that are made about Black women’s reproductive decisions mean that I will receive less compassion and acceptance than my white counterparts for having had an abortion—especially because I’m not repentant about it. As organizers we are not always aware of our implicit biases but there are plenty of white people who in an effort to make abortion safe and accessible are reaffirming negative stereotypes about women of color. This happens through negligent storytelling that says there is a right and wrong way to have the need to access an abortion.

The narrative that abortion gives women and transpeople an opportunity to live the rest of our lives, to become a doctor or a lawyer or whatever isn’t true for everyone. For some of us, abortion just provides one more day. One more day to live our lives exactly the way we want to. For some of us the decision isn’t political, it’s essential. It is essential to taking care of the children we already have, to circumventing difficult medical experiences or to just not be pregnant. There is nothing heroic about having an abortion. It is an essential part of reproductive health care.

Every year on the anniversary of my abortion I take off of work. Not to grieve but to celebrate: because of my right to choose, I am living my best life. Making the decision to have an abortion didn’t mean I had the rest of my life, it just meant that I had one more day to live exactly the way I wanted and for that I’m grateful.

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Shanelle Matthews is a creative, blogger and all around communications enthusiast. She is the Communications Manager at Forward Together and is participant in the Strong Families project, Echoing Ida. Follow her @freedom_writer
This post is part of Still Wading: Forty years of resistance, resilience and reclamation in communities of color, a series by Strong Families commemorating the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade.