Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t have sex in college. It’s an absurd thought, really, because there are so many reasons: there was nowhere to do it, since I didn’t have my own room or my own car for good portions of that time; there were long stretches wherein there was no one to do it with and others in which the gentlemen in question would have also had religious qualms; I was both horribly self-conscious (I joke now that I was hot in college, but I did, at the time, deeply hate my own body) and very concerned with rules. And I was abjectly terrified of getting pregnant.
Pregnancy felt to me then very much like a death sentence. Either you got an abortion, a mortal sin and eternal shame, which was also expensive and confusing and I didn’t know how you would even access one, or you had the baby, which was also to your eternal (and much more public) shame. I knew people who had done this. It was spoken of tersely. A nod of approval that this woman had done “the right thing” in response to the consequences of her indiscretions, but mostly a palpable sense that that woman had ruined herself and her family in an almost Victorian way.
I have a painfully clear memory of being told that a family friend’s girlfriend was pregnant—the phrase “it only takes one time” ominously repeated, this news shared with me much as the news of a death in the family was later relayed. I have blocked out memories of friends who told me they were pregnant “out of wedlock.” I am confident that I was not as kind as I now wish I had been, that they felt my judgment and my fear. And I was—afraid, I mean. I remember keenly that I felt very much like a liability from the moment I got my first period the week of my tenth grade winter formal. For years after that I had what I called “Virgin Mary dreams,” in which I’m clutching a distended belly or pregnancy test and sobbing—I didn’t break the rules, I swear! You have to believe me! If my brother got someone pregnant, he could nobly stand by that person, still be lauded as some kind of decent man. But I, a woman, would have to bear a scarlet letter.
The older I get, the more I watch women around me trying desperately to get pregnant, after being told for years that “it only takes one time,” that conception was to be avoided at all costs, that it would ruin you.
The older I get, the more I hear stories of women—dear friends—who have miscarried wanted pregnancies and needed D&Cs (dilation and curettage) or D&Es (dilation and extraction), both procedures also used in early abortions, to remove fetal tissue that could produce infections, or cancerous growth, or end their hopes for future pregnancies.
The older I get, the more women I know who have had ectopic pregnancies, in which a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus. You might get a positive pregnancy test, but then—if untreated—your fallopian tube ruptures, you bleed internally, you could die. But apparently, treatment for a life-threatening non-viable pregnancy sounds too much like baby-killing—a 2019 bill to ban abortion introduced in the Ohio state legislature “required doctors to ‘reimplant an ectopic pregnancy’ into a woman’s uterus—a procedure that does not exist in medical science—or face charges of ‘abortion murder.’” A 2022 bill introduced by Republican representatives in Missouri would make anyone “provides an ‘abortion’ on a woman with an ectopic pregnancy” guilty of a Class A felony. That was before Alito’s leaked draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade. In the weeks since, Louisiana Republicans have drafted a bill defining legal personhood “as beginning from the moment of fertilization,” which would make abortion a felony and arguably criminalize in vitro fertilization and intrauterine birth control devices (IUDs), too.
And the older I get, the angrier I am at the men in my family, who would be glad to see abortion banned even if it means that I am subject to legislation like this. Even if it means that I am at higher risk for infections, hemorrhage, and death. Even if it means I would be subject to criminal suspicion should my pregnancy, like twenty percent of confirmed pregnancies, end in miscarriage. Do they trust me so little to make decisions when the stakes are high, and higher for me than anyone else? Do they love the theological thought experiment of when a life begins more than they cherish mine?
I am turning thirty this month. I am older now, much older, than my grandmothers when they had their first babies. I am just older than my mom was when she had my brother, just younger than she was when she had me. I spend a lot of time thinking about pregnancy and childbirth. My friends’. My family members’. The possibility of my own. I wonder if pregnancy will be a death sentence for any of us—not just socially, the shame of it under the “wrong” circumstances, but also because what does it mean to decide to “try” knowing that I could be one of the thousands of women each year who become a maternal mortality statistic, a rate that is higher now than the year I was born? And what does it mean to have a baby in this country, where so many have no access to affordable healthcare, or housing; when a formula shortage makes clear how little our lawmakers understand reproduction and child-rearing, when I know the cost of and demand for childcare has long outstripped available and affordable supply?
And what would it mean to raise a daughter in America, where she, too, might be taught to see herself first as a liability and then only a vessel, where she might learn to fear sex, pregnancy, and condemnation as one and the same? For her, this hypothetical child I might be forced to bear, I’m sorry it took me so long to say that we both deserve so much better—we deserve care, respect, and the right to make our own hard choices.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.
Thank you for such a thoughtful piece!
Thanks for writing this! You’re not alone. Purity culture needs to change for the next generation whether or not we contribute children or not. Also having all these restrictions on abortion and would be babies is terrifying. What if it isn’t in Gods plan that every fetus be born? I don’t think that question has ever crossed some people’s mind…
Grateful for the honesty, vulnerability, and anger here.
I do not have a good reply to all your fears. I started a right to life. a republican state senator thought abortions were good because it could decrease the number of welfare recipietns in Lake county Indiana/. mostly african american women. ROE limited the abortions based on trimester so the notion that it is my body really is over stated. In actual fact it is not her body it is a separate body composed of the mail and female. Abortions went from safe and rare to women shouting. there is nothing somber and reflective. There very good reasons for women to abort. they get it aware that many or most use the right for birth control. I wish right to chose would shout that.