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Me, Mom, and Morgentaler
NB: This hasn’t got anything much to do with educational mission of this newsletter… I just needed to write it after the shocking, historically awful development in the States. Thanks for reading if you do.
I was supposed to be aborted.
This was the core story of my life, as told to me from as early as I can remember. This didn’t happen in a creepy or abusive way – my mom was a physically battered person, having suffered traumatic, alienating pain as a child, tuberculosis as a teen, and ongoing emergencies and surgeries henceforth. The medical aspect of our story was something we always talked about.
So I grew up knowing that my mom had undergone serious surgery in 1969. Unbeknownst to the medical professionals, I was in there, dodging the scalpels and clamps, trying to look unsuspicious crouched against the womb wall. I succeeded; my mom discovered I was in there after the surgery. (I like to use this as a light defence of my inebriative tendencies. My early cells were bathed in morphine. My natural state, I brag lamely, is stoned.)
When the doctors found out, they instructed (demanded) my mom do the sensible thing and abort me on the odds. I was most certainly fucked, and carrying a baby would certainly fuck her body up even more. I’m sure they said this with the gentle courtesy and mindful respect male surgeons were known for in the era before married women were allowed their own bank accounts.
My mom wanted to be a mother in the most profound way. She was a proud, smart woman who by her early 20s had been bashed about by patriarchy to within an inch of losing it. She’d wanted to be a doctor; she wound up a secretary, putting my father through school so he could get his doctorate. She’d been body-shamed and class-shamed her whole life. She’d been present for the Blitz as a baby. She’d been molested and had never been helped with that. She’d gotten tuberculosis and had lived in a sanatorium for her teenage years. Then she’d married a robot, and tricked him into having a baby with her (going off the pill secretly because she was lonely) (yes, she told us way too much, always) (no, none of the stuff we needed to know). Then she’d gotten sick again and had had her bladder removed, to be replaced with a rubber bag that always hung, mysterious and drying and smelling odd, in the washroom. Then me, the proposed abortion, and her heroic saving of my life. (If that sounds sarcastic, I don’t mean it that way.)
“No ruddy way,” she told me she had told them. I was her baby and she loved me. The doctors treated her like she was crazily irresponsible for making this decision, and treated her as a psycho throughout her pregnancy and delivery. She succeeded at bringing me into the world at great cost to her body. And here we were! I was lucky to be alive, and all children deserved to be safe from abortion. If I could have been aborted, who else was being cancelled in utero? Could it be Jesus?
(Later I would learn that this effort had been harder for her than the heroic tale: after I was born, she fell into a massive depression. On top of that she needed more surgeries. We were not able to be close until I was about a year old. Cue issues: babies need their mom’s love in order to thrive.)
I know she told me this story to make me feel bold and powerful, to teach me that our actions speak most loudly, and that being alone with an opinion was not being wrong. We were all raised to be defiant, to be agitators, and to speak truth to power. I’m grateful for that gift: I like being this way. (I’m also grateful for her gift of life.) I also know that she told me the story so that she could feel less lonely: she overshared all my life, I think because she had very few friends. We were her garrison.
But I also know that I know that story because we talked so goddamned much, in my house, about abortion. Mom was a high-standing member of the Sarnia pro-life (in quotes) organization: she wrote the newsletter and sent it out, a la Phyllis Shlaffly, and went to marches and demonstrations. We kids were part of it; we paraded slowly around the dining room table every month or two in a collation parade: pick up each sheet in order, tamp the stack flat, staple. It was fun. Working with your family is fun.
It was also GROSS. I joke to dark-humoured friends that I knew what dismembered fetuses looked like before I knew where babies came from, and it is true. Posters and photos of shredded babies in garbage cans were all over the place when we worked. Ironically, we were not allowed to watch Happy Days because it was too adult. People are strange.
This was a core part of my life until sometime in the middle of high school. High school is, if you’re doing it right, when you start to disassemble 2D ideas, right? On the surface, the argument presented by pro-life advocates is hard to refute: killing babies IS terrible.
But that two-dimensional presentation doesn’t bear scrutiny. The giant issue of patriarchal oppression is not mentioned. The human rights question of bodily autonomy is avoided, except for the one that says fetuses have a right to life. Simplistic ideas shouldn’t sway grown adult people, but they do, especially if they’re paired with simplistic religion and reduced completely to emotions. Right-wing ideas tend, in my experience, to lack nuance because right-wing people tend, in my experience, to lack imagination and not know it.
So in high school I befriended females, and learned the non-theoretical issues of pregnancy and abortion from their perspective. My first pro-choice act was to ask for a meeting with the principal over a student-made anti-abortion poster that had offended me in the hall. I took it down and showed him: a Bristol-board drawing of a woman in a Canadian flag dress, holding the rope of a huge guillotine next to a big, bloody basket of baby heads. “Can you imagine how seeing this would feel to any student who’d had an abortion?” I asked him. “To see herself called a murderer?”
“There are girls here who’ve had abortions?!” he asked, shocked. We were a school of two thousand teenagers. Stupidity is maintained purposefully, to preserve illusion, to maintain power.
When I moved away for university, I became more firmly convinced that – whatever its issues – abortion was for women to make decisions about. A girlfriend schooled me in the on-the-ground facts of abortion, and an essay in my intro to philosophy course gave ethical clarity to the idea. I never told my mom that I was now completely pro-choice, although it came out sideways in conversations over time, and got bundled into the many ways I offended my mom as an adult.
Radical Christians Are Intentionally Stupid
This American disaster, this plot to dehumanize women, has me thinking a lot; I know it has my brother thinking a lot, too. Mom died in 2019, and I don’t want to think about what she’d think, because I am afraid she’d have been happy, and that would be hard.
My mother was complicated. She was hurt in many ways, and she hurt people, too, in the powerful, powerless way Margaret Atwood describes in Surfacing:
I have to recant, give up the old belief that I am powerless and because of it nothing I can do will ever hurt anyone.
She was judgemental and moralistic (so am I). But if she had been given a wand and a wish, I promise you she would have arranged for all the potential babies in the world to be born and then cared for and loved and nurtured by that whole world. She would have wanted that for everyone. She was the kind of woman who took pregnant teens into her house and who gave her money away to anyone who needed it, who treated people, unreservedly, with basic respect and dignity. None of the people rolling back women’s rights in the USA can claim any of that.
But it’s a silly wish. I like to consider reality and make plans that can work. Step one of eradicating abortion can’t be “first, have all the babies.” Being coy or simplistic about the facts won’t help anybody solve anything. Like giving birth to a child, abortion is a powerful act, and – this is the most important part, the part my mom left out of the moral equation – the decision to choose is complicated by everything in the world: by biography, geography, religion, biology, sexuality, class, race, inclination, health, temperament, social pressure, opportunity, etc. So the only people who can decide are the actually pregnant people, because the whole complicated situation exists inside their actual bodies. Who else could choose? Only under a patriarchy could that be challenged, and the challenge is necessarily a stupid one, one that cannot entertain or consider any facts or details of human complications after their short, certain answer. Drawing a line past which you will not think is a special kind of stupidity, a gleeful stupidity.
What has the Christian Right done in America since you first heard of it? Attack schools and teachers and new ideas, undermine science, undermine “facts” in general, oppose effective government. They’re superstitious AF – it hurt my brain to hear Mike Pence talk last week about his “someday in heaven” fantasy – and they ban books they don’t understand. They believe in the actual Devil, even as they spread suffering. Stupid is the point, because it’s so disablingly effective. Once nothing about America works, the power vacuum they’re setting up will be filled with only the supposedly best people, the most honest and honourable – Brett, say, or Amy, or Clarence – who will after that, wait like dour little medieval crows for the end the world. SUPER.
I recall a conversation in my 20s where I confidently claimed that certain gains could not be reversed anymore. I was at at restaurant named KOS on College Street in Toronto, with my friend Adam. I think about it all the time now, how a lot of what we thought was done – achieved – has been dismantled in a slow, sneaky, 40-year scheme. I thought then that progress was just progress, not an endless fight for it. But it turns out that people without souls will do anything for power and money. I for one want to stop feeling surprised. I get it. I get it. I get it. Dang.
Should my mother have had an abortion? Should my status as an abortion survivor inform my opinion on what women can do with their bodies? That’s the hook on this piece, right? I’m living the “What if?” comic of my life. I wasn’t aborted, and I came close, and so what does that say?
It says life is complicated, choices have effects, and drawing hard lines around things is different – and less important – than taking stands.
I hope my mom would have seen the protests, heard the stories, witnessed the experiences of so many betrayed women this week. I hope she could have seen Amy or Clarence as the horrible traitors of Gilead they clearly are. I hope she would have witnessed the actual whole story last week in America, and found some nuance. But who knows? The blessing of death is that, after it, one is removed from hypothetical equations. I was glad she missed COVID, which she missed by a year, and I guess I’m glad she missed this.
I hope for this clear affront to women and the world to be a blip, something that is counteracted by responsible adults. That’s not looking likely, but I hope.
Thanks for reading.