"How Did You Get Involved?"
Reproduced from Abortion is a Blessing by Anne Nicol Gaylor.
IN MY VOLUNTEER WORK for abortion in the past few years, I have been asked repeatedly, "How did you happen to become involved?" I usually have answered the question superficially because to answer it adequately would require a lengthy dissertation. But, in reality, it began in grade school with Ethel, who was impregnated, reportedly, by her brother.
Like most of the little girls I knew I regarded babies very highly, and as a farm child with few nearby playmates I used to daydream about someone leaving a baby on our doorstep for me to play with, as happened with delightful frequency in the books I read. The idea that a baby, or a pregnancy, could be unwanted did not occur to me until an older student in our one-room country school became pregnant.
Ethel was a shy, large, rather slow girl from a tenant farmer's huge family. It was not too long after the first shocked whispers about her pregnancy began to circulate that she dropped out of school, never to return. For poor young Ethel, age fourteen, biology was destiny.
There were a few forced marriages in our high school and the usual dropouts for unwed, unwanted pregnancies. And no wonder! Sex education for female students consisted of "a woman from the state" who came to the high school every other year or so to talk to the junior and senior girls for a class hour. We learned somehow-no explicit words were ever used-that intercourse could result in pregnancy, but we were not told how to prevent pregnancy. The sessions were acutely embarrassing, both for the red-faced woman from the state and for her audience. Questions very quickly turned to the safer subjects of menstruation, dating, and "going steady." The lesson we really learned was that sex was something you didn't discuss.
In my years as a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, one young woman's sad story impressed me forever with the futility of enforced pregnancy. At nineteen, pretty and popular (crucial traits in the 1940's), she was raped by an older man, an acquaintance of her family, and pregnancy resulted. Her parents sent her to the Twin Cities to complete the pregnancy, but her newborn baby was placed for adoption privately, with a Madison couple.
Tragically, after a few months it was learned that the baby was mentally retarded. The adoptive parents did not want the child, it could not be placed elsewhere, so it was institutionalized for a lifetime of care at public expense. And all of it was so unnecessary. The young woman's life was shadowed needlessly with physical and mental suffering; the product of rape was an abnormal child nobody ever wanted.
On my first visit to an obstetrician's office after my marriage, I sat across the waiting room from a mother and daughter. The sadness on their faces was obvious to anyone, as was the young girl's pregnancy. She seemed at most eleven or twelve years old, and she was the first pregnant child I had ever seen. I thought then, as I do now, that it was grossly inhumane that a child should have to become a mother. Babies having babies is a cruelty beyond compare. We do not let our immature animals breed, but our girl children--well, "that's fate."
Several years ago, when my husband and I lived in the University area of Madison, I was awakened one night by a rising and falling sound. At first I thought it was a mechanical sound, some eerie kind of siren. Then, sleepily I decided that it might be an animal, that perhaps a dog had been hit by a car and was crying in pain. Finally, fully awake, I realized with horror that I was listening to a woman screaming. I watched from the front windows of our home as an ambulance came to a nearby house to take her away. Her pain was so great that the eerie, animal screams were audible even after the ambulance doors had closed behind her. I learned the next day that the young woman, unmarried and pregnant, had attempted to abort herself.
During the 1960's so many tragic stories came to my attention, both in the press and from friends. There were occasional little items in the papers about a newborn baby found floating in the Rock River, and babies left dead or alive in shopping bags, in theatres, and wooded lots. A social worker told me of her attempts--unsuccessful--to secure an abortion for a mother of eight retarded children, to prevent the birth of a ninth retarded child. There was an illegitimacy explosion in the sixties with a consequent dismaying backlog of babies waiting for adoption--even the white-skinned, blue-eyed, golden-haired babies waited in those days.
One incident in the late sixties crystallized my thoughts on abortion, and resulted in my conviction that it must become legal. A teen-ager in Wisconsin, pregnant without her family's knowledge, delivered her baby at home alone at night. Distraught with pain and fear, she panicked when the baby began to cry and killed it, stabbing it with a pair of scissors.
Nine months can be an eternity when you are young. I could only shudder at the thought of a young girl carrying that secret burden for that length of time, and then going through the agony of first childbirth without anyone to help her. By her tragic action she had told us in the most pathetically eloquent way she could that this was an unwanted child. I knew that regardless of how abortion was looked upon, it was infinitely humane compared to the horror of unwanted pregnancies.
In 1967 as editor of a suburban weekly newspaper, I wrote the first editorial ever written in Wisconsin, calling for abortion law reform. I repeated this call for reform in a letter published in a national medical newspaper. In response, a New York physician wrote urging me to become active and join the Association for the Study of Abortion (ASA), one of the country's early abortion reform groups founded by professional people in New York. It was the first of a half-dozen groups concerned with freedom to choose abortion that I was to join. Soon, Edith Rein, a Milwaukeean who pioneered abortion reform and referral in Wisconsin, contacted me, encouraging me to start a chapter in Madison of her organization, the Wisconsin Committee to Legalize Abortion.
And so I became involved.
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