Colleen is a rising junior interning at Legal Momentum for the National Judicial Education Program (NJEP) in Manhattan. NJEP educates judges about gender inequities in the courts and the ways in which gender bias factor into civil, family, juvenile, and criminal law, and how to prevent it.
I feel in conflict with two very important identity markers—my Roman Catholic religion and my identity as a feminist. There is this war raging on about abortion both in my head and in the world around me. As I trekked on the subway down to Queens on Friday afternoon, I was silenced by the unexpected. I was on my way to Choices, a women’s health clinic that provides abortion services. My little knowledge about abortion clinics included the HBO episode of Girls, when Hannah, Marnie, and Shoshanna are waiting for hours in the abortion clinic after Jessa decides to have an abortion, although Jessa is too frightened to go to the clinic herself. Abortion is something rarely talked about, rarely portrayed in the media because it is considered ‘too controversial.’ It is as if there are only two polar sides of the argument…but what about the grey area in between the two extremes? Can I be religious and pro-choice? Can I be a feminist and pro-life?
Upon first arriving to the clinic, I felt a lump at the back of my throat and I was too squeamish to stand still. My eyes wandered around the room to see patients waiting with their children seated by their side, a loved one holding their hand, or a few were sitting solitary and alone. For some reason I had not thought about seeing actual patients, and my mind flooded with thoughts of how these women might be feeling, of what their stories were. We were escorted back to Merle Hoffman’s office, the woman who created the whole clinic with her own personal funds, not wanting to accept money from anyone so that she could keep her vision of Choices intact.
As we settled around the table, Merle asked us expectantly, “So who here has ever had an abortion?” Silence. I felt my mind imploding, thinking, did she really just ask us that question? Is she expecting someone to divulge on such a personal subject as if she was asking who wanted a piece of gum? After the shock of the question subdued, I realized that Merle was making a political statement, whose paradigm is to drag the concept of abortion out of the deepest, darkest, dustiest corner of the closet. In her question, Merle was normalizing the term abortion, putting it on equal footing with other types of procedures, such as a root canal or Lasik eye surgery. She was erasing some of the stigma by repeatedly using the word ‘abortion’ and in doing so, desensitizing us to it.
We also took a tour of the clinic. Walking around, I felt like I was invading the most intimate details of these women’s lives. I even examined a surgery room, imagining how frightened, alone and scared I would feel with my legs on those stirrups, gripping the hand of an employee that I had just met. I think most importantly, Merle showed me that women’s health clinics are all about providing women with choices. Like Shoshanna, Marnie, and Hannah in Girls, I learned that women’s health clinics support women in the right to choose how they want their future to pan out, through pre-natal care, ob/gyn services, and most obviously, abortions. We came upon one of the surgeons, and it was a true out-of-body experience to hear about the unnaturalness of the abortion process in removing the uterine lining. It seemed so barbaric to have to then search the tissue for the embryo, to be shipped off to some lab as if it were a science experiment. Although my mind wanted to defend women in their right to choose, my heart was telling me that this procedure felt wrong.
The whole afternoon I was thinking about Barbara Kruger’s work, Pro-life for the unborn, pro-death for the born. The art provoked me to consider the woman who has to make the tough choice between abortion and giving birth. I considered a pregnant teenager, either ostracized for being pregnant or outcast for having an abortion, a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation. The unborn baby may have to grow up in extreme poverty, malnourished and unloved by their single mother that is barely scraping by. Who would want a child to grow up in these conditions? Is an abortion a better alternative?
Although my mind is still fuzzy on reconciling the two polar extremes on abortion…maybe it doesn’t have to be so black-and-white. Maybe I can be pro-life for my body personally, but pro-choice for the 12-year-old girl who was raped by her brother or for the woman who already has two children and would not be able to handle the financial burden and emotional taxation of a third child. My feminist identity wants women to be able to have control over their own bodies and have the abilities to make these tough choices by themselves, yet my Catholic identity could not bear to end the potential to life and love. Abortion is complicated. Although the war is still waging in my mind, it’s time to have more open, honest conversations about abortion.
I think it is about time.