The Family Abortion Story I Never Heard

27 Oct

Three months ago, when kvetching to my father over the phone about yet-another-law-to-block-abortions I said something unfounded to him.

“Oh no one cares about this stuff. In fact you only care cause I’m your daughter!”

It was a completely unfair accusation to throw at my dad, although I know a lot of activists end up feeling this way when we think we’re the only ones who really know about this stuff.

But my father surprised me. He told me he had a story to tell that explained why he did care and why he’d become pro-choice long before I was born.

I’d always known he was pro-choice. I’ve chalked it up to our family’s Judaism and general liberal outlook. I recall sitting around the dinner table in the late 80s or early 90s and after watching a news story about abortion I asked him why he was pro-choice. He said because no one was ever going to tell his daughters what they could or couldn’t do with their bodies. I liked that sentiment and I was proud to have a parent who expressed it.

I grew up and slowly became a pro-choice activist, secure in the knowledge that my family agreed with my work. But I’d never thought there were any family secrets about abortion.

But in 1970 a relative, I don’t want to even name the relationship, came down with German measles while pregnant. It’s an extreme danger to the pregnancy, often resulting in multiple birth defects. In 1970 abortion was legal in New York, but not in the state where my relative was living. As it happens my parents were living in suburban New York. This relative visited my mother’s ob-gyn and scheduled an abortion. My father said he thought there was some modest lying to the doctor about the fact my relative came from out-of-state, but as far as he recalled it went just fine. The relative traveled the distance, stayed with my folks and that was it.

My father said he’d never really thought about abortion before this. But thinking about it, he thought it was unfair my relative had to travel from her state to New York to obtain an abortion. Why shouldn’t she have been able to obtain it in her home state? It just seemed unfair and nonsensical. Why should it be legal in one state but illegal in another? I asked what she would have done had they not lived in New York and he said he didn’t know.

I’d never heard this story before. It blew me away because I know this relative very well. She was married — and still is — to the same man. My father didn’t know, or wouldn’t provide any more details. Was the pregnancy planned? What did her husband think? What did she think?

But what surprised me even more is that I see this relative quite a bit. She knows about my activism. She’s heard me “speechify” about women’s rights and I’ve told her about some of the work I do. I can’t recall a single thing she’s ever said to me about abortion or my activism, either positive or negative. Nor have I picked up on any discomfort when I talk about my work. I would have hoped if my parents thought my work bothered her they would have told me this story earlier. But maybe this event barely crosses her mind? All I know is that it was over a decade later before she had her first child. I don’t even know if her kids know this story.

My father’s pro-choice attitude was very natural if unconsidered before this event. He never expressed the slightest hesitation about her having an abortion. She had German measles and didn’t want to continue it. That was enough for him. It was simply her choice. His thoughts, even if he was in disagreement, had absolutely no bearing on the situation. He’s felt that way ever since.

My father understood that every abortion is someone’s personal decision; it’s not up to him — or anyone else — whether women are allowed to have one. Nor is it fair that women are “allowed” to have one in some states but not in others. Basically my father got right away that abortion isn’t a group decision. The whole state shouldn’t get a say about your decision about a pregnancy. It’s none of their business, just like this relative’s decision wasn’t his.

If only we all understood abortion the same way, that we don’t get to tell our aunts, our sisters, our cousins what to do in these situations, because it’s not about us. We don’t get a “vote.” Abortion isn’t a group decision, even in families. And it’s even less a “group decision” when you’re not even related to me.

3 Responses to “The Family Abortion Story I Never Heard”

  1. Serena October 27, 2010 at 2:36 pm #

    Your dad sounds awesome.

    I am always surprised when people tell me they’ve had an abortion, because it just comes out in the conversation, and then we’re on to the next sentence. Perhaps your relative hasn’t talked about it because she doesn’t want to admit to doing anything illegal? But I bet if you sit down and think about the statistics, she’s not the only woman in your family who has had an abortion.

  2. Steph L. October 27, 2010 at 4:40 pm #

    Its always very interesting to learn that someone you know well has had an abortion you didn’t know about before.
    I know my maternal grandmother had an abortion – I can’t really get my mom to tell me the whole story but from what I understand it was done at their house. My mom remembers my grandfather having to run out and find a doctor because she kept bleeding (she survived and is in her early 90’s today). I’d like to know more but I guess I don’t know how I’d go about asking.

    One thing I will be forever curious about is my paternal grandfather – he was a doctor who specialized as an OBGYN. Lived in El Salvador, where abortion is illegal an ALL cases and folk remedies are often the only thing available. I wonder if he performed abortions? There’s no way he didn’t encounter women with complications from illegal ones. Unfortunately he died when I was 2 and I doubt my conservative catholic relatives would be open with me (from what I understand he wasn’t overly religious).


  1. Tweets that mention The Family Abortion Story I Never Heard | Abortion Gang -- - October 27, 2010

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Steph Herold and Not Guilty, The Abortion Gang. The Abortion Gang said: new post: The Family Abortion Story I Never Heard #prochoice […]

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