Intimate Wars Blog Series: My Abortion Story

By Merle Hoffman, cross-posted at On The Issues Magazine

It’s been over 40 years since I founded Choices Women’s Medical Center, one of the first and currently the largest and most comprehensive women’s health care centers in the country. Two years before the Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade, I opened the doors of Choices to provide women with services they desperately needed. To give them not just health care services, but also hope and the courage to go on with their lives.

As we celebrate the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and the release of my memoir, Intimate Wars, I and others will be sharing our stories of how abortion and the right to reproductive freedom has been personal to us. Because for women whose bodies have become battlegrounds in the struggle for reproductive freedom and justice, the intimacy of this war is profound. Now is the time to reflect on just what the war on women means for the millions of us who are – and will be – touched by this very public debate of this very private act. Follow our journey today and tomorrow and be sure to join us on Twitter at #intimatewars. Below is an excerpt from my memoir about my own abortion experience.

My debate was taped on a Friday. I had taken a pregnancy test that morning, leaving my urine at my reproductive health clinic, Choices. My period was a couple of weeks late, and I was worried. I was always so careful, almost obsessive, but no method of birth control is perfect.

As the debate progressed, I experienced an odd sort of splitting off. I responded to the gibes and questions of my opponent, all the while thinking that I could be pregnant. I felt removed enough to appreciate the irony of the situation, a battle being waged on multiple tracks. I was performing politically for the cameras and debating emotionally with myself.

In the closing argument I made a passionate plea for the importance of women’s lives, for remembering that the abortion “issue” was ultimately about that. Thousands of individual stories, thousands of different reasons, all culminating in one shared ambiguous reality—a reality I was beginning to enter.

I finished the taping and asked to use the studio phone to call my office. The assistant stood next to me, engaging me in conversation; I was talking, laughing. Then I got on the phone, spoke to my secretary, and found out that the pregnancy test was positive. It took my breath away.

Sweating profusely, I wondered whether I had stained the outfit I was wearing for the debate. I called a cab, flattened my back against the seat, and took slow, deep breaths, trying to keep from feeling suffocated. The idea of abortion was a valve, an opening, a way to breathe. There was no question of whether I would have one. My diary entry from that night reads, “For one night I am a mother.” I don’t remember whether or not I slept. I only remember my exhaustion and an overriding sense of inevitability. The next morning I dressed carefully in a red-and-white suit. What does one wear to an abortion? There are no traditional costumes like those for funerals or weddings. There is no ritual from one generation of women to another to look to as a guide. There are only functional considerations; you wear something that comes on and off quickly and easily.

At Choices, the steps of the familiar process played out in surreal reversal. The blood tests, the images of the sonogram, the table, the stirrups—they were all for me. Marty stood at the head of the table and held my hand while Dr. Mohammed performed the abortion. Now I was joined to the common experience of my sex. But as I lay on the table I had stood beside to support so many others, I felt irrevocably alone. The hands that touched and caressed my hair felt as if they moved through a dark porous divide that separated me from everything that I knew or had been before. As I spread my legs like all my sisters, I thought of the child whose time was not now.

Yet despite that connection, the recognition of the fetus’s potential to become my child, I knew that I could not allow this pregnancy to come to term. My sense of self, my sense of time, the flow of my movement toward goals that I had created had been interrupted the moment my test came back positive. The fetus was an invader, a separate force growing inside me, demanding and creating potentially unalterable realities. I couldn’t let my life become someone else’s.

After my abortion, as I slowly awoke from the anesthesia, I became conscious of immense and overwhelming feelings: non-specific, non-directed. Love, relief—then sadness.

A few days later, walking down the hallway in Choices, I heard loud, wrenching sobs coming from the recovery room. A woman was waking from anesthesia and crying for her mother. I went to her bed, lowered the side rails, and gently tried to soothe her. As I bent down to her face she whispered in a halting Russian accent, “You’re the only one I have now, I’m all alone. You’ve saved my life by being here.” I held the woman close, enormously moved, savoring our connection. There was no good or bad, no issue of choice. There was nothing more than the pure energy of survival, and women doing what they had been doing for centuries throughout history, what they will do forever.

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