The birth would’ve been that day, I was sure of it.
After my first semester in New Zealand was over, I had decided to visit relatives over the winter break in Australia, when one July night, while flying from Sydney to Perth, I looked at the stars through my window seat, the moon, the darkness, the Southern Cross, and cried inside as if the whole world were spinning and the plane was about to crash. But it was just me crashing as I suddenly remembered it would have been the baby’s due date. I would relive the memory when my boyfriend had taken me to my appointment as I sat uncomfortably next to a woman in her eighth month for her prenatal appointment while I had been there to end my pregnancy.
At 20, I had an abortion and for ten months afterward, suffered trauma. How do I explain it? I didn’t want to be sad. I didn’t want to cry every night for hours. I didn’t want to get up at 4 PM. But those things happened. My emotions took over and trying to keep busy felt like I was dragging my feet.
Is there a link between abortion and trauma? For me, the answer is yes. It still remains difficult to say I suffered trauma after my abortion as I fear I am somehow criticizing a fundamental right I so fiercely believe in. After experiencing trauma after my abortion, I question what a pro-choice person is supposed to look like. Am I a bad pro-choicer?
Under the pro-life movement, the subject of trauma has become a weapon against the pro-choice movement where Post-Abortion Syndrome, specifically coined by the pro-life movement, has been used to perpetuate the myth that abortion is a harmful procedure resulting in regret and depression. If we applied the same mental health reasoning of post-partum depression to pregnancy, no woman would ever want to become pregnant. As investigated by the American Psychological Association, Post-Abortion Syndrome is scientifically proven to not exist as the immediate result of all abortions, just as much as post-partum depression does not exist as the immediate result of all births.
When I had my abortion, I had just turned 20, still one of my more memorable birthdays. Though I couldn’t admit it to myself then, I had an abusive boyfriend who forced me to have sex. Rape would be the appropriate term to describe this, but even still, that is a hard word for me to say.
He was Indian and Hindu. His parents disapproved of my being Filipina and Catholic. My own parents didn’t know he existed. It’s not that I wasn’t allowed to date. Boys and dating were nonexistent topics growing up. You studied hard, got straight A’s, and went to college. Anything outside of that was extraneous. But my traumatic experience with an unwanted pregnancy and abortion begins even way before my abusive relationship in college. It begins in childhood.
Childhood consisted of pro-life propaganda starting at age 9. Catholic school was 12 long years in the LA suburbs. The student body of my Catholic elementary school was predominantly Filipino and Mexican, the children of first-generation immigrants. By age 12, the infamous year of finally learning where babies come from, my parents, our parents, handed over the reins of their child’s sex education to my Catholic school thereby ceding absolute control to include abortion as part of the curriculum. We learned more about abortion than sex itself. Sex Ed should’ve been renamed Abortion Ed. None of the parents were explicitly informed that graphic pictures and videos of mutilated fetuses would be part of Sex Ed.
My Catholic elementary school made sure we were well-versed on every kind of abortion procedure as if we were surgical interns. No doubt their intention was to ingrain (and traumatize) us into a pro-life stance by forcing their young pupils to watch graphic abortion videos – both early and late trimester. We didn’t have the choice to leave the classroom even if it made us sick.
No one said anything during our forty-minute lunch breaks, our young minds held hostage by gruesome images where slices of ham in our otherwise boring little sandwiches suddenly resembled strips of flesh torn apart limb by limb.
As we resumed our regular afternoon session of Social Studies and Science with the expectation that the gruesome images of abortion could be easily forgotten by studying anthropological pictures of the Amazonian tribes, I asked if I could be excused to the bathroom. Most of the girls were starting their periods and we were usually excused without having to explain ourselves. I just needed to be alone. Once excused, I found a classmate already there, crying. When I asked her what was wrong, she snapped, “I hate those videos! My sister had an abortion.” I didn’t know what to say. My classmate’s sister was 17.
When we returned to our desks, a classmate boldly raised his hand and asked, “Does this mean it’s okay for us to watch Faces of Death? It’s a documentary from the 70s. You get to see the different ways people die. There’s this one scene where they’re eating monkey brains!” at which the class exploded in laughter.
“Of course not!” our teacher yelled.
“But you made us watch those abortion videos. Faces of Death is just like it except –”
“We’re moving on to Math,” she replied, cutting him off while the class froze like someone had slammed on the brakes.
As I reflect on that incident thirty years later, the abortion videos did not necessarily scare all of us but held the opposite effect of entertaining our morbid curiosities about death and mutilation.
While the abortion videos focused on the termination of the fetus, which looked more like a froglike humanoid creature, there was never any acknowledgment paid to the faceless woman on the table. I wasn’t watching the murder of babies, but rather the grotesque objectification of a woman’s body. Surely, women weren’t naive to undergo such procedures unless for very good reason. The reasons must’ve been extraordinary, but we were never taught those reasons. The woman on the table wasn’t even a woman but simply spread-legs à la carte, a mutilated cave of flesh, as we all are if you consider instances of open heart surgery, but my school did not show us videos of open heart surgery.
If my Catholic school believed and taught abortion is murder, then what we were essentially seeing were snuff films. Memories of Catholic school have oftentimes made me wonder what holy means.
School nailed it into our brains that women who have abortions are evil and abortion doctors are evil. They also taught us that saving a woman’s life over that of a high-risk pregnancy doesn’t exist and that pregnancy was 100% safe. They taught that rape rarely resulted in pregnancy since a woman’s body goes into shock thereby making pregnancy impossible. They also taught us that rape wasn’t necessarily evil if it produced a child as they believed God’s hand was shining down on the sexual act and blessing it through conception. I see my teacher now – her Catholic hand raised up as if she is God placing her hand over a scene where a man is raping a woman and blessing it with the existence of human life.
The subject of abortion endlessly follows me as each of these myths would rear its ugly head twenty years later and I’d hear these ridiculous myths preached once again as truth from one such Republican Rep. Todd Akin who would be infamously known for saying that victims of what he called “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant, stating, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” while Eve Ensler so graciously penned her scathing response to shut Akin down, “Did you honestly believe that rape sperm is different than love sperm, that some mysterious religious process occurs and rape sperm self-destructs due to its evil content?” We need not mention the mass rapes of women and girls in war torn countries, currently and historically, who are impregnated and forced to birth their rapists’ children. Or how the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland would also prove that high-risk pregnancies do exist and can cost women’s lives.
But in the days of my Catholic school education before the internet and social media, my Catholic school would find ways to support their sheltered beliefs through one particular guest speaker whom they would invite back year and year. It was a white female police officer who, on top of preaching that we shouldn’t take drugs, also preached that abortion was evil. She told us the story of how she knew a woman who had been raped in a garage by three men who videotaped the rape over three days, and out of that rape, the victim became pregnant. This same officer persuaded her to keep the pregnancy claiming it was God’s plan.
I was 11 when I heard this story. I didn’t even know what sex was, but the very thought of three men videotaping the rape for three days made me sick and angry. I was undoubtedly angry at the men but I was also angry at this female officer who told the victim to keep her pregnancy. Deep in my gut, even at 11, I knew she was wrong. She further taught us how the woman had put her child up for adoption, which the officer praised as the right thing to do, but who knows what happened to that baby. Who knows what happened to the victim.
At recess once again, my classmates had nothing to say. This same guest speaker was invited back several times during 5th, 6th, and 7th Grade. The abortion lessons never ended.
They constantly scared us and racked the girls with guilt that we were nothing but potential murderers if an unwanted pregnancy resulted. How ironic that a decade later, our adult lives would place us in situations where abortion was not a tragedy but charted our lives toward a more favorable course than have us become mothers when we clearly weren’t ready.
We were taught to always pray for the election of a Republican president since the Democrats support abortion. The same girl whose older sister had an abortion, this sharp-tongued 12-year-old, had raised her hand and made the brave observation how we shouldn’t vote Republican since “they believe in war and dropping bombs on innocent people.” Her observation had been made in reference to the first Bush administration in the Persian Gulf. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had then ordered the invasion and occupation of Kuwait in early August 1990. The United States had been called upon to intervene. By mid-January 1991, the Persian Gulf War began with a massive U.S.-led air offensive known as Operation Desert Storm.
“But that’s different,” my teacher countered. “The soldiers who fight in wars don’t hate the other side. God forgives them. They’re just doing what they’re told. Killing in war just happens. As for people who believe in abortion, they pre-meditatively plan to murder their babies.”
“But this war is about oil,” another female classmate whose father was a war veteran countered. Rather than further discuss this topic which most of my classmates, including myself, had no clue about the significance of oil in the Middle East, my teacher was clearly stung by both my classmates’ counter-arguments and simply cut both girls off. She gave the excuse that we were running short on time and needed to move onto Math. That was my teacher’s usual tactic when she had no comeback.
When my best friend and I from grade school reminisce about our Catholic school days, the fetus posters and anti-abortion messages don’t stand out in our memory. It’s only when we see old classroom pictures that we are reminded of the glaring pro-life classroom we sat in everyday, our 8th grade classroom decorated with fine letters, “ABORTION KILLS CHILDREN,” with posters of fetuses as if they were normal school decor. Our collective amnesia over the fetus posters and anti-abortion messages seem to reveal how desensitized we probably became where we only flinch now after thirty years of seeing them again.
For a long time I thought abortion videos were part of standard Sex Ed curriculum at all Catholic schools, until adult friends also former Catholic school students would gasp in horror when I’d nonchalantly mention the videos as we reminisced and laughed about our zany Catholic school childhoods. Much to my astonishment, we do not share the experience of abortion videos. My Catholic school was rather one of a kind in that respect. I’m not naïve, however, to believe that pro-life lessons such as the ones I grew up with were isolated. They are probably still taught at Catholic and evangelical schools somewhere in this country. Thirty years later, some things never change.
The situation was no different at my Catholic high school regarding contraception. Abstinence was stressed to quiet our raging hormones, and when it wasn’t, lessons on contraception were covered in the measly thirty minutes of Sophomore Health class which my teacher hurriedly read aloud from a textbook when many of us had no idea what a condom even looked like. Come graduation, half a dozen girls would be approaching their due dates as they received their diplomas.
The exclusion of sex education also came the exclusion of lessons of what a healthy relationship looked like. By the time I had my first boyfriend in college, he made me believe “good” girlfriends had sex, and oftentimes he guilted me into it – what I still have a hard time calling rape. Like any kid of the 90s where the topic of sex was exempt from the household, TV was the main source of information. Rape was a stranger jumping out of the bushes. No one ever said it could be an intimate partner who could unexpectedly turn on you and use sex as a weapon.
When I lost my virginity, it was consensual, even romantic. We were both virgins. How charmed the experience quickly ended. I wasn’t on the pill, having believed horror stories that it caused weight gain, acne, painful breast tenderness, and the old wives’ tale that it raised the risk of infertility. My boyfriend did not always wear a condom. He practiced the withdrawal method, or so I thought.
I was in my third year of college and on my way to study abroad in New Zealand having earned a highly coveted spot in the study abroad program that year.
They say you know before you know. My period was a week late. As I went on my usual morning run with very sore breasts and overwhelming nausea, I already knew I was pregnant before a campus doctor confirmed it.
I was devastated. I knew I couldn’t keep it. My Catholic upbringing which threatened excommunication and eternal damnation would not change my mind. Still, I felt the powerful tug of my body’s strong instinct to be a mother. It didn’t matter that I was 19, turning 20. It didn’t matter that I was about to study abroad in New Zealand. It didn’t matter that I would face the crushing disappointment of my parents and most likely be forced to marry my abusive boyfriend to save face in my respectable Filipino-American family. My parents had no idea I was even dating anyone. I had never been in a serious relationship before. Distant cousins were already being shipped to the Philippines to hide away the shame of their out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Why not me? I don’t think my parents would’ve gone to that extreme, but who’s to say what my father would’ve done during his disciplinary rage. If my body had had its way, I believe I would’ve had that baby despite the consequences. But my head knew better. No matter how much I could disagree with my body’s instincts, its instincts would eventually hold a small victory over me as the unexpected physiological and mental effects of what I would later understand as trauma would feel like my body’s revenge against the rational side of myself.
I confided in a male friend about the pregnancy. He was the only other person I told besides my boyfriend. My two best friends were at colleges more than one hundred miles away. I had two sisters but I didn’t feel comfortable confiding in them, at least not then. I had three female roommates, but I kept my pregnancy a secret, sparing myself their judgment and opinions on what I should do. It wasn’t anyone’s business but mine.
My best guy friend and I were parked outside of his apartment after having lunch together. He was feeding the parking meter when he told me how crappy his week was going. “Not worse than mine,” I laughed, adding, “I’m pregnant,” at which his jaw dropped.
“What are you going to do? How are you going to continue with school?” he asked, which I can only guess he assumed I was going to keep it. I nonchalantly responded, “I’m not going to keep it.” I didn’t bat an eyelash despite the day before I fled the clinic in tears, running to a secluded spot in the woods where I rubbed my tummy and quietly told my baby goodbye. I would later place red roses there a few days before my scheduled abortion.
In my eight weeks of pregnancy, I experienced the sore breasts, the stifling nausea, the fatigue, and the hard, muscly shell in my abdomen. I was sad that it was all about to end. I did not go to Planned Parenthood and opted instead for a private clinic of an experienced Ob-Gyn who specialized in first-trimester abortions. I received the referral from the campus doctor. She came highly recommended by other college students who had dealt with unwanted pregnancies. A private clinic was more expensive by a couple hundred dollars, which I easily had in my checking account, but more importantly, I wanted to spare myself the stress of facing an angry brigade of pro-life protesters picketing outside Planned Parenthood, which the campus nurse forewarned me about. The private clinic had no such problem.
To this day, the doctor who performed my abortion does not publicly advertise her abortion services. For all the choice, access, and legalization we have in the liberal state of California, the best practitioners can still choose to operate quietly due to fear, safety, and reputation in a predominantly Republican county. My doctor was nothing but compassionate, gentle, and absolutely knowledgeable. I couldn’t have had a better doctor. The procedure itself was easy and painless, and took about all of 30 seconds to complete, very unlike the gruesome portrayal in the abortion videos that I was forced to watch during Catholic school.
I was in her office for at most an hour, which included waiting time, consultation, anesthesia prep, the procedure, the pathology report, and recovery. She had two other patients scheduled that afternoon for their prenatal appointments – each woman’s round belly bursting with new life. The nurse acted as my doula. She held my hand and provided comforting words while the doctor smoothly performed her magic. Afterward, my boyfriend carried me out of my car into my apartment as I was groggy and nauseous from the anesthesia.
“Don’t cry,” he commanded while I lay in bed feeling like my heart had been ripped out. How could he tell me not to cry? But I was sad, medicated, and too tired to be angry then. None of my roommates were home. He didn’t stay long before he left to study for a Physics exam. My best guy friend ended up holding me that night and criticized my boyfriend for leaving me all alone for a stupid test.
Just a few days before, I had gone home to my parents to celebrate my 20th birthday. While home, I had woken up with a migraine when I heard my mother’s familiar call for breakfast. The smell of pancakes wafted into my bedroom which only made me nauseous.
“Sweetheart, are you going to get up? I made pancakes. Why don’t you take some Tylenol for that migraine?” my mother sweetly said as she sat on the edge of my bed. She kissed the top of my head and held me, simply believing I had a migraine when it was really morning sickness. I silently cried as my mother held me and the quiet grandchild within. There was no burning desire to tell her. Sex, pregnancy, and dating were never discussed in my household. My pregnancy felt like a grave trespass in their home. There was no alternative but to remain silent. My siblings and I were their academically stellar children who did not make such egregious mistakes. There was a reputation to uphold in our Filipino-American community. I knew I wasn’t the only Filipina-American to go through this, but because I told no one and no one confided their experience to me, besides my classmate’s 17-year-old sister back in grade school, I did feel like I was the only one.
A week later, my body returned to normal. I never suffered the uncomfortable cramps and heavy bleeding that is expected. There were soft red swirls and delicate little clumps in the toilet, but outside of that, I bled like I had my period and that was that. My breasts eventually stopped being sore and my abdomen returned to its soft supple self.
During my follow-up exam, the doctor prescribed birth control pills which I unquestionably accepted. In order to get a refill from the campus clinic, I was required to take, for the first time in my life, a comprehensive sexual education class that covered all forms of contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.
Three and a half months later, I was on a plane to New Zealand. No Pinay I knew had ever traveled alone. Traveling alone at 20 as a female, as a Filipina, was daring. For the next nine months, besides my extended family whom I would meet in the Australian Outback, I would encounter only two other Pinays. Outside of that, I would be the only Pinay I knew – in the classroom, my flat, and just anywhere in downtown Auckland.
Within the first six months of starting the pill, I switched from an American brand to a New Zealand one when I found that it cost me only $1.50 for a three-month supply versus $30 for what I would’ve had to pay for the same amount in California. While the American pill lightened my periods, the New Zealand pill made me soak through pads. My naïve self concluded that these body changes must be normal. One can only imagine the dizzying ride my body would endure as it went through a pregnancy, abortion, birth control pill changes, a new country, and a long distance abusive relationship all within six months.
The hormones in my body had been constantly fluctuating and I didn’t have the faintest idea why. Though depression runs in my family and I suffered occasional bouts during high school, I had never felt as empty as I did in the months following my abortion. The rational side of myself told me that I had done the right thing but my body and emotions were acting completely opposite. I was taken on a wild rollercoaster ride of sleepless nights and staying in bed all day.
Even though my boyfriend was in California, I remained faithful in a long distance relationship. He managed to verbally abuse me through telephone calls, scoffing at my adventures in a new country, which were then followed by sweet apologetic letters and emails. I thought his jealous behavior was part of a normal relationship despite my gut feeling that something was terribly wrong.
I had wonderful friends but they still did not have the slightest idea of the emotional turmoil I was under. I feared their judgment and misunderstanding lest I open up about the abuse, and the abortion. On the outside I was charming and unstoppable, while inside, I felt like I was dying.
I disclosed my abortion to two friends in New Zealand, but it was said as a sentence, never a discussion. I remained silent on the subject while my friends were probably too shocked to ask questions. I was the only one I knew who had an abortion in my social circle. I didn’t know how to talk about it. I didn’t know how to talk about anything then.
That same year, it came to light across the world how 49-year-old President of the United States, Bill Clinton, had had an affair with his White House intern, 22-year-old Monica Lewinsky. She was 24, only four years older than me, when the world found out about their scandalous affair, but at my age, anyone even a few years older felt like decades older. It had not occurred to me how she was merely a kid who had been taken advantage of by a very powerful man who was nearly her father’s age and whom the global media unjustifiably painted a slut. I didn’t believe she was a slut. I did think she was naïve. The egregiousness of what any of it meant then had not occurred to me. Everyone in every one of my political studies classes had something to say about it, but I had nothing. They asked me what I had thought. Me, the lone Pinay-American in the class. The President of the United States had lied. The President of my country. But I didn’t think much about my country. Not then. I had never heard so many 20-year-olds talk so passionately about American politics, and yet they surrounded me in Auckland, an entire ocean and hemisphere away. At my college back in Southern California, most college kids talked about parties and drinking and dating. Very rarely did I hear talk about the state of our country or the world.
While Bill and Monica were hot fodder at my New Zealand campus, I could only think of my silence. My abortion. My shame. My anger. My guilt. My classes. My grades. My friends. My boyfriend. My world was very small. Except for my boyfriend, I hardly missed my family and friends in California. I was living, crying, and dying in New Zealand.
Despite some weekends lying in bed depressed until 4 PM, I did manage to have an amazing time in New Zealand. I had dared myself to skydive, bungee-jump, hike, run, party, and meet as many people as I could. I had thrown myself into school, studying obsessively and pulling off A’s. I was an overachieving superstar, but behind closed doors, I’d retreat to bed in tears before falling asleep. I had become compulsive. I had to keep moving, whether I was studying or socializing or doing some kind of extreme physical activity, while at night, I was allowing myself to cry, to cleanse, to forget. But I never forgot.
Before I became aware that some women’s bodies can count down to their due dates, I believe my body counted down to my baby’s due date, regardless of whether my mind wanted to or not.
After visiting my relatives in Australia during the winter break, I returned to New Zealand an insomniac and cried for hours every night. I journaled incessantly and wrote long letters about the abortion to my boyfriend, which to a large degree helped me cope with my feelings of isolation. Years later, when I was ready to leave him, he admitted he never read my letters, saying they were too long.
One particular evening, when a friend had fallen asleep in my bed after a late night studying, I remember being angry as her presence interrupted my nightly weeping ritual. She never knew about my ritual, though I made sure no one could ever interrupt it. It was like a drug habit. I believed I needed to cry every night to function normally. I wasn’t crying because I missed my pregnancy. I cried because I hated that my stupid self had gotten pregnant and had to go through an abortion in the first place. I hated my boyfriend but believed he could change and understand the pain I was going through. I hated what others might think of me – that I killed my baby, that I was selfish, that I was stupid. And I cried to cleanse myself every night.
I cried night after night until my throat started to hurt beyond the normal sore throat. I visited the campus doctor only to discover that my nightly weeping ritual had developed into tonsillitis. I was terrified that I would require surgery in New Zealand. Luckily, the doctor said it was curable through a simple dose of antibiotics over the next few weeks. If not for the tonsillitis, I might have never realized I was making myself sick. After that, I stopped crying every night.
By the time my 21st birthday and 1st year anniversary of my abortion arrived, I booked a spontaneous weeklong getaway to Fiji alone. It was a cathartic celebration. My mind and body felt more at peace than it ever did since my abortion.
The trauma eventually subsided but it would take another three years before I was finally ready to leave my abuser. Rather than end the relationship upon my return to California from New Zealand, I made the mistake of introducing him to my parents. I was hopeful that my return would repair our relationship, but things only grew worse as he became more abusive, especially about my academic achievements and career aspirations, accusing me of caring little about our relationship. His attempts to coerce me into sex also escalated where sex lost all meaning and enjoyment. Another year away from him during my first year of law school in New York would help me realize I deserved better.
He never allowed me to talk about the abortion and preferred to call it “a bunch of cells,” but would then conveniently bring it up when I tried to leave him. He tried making me feel guilty for leaving by saying we shared the trauma of an abortion together while it was evident we shared nothing about it.
As a Literature major, I would stumble upon Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays and Audre Lorde’s Zami, which helped me make sense of my abortion experience, but what helped me most was becoming a post-abortion counselor. Almost a decade following my abortion is when I finally had the opportunity to grapple with what had happened as I counseled hundreds of women about their abortion.
A part of me still denies that what I had gone through wasn’t “that bad.” But who am I kidding?
As a post-abortion counselor, I learned that emotional surges following any pregnancy are believed to be a natural effect of the hormone shifts that occur with it. Levels of estrogen and progesterone that increase during pregnancy drop suddenly after childbirth, miscarriage, and abortion. Female hormones are supposed to return to their pre-pregnancy levels within a week or so. As hormone levels normalize, depression that can follow usually resolves on its own without medical treatment. However, factor in poor partner relationships, stress and a pre-existing history of depression and sexual abuse, and the likelihood of experiencing trauma can be prolonged for more than one year after pregnancy.
I realized just how much I had fit into all of the above.
By the time the 10-year anniversary of my abortion arrived, I found myself in a much better place than the decade before. I was starting a new relationship with a kind and compassionate man who would eventually become my husband.
For my 30th birthday, I decided to travel without my partner to Hawaii, not only to celebrate my birthday, but to honor my abortion. By then, my partner and I had only been dating six months and I felt such an occasion seemed only something I could celebrate and fully appreciate.
The idea to travel to Hawaii originated from meeting a Japanese-American filmmaker. I had met her at an art event where we both served as panelists representing the Asian-American Reproductive Justice Movement. I was there to represent the organization where I volunteered as a post-abortion counselor while she presented her documentary about the Japanese “water baby” ritual of consecrating the spirit of the unformed child to the protection of a Jizo bodhisattva, a “saint” of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Jizo is understood to be the protector of those journeying through the physical and spiritual realms. This bodhisattva is closely associated with children, believed to be their guardian before birth, throughout childhood, and after death. As the unborn are seen as beings who float in a watery world awaiting birth, water is thus regarded as the realm where all souls reside before becoming human as well as the realm where the spirit returns.
After seeing her film trailer, I decided to conduct a little investigation of my own before I went to Hawaii, as what better place to be surrounded by water and perform a Jizo ceremony to consecrate the spirit of my pregnancy.
On my 30th birthday, my best friend and I launched our kayaks from Lanikai Beach into open water to reach the Mokulua Islands. We had kayaked through giant waves where our little banana boats bobbed up and down with each swell that I could barely make out my best friend kayaking ahead of me as a wall of water separated us.
It had been the first time in a long time where it felt like a beautiful homecoming from the abortion and the trauma. I never got to perform the official Jizo water baby ritual in Hawaii but kayaking in the open water made me feel like I bonded with my pregnancy’s spirit in a way that I never could before.
A decade after my abortion, my mother confronted me about my abortion after Googling my name and finding articles I had written. I cannot say she was understanding. Particularly for my mother, she was born and raised in the Philippines where abortion is not only considered a mortal sin by its Catholic oligarchy, but is criminal where women brave enough to go through a clandestine abortion risk infertility, infection, even death, if not criminal prosecution and public shaming. I personally knew this to be true after volunteering at a women’s health clinic in the Philippines. During a work sabbatical, I took my post-abortion counseling skills to the country of my birth and interned at a post-abortion complications program, a program specifically created with the purpose of serving women who had clandestinely induced their own abortions and needed emergency nonjudgmental post-abortion medical care.
I told my mother that the person who got me pregnant was a rapist. I couldn’t tell her it had been the person whom she had welcomed into her home several times. This person whom I called my boyfriend. To her, it could’ve been a person jumping out of the bushes. It wasn’t my intention to protect him but to protect her from further pain in knowing she couldn’t protect me.
“I wish I had taught you to avoid it,” her voice shook under tears. When my mother cries, it feels as if the ground is splitting and both of our feet threaten to drop off. In my life, I’ve only seen my mother cry twice. She has always been a gentle and stoic woman. Her words stung as she thought the rape was somehow my fault. I still excused what she said, knowing well that this was, and continues to be, the thinking of the day, that rape is somehow always the woman’s fault. I never told her, “It wasn’t my fault.” Instead, I let it go and silently forgave her. I forgave the generation and culture that taught her to think this way about women. I knew my mother wasn’t blaming me. She was blaming herself. I simply told her, “It’s nothing you could’ve taught me to stop.” We haven’t talked about it since.
No matter how many times I write about this experience, I hear the judgment being passed around inside my head. As a Filipina-American, I am walang hiya. I should be ashamed of myself, that whatever trauma I experienced was just punishment for the crime I had committed, when maybe the true crime was being raped and my abusive ex being able to live free from any responsibility and guilt.
My Catholic upbringing had brainwashed me to believe that women who are pro-choice see pregnancy as an unemotional trivial matter where abortion is a nonchalant decision. It also brainwashed me to believe that it is only when women do decide to go through with an abortion that they quickly learn how devastating the experience is and live to regret it, as if the personal experience truly awakens us to the horrors of its psychological damage. It’s either that or pro-choice women are self-centered, misguided, reckless, promiscuous, spoiled, and who hate children. How untrue all of it was. And yet, how true that the personal experience of abortion didn’t awaken me to the horrors of abortion’s psychological damage, but awakened me to the psychological damage inflicted by a judgmental society who refuses to trust women’s choices.
When the 2012 case of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland hit headlines across the world, the pain hit deep. At 17 weeks pregnant, she died of septicemia a week after being admitted for severe back pain at a Galway hospital where the 31-year-old dentist was told she was miscarrying. She had asked for an abortion several times over a three-day period, during which she was in severe pain but her requests were denied because a fetal heartbeat was still present. She and her husband were told at one point, “This is a Catholic country.” Medical staff removed the dead fetus days later after the heartbeat stopped but Halappanavar died of septicemia.
Savita Halappanavar made global headlines but how many women like her, nameless and deceased, have demanded an abortion out of emergency medical need and are denied?
As a woman myself who experienced an anembryonic pregnancy, a pregnancy that was very much wanted by me and my husband, it was a dilation and curettage at 12 weeks, a common abortion procedure, that was medically necessary to save me from an unsafe miscarriage, which could have easily resulted in hemorrhaging and infection. I can attest that the D&C was a quick and clean 10-minute procedure. It was more awkward than painful but nothing like the butchering event that the pro-life movement portrays in their abortion videos.
The abortion videos I was forced to watch at 12 never completely won me over as a pro-life believer. I became pro-choice when I had to make that choice myself though this is not to say that having an abortion automatically makes you pro-choice, or that being pro-choice means you will remain so. Norma McCorvey for instance, otherwise the Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, converted to Catholicism twenty years after Roe, and was a staunch pro-life activist until her death, publicly expressing her remorse and denouncing her participation in the case that legalized abortion.
McCorvey stated after becoming pro-life, “I remained basically anonymous for almost 17 years. I, in those 17 years, I tried to commit suicide a couple of times. I was very ashamed of what I had done, and I was looking for forgiveness not only from God but from myself.” Maybe it is this aspect of the abortion experience that we pro-choicers need to address rather than shy away from. To shy away from it only seems to fuel pro-life activists, particularly those who have had abortions, into believing that our emotional response is a one-sided narrative of relief, and that we are liars denying that grief and trauma aren’t significant, when some women attest to feeling these very emotions and nothing else.
As a Catholic, I feel my abortion story makes staunch Catholics believe that I belong in the fiery pit of damnation, expecting me to repent for my mortal sin when my abortion was the only right thing for me to do under the circumstances. I’ve never felt that I needed to be forgiven by God.
While McCorvey converted to Catholicism, I haven’t done the opposite and renounce my faith, though I did feel Catholicism had turned its back on me with their rule of latae sententiae, automatic excommunication to any woman who has an abortion. My feelings toward the Catholic Church remain lukewarm. I am well aware of the existence of pro-choice Catholics, even the organization Catholics for Choice who advocate on our behalf, but no matter our existence, we are still outsiders to the Vatican who do not see our stance as noteworthy. Church doctrine remains strictly opposed to abortion without exception. It would be naive to think that Catholic women are ignorant of latae sententiae as it is a law so deeply ingrained in our catechism. It’s important to compare that rapists aren’t automatically excommunicated. One need not look further than how the Church handled the sex abuse scandals of their priests, and yet we, excommunicated women, are expected to repent to these men whom the Church has bestowed as the only ones capable of officially absolving us of our sins.
Unlike McCorvey who became pro-life in response to the trauma after her abortion, the trauma after my abortion only has made me fiercely pro-choice even though a part of me fears the pro-choice community will hate me as I don’t necessarily shout my abortion as an empowering experience. To be honest, it was very lonely. Even still, I don’t feel totally empowered sharing my abortion story but more than ever feel afraid of judgment and attack from both the pro-life and pro-choice sides.
I firmly believe in the fundamental right to an abortion but also believe trauma can be one of the natural responses to an abortion. I’d like to believe the pro-choice community would welcome me with open arms, but it seems voicing any negative opinions about the abortion experience such as trauma undermines what we’re fighting for.
It seems good pro-choicers do not see abortion as a traumatic experience. Good pro-choicers do not see abortion as a tragedy. Good pro-choicers find the abortion experience empowering. Good pro-choicers see abortion as a solution. Good pro-choicers see abortion as a relief. While I agree with the good pro-choicer, I also see what the other side sees and agree with them too.
In 2005, when Hillary Clinton called abortion a tragedy by saying it represents “a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women,” pro-choice pundits were quick to voice their skepticism. On a big picture scale, I see why the pro-choice movement swiftly questioned just how much of a pro-choicer Clinton was. Unfortunately for Clinton as a politician, I understand why it was crucial for her to refrain from such comments as words like “tragic” and “necessary evil” attach a negative connotation when trying to legislatively support abortion. But I can also see that she was speaking from a place so deeply personal and in her own eyes, abortion is a tragedy if solely taken on a personal level and not just a legislative one. The sad thing is how these various feelings toward abortion, whether they be spiritual, celebratory, relieving, remorseful, tragic, or traumatic, have divided us as a movement as if our pro-choice feelings should be a one-size fits all.
I am split down the middle between calling abortion a tragedy and not. Maybe that makes me a bad pro-choicer. But why not be inclusive and leave it to a woman who has gone through an abortion to decide whether she calls her own abortion a tragedy or not, as long as she does not impose that emotion on other women.
We can believe that we are sparing a child from a future that we simply cannot provide for. We can believe that we do not want to bring unwanted children into the world. We can still love babies, but believe that we ourselves were not meant to be mothers. Besides my own personal experience with abortion, my experience as a post-abortion counselor has proven that different women react differently toward their abortions, whether they came to that decision immediately or through the private counsel of friends, family, their religious community, or alone or after days of serious consideration and reconsideration, with different emotions ranging from relief, sadness, shame, regret, even joy. I’ve known women who have held ceremonies for their abortions while others have thrown celebrations.
I believe I spared myself and my baby from being terrorized and legally bound to an abuser who would’ve made my life and my baby’s life a living hell. If I had that baby, which a small part of me did want, I believe I still would’ve been fortunate to finish college with the generous support of my family, but it would’ve been at the heavy cost of being pressured to marry my abuser to save face in my Filipino-American family versus being a shameful single mother at 20. I believed my baby deserved better than that. I believed I deserved better than that, and I was able to stop all of it from ever happening.
The pro-life side will argue that I should’ve considered adoption, but that would’ve meant having to publicly acknowledge my pregnancy to my family, something that was completely unfathomable. Adoption wouldn’t have felt that I alone was giving up my child but it would’ve felt like a collective surrender where my entire family would’ve felt they were giving up the child. I couldn’t imagine having to carry my baby for 9 months only to have him or her taken away while I and my family would’ve spent an entire lifetime mourning and agonizing over whether he or she was being treated well or abused or abandoned or feeling resentful of me and us. As someone who has also personally worked in adoption and the foster care system, the termination of one’s parental rights is far from an easy experience for biological family, mother, child, foster parents, and adoptive parents.
Among us pro-choicers, some of us believe abortion is murder, but also believe that our personal well-being and future depend on the life we take. I know saying that is legislatively dangerous and problematic, but personally naming it as such is how some pro-choicers feel and in turn helps particular women grieve, find forgiveness, cope, and move on. To exclude us from the pro-choice conversation only diminishes the many facets and inexplicable complexity of those who identify as pro-choice. At the outset of saying this, I expect harsh criticism from my own pro-choice community, but if we are to shout our abortions, then we need to shout each and every kind. The pro-choice side, though flawed and imperfect and evolving and still arguing on whether we need to change our name or not, still holds room for discussion, even for those who do not choose abortion. Maybe that makes me a bad pro-choicer, but I’m still pro-choice nonetheless.
Elsa Valmidiano is an Oakland writer and poet. She was a reproductive rights activist for several years with Planned Parenthood, a post-abortion counselor for Exhale, and then a post-abortion complications care intern at Likhaan—a women’s health organization in the Philippines. Her poetry and prose have appeared in various literary journals and anthologies. A recipient of the Editors’ Choice selection from the Many Voices Project competition in Prose sponsored by New Rivers Press, Elsa’s debut essay collection, We Are No Longer Babaylan, is slated for publication in Fall 2020/Spring 2021. For more information, please visit her website at slicingtomatoes.com.