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September 23, 2015

Why I keep shouting my abortion


Tomatoes. Because, seriously, what other images could I use on this post?

I can’t remember when I started talking about my abortion. When it happened, my girlfriends knew, of course, and obviously so did my boyfriend, but in general, I kept it quiet. I don’t remember why. I think I was profoundly embarrassed and ashamed at having become pregnant in the first place. It was also a terrible time, a really awkward situation in which I had to come home early from my post-university European tour to have the procedure. (I wrote about this all here: I always knew I would. It really was the most interesting thing that has ever happened to me.) I remember other friends inquiring as to why I was back in Toronto, and I didn’t say anything about it. I think I was just waiting for all that time to be over and done with; if I didn’t tell the story, I could imagine that it had never happened.

My husband knew very early in our relationship. I was still quite a bit bonkers about the whole thing when we met, which is not to say that having an abortion was a bad decision, but just that the whole experience (accidental pregnancy, having my life fall apart, etc.) was awful and it took me a very long time to get over it—though he helped by being wonderful and good. And beyond that, in years to come, my abortion was the kind of thing that came up in conversations with friends once we’d had too many drinks. Because everybody’s got a story. I was never ever alone in any of this, but it wasn’t the kind of thing I talked about in daylight.

As time went on, I started to become concerned. Abortion, to which I owe my life, I think, started to become more and more politicized. Or maybe I just grew up and started paying attention. And it bothered me that the only people who were talking publicly about abortion were men who were trying to sign bills to deny women access to it. It was becoming clear that I’d have to become more political as well.

My first public act as a pro-choice person was attending the pro-choice Jane’s Walk in 2011, learning about the abortion landmarks in my neighbourhood, including the clinic around the corner from my house that was fire-bombed in 1992. I had no idea. And as this event took place on Mother’s Day, it only underlined how connected my experiences of abortion and motherhood were, however incongruously (if you are the person who has trouble grasping two realities at once—in recent days, I have learned this is a lot of people). This experience would be the basis of my essay, “Doubleness Clarifies”, which was published in The M Word (and later reprinted in The Huffington Post).

Practicing for the essay’s entrance into the world, I published a blog post two and a half years ago when Dr. Henry Morgentaler died in which I noted that the reason this man was so important to me was not only had he fought valiantly for Canadian women to have access to abortion, but he’d actually performed mine. And there: I’d said it. I was a woman who’d had an abortion. It turned out to not be so difficult after all.

It was particularly not difficult because the support I received in response and in response too to The M Word essay was overwhelming. And I mean my mom and dad buying cases of my book and standing proud in the audience at the launch as I read my essay, to my mother-in-law quietly “liking” my Facebook posts, and my husband never ever getting tired of my increasing comfort with the subject. The people who matter, of course. But also the women who came up to me after readings who whispered, “that was me,” the journalist who wrote about my story and said the same thing, the reviewer whose understanding of abortion had been shaped by her own miscarriages and who with my essay saw it from a different point of view, and the amazing Plum Johnson who I read with at an event filled with 200 suburban matrons and when I confessed that I was nervous about that particular crowd said, “What? You think nobody here has ever had an abortion?”

Truth: I’d rather not be talking about my abortion. Not now at least. And not because it’s painful, or because I’m ashamed, but because it’s history. And because I’m wary of becoming someone who talks about her abortion all the time. As in, “We know Kerry. You’ve told us that story.” Abortion is not my only trick. I am interested in many other things, such as literature, bunting, the upcoming Federal Election, and Devon Closewool Sheep. I’m also wary because I know it seems insensitive to talk about my abortion all the time when my friends and acquaintances have their own stories: infertility, miscarriages, sick children, dead children. But the costs of staying quiet to stay polite are really starting to seem too high. And I really do believe that all these stories are part of the same story, a larger story about women’s lives. So I keep returning to abortion again and again.

In the summer I was walking down Bloor Street pushing Iris in a stroller, having just dropped Harriet off at day camp. We were hurrying home for lunch and nap, but I had to stop at the corner of Bloor and St. George where two very young people were holding pictures of lentil-sized fetuses magnified so they were bigger than I was. (What, when blown up at that level, would not be disturbing to look at?) Now I have walked past pro-life activists many times in my life because I lacked the courage to do anything but, because I do not like confrontation, and yes, because I always have better things to do than talk to people who standing on the sidewalk holding signs.

But it was different this time. Because this time, I’d learned to talk about my abortion in public. And as a person with that knowledge, I had an obligation, I thought, to speak up again. To stop there and talk to that impossibly young girl who’s trying to pass me a pamphlet with a number to call for support should I happen to regret my abortion (“We’re not judging you,” she tells me) and tell her, no no no. To point to my daughter sitting there waiting to be given her lunch, and say, “This is my baby. This baby would not exist were it not for my abortion. This life, this amazing life, my life, would not exist were it not for my abortion.” To say to her, “I have two children and I’ve had an abortion. There I things I know that you don’t know. Do not dare to stand here on the street and purport to educate me. Allow me to educate you.”

“There was nothing I wouldn’t have done to end my unwanted pregnancy, that my desperation had been just the same as that of all those women who’d had unsterile elm bark slipped through their cervixes to induce abortion, but that I hadn’t had to kill myself in order to relieve it.”

For the past few days, the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion has been trending on Facebook, started by feminist activists Lindy West and Amelia Bonow in the US. (Read West’s piece in The Guardian: “I set up #ShoutYourAbortion because I am not sorry, and I will not whisper.”) This was my kind of bandwagon, so naturally I jumped on, sharing my essay from The M Word. And while the response to the hashtag was just the kind of thing I like to see—this conversation being owned by the women who’ve lived it, who for once are not trying to stay quiet for fear of offending sensibilities. It feels good to talk about your abortion out loud, this thing that made you and to not have to keep the story inside. It’s nice to see the thing I know is true from all those late night conversations over too many beers really is true after all: women have abortions, we get on with our lives, this is an ordinary, quotidian thing, and while the decision can be “harrowing” or “difficult,” sometimes it is just a thing. Sometimes an abortion can deliver the greatest kind of relief.

Of course, the hashtag got hijacked, levels of hatred I’ve never seen before. I don’t engage in online arguments ever, and certainly not with people whose twitter header photos feature their gun collections. I started to realize there was a direct correlation between people with American flags in their header photos, and the need to tell me that I was evil. I suggested to one woman that maybe Jesus (who, according to her twitter bio, was the answer to every question) might have shown some more compassion, and she informed me that unless one had repented, one was against Jesus, with Satan. (I had no idea. They didn’t teach that at my Sunday school.) Murderer. Murderer. Murderer, they said. Along with slut. I saw “trollop” once. I have never been witness to such abject hatred as these people (who claim so much to love babies) have for women who’ve had abortions.

I tweeted, “So much hatred by trolls. If you can feel for a lentil-sized fetus, surely you can empathize with actual human woman too?” It’s been retweeted nearly 300 times, which counts as viral by Kerry Clare standards, and favourited 736 times, but this means that I’ve been exposed to even more lunacy, people who want to debate me on this. To what end, I don’t know: it’s not like I’m going to go back in time and not have an abortion. And they keep wanting to tell me things I already know, like that my decision was a selfish one, and there is an odd contradiction in talking about abortion when you’re actually a mother (although this isn’t a contradiction at all, but these people have small minds), and that not all aborted fetuses are the size of lentils (although everyone I know who has ever had an abortion later than 8 weeks or so did so with heartbreak in order to avoid the trauma of carrying a nonviable pregnancy to term, so fuck you asshole), and that unborn babies don’t get to make a choice (welp?), and of course, there is always adoption. Of course there is.

Um, there was also the guy who told me that I was a Nazi who had morals on par with ISIS. Later he tweeted about how he didn’t abort his hydrocephalic baby. The guy was a moron, but I got him then—his feelings spring from a genuine (albeit limited) place that I can understand. I even understand the woman who’s determined to stamp out abortion because of how it hurts women—apparently she spends her days holding other women who are traumatized by theirs. (Perhaps less shame and stigma might ease this kind of pain. Also, where is this woman hanging out? Sounds terrible. She needs new friends.) And yes, many of these people are just people who hate everybody, women in particular. “You shouldn’t be able to have everything you want!!” somebody tweeted at me. “But I can,” I wanted to crow. “I do!!!!”

My husband has finally told me to stop talking. On twitter at least. “These people are crazy,” he said. “These are people who would literally kill you and think that’s okay.” He also points out that I have better things to do than argue online with sub-literate people with eggs for avatars, and he’s right on both points. It’s also really, really exhausting.

So yes, no more twitter exchanges, but I’m not done with the hashtag yet. I’m not done with talking about my abortion either. And I’m guess I’m just laying the whole thing out here so that perhaps you’ll understand why.

11 thoughts on “Why I keep shouting my abortion”

  1. Beth Kaplan says:

    Brave and beautiful, as always, Kerry. Thank you. And you’re right to stop trying to change minds or even just defend yourself on-line. One of the horrors of the internet is discovering just how hateful human beings can be when they’re anonymous.

    1. Kerry says:

      Thank you, Beth. It’s true. Though it’s worth noting that many many more people I’ve never met have been extremely supportive. The internet is as good and bad as the whole world is.

  2. theresa says:

    This is a fierce and beautiful piece, Kerry. It never ceases to amaze me how this particular thing polarizes people in a way other things (kids carrying handguns, families being forced to line up for food in the wealthiest nation on earth, children denied health care, etc.) don’t, or at least don’t in quite the same way. It’s a medical procedure. It’s something women (and their partners if appropriate) decide. And yes, there’s sometimes sorrow and regret — but not about the availability of the procedure itself, performed in a safe environment, as one would expect in a modern society. Because we all know the stories about unsafe environments and prisons and other terrible consequences. I just don’t get it. And the way it’s tricked up with religion. As if a benevolent god (whom I don’t believe in anyway) is looking down and judging individuals for making decisions about their bodies, their futures. Surely that god has better things to do, in a world fraught with hunger, war, families waiting on the coast of Turkey or at the border of Croatia to get away from bombs and torture. Anyway, an amazing piece of writing. Take care.

    1. Kerry says:

      Theresa, you are so wise. Thank you for this.

  3. Shawna says:

    Thank you for this. You’re right on. And I agree with the above comment – an amazing piece of writing.

  4. melanie says:

    Such a great piece of writing Kerry. I’m always been impressed with your writing but I find that when you talk about things that are so sensitive and poignant you really, really shine. I’m sorry about the Twitter war but not sorry that you will keep talking about your abortion. There are so many topics that are polarized that really do need to be talked about but when they happen to you (not,’you’ specifically but the universal ‘you’) it isn’t always easy. I’ve started and stopped an essay many times about how I thought ending up in the psych ward would have meant I got to play with more jigsaw puzzles but then I think ‘do I really want to be one more person talking about being depressed when I try so hard to hide the crazy?’ Good for you for not hiding and for sharing your story again (and again and again if you need to).

    1. Kerry says:

      I would like to read that essay sometime! And thank you very much for your support. xo

  5. Marilo says:

    I think what you have written is so amazing, brave and right on. I have never had an abortion but know that I want the right to decide and that I want my daughters to have the right to decide and make that decision should it ever come up for them in their lives. I have walked past those people on the streets and have stopped to argue with them. One of them said I should be shot for arguing for the right to an abortion. And it really confuses me that young children are holding up these placards for all to see, when they don’t have an inkling of understanding about what it means to be in the position to make a decision such as the one to have an abortion. (or perhaps they do know, but still, they are so young.) I admire you and thank you for writing this inspiring piece on what it means to be a woman. Thank you!

    1. Kerry says:

      Thank you for understanding, and your point about our daughters is such a vital one. I appreciate your comment very much.

  6. Elizabeth Watson says:

    You could have no idea how you have helped me deal with what has been (in my old age!) a growing sense of overpowering guilt. It was like a festering sore which had never been dealt with openly or properly. But Looking at now (with YOUR help) I can see that I did not take the steps I took lightly… I sincerely felt I had no other choice and doing otherwise would have stunted my life and that of my subsequent children. Thank you… you are amazingly brave and kind.

    1. Kerry says:

      I think we’re taught that we’re supposed to feel guilty about this—and there certainly are complicated feelings one has to get over. But I am glad you feel you can come to a place of peace about this. And making choices to serve one’s own self is hardly a shameful thing Thanks for your comment. xo

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