With plenty of life left to live before becoming a mother, Leah Berkenwald finds comfort in her ability to choose abortion if she became pregnant today. Eventually, she’ll have children, but not yet. Not until she’s truly ready.
As a 16-year-old, I knew that if I got pregnant by accident I would have an abortion. Ten years later, I am in a completely different place—a place where I could, realistically, support and parent a child—and I would still choose abortion.
I believe in the power of telling stories. With the 80 new restrictions on abortion rights enacted by state legislatures in 2011 and more coming every day, I believe it’s especially important to tell stories about abortion and the role it plays in creating an egalitarian society that allows women, and men, to control their destinies. Until recently I felt like I didn’t have a story to tell because I haven’t had an abortion. I cannot speak to the experience of making that decision or undergoing the procedure. But I realized that I do have a story, a story that has grown with me as I matured from a 16- to 26-year-old adult who could, if I chose to, be a mom.
The story begins when I was 16, before I had sex. At this time, abortion wasn’t super relevant to my life. I was pro-choice and that was enough. Still, I didn’t rule out the possibility that I might want to have sex in the near future. (If I’m being honest, I wanted to have sex with my high school boyfriend but he wanted to wait. How often do you hear that narrative in the media?) I started using birth control at 16, and I knew that if I did start having sex and got pregnant, I would choose abortion.
At 16, there was no ambiguity for me. I knew that I wasn’t ready to be a parent and I knew my parents would agree and support my choice. I was headed for college and whatever bright future that entailed. I would not, under any circumstances, give up the liberal arts college experience I had worked so hard to secure. It may have been selfish but it’s a kind of selfishness that’s developmentally appropriate for a teenager, not to mention prudent. I still don’t apologize for putting my own future first. At that point, like I said, the decision to choose abortion was easy because things were simple. I wasn’t even having sex.
Then, in college, I started having “the sex.” I don’t think I’m shocking or scandalizing anyone by sharing that information (although this article probably won’t make it into my dad’s scrapbook—sorry, Dad). Now that getting pregnant was actually possible, the abortion question became more real, but my decision remained the same.
As a college student, I was completely dependent on my parents financially, emotionally, and almost every other way. I was no more ready to have a child in college than I was in high school. Besides, at the time, my primary objectives were to enjoy the “college experience” (complete with sexy escapades and public drunkenness) and graduate summa cum laude. Thanks to birth control and Plan B (the morning after pill), I did both.
Once, the condom broke the same week I missed three days in a row on my birth control pill schedule. I was glad to have affordable and convenient access to Plan B at my college health center, but I still knew that if I had gotten pregnant I would have chosen abortion. This incident, though fairly insignificant in retrospect, made me really think about the logistics of an abortion for the first time. Where would I go? How would I get there from campus? Would my health insurance cover it? Would my parents find out since I was covered by their insurance plan? How much would it cost if I paid out of pocket? Would I have to ask my parents for money? Would I tell my parents if I had the choice? Would I tell the guy? Would I tell my friends? Luckily, there were lots of resources at my college and I knew that if I were in that situation, there were people to go to for referrals, support, and advice. If I could have one wish, it would be that every young person felt so secure knowing that there were resources, options, and non-judgmental help available to them.
Then after college, I met someone with whom I imagined having babies. Yep, I fell in love—real, consuming, hardcore love. For the first time in my life, I entertained the idea of a future with someone. I imagined marriage, kids, and growing old with this person. The choice to have an abortion was suddenly a lot more complicated. If I had gotten pregnant at that time, a part of me would have wanted to carry the pregnancy to term. It wasn’t until after we broke up that I realized just how much I had hoped to procreate with this person.
It happened when I got my period for the first time after the breakup. An emotional wreck, I felt as though my imagined, future children were literally being drained from my body. I sobbed for the hypothetical babies that would never be; I mourned the loss of my fantasized future family. In that irrational moment, it would have been very difficult to choose abortion. But the moment passed, and the rational, bigger part of me knew that I was still very young, single, underemployed, living in my parents’ basement, and not at all ready to be a mom. I still would have chosen abortion, but it would have been an excruciatingly difficult decision to make.
About a year later, I got my first grown-up, full-time job. I moved out of my parents’ basement. I had my own health insurance. I could pay my own bills. I can’t pinpoint it, but there was a moment when I realized that my salary, meager as it was, could support a child; plenty of women did it on less. Scary! Up until this point, abortion was the obvious choice because it was the most responsible. Once I could financially support a child, my reasons for choosing abortion sounded less convincing and less politically correct. I could no longer say I was doing this for the sake of the hypothetical child because I could raise said hypothetical child. If I became pregnant, the choice to abort would be about me and only me. It would be “selfishly” made (as some would argue) so that I could continue on the path I had planned—a path where adventures, career, and marriage came first in the order of operations.
Within a year, I decided to go back to school for a master’s degree. I dropped to part-time at work, and my salary dropped accordingly. Over the next two years, I saw my student debt triple. Once again, I had to lean on my parents for financial support. I remained steadfast in my decision to choose abortion because I knew that I wasn’t ready to give up on future opportunities to advance my career, have adventures, or make my contribution to the world as a single, un-tethered person. And now that I’ve taken advantage of some of those opportunities, I’m no longer financially capable of supporting a child. I was able to make these choices and sacrifice my financial stability because I knew that I would—and could—choose abortion if I needed to.
This year, my close friends started having babies. The faces of two beautiful little baby girls now grace my refrigerator door. Both of them were unplanned. These days dozens of baby photos clutter my Facbeook newsfeed, babies both planned and unplanned, their parents both married and unmarried. I now read my friends’ pregnancy and parenting blogs, look through whole albums of baby photos, and comment earnestly with the usual “How adorable!” and “S/he’s getting so big!” Contrary to popular belief, pro-choice women are not baby haters. Nor do they disapprove of other women’s choices to carry unplanned pregnancies to term. I am proud of my friends for making that choice, and feel nothing but joy for them and their families.
I am sure that some of my friends have made different choices. Only one person has shared her abortion story with me, but if one in three women have an abortion in their lifetime, it’s likely that a number of my friends, classmates, and acquaintances have had abortions. I am equally proud of them for their courage and deeply respect their reasons for delaying, or in some cases, rejecting parenthood, whatever they may be.
Someday, I will be a mom. Ideally, it will happen five to 10 years from now when I’m well-traveled, happily married, financially secure, and wildly successful in my career. It might not happen the way I envision and I’m OK with that, but only to a point. I’m not going to have a child until I’m ready to have a child. I’m still not sure exactly what magical criteria will have to be met before I’ll feel ready, but I know that today is not that day.
I recently met my good friend’s two-month-old baby girl for the first time. In the two hours we spent together, I probably took 200 photos of her little face, her little feet, her gurgly smile. As I held her, her teeny hand clutching my finger, I felt those pesky pangs of maternal longing and the urge to procreate, to nurture, to love and be loved unconditionally…but as I left my friends, their daughter sleeping soundly in her bassinet, I knew my own parenting journey was still years down the road.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” Robert Frost wrote. “But I have promises to keep.”
I have promises to myself—to finish my master’s degree, to backpack across South America, and have a fabulous, exciting career. Just knowing that abortion was accessible, safe, and legal has given me the freedom to pursue my dreams. If we truly believe in egalitarianism, we must protect women’s right to self-determination—her right to choice. Choice does not only benefit pregnant women; it bestows upon every woman the freedom to be the architect of her own life. Even though I have never been pregnant, I have been able to choose abortion and that choice has granted me the courage and security to take financial risks, to love fully with body and soul, and chart my own course in this world. Someday I will make a different choice, but I have miles to go before I leap. And miles to go before I leap.
Leah Berkenwald is the Online Communications Specialist at the Jewish Women’s Archive and editor of the Jewesses with Attitude blog. She is currently pursuing her M.A. in Health Communication at Emerson College in collaboration with the Tufts University School of Medicine, where she is designing a body image campaign for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she blogs about health and gender at talkinreckless.com.