Home Social Issues My Family’s Tiny Abortion War

My Family’s Tiny Abortion War


by Susan Ahern

You need only look at the headlines to see: politically “red” states are relentlessly and successfully attacking abortion rights around the country. For instance, South Carolina’s legislators recently passed a bill that would ban abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy, taking decisions on medical matters relating to pregnancy out of the hands of doctors and patients.

South Carolina is the 17th state to ban abortion after 19 weeks, and legal challenges are underway in some states, citing the bans are unconstitutional. In Oklahoma, the state legislature recently passed a bill that would revoke abortion doctors’ medical licenses, essentially ending legal abortions in that state. Fortunately – and somewhat surprisingly – Oklahoma’s “pro-life” Governor Mary Fallin vetoed the bill.

Another example: Indiana’s legislature recently passed a law banning abortion for disabilities, even Down’s syndrome. And unlike in Oklahoma, that state’s governor actually signed the bill. In addition to banning abortions for fetuses with severe disabilities or defects, the new law also tries to make abortion too expensive, by forcing women to pay for burial or cremation costs.  A recent Salon article called these draconian restrictions, along with other crushing regulations, being passed around the country– “reproductive Jim Crow laws.” These laws don’t ban abortion directly– but make it almost impossible to obtain a safe, legal abortion.

Virginia has some of these drastic laws, too. Women seeking an abortion still have to have abdominal ultrasounds, even though they are medically useless, as they reveal very little in the first trimester (when the “overwhelming majority” of abortions occur). And Virginia still has in place other restrictive regulations (pushed by former AG Ken Cuccinelli) aimed at closing abortion clinics. Governor McAuliffe has asked the Board of Health to review these regulations, but until they are amended, many clinics are in danger of closing.

Most of us know “pro-life” folks who are rabid about safeguarding from abortion what’s frequently just a tiny of cluster of cells in a woman’s womb. The reason they cite: protecting innocent lives. Many of these folks love to say that a society can be judged by how it deals with its most vulnerable members.

But oh– maybe not in war time. Because these same pro-lifers often ignore the staggering numbers of fully-formed human beings killed by major wars the U.S. has fought since World War II.

America dropped the first ever atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, killing more than an estimated 100,000 civilians. During his upcoming visit to Hiroshima, President Obama is expected to acknowledged this historical reality, while warning of the danger of continued proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Millions more civilians also perished in subsequent U.S wars in Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. (see Why Do We Ignore the Civilians Killed in American Wars and Costs of War for more on this subject) and. Many of these civilians died violent deaths in homes, markets, roadways, from U.S. or insurgent bombs, drones, bullets, etc.

But “pro-life” Americans frequently ignore the staggering loss of civilians in wars, because those lives are taken for moral ideals, such as “freedom” or “our way of life,” a perceived threat to life and limb, or economic survival.

But what pro-lifers fail to realize is that for families faced with the prospect of abortion–there is often a genuine threat to life or limb, to freedom, or to economic survival. These families are fighting their own tiny abortion wars. And my childhood family personified that war.

When I was 13, Mom announced she was pregnant. Elated, she picked out the name Lindsay to honor a family friend.  So I was stunned when I saw Mom sitting in the bathroom sobbing into cradled hands. “Oh no! How will I cope with another mouth to feed?”

Then she tore into my father: “I’ll have an abortion. I can’t work night and day and support this family by myself. If something happens and I get laid up, six lives will be ruined to save one. We could lose the house. I’m pushing 40. I can’t do this.”

Raised in Catholic Ireland, and with a sister who was a nun, my elderly father took to his bed. He had suffered two severe blows to the head in his youth, one resulting in brain surgery. A side effect to his injuries was crippling depression that devoured our family.

“Please don’t kill this baby, Mom,” I begged. I imagined the nuns at school reeling in horror. “You both won’t have to lift a finger. I’ll feed the baby, get up at night.”

Mom’s face fell. She said, “I love babies. But I have to make this choice, Susie.”

She told me a story. Apparently when Mom was pregnant, living in the projects, she’d sprayed too much Raid– to kill the roaches that skittered everywhere when she turned on lights. “I started to spot,” Mom said, “so my doctor, fearing I might miscarry, sent me to bed.

“But my own mother, your grandmother, told to me get up,” Mom said. “Told me I had no sense having another baby when I couldn’t afford the two daughters I already had.”

“I’m not losing this baby,” Mom told her mother. “And that baby was you, Susan.”

Complying with my father’s injunction on birth control, a fourth daughter, Deirdre, later came along.

Nonetheless, imagining Mom destroying this fifth life inside her, our little Lindsay, I couldn’t eat or sleep. I had to save this baby! Instead Mom rescued me from my imaginary hell, announcing weeks later, she must have been wrong: She wasn’t pregnant after all.

I desperately wanted to believe her.

I never did find out the truth about that mystery baby. But looking back, I understand now that women sometimes find themselves in the position of taking a life for a greater good, just as our government does when America wages war and civilian lives are taken.

In our family’s case, my father floated around our house, a shadowy spirit of doom, often threatening suicide. Four young daughters took turns as nurses and orderlies, as the hospitals never kept him long. Our mother was often working full time, AND taking part-time political jobs to put food on the table. When she was home, exhausted and trapped like a frightened animal, she lashed out at her children in horrific ways.

Any troubled family agonizing over whether to bring another life into this world is embroiled in its own abortion war.

If pro-lifers want to obsess over saving innocent lives, don’t start with what’s often a cluster of microscopic cells in a women’s womb. Start with the millions of fully-formed civilians killed in U.S. wars. Then support troubled families facing abortion, instead of cutting vital services women need to feed, house and take care of children they cannot afford to birth.

When my father died, in a state mental hospital, I was 23 years old. I walked out of that hospital holding everything he owned in a brown grocery bag: old photos, clothes and black rosary beads.

By then Mom was battling on a new war front– to save my younger sister, Deirdre (Dee Dee) in her early 20s, who was addicted to alcohol. At 14, Dee Dee told me–when I tried to stop her from running to a friend’s house to drink–that beer made her feel as if she’d finally found that safe, cozy home she’d always dreamed of. She’d begun drinking at eleven years old after a neighbor — a busty, blond woman with blood-red lipstick — began cruising home on Friday nights after a factory shift with a case of Budweiser in the back seat. Trying to be the cool Mom, she doled out cans to the neighborhood kids. Attempting to soothe her tortured, sensitive soul, my sister gobbled downed that boozy anesthetic any chance she got. Tragically, my sister’s addiction ultimately took her life.

When our father died, if our mystery baby Lindsay had indeed been born, she would have been 10 years old and trapped in the middle of a war zone.

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