Earlier this year, downtown Madrid was flooded with angry people, more than a million according to the news. They were angry about one thing: the new abortion law that the socialist (PSOE) party under the leadership of José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero –the president of Spain- is trying to pass in Congress. The bone of contention (abortion is legal in Spain) is the clause allowing 16 year old girls to ask for and receive an abortion without their parents’ permission, without, in fact, their parents ever being informed of the fact.
A few days later I was listening to a friend saying that she does not agree with this new addition to the law: “A sixteen year old needs her family’s support in those moments; she is not conscious that the decision she is making could mark her forever.”
I did not entirely agree. “My sister-in-law got pregnant at 15 and asked her parents for help. They were strict Catholics and wouldn’t hear of abortion. They talked her into marrying her 17 year old boyfriend. When I was married at 20, she already had 4 small children and was expecting the fifth. Her marriage broke up shortly afterwards; her life has been extremely difficult. Could it be that this clause in the law is contemplating the situation of those girls who cannot count on the support and understanding of their parents to continue their development without the onus of an unwanted child and a forced marriage?” I was left wondering at my own considerations.
When I was 16 my mother sat down with me one night and tried to give me the “sex” talk. I say “tried” because by 16 I knew most everything she probably would have told me. I remember her stuttering a bit and turning bright red. She said something like “You should know boys will want to touch you…” and then I interrupted.
“Don’t worry, Mom, I know all about it. It’s ok.” She looked so relieved I knew I had said the right thing. And of course, I knew all about the “touching” part because boys had not only tried, but had been successful, and I had done my share of touching too. So that was the end of my sexual education and I knew all of two things: Boys wanted to touch me and a lot more; they also wanted me to touch them.
In my book of sexual knowledge, touching was ok, it was the “a lot more” that was a no-no. Virginity was paramount. As long as you didn’t give that away, everything else was ok. And everything else was what I did, up until the time I decided to do “a lot more”. By then I was all of 18 and I knew enough to say “No. I might get pregnant” before he went “all the way” (as it was then called). I obviously hoped my fear of pregnancy would save me, so I had the unpleasant surprise of seeing him pull a condom out of his wallet, open the envelope, and slip it over his erect penis; so much for virginity defended!
I suggested to my friend that girls of 16 aborting without parental permission was perhaps not the question, but rather whether they had the sexual education necessary to be responsible for the initiation of an adult sex life.
By the time I was 19, I was going steady with a young man who was just finishing his medical studies. One day, I came home from school (I was studying social work at a private institution) and found that my mother had gone to the hospital. She came home about an hour later and went right to bed. When I asked what had happened, my mother -who always spoke to me in English- gave me a Spanish word which I had never heard before: “legrado” which literally means “scraping”. My boyfriend explained that my mother had had an abortion. When confronted, she admitted it, told me that she was too old to be having more children (45 at the time), had grown careless about protection because she thought she was menopausal and had decided to terminate the pregnancy right away. She also informed me that my grandmother (her mother) had had at least three abortions as in her days contraception was less certain and available than at present (present being 1960). So I was thus introduced to the idea of abortion. In that instant, I swore I would never do THAT! I had recently become a Catholic (and that is another story), so using “protection” was also “not acceptable”. Of course, neither was having sex before marriage, but that was already happening and I fixed it with the Church by going to confession each time. Therefore, even though I was having sex with my boyfriend, I was doing my best to protect myself with the “rhythm” method (to respect at least that part of my newly found religion) in spite of the fact that my own period had no rhythm at all.
Lo and behold, a few months later I skipped my period. My doctor boyfriend secretly spirited my urine to a far away laboratory and came back 72 hours later with the news that the rabbit had died: I was pregnant. We had planned to be married in February when, after setting up his medical practice, he returned from the north of Mexico where we were going to live. With the dead rabbit on our hands we upped the wedding to November –much to my mother’s horror- and settled into the idea of being young parents with a baby suspiciously born only 6 ½ months after the wedding.
A week later, my mother made pork and sauerkraut –one of my favorite dishes- and I absolutely stuffed myself. Towards midnight, a strong cramp awoke me and I raced to the bathroom with an acute case of diarrhea. Unfortunately or probably fortunately for me, the pork was not the only thing that came out. By the time my body had finished emptying my intestines, it proceeded to empty my uterus. Given the amount of blood, there was no doubt the pregnancy was terminated. I told my mother about the diarrhea and stayed in bed until my boyfriend showed up with some pills to stop the hemorrhaging and finish cleaning out the now empty uterus. I gazed at him teary eyed and secretly thanked my body for 1) getting pregnant and thus assuring that he would marry me, and 2) for eliminating the need for such an early parenthood.
That was a miscarriage or spontaneous abortion, but it was not my only abortion and, as it was not planned, it was not the important one either. I proceeded to have two children: a boy and then a girl. When the girl turned five and went into kindergarden, I announced to my husband that I didn’t want any more children and that I wanted to have my tubes tied. He agreed (I did not offer it to him as a question anyway) and I went to my gynecologist who, at that time was a well known German doctor. Dr. W. told me of this marvelous new method which did not require an operation, but rather went in through the “natural” opening, made a small hole into the abdominal cavity and proceeded to put two clamps on the fallopian tubes. End of problem.
“Are you sure?” I asked him. “Are you absolutely certain? I don’t want to ever have to face the necessity of an abortion, and I definitely do not want another baby.
He reassured me over and over that this method had just been perfected in the United States, that it was as foolproof as any other including abdominal surgery to cut and tie the tubes. I had the simple procedure and went home that very day. The following day I was up, around and carrying out my usual routine which, by that time, included finishing my professional studies at the local university.
Five weeks later I stormed into Dr. W.’s office and held out a piece of paper: “The rabbit died” I stated looking him directly in the eyes, “so now what are you going to do about it?”
“I don’t do those things,” he answered from the safe stance of Christian morality, looking back at me without blinking, “and I can’t understand how you got pregnant.”
I was not into Virgin Mary stories so I knew damn well it hadn’t been the Holy Ghost. I was so upset, angry and frustrated that if murder had not been a punishable crime it would have been my first choice. Instead I hurled some unseemly insults at him in a loud voice (hoping every patient in his waiting room could hear them), knocked over a chair and stomped out slamming the door behind me.
To make a long story short, I arranged to have an abortion and get my tubes properly tied with the gynecologist at the clinic where my husband worked. He was a personal friend apart from being a professional colleague and was kind enough to lie to me about the viability of the product in my womb.
“The pregnancy was all wrong,” he said afterwards, “it never would have made it to termination.” I knew it was a lie, but I accepted it without arguing and went home with my Fallopian tubes safely cut and cauterized.
I have to say that in spite of the fact that I have done a good amount of psychotherapy since then for any number of emotional problems, the abortion has never been one of them. I even read a book about the psychological wounds of abortion and ways to help them heal to see if there might be something hidden under there. Nothing came up. Perhaps it was because I really, truly knew that I had done everything in my power to avoid getting pregnant, and because I really truly knew that I didn’t want to have another child or have to face the decision of an abortion. If life had put me in those straits, it had been neither my intention nor an act of irresponsibility: I could find nothing to feel guilty about.
As my daughter grew, I realized that times had definitely changed. The onus on losing one’s virginity had all but disappeared, and unwanted pregnancies of teenagers were on the rise. My own experience had shown me that waiting till 16 to inform her of the dangers lurking in one’s own or the other’s sexual drives was absolutely absurd, so when she turned 13 I sat her down for a Mother to Daughter talk.
She was just beginning to get interested in boys. I spoke of a lot of things, being as gentle as possible and trying to help her understand that it wasn’t a question of morality or right and wrong, but of responsibility and self respect.
“It is your responsibility” I explained, “to decide when you want to initiate your sex life with a young man. I can’t make that decision for you. I can only hope that you choose a nice, kind young man who will help to make your initiation a pleasant and loving experience.” I purposely avoided the “losing your virginity” term; it has always seemed to me sexist that women “lose” something and men get “initiated”.
I then went on to explain the very important responsibility she acquired once having decided to initiate her sex life. “It is your responsibility to not bring an unwanted child into this world. You are young and have many, many years ahead to have children, so it is important that you learn about contraception. When you decide to initiate your sex life, you might want to go on the pill for which you will have to see a gynecologist and get a prescription.” I explained other methods and how most were more fallible than the pill. I also assured her that I was there at any time she needed me; that she could ask me anything, talk to me about anything and come to me with any problem, including pregnancy and I would be there for her. I made sure that she heard this over and above everything else. My timing seemed to be perfect. By 14 she was quite the adolescent and wanted nothing of Mom’s advice, by 15 she had a steady boyfriend (I think I reminded her twice about contraceptives and got a dirty look both times along with a “Mother, I plan to remain virgin till I’m married!”) and at 20 she announced they were going to get married. As the last I had heard of the matter was that she planned to keep her virginity till her wedding night, I suggested that it would be a good idea to go to the gynecologist a few months early to start her on the pill. She looked at me sheepishly.
“Mom, I have been on the pill for two years,” she said fiddling with her engagement ring, “but I don’t want my father to know so please don’t tell him.”
Never had I felt so proud or so absolutely in love with my daughter as in that moment. A moment before I had seen a young girl; I blinked and saw a young woman, a responsible young woman. I laughed with joy, ran over to the bed and simply hugged her.
“You are everything a mother could wish for in a daughter, and of course I won’t tell your father, these are women’s things and he might not understand.” From my daughter I heard the story of how at 18 she had decided she wanted to initiate her sex life with her boyfriend and had looked up a woman gynecologist in the Yellow Pages. She had asked her closest friend to accompany her. She had been taking the pill ever since. I was overcome with gratitude to my daughter for being so responsible and to Life for having given me, through my own experience, the opportunity to be of service to her.
Now the question is: Can I absolutely know that if my daughter had gotten pregnant at 16 she would have come to me for help? The answer is no. The chances that she might have are greater than if I had never had that talk with her or if the attitude in the house had been that sex was not acceptable and abortion was a crime against God, but adolescents tend to try and face their own problems, locking their parents out no matter how understanding they have been. At 16, if abortion is not legal for an adolescent without her parent’s consent, she might or maybe I should say probably will, go for an illegal abortion, many times with the support only of the boyfriend or another adolescent friend. This does not mean that I think that legalizing abortion for 16 year olds solves the problem, far from it. Only educating a daughter in responsibility and respect for her own body will begin to solve the problem. I do not honestly believe that any woman, of any age, would chose abortion as a way of birth control. Abortion is the choice of despair, ignorance or fear as is every other form of killing on this planet. Now that apparently the taboo against sex has been lifted, only education in responsibility and self respect within the freedom of choice can make voluntary abortion the responsible decision of a few who, like me, did everything within their means to avoid pregnancy.