Books May 2007

The Sanguine Sex

Abortion and the bloodiness of being female

If you are a supporter of legal abortion, reading books like these is chilling and galvanizing, just as their authors intend. But the stories in such books ought to have little role in shaping today’s public policy. The women described in their pages are travelers from an antique land, reporting about an America that is at once fairly recent and utterly unfamiliar. Bearing a child out of wedlock is so accepted today that some of the most respected professional-class women I know have done so intentionally.

Today, no young woman can be thrown out of college, or fired from her job, or cast out of “society” for becoming pregnant. Nor is adoption the horror that it was a generation ago: No birth mother needs to feel that her child is lost in the woods; she can decide to pursue an open adoption, she can change her mind about relinquishment, days—and in some states, months—after giving up the baby. Furthermore, even illegal abortion would look very different today than it did four decades ago. However bad the toll on women’s health would be (and it would be very bad), it would be nothing like the carnage of the past. The age of ignorance is gone, and abortion is a simple procedure. In these days of home pregnancy tests and pharmaceutically induced abortion—and, above all, of sophisticated antibiotics—the mortality rate would be far lower.

But that doesn’t mean that these stories can’t help us understand the complexity of the question of abortion—only that we have been focusing on the wrong part of the narratives. The endings of these stories, with their dangerous abortions and forced adoptions, may have little bearing on the world of today. But their beginnings, with all the emotions and impulses and desires that have always combined to leave some women pregnant when they don’t wish to be, are as timeless as anything in human history. They reveal something about the eternal and dangerous nature of being female, and because of this, they merit a great deal of our attention. The way these stories begin tells us as much as we ever need to know about the profound and complex decisions women make when they decide to have sex.

Recently, I saw a stand-up comedian joke about the first time he had sex. The only willing girl lived 25 miles from his house, and he didn’t own a car. But that didn’t stop him: He rode his bicycle to get to her. As the audience laughed at the thought of this desperate, horny journey, he drove his point home: “I mean, the real question is: ‘How far wouldn’t a man ride a bicycle to have sex?’ There’s no answer to that. He would just keep riding that bicycle.” There was a wave of happy laughter, a response not so much to the particular joke as to the idea it signified, which is the core of a reliable genre of jokes: the gargantuan power of the male sex drive, and men’s willingness to endure difficulty and unpleasantness to fulfill it.

When I hear jokes like that, I sometimes think of the kitchen sink full of bloody towels in my mother’s apartment. Or, now, of the woman in The Choices We Made who returned to her apartment in Hollywood after an illegal abortion and stayed there, alone, for three days until her roommate came home:

Blood was on the bed; it was on the floor; it was on the carpet. We had run out of sheets and the mattress was ruined. I guess I did think I was dying … But you know, I’m sure there was a part of me that thought I was supposed to die. I had done this terrible thing—I had had sex and I’d gotten pregnant. The abortion added to it, but that was not the terrible thing.

The real question is not how far a man would ride a bicycle to have sex. It’s how much ruin and butchery a woman will risk to have sex—which turns out to be as much ruin and butchery as the world has in it. The heroic and audacious and mystifying part of the stories in these two books isn’t how women got through abortions or adoptions; it’s how they got the courage to have sex in the first place.

To begin with, of course, there is erotic desire. “Despite all of that terror—and I’m talking tooth-gnashing terror,” recalls Rita Moreno,

I still now and then would give in, succumb, to those pleasurable moments. It’s astounding. When you’re that scared you usually stay away from the thing that scares you, but not with sexuality.

But women have always bound other emotions with their eroticism. To hear these women talk about sleeping with men for reasons that have nothing to do with sexual impulses is to understand something essential about women, and about why they have been so easily exploited by men for sex. “Nobody ever took into consideration feelings,” writes Polly Bergen about the harsh lectures she was given about sex when she was a girl:

They never took into consideration wanting to be held or wanting to be loved or wanting to be cared for or wanting to not feel alone or frightened … putting out seems like such a small price to pay for not being lonely.

A woman who was made pregnant—as a 17-year-old girl by a 31-year-old man— reports, “It wasn’t like I liked sex or didn’t like sex; I just wanted to be with him.”

Women will always have emotional needs that they can fill through sex, and men will always use those needs to their advantage. But men will never bear the brunt of sexuality. The toll of sex—the anguish that it can produce, the consequences of it—falls on women alone. One of the most chilling episodes in The Girls Who Went Away occurs after a girl returns from her ordeal of giving birth and surrendering her baby. She sends the baby’s father a note, to which he replies in bewilderment: “You sound so bitter, Lynne. You were never bitter.”

Jerry Seinfeld used to have a routine about the television commercials for laundry detergents that promise the product will remove bloodstains from clothing. “I think if you’ve got a T-shirt with bloodstains all over it,” Seinfeld would say, “maybe laundry isn’t your biggest problem.” It’s a funny line, and it’s one that only a man could think of, because the real reason blood is such a vexing and eternal laundry problem doesn’t have to do with gunshot wounds or serial shaving mishaps (in the commercials, a witless husband is forever nicking himself shaving, usually wearing his best white shirt, the male equivalent of showering in your bra and panties). Bloodstains occur and recur in households because women spend a lot of their lives bleeding. If a man or a child woke up in a small pool of blood, the alarm would be genuine and well-founded. But if a woman does so, it’s business as usual. The bloodiness of menstrual blood is something that has been steadily de-emphasized in the past century, but blood it surely is. Once I walked into the students’ restroom at an all-girls school late in the afternoon on a warm day, and the smell that assailed me was reminiscent of the smell of Buckley’s, the butcher shop in Dublin where my mother bought Kerry beef running with blood.

Every month, a woman’s womb slowly fills with blood in anticipation of an event that she wants to occur only a few times at most, and that up until 70 years ago had a good chance of killing her. This is nature’s unkind way with women. The sort of man who knocks a woman up and then disappears is nowhere near as heartless as nature, which allows a fertilized egg to implant in a fallopian tube, or arranges a baby’s body in the womb in such a way that it cannot by any natural means escape through the birth canal, or spreads the placenta across the cervix so that it will rupture and cause a hemorrhage almost certain to kill the mother if no medical staff is on hand to stop it. The fact that modern medicine has so radically reduced the incidence of death in childbirth testifies less to the wonder of science than to the crudeness of the dangers at hand.

I’ve never had an abortion, and at this point in the game, I never will. Nor do I have daughters, so this is not an issue that will affect my own life in any immediate way. But I understand that the reality of women’s and girls’ lives is that they include as strong an impulse for sex as men’s. And maybe because I am a woman, the practical has always had a stronger pull on my emotions than the theoretical. Those old debates about the nature of the human soul have never moved me; surely a soul is no more valuable to God if it exists in this world rather than the next. And a thousand arguments about the beginning of human life will never appeal to me as powerfully as a terrified pregnant girl desperate for a bit of compassion.

But my sympathy for the beliefs of people who oppose abortion is enormous, and it grows almost by the day. An ultrasound image taken surprisingly early in pregnancy can stop me in my tracks. In it is much more than I want to know about the tiny creature whose destruction we have legalized: a beating heart, a human face, functioning kidneys, two waving hands that seem not too far away from being able to grasp and shake a rattle. One of the newest types of prenatal imaging, the three-dimensional sonogram—which is so fully realized that happily pregnant women spend a hundred dollars to have their babies’ first “photograph” taken—is frankly terrifying when examined in the context of the abortion debate. The demands pro-life advocates make of pregnant women are modest: All they want is a little bit of time. All they are asking, in a societal climate in which out-of-wedlock pregnancy is without stigma, is that pregnant women give the tiny bodies growing inside of them a few months, until the little creatures are large enough to be on their way, to loving homes.

These sonogram images lay claim to the most powerful emotion I have ever known: maternal instinct. Mothers are charged with protecting the vulnerable and the weak among us, and most of all, taking care of babies—the tiniest and neediest—first. My very nature as a woman, then, pulls me in two directions.

The Choices We Made ends with a couple of stories about the early days of legal abortion. One is told by Byll­ye Avery, who founded the first abortion clinic in Gainesville, Florida. The office space she and her three colleagues rented had a terrible tile floor, and the clinic’s nurse said they needed to cover it. There was no money left for the shag rug they all wanted to buy, but the nurse said her mother-in-law was going to pay for it:

What we didn’t know was that, actually, [the nurse] had ordered the rug and charged it to us. When we found out, we were so upset with her, but the carpet is what made the place. We had a beautiful blue shag rug that went through the whole clinic, even the exam rooms. That’s what everybody who came there talked about—shag carpets were the rage. It was also that we had the gall to say, “We don’t have to have these horrible tile floors just because this is a health-care facility.” It helped women to know that abortions didn’t have to be bloody and butchery. Certainly, you wouldn’t put that kind of rug on the floor if it was going to be ruined.

It was a very womanly thing to do—to set your heart on a shag carpet, to trick someone into buying it for you, to rely on the fact that once it was installed, everyone would love it and forgive you. And it was womanly because of the way a simple bit of decoration could send a powerful and audacious message that only other women would be able to interpret. A river of blood runs through The Choices We Made, and it runs throughout the history of womankind. That river stops, more or less, with the installation of that shag carpet. The carpet, and the women who found the money to pay for it, along with all the women and men who made possible a context in which an abortion could be performed legally, safely, and even humanely—together they say: Enough.

Presented by

Caitlin Flanagan is the author of To Hell With All That (2006). She is at work on Girl Land, a book about the emotional life of pubescent girls. More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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