The Sanguine Sex

Abortion and the bloodiness of being female

In the middle of a hot New York summer 60 years ago, my mother and her two roommates were invited to spend a weekend at Fire Island. The three girls, recent nursing-school graduates, worked together at Bellevue and were sharing the rent on their first apartment. When a fourth young nurse of their acquaintance overheard them talking about the trip, she asked if she and her young man, a resident at the hospital, could borrow the apartment while they were away. In those days, lovers had to seize on those kinds of opportunities to be alone together. The apartment key was given to the friend, no big deal, and my mother and her roommates left for the beach.

They returned late Sunday evening, in a commotion of kicked-off shoes and set-down carryalls and switched-on lights. One of them pulled the string on the kitchen bulb, and her cry brought the other two. At first they thought a crime had taken place. Strictly speaking, one had: The boyfriend, a kid with a year or two of medical training under his belt, had performed an abortion on his girlfriend. Literally, a kitchen-table abortion. There was blood on the table and the floor, and there were wadded-up bloody towels in the sink.

Police Officers escort a woman to the hospital after a raid on
an illegal abortion in progress in 1944

What happened next, I don’t know. Probably two of the girls cleaned up (they were nurses, remember; they would not have been horrified by such a task once they had the nature of the thing sorted out), and probably the third went to the friend’s apartment to check on her. All three were accomplices to a crime, and they would have been keenly aware of that. At Belle­vue, my mother had twice attended dying young women who were victims of botched abortions, young women—“girls,” she called them—who spent their last hours on earth being interviewed by policemen. Terrified, alone, dying, neither would reveal the name of the abortionist; “they were too frightened,” my mother said. If I had to put money on which of the roommates bravely went to the girl’s apartment, I’d put it on my mother.

About 15 years before my mother took her weekend trip to Fire Island, she was a little girl living in Brooklyn in a bad situation. It was the Depression, her father was an unemployed laborer, and her mother—28 years old, a young woman from Coal City, Alabama, very far from home—had a toddler, a 3-year-old, and my mother, age 8. One day, according to the great and fearsome legend that shaped my mother’s life and so much of my own emotional life, my grandmother did something very ordinary: She ate a can of tuna fish. The can of tuna fish was tainted with botulism poisoning. She began to have great pain in her abdomen, and—this is a very important part of the story—the doctor wouldn’t come. Apparently he sent word that the woman in question had gas, and that she would be better in no time. She was dead in no time. “That’s why I became a nurse,” my mother said so many times in her life that it would have been a stock phrase, except for the anger and sorrow of the way it ended: “so that they couldn’t do to anyone else what they did to my mother.”

When I was a grown woman, I came across a wooden cigar box filled with old family papers, one of which listed gangrene as my grandmother’s cause of death. This surprised me, and I began to wonder about the story I had always been told—beginning with its central element: the can of tuna fish. Mary Parker was a poor housewife with small children and an unemployed husband. By what mechanism of self-indulgence would she have prepared and eaten tuna fish, without giving anyone else in the household so much as a mouthful? How could she have been the only person to have ingested any of the poison?

Maybe my grandmother ate bad tuna fish—or, according to an alternate version of the story, bad peaches—and the food killed her. Or maybe she was 28 and living through one of the greatest disasters in American history, with no end in sight, trying to feed and look after three small children, and she found herself pregnant again, and she just couldn’t cope. Maybe someone in that Brooklyn neighborhood knew someone who could help her out. Maybe the reason the doctor refused to see her is that he knew what she had done, and he wouldn’t go near her. It turns out that badly canned food—with its risks of ptomaine and botulism poisoning—was an ideal culprit on which to blame the sudden death of an otherwise healthy young woman: My family would not be the first to contain such a face-saving legend. In any event, my grandmother died, her husband was overwhelmed with misery, and the children were put on trains and scattered to relatives, and that was the end of that little family.

The history of abortion is a history of stories, and the ones that took place before Roe v. Wade are oftentimes so pitiable and heartbreaking that one of the most powerful tools of pro-choice advocates is simply telling them. The Choices We Made is a compendium of such stories, and while you could read it in an afternoon, you should not make the decision to do so lightly: It will trouble you for a long time afterward. In it, women whom we know for the large space they occupy in the world—writers Grace Paley, Linda Ellerbee, and Ursula K. Le Guin, and actresses Polly Bergen and Rita Moreno among them—tell us about a time in their lives when they were reduced to begging for a simple medical procedure that, because of the circumstances in which it was performed, almost killed several of them and left at least one infertile. Abortionists in those days included a handful of merciful and scrupulous doctors willing to risk prison, and more than a few monsters who considered groping or sexually assaulting their patients a droit du seigneur. Who would complain? And who didn’t have it coming? In those days, it was not uncommon for a woman to receive a D & C without anesthetic shortly after being lectured about the wages of being a slut.

Most of the abortions recounted in the book occurred sometime between the late ’30s and the early ’60s, a time when so many American young women were ignorant of some of the most basic facts of reproduction, and when an unmarried woman’s sexual life was, by definition, a shameful and secret thing. It was also a time in which pregnancy could destroy a young woman’s prospects: She could be thrown out of college, fired from her job, removed permanently from the marriage market. Criminal abortions, of course, were dangerous business, and among the women who survived the procedure, many were rendered infertile.

The quality of the criminal abortion that a woman received depended largely on where she lived and how wealthy she was. Reports a woman who got pregnant while a student at Barnard in the 1930s: “The actual abortion was comfortable, clean, the absolute tops.” On the other hand, here’s a description of an abortion the actress Margot Kidder had as an 18-year-old in the mid-1960s. Her boyfriend, John, made the arrangements, “all done with great secrecy and a great sense of evil and sordidness”; the couple were told to check in to a certain hotel room where the abortionist, a woman, would meet them. After gaining their assurance that they would never go to a hospital if something went wrong, she began the procedure.

I was told to undress and lie in the bathtub, which I did. John was in the other room. There was no anesthetic, of course. She jammed something through my cervix. It was incredibly painful. I was screaming and crying; I had no idea what was happening to me. Then she used what looked like a douche to shoot some sort of solution up through my cervix.

The woman had filled Kidder’s uterus with Lysol.

The Girls Who Went Away describes another price women once paid for having sex. It concerns the young girls—usually high-school students—who were part of a phenomenon virtually unheard-of today but once quite common in American cities and suburbs: the sending of underage pregnant girls to maternity homes, where they would bear their babies and surrender them for adoption. Neighbors and friends would be told that the girl had suddenly gone on an extended visit to an aunt or grandmother, and in the fullness of time the girl would return, pale and shaken, to pick up where she had left off, never telling anyone where she had been. In a series of heartbreaking interviews, these women—now in mid- to late life—tell what actually happened to them in those homes, how little they understood of the pregnancies they were experiencing, and how greatly they pined for babies many of them were not allowed to see even once.

The brutality of the experience was heightened by the youth of the girls who underwent it, girls who still considered their mothers—not their young boyfriends—to be the chief source of comfort and protection in the world: “It was very hard for me to say good-bye to my mother,” writes one woman:

I had never been away from home except for an overnight visit to a friend’s house. I was devastated to be away from her … Every night before I went to bed, I would write my mother a love letter. I think she kept them for most of her life. And it kept me in touch with the one person who really loved me.

As a younger woman, my heart would have gone out only to the girl in the ward, but in middle age, I imagine just as vividly her mother, receiving those letters and imagining her child so lonely and frightened, and so far from home.

Adoption was presented as society’s benign alternative to abortion, but the women interviewed for this book feel differently about that. Says another woman who surrendered an infant:

It’s hard to convince others about the depth of it … I’d have an abortion any day of the week before I would ever have another adoption—or lose a kid in the woods, which is basically what it is. You know your child is out there somewhere, you just don’t know where.

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.