Health

My Abortion at 11 Wasn’t a Choice. It Was My Life.

I predict that my 17-year-old daughter will become a doctor. When my husband told her about a neuroscientist and nutritionist he met while producing a documentary, she said, “That sounds like the job for me.” She knows everything about the gut microbiome, dopamine and herniated discs. She does not look away at times when others might — like when my mother unexpectedly texted me pictures of a cyst she had removed from the back of her head, sitting in a bloody specimen cup. “That’s exactly what I would do,” my daughter said. “You have to show people.”

I don’t mind looking at such things, though I would like a little warning. But here I offer no warning, except to say that in an alternative world — one without abortion access — that conversation with my daughter would not have happened. In fact, my family and I would not have our lives together at all. The loss of Roe v. Wade is collective, but this story is mine. I ask you not to look away.

In 1982, when I was 10 years old, a 14-year-old boy molested me. He was supposed to be babysitting me and my younger sisters. After my sisters went to sleep, the babysitter and I sat on the couch, watching “M*A*S*H,” which came on after the news. He started caressing my arm. Then my neck. Then he took off my shirt and my pants. Then his clothes. He lay on top of me and had intercourse with me. I had a vague idea of what was happening. My parents had been forthcoming about how babies were made, and during long and lazy summers in the suburbs of Salt Lake City, I watched plenty of instructive soap operas.

I didn’t really know how wrong the babysitter situation was. I was flattered by the attention, but also confused. Why me? What does this mean? Was he my boyfriend? Why did we have to keep it a secret?

He continued to molest me for more than a year. I haven’t always used the word “molest” — I felt too much guilt and complicity. I am still prone to feeling both. I’m not sure if that’s a product of the molestation or if that is my personality, or if the two can even be disentangled.

When I was 11, he impregnated me. I use this active verb, with me as direct object, intentionally. To “get pregnant” suggests he threw the baseball and I, knowing it was coming, caught it. I did not mean to catch anything, nor did I know how to avoid doing so. My mom, who was already worried that something seemed wrong, figured it out. “Are you pregnant?” she asked me. I nodded yes. How did she know? I barely knew. Maybe it was pure motherly intuition.

In 1983, abortion was legal in Utah because it was legal across the United States. I did not feel lucky to get an abortion. I felt like garbage. The babysitter did not have to go to the clinic. The babysitter was not shunned and censured by our community. Most people didn’t even know what he had done, though they seemed to know something bad had happened to me — or perhaps that I had done something wrong. Only my mom and I were subject to the shame of entering that special building for that special procedure. Although no one in the neighborhood or at school talked to me about it, I could feel the electric gossip surge around me. I eventually skipped a grade.

In many parts of the world, the United States included, adult men marry children, sometimes legally and sometimes not. These girls, some of them the age that I was when I was molested, are sometimes forced to give birth. The pelvis can be too small for a fetus to pass through during birth. The fetus can die. The girl can suffer from a fistula, where the pressure during prolonged labor creates a connection between the bladder or rectum and the vagina. Bodily waste can then drip through the vagina.

Some abortion rights supporters worry that devoting too much energy to the stories of young children who need abortions — abortions that are still legal in at least some U.S. states — narrows the cause. Focusing on these exceptional cases, they fear, could shift the fight away from a more expansive battle for women’s rights and the obvious truth that bodily autonomy should exist for all people.

But I am telling you all this — even though it hurts to type, even though when my husband walked by as I was writing this essay, I reflexively closed my laptop — because the world changed on June 24, 2022. On that day, I understood the extent of what we were losing.

The freedom to choose wasn’t what I experienced in 1983. My abortion wasn’t a choice. It was my life. If I had been forced to give birth, I wouldn’t be texting my mom from my home in a beautiful mountain town. I wouldn’t teach at the nearby university. I wouldn’t be working on a book about climate change and how to shatter predetermined destinies. I wouldn’t be married to my husband or have my two children. My life would not have been my own. I would be a prisoner subject to a body’s whims — and not my body’s whims, but the whims of a teenage boy who, as best I can tell, experienced no consequences for inflicting what his body wanted upon my own.

On June 24, I felt the prison gates fall around me, around my daughter, around everyone with a uterus. Pregnancy and childbirth change life trajectories. Now, for many more Americans, trajectories are set. Paths defined. This future is foreseeable. I ask that you look at it.

Nicole Walker is the author of several books, most recently “Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh and Navigating Disaster” and “The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet.” She edits the “Crux” series at the University of Georgia Press, is the nonfiction editor at the journal “Diagram” and teaches creative writing at Northern Arizona University.

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