I stood on the sidewalk outside of my parents’ home where I spent most of my life and asked my father for $600. It was 1972, not long after New York legalized abortion, and my girlfriend was pregnant. My father was a kind man who rarely said “no” to people requesting his help. Much to the lifelong consternation of my mother, my father lent money to a lot of people, many of whom never paid him back.
I remember there was no questioning the decision my girlfriend and I had made. It was a practical decision. Becoming a parent was not part of the calculus of sex. Beyond the guilt of my decision, I am ashamed that the life of the child who could have been played no role in our decision. My father listened to my request, asked only whether abortion was what my girlfriend and I wanted to do, and agreed to lend me $600.
My girlfriend and I had agreed not to have children after babysitting for an ill six-month-old and her rambunctious three-year-old brother when their parents went for a three-day cruise. Fortunately, we endured both children and did the best we could to take care of them. Still, we both knew that we did not have the patience or commitment to be parents.
We were referred to a clinic outside of Albany by a women’s organization in Cambridge. On a cold and cloudy Fall morning we drove almost three hours. I remember there was not much conversation. The radio played, and occasionally I would reach out to hold her hand and she would reach out to mine. We arrived at the clinic with a modest sign outside a dark Victorian home on a residential tree-lined street. We parked and paused at the bottom of the steps.
I looked at her and asked if she was sure that she wanted to do this — the only time in three hours I directly addressed it. She nodded with a slight smile, and we went inside. We entered a dark wood-paneled room with mostly younger women sitting in chairs against the walls. We checked in at the desk and were told that it would be about an hour before we were seen. The woman behind the desk asked for payment, and I handed her $800. We sat down to wait, mostly in silence, holding hands until my girlfriend’s name was called.
She looked at me and went with the attendant. I never asked if she wanted me to come.
About thirty minutes later, the door opened, and she walked out with her arm held by the attendant. Her walk was shuffling, and they came over, and she slowly sat down. The woman explained that she was feeling the after effects of the anesthesia and we should wait for at least 30 minutes for it to wear off. I put my arm around her, and she leaned into me with her eyes closed. I asked her if she was OK, and she said that she was a bit woozy. She felt cold, so I put her jacket around her and held her against me.
After a while, she looked up at me and asked if we could go home. She nodded when I asked if she was sure. I helped her up and took her arm, and we went outside, where it was raining. Her walk was hesitant and unsteady. She held on to the railing and took one step at a time. I asked if she wanted to go back inside, and she quietly said, “I want to go home.”
She slept for most of the drive home, occasionally stirring and mumbling. I woke her three times to see how she was and ask if she needed to go to the bathroom. Each time she responded softly mumbling that she was OK. I had been told that she would be drowsy for a few hours. I reread the pamphlet about after care and asked her about pain. Each time she replied with a sleepy voice that she was OK and wanted to go home. The pamphlet mentioned spotting and excessive bleeding, which I did not ask her about until we got back to Cambridge. I kept the radio volume down. My thoughts on the trip home were about making sure that she was OK. But I do remember a sense of relief that I/we would not have to deal with a child. I agreed with her decision to abort the child.
I now view abortion, as commonly practiced in the United States, to be evil. My shame in having supported the taking of a life is compounded by the shame that I did so with little or no thought of the consequences. My shame is further compounded by our having few conversations about the abortion even after we were married. The marriage did not last.
I entered my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting 18 years later and began 26 years of sobriety. My blindness to the significance of aborting a child continued until six years ago, when I realized I needed to make amends to the child and my ex-wife. Closer attention to my relationship with G-d and weekly conversations with an observant Jew, my Rabbi and friend, brought this need into focus. Through his teaching I began to see Judaism as principles on which to stand and live. Life is G-d’s gift for us to use well.
The years and the passionate advocacy for abortion have in some way normalized it. Perhaps that has contributed to the steady decline from a peak in 1980. Abortion is presented as a women’s healthcare issue. This makes a grotesque equation between inflamed tonsils and “child will complicate my life.” After the operations, we get to eat ice cream and go on with our lives with each other. Measures to moderate abortion even along the lines of most European countries are presented as attacks on women’s healthcare. After all, we have dehumanized children to be mere penumbras of a constitutional right and have labeled a fetus with its own fingers and nose as just another body part.
I know that my brief experience gives me no insight into the thoughts and feelings of a woman considering an abortion. I also know that we need to raise the conversation above the binary one that blinds us to each other’s humanity.
I think about the path of my life had we not killed the child. I loved my girlfriend and believe I would have supported that decision as I did the opposite one. The focus of my life with her would have been about our lives with a child. I wishfully think that my inherent responsibility for another life would have driven me in a direction more focused than the one I took. I would have learned from that child that my life intertwined with his or hers was more significant than just day-to-day activities. Rather, one’s life needs to be built on principles revealed in those day-to-day activities. Significance would have been there during the changing of a diaper at 2:00 a.m. as in the embrace of a crying teenager with that first broken heart.
At least that is how I think things would have gone. Two subsequent marriages brought me to the love of my life, who was adamant about not having children. I agreed with her when we married.
A less charitable and cynical assessment of my life as a possible parent is that I would have brought my self-centeredness and lack of focus to the raising of the child. Like many others, I would petition for free school breakfasts because I did not have the time to spend five minutes to make my child a bowl of oatmeal. Perhaps I would quickly come to see the child as the ultimate inconvenience.
Forty-four years ago, I blindly took a life away from the world. Maybe time and inconvenient thought will bring understanding, but for now, I do not see how I can ask to be forgiven by G-d, my ex-wife, and the child we killed.