Betty, Michelle and Me: Our Right to Choose


    From the moment my first child was born in 1986, the most important thing in the world to me was being a mother. When my children are happy I’m happy and when they’re struggling, I struggle too.  There is nothing that could have prepared me for how much of one’s heart, body and soul motherhood consumes.  

    Which is why, when I heard the news on June 24 last year that Roe V. Wade had been overturned, my cries of “No! No! Oh please, no!” joined the chorus of millions across the country as the cruelty of this ruling sank in.  

   I thought about “Betty,” a woman in her 80’s who I always enjoyed chatting to in our library bookstore. One day we were talking about Judy Blume’s gift for writing about subjects that preteens hate talking to their parents about -- like puberty and bullying -- when she told me how, when she was 15, she’d had a crush on a young soldier who was stationed near her home.  

    One evening   – not at all against her will – their kissing led to sex and two months later he was gone and she was pregnant. 

  “So what did you do?” I asked her. 

  “I was too ashamed to tell my parents. And they needed me to help them on the farm.  It wasn’t love between me and the soldier – it was just hormones.”

   Legal abortion wasn’t an option then, so she found someone to perform an illegal one that hurt her and left her unable to have children with the man she eventually fell in love with and married. 

   And I thought about “Michelle,” my friend’s daughter, who was raped after her prom by a boy in her class.  It was only when she realized she was pregnant that she summoned the courage to tell her mom what had happened. Fortunately she was able to have a safe and legal abortion, along with counseling and the support of both her parents, but two years later she’s still healing from the trauma of the rape.   

    Then there’s me. I had two little ones already, a three-year-old son and six-month-old baby girl, who I was still breastfeeding. I adored my babies, but being a mom was sometimes harder than I let on.  

    I’d had a rough time after both their births, suffering quietly from panic and anxiety attacks.  I had a sensitive and supportive husband, but perhaps I needed the love and support of my own mother more than I realized.  She died when I was 18 and I moved with my father and brother from Cape Town, South Africa to Santa Monica, California within six months of her death.   

    On the rare occasions that I wasn’t too tired for sex I used a diaphragm, so I was shocked when I found out I was pregnant.  

    I’ve always loved children and advocated for their wellbeing.  I was a preschool teacher for a while before I had my own kids, and years later a respite provider for children in foster care, but I knew I’d be jeopardizing the wellbeing of my two already born children if I went ahead with this pregnancy. 

    I’d look at other mothers – who seemingly had it all together, juggling big, happy, chaotic households – with a mix of bewilderment and awe.  I’d think about women who chose not to have abortions and give up their babies for adoption, with nothing but respect. But I wasn’t those women.  

   I was thirty when I had my abortion. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I’ve never regretted it.  

  Just as we don’t know what’s going on in anyone else’s home, neither do we know what’s going on in anyone else’s body or mind.  Nobody knows what another person is enduring, how worn their resilience is, how much trauma they carry. Sometimes birth control doesn’t work.  Sometimes men refuse to use condoms or get vasectomies but insist on sex.  And some women just don't want to have children and should not be forced to.  

    Having grown up in a country where the church and state were inseparable, where Apartheid was the law of the land and abortion was illegal, I’ve seen what happens when abortion is criminalized. 

    In the words of Doctors Without Borders President, Africa Stewart, an OB-GYN based in Atlanta, “…I have treated people who have undergone risky procedures because they felt they had no other choice.  I have witnessed firsthand the unbearable pain and suffering that no-one should be forced to endure.”

   I recently came across a journal entry from when my kids were little, where I wrote, “More than anything I want to be the mother D and M need me to be.” 

      And for the most part, I believe I was.  They were lucky and so was I.  

     Most mothers want the same thing, but without emotional and financial support, and safe homes and neighborhoods in which to raise their children, things can go horribly wrong.  There are more than 407,000 children and youth in foster care in the United States.

    We may be shaking with outrage at the deterioration of women’s rights in this country, but we’re not helpless. We have the power to vote for candidates who support women’s reproductive rights, support organizations that provide access to safe and legal abortions, and raise our sons to respect the meaning of the word NO.  

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