I was born the same year Henry Morgentaler helped legalize abortion in Canada. My 24-year-old mother wrote a letter to the editor of her local newspaper at the time. She wrote about feeling my heartbeat, feeling my feet kicking at her from the inside, how the Bible told her that life begins at conception, meaning you have a soul inside you as soon as the sperm enters your egg. Her letter was not for other women, nor for other women—it was about her. But she had married my father at eighteen and had never had to make the difficult choice so many women face: my life or the life of a group of cells?
Recently I read a news story about how important it is for women to tell their abortion story. Until now I had not told mine. I calmly discussed my abortions with another woman only when I felt pity or asked for advice. I didn’t talk about it with my family or friends. My abortions were a series of traumatic landmines in my life, the implosions rippling through my body and identity, sending shockwaves through my professional life, my intimate relationships, and my sense of myself as a woman.
When I was in my mid-thirties, I decided I didn’t want kids. I have considered the benefits of tubal ligation. But a quick web search turned up page after page of stories from women whose doctors told them they were too young, that they would regret it, that they should write a two-page report explaining their choice, or that they first undergo a psychiatric examination.
As women, we must constantly remember that whatever liberties and independence we think we have won can be ripped off from us by some patronizing doctor or religious fanatic who thinks his beliefs should be law. Women don’t stand on solid ground – every time we think we do, someone pushes us over.
Last Friday, Roe v. Wade was quashed in the United States. While Americans may gaze longingly at Canada with envy, it’s critical to know that while abortions are not a crime in Canada, they are not easy to come by. You can’t just walk into a clinic. The entire province of Ontario has only 23 abortion clinics. To put that into perspective, there are almost eight million women living in the province. If you’re an international student or an immigrant or a refugee in a bureaucratic chaos with no health insurance coverage, an abortion can cost you anywhere from $600 to nearly $3,000.
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I had my first abortion when I was 20. I had just moved to Montreal. It was a bountiful summer full of promise. I had dreams about travelingling and go to university. I lived with my boyfriend and his mate in a shabby two bedroom apartment in the Pointe-Saint-Charles neighborhood. I was in between jobs and sometimes played my guitar in the street to make money.
When I got pregnant, I was shocked that my body could do something so mature. I was young, but I was also practical. As I looked around our apartment—the flag in front of a curtain, the sofa we’d dragged off the street—I decided wholeheartedly that this was not an appropriate time for us to raise a child. I haven’t even thought about it. I chose not to end up on welfare. I chose not to create a lifelong bond with a boy who spent his days playing video games and smoking weed. I chose to save my life.
The second time I got pregnant, my partner and I lived in a beachfront basement in Victoria. We were half way20’s; he worked as a dishwasher and I was a barista. We were both making above the minimum wage. I thought we were in love. Friends of mine had started having children. parenting didn’t seem easy, but it seemed doable. Self-consciously I saw my belly grow. My sister came to stay with us.
The ultrasound showed a small, grainy fetus folding its hands as if in prayer. I bought baby clothes, went on long walks and told my parents. One morning I woke up with blood. I rushed to the emergency room, where a nurse Calm told me to sit in the waiting room. I grabbed the sleeve of a passing doctor in panic. “I think I’m going to have a miscarriage.”
“If you are, there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said.
I didn’t miscarry, I soon learned. I had a massive subchorionic hemorrhage. The technician, lying on a cold bed wrinkled from the paper, showed me the blood, like a huge tarpit, on the ultrasound. The 12 weeks old fetus was out there somewhere, lost in the darkness.
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If I wanted to keep the baby, I was prescribed bed rest for the next nine months. Even then, due to the extent of the hemorrhage, there was an opportunity to give birth to a stillbirth. I was alone 25 years old. My dishwasher friend wouldn’t be able to support us with his salary for the next nine months while I stayed horizontal. “You don’t have to go through with this,” the doctor told me, to his credit. “Pregnancy should not be a prison sentence.” He booked me into a women’s clinic and again I was released from having to sacrifice my life – but this time it felt less liberating.
A few years later I was raped. What started as a consensual date quickly turned into a powerful interaction that got me pregnant. Immediately I was thrown back into the trauma of the last pregnancy, the feeling of total physical helplessness, that I had no control over what was happening with or inside my body.
When this man said he would marry me and take care of the baby, I agreed. I was on my own and believed that by marrying him and having the baby, I was doing the right thing. But his attacks on me continued to physical assault. After he told me he planned to take the baby from me the moment he was born I decided I couldn’t do it the† It was one thing for me to endure such abuse. It would be quite another to let a man like that father have a child and drag me through custody battles for years. I didn’t want to change my life for that. I didn’t want to turn a child’s life into that. After I had my third abortion and left him, he immediately impregnated another girl. She emailed me on Christmas Day to say that this man just punched her in the face and ran off with their baby. Again, my freedom felt both ways.
Because I had the privilege and luxury of not being forced into motherhood, I let myself get two college degrees. I have published two books. I became a teacher. I started to bloom. I can afford therapy and groceries. I can pay my rent. I’ve created a life for myself, without apology.
Like any woman who has made the choice to forsake the opinion of others in order to value their own life, I’m fraught with trauma, guilt, shame and an aftermath of hormonal turmoil and emotional turmoil. Sure it is trigger both for me to share these crushing, fragile memories, and for women to read them. But even more shocking, even more poignant, is that women are rubbing their trauma in the face by smug, ignorant fanatics who are so far removed from women’s everyday personal lives that they celebrate the destruction of their freedom as a victory.
Abortions are common. Multiple abortions are common. Miscarriages are common. We are women. Our bodies cannot be controlled; sometimes they are not even understandable. Telling our stories is a first step, but seizing power and autonomy should be the next. A handful of religious fanatics shouldn’t be the thing we stumble upon – it should be the stuff we have to walk on our way forward.
Ceilidh Michelle is an author from rural Nova Scotia. her first novel, Butterflies, zebras, moonbeamspublished by Palimpsest Press, it was shortlisted for the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. Her second book, a work of non-fiction, Vagabond: Venice Beach, Slab City and Intermediate Pointswas published by Douglas & McIntyre in September 2021.
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