Roughly a dozen years ago, a woman I was seeing paid to have an abortion. I went with her to the clinic, but I did not help with the bill. Many details from that time are unclear to me now, like how we met or how long we’d known each other. Mutual friends. A bar. More than a few weeks. Not more than a few months. I was new to the city, she was from around there. I couldn’t tell you what she did for a living aside from the rough idea that she had regular hours and maybe a desk somewhere. I find it hard to even remember what I was doing for a living at that time. Temp agency day labor? Dawn shifts at a bakery? A d.j. gig? We had not seen enough of one another to call it a thing. I know we had a few long conversations about the abortion, though I can’t recall what we talked about. I can tell you there was a second urgent phone call because I missed the first. I don’t remember spending much time talking about who would pay for it. Yet, that’s the part I’m certain of. No one forgets who picked up the tab.
I would prefer not to recall that time. Not least because of my apparent inability to do so clearly. Yet, in May, I read these headlines from home:
The state where I was born:
‘Fetal heartbeat’ abortion bill sent to Louisiana governor, who will sign it; court must uphold it
The state that I am legally a resident of:
Georgia Governor Signs ‘Fetal Heartbeat’ Abortion Law
The state where my mother was born:
Mississippi Bans Abortions if Heartbeat Can Be Heard. Expect a Legal Fight.
The state where my partner went to college:
Alabama abortion ban: Republican state senate passes most restrictive law in US
I read these headlines quietly at first, with a remove that anyone might apprehend bad news from home when they are living far away from it. If I could have chosen to overlook the headlines, I would have—I am not proud to say that. I tried for some time to not think or write about my questions and frustrations, in the way that many men prefer to avoid the subject of abortion entirely.
Yet, the news has stuck with me the way something does when you know that it is wrong. Months later, despite my feelings that it is not my place to speak, despite a persistent conviction that making any part of this about myself is wrong, I find myself unable to avoid the conclusion that the greater wrong is silence.
So, what should I call the event? It’s hard to imagine a more incorrect or offensive phrase than “my abortion.” “Our abortion” sounds treacly. In any case, I was not half-knocked up. I did not half-undergo any procedure. I did not even pay for half. On the morning of her appointment at the clinic, I did little more than open the door for her. A Christian woman yelled at her from the sidewalk—“You’re killing your baby!”—as we walked in together. This was in San Francisco. Being from the South, as well as vaguely ashamed of it, I had not yet realized that such idiots were in places other than my home. The woman was as shocking to hear as she had intended to be. But, like I said, the Christian woman wasn’t yelling at me. She was yelling at her.
After the check-in counter, I may have left the waiting room to pick up coffee and pastries. Maybe I read a magazine. I can’t remember how we got back to her apartment. I think I would remember if we had taken the bus or the train, because in my confused recollection the clinic was far from where she lived and the ride would’ve taken a long time. Did we take a cab? Is it possible that I let her pay for that, too? I remember picking up some movies to watch, DVDs in plastic rental cases. Maybe a couple of sandwiches wrapped in paper from the deli next door. We laid around for hours, most of the day. She fell asleep. Eventually I went home.
I have an early memory of riding in the backseat of a babysitter’s car. My older sister is there with me. I must be around seven years old. It is daytime, summer, hot and sunny. The car is very large, a station wagon with a wide, carpeted floor and a bench seat. The vehicle probably doesn’t belong to the babysitter, but to her parents. We are headed down College Drive, one of the main drags in Baton Rouge, when the babysitter realizes she has made a wrong turn. She slows down, but there is no avoiding it. Before long, there are dozens of people crowding at the edges of the road. They’re yelling at cars, stopping traffic, shaking large signs in front of windshields. Don’t look, the babysitter says, Put your heads down. We get down on the station wagon’s big carpeted floor boards, afraid of whatever it is we were not supposed to see, but not too afraid to peek. I only see enough of the signs to not understand what I am seeing: some fleshy red tones, maybe some blood, a few small, disembodied fingers. That is where the memory ends.
I understand now that this would have been during the “Summer of Purpose” demonstrations organized in the early nineties by Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group founded in California. They raised millions of dollars and moved thousands of activists around the country while attempting to block abortion clinic entrances. (A few years later, Laura Dern starred in Alexander Payne’s light satire of Operation Rescue, Citizen Ruth.) I have since consulted a map and determined we would have been driving by Delta Women’s, the clinic where their protests had been staged that year. Delta Women’s was first firebombed in 1987 and again in 2001. Like most abortion clinics in Louisiana, it is closed now.
A decade after the Baton Rouge protests, Operation Rescue moved offices to focus their protests at Women’s Health Care Services, a clinic in Wichita. The doctor there, George Tiller, had become known for performing late-term abortions for women who had nowhere else to go. Operation Rescue’s campaign against Tiller went on for seven years until one Sunday morning in 2009, when a supporter walked into Reformation Lutheran Church, pulled a handgun out of his jacket, and shot the doctor in the head.
Part of the trouble us men seem to have with talking about abortion is grammatical. The possessive pronouns—her, our, my—are all wrong. How to describe my position in relation to the event? Wrong to say I was the father when the thing that I’m trying to explain is that I am not a father; wrong to describe the events as happening to me when I was something like a participant and something like a bystander; wrong to even pretend I know what happened.
For lack of better words, sociologist Arthur B. Shostak uses the terms “men who wait” or “waiting room men” in his research on abortion and men. (“The men who wait ponder much on clinic day, and long thereafter,” etc.) The first term is a little confusing to me; it sounds like it has something to do with abstinence. The second is not as bad, but it still reads as euphemism, as if we can’t really say what those men in the room are waiting for.
When I say “us men” I mean it provisionally, to describe the group of “men who have or have not paid for an abortion.” Another imperfect phrase. When it comes to these words, imprecision may be an instructive quality; it points to the fact that the relationship is ill-defined.
In June, more headlines from home:
“When We Talk About Abortion, Let’s Talk About Men”
—The New York Times
“It can be awkward for men to speak out on abortion rights. But we need them to try.”
—The Washington Post
“Southern Men: Where Y’all At?”
—The Bitter Southerner
“Men cannot be silent on abortion rights”
—The Los Angeles Times
One complicating factor, among many: The number of men, uncountable, walking around today who do not realize that their lives were profoundly altered by an abortion, who don’t even know they didn’t pay for it.
At some point in our conversations, I can recall making a vague offer to help pay, though I’m not sure if she acknowledged it. It probably came off as an empty gesture, in the way that someone invited out to dinner reaches for the check a little too slowly. Later on, I realized that she likely dismissed the idea because I was too unreliable to count on. Having to worry about whether I could come up with the money would only have been another problem to deal with.
I know that around that time I worked at a bakery in her neighborhood, on a hill. My shifts started just a little before sunrise. I sometimes went there without bothering with sleep. The owner didn’t mind if I took a cinnamon bun for breakfast, and I always left with a little cash from the tip jar. I didn’t work there for long.
Why do this? Why drag up every detail of something I have mostly forgotten? One answer is that I’m trying to finally pay off some of the interest on a debt. I don’t think it is an accident that I find myself fixated on the economics of the situation. I was worried all the time about money then, about stuffing enough cash into an envelope to make rent, about covering the difference from last month. Lately, I am more worried about a different kind of debt, the one that happens when you let someone else do the work of always telling the story, of remembering the details, of arguing and working for the thing you know is right. I find myself worrying about how to get enough cash into that envelope.
How is it that I’ve heard so many unrepeatable, private stories from the man sitting on the barstool next to me—the time she did this or did that—but never heard him tell the story about the time she had an abortion? How is it that literature has produced such a wealth of information about the sex lives of straight white men and yet so little about the abortions they have or have not paid for? How is it that when it comes to the stories that men have written about abortion, they are almost always unspeakably tragic?
In July, I went home to Georgia, with little intention of writing about any of this. I had other things to work on, but no office to work out of. I spent that month at Emory’s Woodruff Library, sitting in a carrel on the seventh floor, surrounded by shelves. I tried to focus on the work at hand, but, inevitably, I would find my attention wandering. I’d stand up and walk through the stacks, looking for a book that could tell me what had already been written.
In Revolutionary Road, Frank Wheeler badgers his wife April against the idea of getting an abortion—“Don’t you see I only want to do it for your sake?” she asks, “How can it be for my sake when the very thought of it makes my stomach churn?” he replies—until one night, drunk and exhausted, he finally yells, “Why the hell didn’t you get rid of it, when you had the chance?” She dies the following day after attempting a late-term operation at home, alone.
In The Wild Palms, Charlotte Rittenmeyer asks her lover Harry Wilbourne to perform an abortion for her. A former hospital intern who has become a bohemian painter, he is unqualified for the task, but eventually goes along with the idea. After he botches it, as she lies bleeding and dying in another room, the thought that passes through his head is, “I loved her… A miser would probably bungle the blowing of his own safe, too. Should have called in a professional, a cracksman who didn’t care, didn’t love the very iron flanks that held the money.”
In the literature of men working as abortion doctors, the tone shifts from tragic to confident. The stories seem to re-center themselves around strength and fortitude rather than fear and guilt. There are not many books in this subset of the canon—Life’s Work by Dr. Willie Parker and The Cider House Rules by John Irving among them—but they share some resemblance in poise. It is as if, given a purpose in the story, given a job that controls the situation, men are able to clearly articulate their relationship to the subject.
The Library of Congress files most academic books about abortion under HQ 767, and a few under RG 734. A number of the heavier research volumes devote a few pages to “men’s experience of abortion.” These pages typically include a note along the lines of, “There is more research to be done in this field.”
Among the books I pulled off that shelf, a consistent explanation for this gap in research emerged. Abortion exists in a world of limited resources. It is an operation almost entirely defined, both historically and presently, by limitations of access. The most urgent and necessary questions concern who can afford abortions, which doctors can perform abortions, and where and when and so on. There are only so many research dollars and hours to go around. In light of that, why would any of those resources be spent on men?
I find this point inarguably correct.
I believe we saw each other a few times after her appointment at the clinic, but only coincidentally. Maybe I saw her on the sidewalk after my bakery shift. Maybe it was mutual friends, a bar. It wasn’t long before we fell out of touch. I got a job in Berkeley. I remember reading novels on the long train across the Bay. I spent weekends hiking Mount Tamalpais in Marin County. Sometimes I gathered bay leaves from the trees to cook with. I have distinct memories of watching the sun rise in the East Bay. I have trouble making clear sense of why I remember what I remember.
My sister recently told me something I’d forgotten about the incident with the babysitter in Baton Rouge: earlier that week, our father had driven us miles out of the way, on a bizarre, complicated, very long detour, to avoid the intersection where the protests were happening. The clinic was close to our house, and it was difficult to find a way home without passing it. This is something like what I’m trying to describe: the lengths men will go to avoid dealing with it. To be fair, she said, that’s how everyone was driving at the time. Anyone with any sense avoided that intersection.
In the most famous story, the one that’s always in anthologies and on syllabi, Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” the man is unable or unwilling to say the word. Omission is the story’s trick, its primary insight. Omission is also likely the reason the story was often reprinted throughout the twentieth century. More detailed prose would not have passed modesty standards. You might think of the story’s popularity, such a conspicuous place in the canon, a little like the man’s dialogue in the story. He goes on and on, dominating the conversation, sucking up all of the air in the room, getting what he wants, until she finally asks a question:
“Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”
Here’s a theory: men are afraid of any story that they cannot control, they are threatened by any future they do not determine, and, so, the tragedy of the story in men’s novels about abortion is the tragedy of a man’s loss of control. When faced with the choice between speaking for an outcome that they do not determine, or silence, men will choose silence. Anti-choice laws are a direct result of men who are unable to tell a story that they do not control. That’s just a theory, the sort that would need more evidence; you’d want to build it on more than a handful of books. There are too few. There is more research to be done in this field. There are more stories that need to be written.
I reached out on Instagram because that was the only way I knew to find her. Her recent pictures are mostly of her family, a handsome husband and two happy children. I sent a DM, said I was working on a story, could I send her an email? It felt a little like a trick—I did not know how to explain the story was about abortion in the space of a DM. We had not been in touch for at least a decade, and I did not know how she might react. I could not remember exactly how we had left things.
I wrote a long email. I wanted to know what she remembered from that time. I wanted to know if there was anything I could have done better. I wanted to know what she thought about this idea, about men speaking up about abortion, whether I should be telling a story like this at all. I explained a little about my own reticence, that there were many ways I thought I might get it wrong. I offered to give up the whole idea if she would prefer that.
I did not hear back for a week. I worried that this had been the wrong thing to do. That we were both adults who’d gotten on with our lives, that there was no sense in bringing all of this back up. I was sitting at a restaurant when her reply arrived. It was long, and I went to the restroom to read it. She wrote, in part:
I, too, have very limited memories from the time due to all the alcohol and cocaine. Those days are a true blur, although big events, like the abortion, stand out. It’s impossible for me to think about my own experience without, obviously, thinking about you and your experience. I’m very open about my abortion and always have been. It’s not something I’ve ever felt any shame over, and now that I’ve become a biological mom, I feel even stronger about sharing my experience with it.
So to directly answer your question as to what I remember from that time? It’s not much. I believe I called to tell you but I’m not entirely sure. I have a recollection of calling you in the middle of what I now realize was probably an anxiety attack, and you were at a loss of how to help me. I mean, you were, what, 22? 23?
Another very clear memory is us sitting on my apartment’s stoop to discuss what ‘we’ were going to do. I do remember I wanted to hear how you were digesting all of it. You very clearly stated to me that you were too young, too naive, and too broke to be anywhere near being able to raise a child. That really resonated with me. I was feeling the same way, but as someone who operates on impulse, I had entertained the thought. That kind of did it for me. I could see the fear in your eyes.
My next memory is of us walking to the clinic together, while women with those awful anti-choice signs yelled at me that I didn’t have to do this, and that they would pray for my dead baby. You attempted to shield me from them and yelled some deserving obscenities, which I will always appreciate. The procedure itself was terrifying and I fainted after getting blood drawn because I was just so scared. It was a room with a bunch of women on cots, waiting their turn. Afterward, I almost fainted again after accidentally ripping out my IV, dripping blood all over myself and the ground. The procedure was uncomfortable and the nurse kept asking me about my tattoos and all I could think was, ‘Lady, this isn’t the fucking time!’ I believe we went to eat after because I was starving, and it was just so obvious to me that there was just no way for you to be able to fully embody what my experience was.
Wyatt, you have to understand that so many of the men in my life from around age 15-28, were just horrendous. When you ask what you could have done better, I am comparing it to some pretty dismal standards. There’s a few bright spots in there of men that showed some actual humanity, you being one of them. I think you were a very caring, if somewhat emotionally distracted, friend and romantic link. I think you did the best you could and I think for that time, that was enough.
I’m sorry for the rambling nature of this. My kid has pink eye and is watching Curious George so I am frantically trying to get all my thoughts out before she comes to me for a snack or a poop break. Enter laugh crying emoji there.
I wish I could answer more eloquently and I certainly wish I had more insight into how men fit into this conversation, but I really am finding that I don’t. It’s your story just as it is mine. I’m not sure I could take a sweeping stance that ALL men should share their experience with abortion, but I can take a stance that you should. I am fairly certain I can find plenty of (white) men that I would want to shut the fuck up about many, many things.
I hope that answers some of your questions. I do really appreciate you reaching out.
More headlines. In October, there was good news:
“U.S. Judge Temporarily Blocks Georgia Abortion Law”
—The New York Times
There was bad news, too:
“Louisiana could become the first state without abortion access as soon as next year”
There will be more headlines after this. Headlines are bad news. Any headline about abortion is only proof of grave misunderstanding, because abortion shouldn’t be news. It shouldn’t be a headline. It shouldn’t be an argument. Yet, here we are.
Let me say it clearly: abortion should be an operation available to those who want it. That’s it.
I want to try, one more time, to tell the story.
We met in a bar. We were introduced by friends. For a few years, I’d been a college dropout and a part-time drunk. Several months of that time come back to me only as one dark, long night. The period after her appointment at the clinic was different. The memories that follow are clear and well-lit. I began, for the first time in my young adult life, to think and act with deliberate concern for the future. The fact that this period coincided with her abortion was not a coincidence. It was her abortion that allowed me to imagine and understand a set of possible futures. I stopped drinking so much, which is one of the reasons my memories of that time improve. In the years that followed, I went back to school, finished the degree I had abandoned a few years earlier, found my way into a difficult but livable career. Her choice to have an abortion, in other words, profoundly shaped the life I lead today. Though we went separate ways, I understand that her life followed a not-dissimilar path.
I do not believe that this course of events is particularly unique. That the life and career of a man, just as much as a woman, would be altered by an abortion is integral to the fact of abortion itself. All I am trying to say is that it wasn’t my choice, it was hers, that I didn’t write the ending to this story, that she and time did, that I was terribly afraid and a little guilty, as many men are when we lose control of the story we are in, when we cannot determine what will happen next, and, yet, for all of that, it is a good story that ends happily, that it is the sort of story we don’t hear enough about.